Monday, October 12, 2015


Understanding Syria

At one time my official duties required me to study the delicate mosaic of Syria….. a complex set of balances. Now, all I can do is offer you competing views as to the current situation and what the United States should do about it.

Below are two articles with very conflicting views and thus very conflicting recommendations as to US actions. 

 1.“Putin's model of success” by Jackson Diehl,
published Oct. 12, 2015. This article is reproduced as it appeared in Jewish world review a very useful republisher  of key articles. The publisher,Binyamin L. Jolkovsky, is dedicated and diligent and Jewish world review should be a must-read for anyone interested in the Middle East.  

2.     “Russia's Syrian entanglement: Can the West sit back and watch? “ Pavel K. Baev | October 9, 2015. This article is  reproduced as it appeared in Brookings' publication and is more likely the official understanding/position of the Obama administration.  

1.     Putin's model of success 
By Jackson Diehl  Published Oct. 12, 2015

Western officials who pronounce themselves puzzled about Vladimir Putin's intentions in Syria are missing some big clues. There is a clear model for the campaign Russia is pursuing on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a legacy that is Putin's pride: Chechnya.

The Muslim republic in the North Caucasus and the decade-long war that Putin launched there in September 1999 have mostly been forgotten by the outside world since the dictator installed there by Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, consolidated control in the late 2000s. But the Kremlin regards it as a "good, unique example in history of (the) combat of terrorism," as Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's prime minister, put it. Chechnya, Medvedev said last year, is "one of the business cards of Russia."

What are the components of this winning formula? First, define all opposition to the prevailing regime as terrorist, indistinguishable from the most extreme jihadists. That enables a fundamental political aim: to eliminate alternatives. In Syria today, moderate and secular opposition forces arguably are getting harder to find. That wasn't the case in Chechnya in 1999. The country's nationalist president, Aslan Maskhadov, had won a democratic election, defeating an Islamist opponent by 59 to 23 percent. His predecessor, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was so secularized that he was unaware how many times a day Muslims pray.

Russia killed them both, along with every other moderate Chechen leader it could find, both at home and abroad. One was murdered in Vienna; another in Dubai. When Western leaders pressed Putin to negotiate with Maskhadov and other secular moderates, he invariably responded angrily. "Would you invite Osama bin Laden to the White House . . . and let him dictate what he wants?" he demanded of one group of Western visitors.

It should be no surprise that Russia's first Syria bombings have been aimed at the remnants of the moderate opposition. It's not just that they are backed by the United States; they represent a viable alternative to the Assad regime, and so, under Chechnya rules, must be eliminated. "He doesn't distinguish between (the Islamic State) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go," President Barack Obama said after meeting Putin at the United Nations. "From their perspective, they're all terrorists."

The first stages of the Russian military campaign in northern Syria have followed a familiar pattern. Heavy bombing and shelling of civilian areas preceded scorched-earth sweeps, just as in Chechnya. According to a report on Chechnya by the International Crisis Group, "war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by (Russian) troops" included "indiscriminate shelling and bombing, secret prisons, enforced disappearances, mass graves and death squads." One common tactic, the report said, was "taking insurgents' relatives as hostages, subjecting them to torture or summary execution and burning their homes."
In short, Assad's forces and their Lebanese and Iranian allies may have to step up their already-notorious brutality to match Putin's tactics in Chechnya. But they may have expert help: Kadyrov has asked Putin to send his 20,000-member personal army, known as the "kadyrovtsy," to Syria. The state propaganda outlet Russia Today quoted him as saying he wanted "to go there and participate in special operations."

Kadyrov and his relationship with Putin offer another lesson to those wondering whether Putin is prepared to dispose of Assad - a prospect that Obama has repeatedly bet on. The Chechen strongman is, if anything, more sinister than the soft-spoken Assad; Kadyrov is known to do his own killing and torturing on occasion. He has solidified a cult of personality in Chechnya, extorts tribute from every business and citizen, and brazenly orders hits on his critics, from journalists and human rights activists to Russian politicians. Many believe him responsible for the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, gunned down near Red Square last winter.

Putin's response has been to offer Kadyrov not just tolerance but full protection. The Crisis Group reports that senior Russian security officials tried to undermine the Chechen by arresting his gunmen for the Nemtsov murder. Putin rebuffed them, awarding Kadyrov a medal immediately after the hit. "Unless President Putin's reputation is seriously damaged by his protégé, the rules of the game are unlikely to change," concluded the report. The same rules will apply to Assad.

Obama's principal response to Putin's new offensive has been to predict that the result will be "a quagmire." But Putin has heard that before. For years Western leaders warned him that the war in Chechnya was unwinnable, that the only solution was political. Putin nevertheless persisted through a decade and more of bloody fighting that cost Russia at least 6,000 military casualties and Chechnya uncounted tens of thousands. The result was the pacification he now trumpets as a "calling card." Don't expect him to give up anytime soon on a similar result in Syria.

2.     Russia's Syrian entanglement: Can the West sit back and watch?  Pavel K. Baev | October 9, 2015 

For observers who are confined by the boundaries of conventional strategic sense, every day of Russia’s military intervention in Syria brings fresh surprises. Indiscriminate strikes against Turkey-backed and CIA-trained opposition groups (which could not possibly be mistaken for ISIS) were followed by deliberate violations of Turkey’s airspace, and then by the spectacular cruise missile salvo from warships in the Caspian Sea. More astonishing turns are almost certain to come, prompting more reevaluation of the power projection capabilities that Russia brings to bear in this high-risk enterprise.

