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].”
At the conclusion of the former article, the colonel says that Russia and its allies are hoping for a diplomatic solution that comes via the UN, but then admits that such a hope is “utopian [это утопия].” Perhaps he is correct, but the thought experiment could be interesting, actually. One does not have to be an expert on the Syrian War to realize that the heart of the deadlock is the toxic mix of competing interests from both nearby powers (e.g. Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia) and distant great powers (e.g. Russia and the United States). An obvious solution would be to extirpate the influence of these nefarious neighbors, along with that of Washington and Moscow, in favor of a new coalition of powers. Such a coalition of “disinterested powers” would be noteworthy for two characteristics: 1) they have no interest in Syria other than peace and tranquility for the inhabitants and 2) they are rising powers with excess military capacity. My nominations for this role would include Brazil, India, South Africa and China. This coalition of “disinterested powers” could be led by Muslim-power Indonesia. If each of these powers contributed fifteen thousand strong, Jakarta could preside over a peace-keeping force of at least seventy-five thousand—quite sufficient to supervise disarmament, while overseeing the extrication of “nefarious neighbors” from inside of Syria. China, in particular, has been notably absent from the Syria peace process, but would have ample opportunity to show off its peacekeeping prowess, and could make a giant contribution by overseeing logistics and transport for the entire “Disinterested Powers” Syria Peacekeeping Force. So much for utopian solutions.
If that is the ideal solution, what is the more realistic solution? You will not like this, but the most realistic solution is victory for the Assad government and its Russian-Iranian allies. Even a few months ago, most experts agreed that this was the most probable outcome. While Moscow has suffered a few notable setbacks since then, including a couple of dramatic air crashes, the situation has not really changed. True, the United States has now formalized some kind of commitment to keeping troops in Syria, Turkey has embarked on a large-scale intervention, and Israel has emphatically shown that it will not tolerate an Iranian presence near its border. Journalists have been howling about cruelty in eastern Ghouta, but are there civil wars that are not cruel? They have been noticeably less vocal on the fact that Aleppo seems rather peaceable since it fell to government forces at the end of 2016. The bottom line is that none of these developments presage a major change in the balance of power on the ground. What is disturbing is that they may herald simply the depressing prolongation of a civil war that should have ended a long time ago—one way or the other. Or if it is to be partition, as these Russian pieces summarized above strongly hint at, then let the powers get on with it already.
Since the United States and its various and sundry allies clearly do not have the will to “win” the war, the best we can “hope” for in Syria is that Washington’s more proactive stance will prevent the Assad regime’s victory. In other words, the people of Syria can look forward to intensified civil war. This seems to be a new trend in U.S. foreign policy, actually: if we cannot “win,” let us at least not “lose.” This is essentially the argument put forward by former National Security Council advisor Susan Rice for a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan (at the cool cost of $45 billion per year). But the question needs to be asked: would the people of Afghanistan and Syria be better off if there was actually a victor in these civil wars and the fighting came to an end finally? It seems that perhaps functional regimes, albeit ones that are hardly Jeffersonian democracies, could be better than endless, brutal warfare that cruelly destroys civilian lives and spawns ever more terrorists.
As the “Russia threat” fever now reaches a new and dangerous zenith in the wake of the poisoning incident in Salisbury, the president’s new national-security team must struggle to keep the Syrian conflict from utterly careening out of control. As often noted by Cold War theorists back in the day, the “off-ramps” between regional inferno and global nuclear war are all too few and inadequately tested at that.