Russian military involvement in Syria creates increased uncertainty in an already very uncertain region of the world. Analysts are divided as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send military forces to Syria is a show of strength or a show of weakness and desperation. Either way, their involvement dramatically changes the situation. Allegedly, the Russians joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, but also known as ISIL and DAESH depending on who is speaking — they are all the same organization). In reality they are attacking all anti-Bashar Al-Assad (the ruling dictator in Syria) forces, including those trained and supported by the United States and our allies in the region.
As is usually the case with President Putin in particular and other dictators more generally, he told the world exactly what he was going to do. In a revealing “60 Minutes” interview on 27 September before the Russians acted in Syria he said,
“We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
In other words, any group fighting the current regime is working to destroy the current dictatorship and therefore they are all terrorists. To him there is no difference between ISIS and the other groups trying to depose the current dictator. Or as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a later interview, “You know, if it walks like a duck, it looks like a duck, it’s a duck” in response to a question about defending the current Syrian regime against all-comers — to the Russians they are all terrorists.
As part of their ongoing air operations in Syria, on Wednesday last week the Russians fired approximately twenty-six cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea into Syrian territory. There was no tactical or operational reason to use cruise missiles in the way they were used in this instance. Like much of what Russia is doing in the region, the real purpose of the launch was to appear to be a world power on the same level as the United States. “If the US can do it, so can we” — a demonstration of technical ability — seemed to be the only reason for it. (Incidentally, intelligence reports indicate that four to six of them crashed in Iran. Mishaps are not unheard of in using cruise missiles as they are not foolproof, but it clearly was not the “flawless” attack initially claimed by Russian propaganda.)
As a footnote it is interesting to see the Russians using the same social media and press releases of ships firing missiles, video of bombs hitting targets, etc. that the United States has employed for many years. I’m not sure if that is a matter of such measures being the best way to disseminate information or if it is a case of plagiarism as the sincerest form of flattery. Regardless, the Russians are trying to demonstrate that they are every bit as capable as the United States. A questionable claim when one digs through the superficial aspects of what they are doing and we really look at their capabilities and sustainability. But for now, all they have to do is look like they know what they are doing.
Where does all of this leave us? Certain facts on the ground remain unchanged. Bashar Al-Assad is still only hanging on to a small amount of territory under his absolute control, his forces are still indiscriminately using “barrel bombs” to kill Syrian civilians, refugees are still flowing out of the country, and ISIS still controls large areas of Syria and parts of Iraq.
Likewise, the only Russian base outside of their country is in Syria. The Russians have long had a naval base on the Syrian coast at Tartus having established it in the 1970s. That base is politically and strategically important to the Russians as it provides a resupply and refueling port for the Russian fleet without having to return to Russian territory. That base was increasingly threatened by the Syrian civil war. Additionally, Syria is the only Russian ally in the Middle East and their client was in serious trouble. This is why many analysts say that the current Russian involvement is a sign of weakness rather than strength. They have propped up Bashar’s regime for years and his father’s before him. That regime was about to collapse, possibly taking their only base with it and losing their only ally. In other words, their strategy wasn’t working and the only remaining option was to get involved on the ground. And they are deeply involved — including ground troops. Those troops are currently providing security to the air and naval bases used by the Russians, but the Russian leadership has not ruled out a combat mission for follow-on ground forces.
Meanwhile, Russia claims that it is fighting ISIS and is only doing what the United States and other nations are doing in Iraq and Syria. The difference is that the Russians lump ISIS in with every other anti-regime force at work. So far, little to none of their military effort is focused on ISIS. If one were generous, one could say that they are fighting terrorism. A realist knows that they are trying to use our own policies and words against us to prop up a brutal dictator.