Good morning, Latakia
The intervention, which President Vladimir Putin preferred not to announce in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on September 26, could become an exemplar of achieving maximum political effect from very limited application of force. The three dozen or so combat planes deployed to the hastily prepared airbase outside Latakia perform 20 to 30 sorties a day. That would not have made much of a difference in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS that has been going on for more than a year. What makes a difference is targeting opposition groups of various persuasions that were not anticipating such treatment. This tactical surprise is by definition short-term, and in order to continue making a difference—and for the campaign to really resonate—Russia needs to escalate. 

The intervention...could become an exemplar of achieving maximum political effect from very limited application of force.

This will be very hard to accomplish. The composite air regiment on the no-frills airbase includes fighters and helicopters of at least five different types. That creates a logistical nightmare, since all supplies have to be shipped by the several naval transports from Novorossiysk and Sevastopol. Several transport aircraft can add only so much to this stretched supply line, so the intervention has to be aimed at achieving some tangible results as soon as possible. The deployment to Latakia of a squadron of Su-25 light fighter-bombers and a squadron of Mi-24 attack helicopters indicates that the main task of this force is not medium-range strikes on high-value assets (on which Russia has scant intelligence data) but close air support. Such a high-risk mission only makes sense if the government troops and Alawite militias launch an offensive operation, most probably aimed at securing the Latakia province from the attacks from the north, where the Nusra Front has been active.

A key condition for such an offensive is that the government forces—together with Hezbollah troops—can stabilize the front around Damascus, where Russian squadrons dare not to show up. Damascus remains the center of gravity in this mutating civil war, even if Latakia is of particular importance as the home-ground for the Assad Alawi clan. What makes control over Damascus more precarious than ever is the possibility that Russian intervention would compel various opposition forces—who until now have focused on fighting one another as eagerly as they fight the government—to unite against the “infidels”.

Sapogi in the sand?
The burning issue for the coming days is whether the lack of meaningful results from the air strikes would prompt the Russian leadership to deploy ground forces. This would follow the “mission creep” script typical of ill-conceived interventions. Putin’s denials of such plans only increase suspicions that under the guise of “volunteers,” units of special forces and then regular battalions would engage in a ground offensive. 

Two obstacles stand in the way of such rapid deployment. Firstly, despite the effective ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, the best troops in the Russian army remain concentrated in or near the Donbass war zone. The approaching autumnal draft cycle will deliver the usual sharp decline in the combat readiness of the ground forces, as the better-trained half of soldiers in every unit goes home and raw recruits fill the ranks. Secondly, transporting and supplying tanks and heavy weapons for even one battalion tactical group of about 1,000 soldiers would be an extremely hard challenge for the already-stretched capabilities for strategic air- and sea-lift. In domestic military exercises such as Tsentr-2015, troops and equipment were moved around primarily by rail. There is obviously no such connection to Syria.

[G]round forces...would follow the “mission creep” script typical of ill-conceived interventions.

Putin also knows that placing Russian military boots (or sapogi) in the Syrian sands would be very unpopular, and no amount of propaganda spin placed on the telegenic air strikes can secure a shift in public opinion. The Russian High Command can certainly try some other means of delivering strikes, for instance by the air-launched cruise missiles from the Tu-160 strategic bombers cruising at a safe distance from the battleground. A nuclear submarine can deliver a salvo of long-range cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, primarily in order to show the versatility of Russian power projection. But the role of ground forces most probably will remain limited to immediate protection of the Latakia base.

Calibrating counter-moves
For the United States, avoiding the temptation to over-react is still the key guideline. It stands to reason that the best response, when your opponent is sinking deeper in a blunder of its own making, is not to interfere. This past summer, the Russian Air Force had a dismal record of crashes caused by poor maintenance, and the high stress of the Syrian air campaign is certain to bring more of those. A series of terrorist attacks may shatter the security of the Latakia base, which makes it a very attractive target indeed. Rebels may also use Katyusha missiles for hitting the over-crowded airstrip. 

It makes perfect sense to let such disasters arrive in their due course, but there is one significant exception to this indifferent approach: Turkey. Turkey is deeply upset with Russian direct support to the Assad regime, outraged by the violations of its airspace, and threatened by the air war so close to its borders. Statements of support from NATO headquarters are not enough; at the very minimum, the decision to withdraw the batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles must be cancelled. When Estonia and Latvia came under Russian pressure last year, NATO gathered the resources and political will to bolster their security—and Russian air provocations on the Baltic theater have practically ceased. Turkey has every right to expect nothing less.

Finally, the United States and its allies could deliver a series of airstrikes on the Hezbollah bands around Damascus. That would be less confrontational vis-à-vis Russia than hitting Assad’s forces. Hezbollah has already suffered losses in the Syrian war and is not particularly motivated to stand with Assad to the bitter end, away from own home-ground in Lebanon. (Israel would appreciate such punishment, too.) 
Moscow will be hard-pressed to find a way out of its Syrian adventure. Order will not be imposed through force by dictators in the Middle East. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet shows there is another, and ultimately more effective, way. As order continues to erode in Syria, it wouldn’t be wrong for leaders in Washington to just let the Russians entangle themselves. But the United States has allies to worry about, too.

Pavel K. Baev

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe

Pavel K. Baev is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) and nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. Before joining PRIO in 1992, he worked at the Institute of Europe in Moscow. His current research includes Russian military reform, Russia's conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, energy interests in Russia's foreign, and security policy and Russia's relations with Europe and NATO.