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The Caucasus and Russia's Syria Policy

The Caucasus and Russia's Syria Policy

Those who ignore Russia's internal worries won't understand its Syria policy—or spot a common ground.

Worse yet, Assad or rebel forces could use the plan to carry out their own agenda. In order to buy time or allow it deploy chemical weapons again, Assad’s forces could take hostage the international inspectors or other representatives arriving in Syria to implement the plan. Jihadi forces could attack Assad’s chemical weapons stores or the convoys moving the chemical weapons out of Syria in an attempt to seize them before they have moved out of reach. Assad could allow that to happen in order to turn the international community’s ire against the mujahedin. The diplomatic quagmire that is likely to ensue as the Putin plan’s implementation bogs down could not only seriously damage Russia’s relations with the United States and the West but also allow the jihadi challenge posed by the Syrian crisis to intensify.

The Common Threat

Worse yet the Syrian jihadi danger threatens U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East as well, given the large numbers of fighters from those regions among the Jabhat al-Nusrah and other jihadi groups fighting in Syria. The CE threat also will likely reverberate farther afield, since the CE has been involved in several operations beyond the Russia’s borders since 2010. CE operatives have planned and participated in three ultimately interdicted terrorist plots abroad in Belgium (2010), the Czech Republic (2011), and Azerbaijan (2012). It has inspired several plots abroad, including not just the successful Boston Marathon bombings that killed three and wounded 120, but also the failed plot to bomb the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that printed a series of caricatures of Mohammed, setting off a series of violent demonstrations and calls for revenge around the Muslim world, and a foiled plot to attack targets in Gibraltar during the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games and later elsewhere in Europe being planned by a group of three terrorists, two of them from the North Caucasus. The leader of the group planning the latter attack was an ethnic Chechen and/or Dagestani, Eldar Magomedov, was said by the Spanish court and police to be Al Qa`ida’s (AQ) leading operative in Europe.

In the long-term, Assad and his forces are no more of, and likely less of an overall threat than the Sunni jihadi threat in Syria. The ISIL, JN, JMA, and several other similar groups have been carrying out—and videotaping for their supporters’ enjoyment—beheadings of prisoners using kitchen knives, eating the internal organs of corpses, mass executions of as many as fifty prisoners at a time, and mass hostage takings in the hundreds. Should they come to power and gain control over Assad’s chemical weapons, there is the very real possibility of deploying them against Israel, Europe, Russia and other accessible ‘infidel’ states.

All this makes it imperative that the United States, Europe, and Russia work together to fight this grave threat. While Putin may be trying to defeat the principles of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘responsibility to protect’ outside of UN auspices and perhaps protect limited Russian interests in Syria (installation at naval bases there), Russia is also saddled by making a bad choice in supporting the outnumbered Shiites (Iran and Syrian Alawites) versus the Sunnis in the Arab/Muslim worlds. Similarly, the U.S. finds itself with a series of bad choices now by having gotten into bed with the Wahhabi Saudis and other Arab oil sheikhdoms. As a consequence of these alignments, U.S. operations or a major war in and around Syria poses the risk of a more broad military confrontation between the United States and/or the broader West, on the one hand, and Iran and Moscow, on the other.

Even the best thought out policy recommendations that propose using force, are problematic. Anthony Cordesman has proposed that the United States should: (1) lobby Britain, France, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE for international support before taking military action; (2) hit not just chemical-weapons targets but key political and military sites such as Assad’s palace in Damascus, intelligence and secret police headquarters, Syrian, Al Quds and Assad militia bases and training centers, and air and ground troops’ support facilities; (3) set serious redlines and establish a limited ‘no fly/no move zone’ to deprive Assad of any more missile, air, chemical weapons, or ground artillery strikes on rebel-held areas and threaten a no-fly/no-move zone to protect rebel held areas in response to any violation; (4) openly back and arm moderate rebel factions with advanced light guided air defense weapons like air defense systems, anti-tank guided weapons, mortars, and artillery directly from the United States and/or allow friendly Arab states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) in coordination with the United States; (5) make U.S. support conditional and hold the rebel weapons recipients accountable by demanding videotapes and other evidence the weapons are being properly used and forward deploying a limited CIA and Special Forces presence; (6) significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition through expanded capacity-building efforts with regional partners; (7) openly make clear an openness to negotiations that would include Russia for a UN agreement that would protect the Alawites and Kurds, giving Assad a secure way to leave and/or establishing a ceasefire and perhaps temporary division of Syria; and (8) organize an international humanitarian effort.

However, there is no guarantee that such a strategy will prevent matters from devolving into a collapse of the regime with continued internecine fighting between quasi-Shiite Alawite, Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni jihadist and Kurdish forces in various combinations on various fronts spreading to Iraq, Lebanon and perhaps elsewhere. Cordesman himself admits that the acceptable solutions aimed at in his proposals—a clear victory of moderate rebel elements and successful negotiations—are “extremely limited.”

What To Do

Therefore, should the initiative to relieve Assad of his chemical weapons fail (and even if it succeeds), the best options for the United States would be to either refrain from all forms of military action altogether and lead a major defensive effort to protect regional allies or fashion a much more robust military action than the one currently being described by administration officials. The U.S. interest does not lie in revenge for Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The attendant moral argument that relies on the victims’ suffering does not convince; try choosing between having your head cut off with a rusty kitchen knife (the jihadists’ method) and dying in a sarin gas attack (allegedly Assad’s method).

Those, like Gary Gambill, who caution the Obama administration that it cannot take out both Assad’s regime and its chemical weapons are right. Assad is unlikely to give up his chemicals without a firm guarantee of refuge for him and his Alawites perhaps in a rump of the present Syrian state. Assad will likely respond to any imminent existential threat to his regime with a major chemical attack on rebels and civilians in order to force Iran to enter the war. This will bring in the Sunni Gulf States and force Iran to back its Alawite client more strongly, and all bets will be off from there. Escalation could come with a coordinated Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah series of missile and terrorist attacks on Israel and and/or American or other Western targets in response to the American attack (e.g., strikes on U.S. airbases in Turkey, sleeper cells in U.S. and European embassies and other targets around the world).

There are some qualified common U.S., Russian, regional and global interests here for which a red line tripping military action can be drawn at the borders of Syria rather than within Syria and solely against the Assad regime. The first goal is to prevent any further use of chemical weapons by any party—if impossible within Syria but certainly outside it. Should the jihadists acquire chemical weapons, the jihadists, who now make up about 20 percent of the rebel force, are most likely to deploy them. Also, the majority of the remaining forces who are loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood are more likely to do so than the Assad regime has been. Therefore, both the United States and Russia must stay out of this quagmire militarily (perhaps unless it begins to spill in strength over Syria’s borders) and coordinate an international anti-jihadist coalition and comprehensive defensive strategy against any and all of the various bad outcomes likely to come out of the Syrian civil war.

Second prevent the jihadists from establishing a successor state in Syria and thereby posing a revolutionary threat to the entire region and a terrorist threat to the world. In particular, efforts are needed to block any expansion of the war and the movement of any of the involved parties’ forces into neighboring countries or others nearby in the larger region, including Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Russia.

Third is to secure continued energy supplies to the West from the region if the situation deteriorates into a generalized Sunni-Shia war across the Middle East. Along with defending choke points in the Gulf and other supply routes, this also might include a shift to greater purchases of Russian oil and gas as part of deal to buy Moscow’s partnership.