Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, August 30, 2013

Russia and Syria: From Diplomacy to the High Seas

Russia has come under heavy criticism in the West since the crisis in Syria broke out nearly two-and-a-half years ago, mostly because of Russian refusal to allow for any progress under the auspices of the UN on a resolution of the Syrian conflict. Most recently, Russia has refused to support a UK-led Security Council resolution to allow protection measures for civilians in Syria. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadiy Gatilov stated toward the end of a UN Security Council session that Western intervention in Syria risked becoming a repeat of the quagmire in Iraq.

Many analysts have portrayed Russian intransigence over Syria in terms of Russian national pride, as having found a way to make things purposely difficult for the West so as to assert its own status and importance on the global stage. This has largely been in the diplomatic arena, both at the UN as well as in Russian bilateral relations with various Western states. Yet as military intervention in Syria seems all the more likely, it seems that Russia’s relations with the West vis-à-vis Syria have quickly moved from the diplomatic arena to the naval sphere.

Various naval forces have already begun to move into the Eastern Mediterranean. France has sent its frigate Chevalier Paul to the region and may send its Toulon-based carrier Charles de Gaulle there as well. The UK already has a carrier in the Mediterranean, and both the UK and the US have several destroyers there as well.

Meanwhile, Russia is sending an anti-submarine ship and a missile cruiser. In this case, there is a discrepancy over the stated purposes. Russian news agency Interfax says the move is because of the situation in Syria, and a spokesperson for the Russian Navy has stated they are monitoring NATO activity in the area and will defend Russian national interests in the region. Russian media agency Novosti, on the other hand, states that this is just a regular rotation.

Again, much of the recent geopolitical wrangling between Russia and the West has been largely restricted to the diplomatic arena, with the military being either a largely back-burner factor or one that has had limited engagement. Whenever Russia has specifically used its naval power, it has either been in a relatively small-scale conflict (as during the Russo-Georgian War of 2008) or has been a show of solidarity and alliance, such as Russian ships coming into Venezuelan ports. Russian diplomatic intransigence over issues such as Syria has been portrayed as one of the only ways Russia has been able to assert itself due to poor conventional military strength. Now, however, Russia’s military is moving closer to the center of its great geopolitical confrontation with the West.

At this point, the possibility of open naval warfare between Russia and Western powers seems unlikely, as the U.S. itself is the world’s foremost naval power, a position only bolstered by the presence of France and the UK. It would be foolish for Russia to engage US/Western forces openly, and Russian action will, at least for now, most likely be an extension of its strategy in the diplomatic arena: making things difficult for Western naval forces through blockades and other forms of antagonism, while hoping (or calculating) that the West will not engage Russian forces openly. Yet one must also remember that, in the case of Russia’s navy vis-à-vis Syria, this is not simply an issue of asserting geopolitical power, but defending very real national interests, namely, the Russian naval base at Tartus. Any direct threat or damage to the base and its assets would elicit a very different response from Russia.

Syria may represent a turning point in Russian foreign policy, in that, for the first time since the cold war, Russia is blatantly challenging the West militarily. While no shots have been fired there is no open battle, Russia is now stepping up its rhetoric and showing it is not afraid to back up its word with actions. The possibility of a military confrontation between Russia and the West adds yet another major difficulty to an already complex situation of how to deal with an internal Syrian problem.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why is Obama Considering Military Force Against Syria?

I caught Barack Obama's recent interview with PBS NewsHour. There, while cautioning that he hasn't decided on deploying force against Syria, he did give a justification for doing so. His reasoning is surprising, at least to me. Obama didn't mention regime change. He didn't emphasize assisting the rebel factions in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. Even the notion of American national interests, as vague as that term can be, wasn't really a major rationale for U.S. intervention. Instead, front and center was the idea of upholding the international norm proscribing the use of chemical weapons (and WMD more generally) domestically and internationally.

Ostensibly, here's the logic, which is two-fold: one, the US would aim to punish Assad (and his cohorts) for using chemical weapons against Syrian citizens. Two, that punishment, it is hoped, would put bad guys around the world on notice, and deter these characters from using their chemical weapons arsenals in the future.

These political objectives seem to align with the rumblings of the type of military campaign that's likely to be waged by the U.S. Word is that military force, if deployed, will be limited, in both duration and intensity. It will focus mainly on taking out Syria's chemical weapons facilities, thus neutering Assad's ability to commit the kind of massacres that he's already carried out twice this year against his fellow Syrians.

