Wanted: A Coalition of 'Disinterested Powers' Capable of Saving Syria

Turkish Kurds watch the smoke rises from Syrian town of Kobani near the Mursitpinar border crossing, on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. A U.S.-led military coalition has been bombing Islamic State fighters who hold a large swathe of territory in both Iraq and Syria, two countries involved in complex multi-sided civil wars in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Russia and the United States joust with proxies (mostly), while the Syrian people suffer.

Having fought three unsuccessful wars (in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya) that wasted outrageous amounts of blood and treasure in the Middle East over the past two decades, American leaders had judiciously declined to get pulled into the bloody cauldron that is the Syrian Civil War, at least until relatively recently. But when a journalist was beheaded, the “Blob” decided that a red line had been crossed and the United States—acting a bit like an addict looking for “just one more hit”—embarked on yet another Middle East quagmire. After defeating some thugs in pickup trucks known as ISIS, the United States might have declared victory (a sundry one at that), but this “solution” did not occur. Quite to the contrary, the United States recently announced that it is staying in Syria for the long haul and is now facing off, not only against the Syrian government and various para-militaries, but simultaneously against forces from rival Iran, “ally” Turkey, and “peer competitor” Russia.

This edition of Bear Cave will focus on Russia’s intervention in Syria. True, the United States has no “core interests” at stake in Syria. Yet, the refugee crisis in Europe keeps it on the front burner in U.S. foreign-policy circles. And now, there is the ever growing possibility, once unthinkable, that the United States and Russia could actually come to blows in that desolate land in the heart of the Middle East. For this reason, it could be important to survey, albeit briefly, some Russian perspectives of March 2018 from the Syrian War.

One recent piece of analysis has a rather bleak outlook and is written under the headline “Syria Could Be Split into Pieces Already during This Year” [Сирия может развалиться уже в этом году]. The author starts with a candid admission that “Russia and her allies are not able to ensure the territorial integrity of Syria.” It is asserted that the struggle between Moscow and Washington, in particular, is not simply over the territory of Syria, but represents an attempt by both sides to strengthen themselves in the whole “Near Eastern theater of military operations [на ближневосточном театре военных действий],” including areas “rich in hydrocarbons [богатые углеводородами].” The article reviews what it describes as Pentagon plans to increase its assistance to the Syrian opposition from ten thousand to a force of up to sixty-five thousand men, while spending $80 million—described as a “completely solid sum [вполне солидная сумма]” by Syria’s standards.

While admitting that the Kremlin is less transparent about its own expenditures in Syria, the author decries the fact that the United States has budgeted no money for either humanitarian relief or for efforts to bring “the settlement of the situation in Syria and the transfer of the country to a peaceful channel within the framework of a single state [с урегулированием ситуации в Сирии и переводом страны в мирное русло в рамках единого государства].” The operation in eastern Ghouta is mentioned only once as an attempt to eliminate “terrorist enclaves” so that the country “can return to peaceful living.” But such operations, it is suggested, will not alter the overall balance in which “Syria is de facto already split into pieces.” At the end of the article, a colonel in the Russian Academy of Military Sciences is quoted as explaining that “there is a major threat that the war . . . will become global [есть большая угроза, что такая война . . . перерастет в глобальную].”

Another article from the same newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, made some similar points, emphasizing that the Turkish incursion into Afrin is the direct result of U.S. efforts to arm the Kurds. The article cites comments from Alexander Venediktov, assistant secretary for the Russian National Security Council, in claiming that there are about twenty American bases located on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. It is said that, “The Kurds are literally pumped up with the most advanced weapons [Курды буквально накачиваются самым современным оружием].” The article discusses former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mid-January 2018 speech at Stanford that outlined U.S. policy in Syria going forward and concludes that the “US actually seeks to remain in Syria for an undetermined period [США фактически хотят остаться в Сирии на неопределенный срок].” Concluding on a similar point to the last article, this piece notes that Russia’s position is strong in western Syria, but not in the eastern part. The article then quotes a seemingly reasonable Russian specialist, Leonid Isaev of the Higher School of Economics, explaining: “Our presence must be conditioned by our real economic opportunities and interests, and not by military ambitions [Наше присутствие должно быть обусловлено нашими реальными экономическими возможностями и интересами, а не военными амбициями].”