Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Putin's Syrian Gambit

Politics has always fascinated me.  When I was younger I was idealistic about politics.  I considered political mechanics and practicality to be something akin to hypocrisy.  Now I am much more level-headed, practical - and cynical. I know perfectly well that my personal political perspective, without sufficient political power to back it up, has little effect on what is what is achievable or likely to occur. I also know that, while idealists can be inspiring, their actual practice in the art of policy usually leaves something to be desired.  Hence our gridlock in Washington, for example.  Too many idealists not enough pragmatists. 

This understanding allows me the sinful pleasure of admiring politics as it unfolds even if I personally find much of what is unfolding to be abhorrent.  I admire a well-played political hand.  In my opinion, all idealism aside, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin has played his cards superbly with regard to the civil war in Syria.  In doing so he has literally kicked the political ass of the Western powers.  He makes President Obama look inept - admittedly not a towering achievement.

But I get ahead of myself.  As recently as September 27, things seemed "normal" in Syria.  Bashar al-Assad's regime was slowly losing ground in a war of attrition against numerous rebel factions, including ISIS (the Islamic State). Unfortunately, ISIS was slowly mastering the rebel factions, including al-Qaeda, prompting no less a military mind than retired General David Petraeus to actually recommend the United States allied itself with al-Qaeda to combat the growing ISIS threat.  Petraeus might be correct but could any situation be more absurd?

On September 27 France joined the loose coalition of forces conducting air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State.  The first French strikes marked a logical expansion of the status quo attempting to deal with the threat of the rogue "nation" to control large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Into this absurd and truly convoluted international response to a murderous crisis that has cause the displacement of millions of human beings strolled Vladimir Putin.

Notice how the cards have been played so far.  The first public act toward Russia's involvement in Syria was for Putin to sit down with Syria's longtime rival, Israel.  If you are going to conduct a military campaign in this region you can do it without telling a lot of people but you certainly can not do anything like this without telling the greatest military power in the region - Israel.

Shortly after Putin brought Benjamin Netanyahu up to speed, Russia secured cooperation with the Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians on all information regarding the Islamic State. Putin's stated objective, as he made repeatedly clear in an historic interview with Charlie Rose, was to stabilize the Assad regime because only Assad has the trained "boots on the ground" to attack ISIS.  As awkward as that may seem, it is a political-military fact.

The Russian parliament put the a rubber stamp on the Russian military presence as the first air strikes hit targets in Syria.  Most of the initial attacks were not directed against Islamic State targets.  Most were directed toward defeated American-backed rebel forces. The Syrian army coordinated with the Russian air campaign fairly closely and was able to regain control of some contested positions.

Right now, amidst daily air strikes and massive missile strikes from the Russian navy 1000 miles away in the Caspian Sea, Putin's forces are supporting Assad's Syrian Army in attacking all rebel forces - al-Qaeda, ISIS, whoever.

Putin has kicked Obama on the field of global influence. Putin has made America irrelevant (or simply accentuated the ineffectiveness of its strategy) by consulting with all necessary parties (including Israel), bringing together a coalition and coordinating air power with the only trained regular infantry involved, the Syrian Army.  

For better or worse, Putin's endgame is to assist the Assad regime. Compared with the alternatives and the complete failure of the Western powers to stop ISIS and overthrow Assad, Putin's actions are clear, precise, and politically relevant.  Your idealism might say Assad is a criminal for his horrific treatment of his people. But, without Assad, all you have is a vacuum.  The historic list of countries descending into chaos when their dictatorship falls is long. Look at the internal turmoil of Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan today to see that. Look how much of Yugoslavia vanished in the 1990's.

There are signs that Putin's firm commitment to eliminating all rebels and stabilizing Assad has some popular support in the region.  But, despite this support and the logic of working in tandem with the only organized army in the field, Putin's Gambit is very risky.  Still, as of this post, the Syrian Army is preparing and much larger offensive against all comers, ISIS included, with Russian air and naval support.  So, a new chapter begins in this long under-addressed civil war. Putin offers Assad a bigger hammer. Aleppo seems to be the first major objective. Will it work? Will anyone remain in the country if it does?

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