The situation is further complicated by several Russian aircraft allegedly straying into Turkish air space (“allegedly” because the Russians claim it was accidental but others, including the Turks, doubt it. Turkey is a NATO ally — and of course NATO was originally formed to protect its members from an attack by the Soviet Union — Russia). Unconfirmed reports circulated yesterday that Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft — a report that is probably exaggerated or misinformation — but that highlights the potential for significant expansion of the conflict.
The United States policy concerning Syria has been in disarray since August/September of 2013. You may recall that I had a series of pieces that I posted then arguing for enforcement of President Obama’s “redline” concerning Syrian use of chemical weapons. The United Kingdom’s Parliament tied the Prime Minister’s hands precluding British involvement which then gave the United States Congress pause. No vote was held, but a resolution to authorize the use of American force against the Bashar regime would most likely have failed. President Obama subsequently took no action. I warned at the time that the lack of a forceful response would create larger problems later down the line. That time is now.
In my view, President Putin put Russian forces into combat in Syria for several reasons.
- The Syrian regime was collapsing and Putin could not afford to have his only ally in the Middle East go under.
- The Russians need the base at Tartus for strategic reasons and for prestige reasons. It too was threatened should the regime collapse.
- Russia wants a seat at the table and the ability to broker a deal if and when a political solution is reached to end the civil war in Syria.
- The Russian economy is doing very poorly. The sanctions imposed after Russian adventures in Ukraine are having an impact, especially when coupled with the current low price of oil. When all else fails, dictators time after time become militarily adventurous outside their borders to distract the domestic population from their problems.
- Putin says the biggest disaster in world history was the demise of the Soviet Union. He has always had visions of restoring the empire and what he views as Russia’s rightful place in the world. Showing an ability to project military power away from the homeland “just like the United States” gives him prestige at home and perhaps, in some foreign capitals.
All of these indicators show an attempt to cover up fundamental Russian weakness. We can only see what develops over time, but it is unlikely that Russia can sustain their military operations over the long-term.
Meanwhile in the near-term Russian involvement seriously complicates the situation. The United States is now “re-evaluating” its options, while continuing to provide air support in operations against ISIS. The Russians claim that there are only two options — support ISIS, or support those fighting ISIS (Bashar Al-Assad). This is of course a false equivalency but it is a simple statement for a complex situation. Beyond operations against ISIS, it is hard to know what the United States should do. There are many, many factions now operating in Syria making it difficult to know which are the “good” guys and which are the “bad” guys. Clearly the president, and I think with the support of the American people and many in Congress, does not want the United States involved in another land war in the Middle East. Although the full military might of the United States could defeat ISIS on the ground, it would take a massive commitment in lives and treasure and in the end we would again be occupiers in a land where we are not welcome. Not a good long-term proposition for us as a nation.
Increasingly I think that an interim solution to ease the refugee crisis, show our resolve to our allies and to put Russia on notice that we will not tolerate their interference would be to create “safe zones” in Syria and Iraq along the border with Turkey. This is nearly within our current military level of effort, especially if it is coupled with our allies supplying the troops for security (such as from Turkey), the financing and moral support (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) while the United States supplies the expertise (advisers), intelligence, and air support. Such a course creates the possibility of further expansion of the conflict and our involvement in it. However, the status quo is unacceptable and is not resolving the problem. Without question Syria and other areas of the Middle East are a real mess, but we can no longer hope that the situation will resolve itself.
“‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” — The Onion
“We spent over a trillion dollars, and passed countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so. And yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?” — President Obama
Deaths from Terrorism vs. Gun Homicides:
2001 — 2,689 vs.11,348 2002 — 25 vs.11,829 2003 — 35 vs.11,920 2004 — 74 vs.11,624
2005 — 56 vs.12,352 2006 — 28 vs.12,791 2007 — 19 vs.12,632 2008 — 33 vs.12,179
2009 — 9 vs.11, 493 2010 — 15 vs.11,078 2011 — 17 vs.11,101
(Source: Vox.com using available State and Justice Department figures. Does not include suicides by guns.)