Such limited aims and tactics have caused analysts and pundits and media types to shake their heads in disbelief. In their view, they won't tip the balance toward the rebels; and it probably won't destabilize the Assad government. And there's also the concern that history tells us it can be difficult for states to get out of military conflicts. All of this is troubling, certainly. But in my view, there's a large overlooked issue at stake, one that Americans ought to be talking about right now. In brief, should the US president authorize the use of military force to endorse and reaffirm international norms?

Should the American president deploy force--which is costly, no matter how limited the conflict, and risks the lives of soldiers-- for reasons that have little to do with direct or indirect U.S. national security? Is Obama's argument a strong enough justification to wage military conflict against a foreign state? And would this be a good, judicious use of American resources?

These aren't easy questions to answer. And at the moment, I'm not sure I have clear answers to them. But they are things Americans should be talking about--at work, school, home, wherever--right now. Let the conversation begin.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Syria: A New Kosovo or a Very Costly Intervention?

This week, the New York Times reported that Barack Obama's national security aides "are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations." Coincidentally, on the same day, Foreign Policy published an essay by Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo's Foreign Minister, arguing the need for the US and NATO to intervene in Syria, using NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 as a model.

It is really tempting for anyone to draw a parallel between the situation in Kosovo back in 1999 and Syria in 2013. This model is very appealing to use in Syria's case. As in Kosovo, the US has been stymied in its attempts to force the United Nations Security Council to act on Syria, due to Russia's and China's interference. There is also a willing coalition to support the United States' intervention, notably from Western European nations and Arab States, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

At the same time, however, it is misleading to draw an analogy from Kosovo, as there are several big differences that could make intervention in Syria a very costly one both politically and economically.

First of all, unlike in 1999, when Russia was headed by a tired Boris Yeltsin, Russia today is headed by Vladimir Putin. Back in 1990s, Clinton had a decent working relationship with Yeltsin; at the moment, there's no love lost between Obama and Putin. The so-called "reset" has failed. And, unlike Yeltsin, Putin will not stand silent seeing the United States again threatening Russia's few remaining client states. The downfall of Assad's dictatorship in Syria could hurt Putin's domestic standing, signaling his impotence against the United States, and discredit his claim of Russia as a global power. Of course, there are also fear of contagion after the fall of Assad, which might embolden the Islamist rebellion in Chechnya.

Second, despite Russia's poor economic conditions--due to rampant corruption, lack of strong rule of law, and declining energy price--its overall economy is in better shape now than it was in 1999, when Russia had just recovered from its 1998 economic crisis, in which it defaulted on its debt. Back in 1999, Yeltsin was reliant on both European and the America's economic assistance, and thus unwilling to jeopardize Russian ties with the Western powers. Right now, Putin can afford to alienate the rest of the world with his support of Assad, especially given that Western Europe relies on Russia for its energy needs.

What could Russia do? Granted, Russia could not intervene openly without alienating the Arab states. But it could make life very difficult for the US and the NATO, should they want to impose a no-fly zone, through a massive arms supply to Assad. Already, Russia has delivered S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, which could make air war very expensive, unlike in Serbia in the 1990s, where NATO virtually enjoyed air supremacy.

Third, there's also China, which back in 1999, had opposed a humanitarian intervention because of the fear that it would be used as precedent to threaten China's hold on its restive provinces, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, or its on client state North Korea. While Syria is way outside China's sphere of interest, China could still back Russia's actions, especially in exchange for Russia's support on issues that China really cares about, such as North Korea or territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

Fourth, while Serbia in 1999 was practically alone in facing the NATO's attacks, Syria can count on Hezbollah and Iran for assistance, especially on the former for its foot soldiers. Hezbollah has already intervened in several important battles, even though its intervention has hurt its standing back in Lebanon. Regarding Iran, it's doubtful that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's Revolutionary Guard, an influential power of its own right, and even Hassan Rohani, Iran's new "reformist" president, would allow the destruction of Assad's regime in Syria. Such a  move would threaten its client Hezbollah and its own position in the region.

Fifth, unlike in Kosovo, the Syrian rebels are not speaking in unison. There's no credible single leadership of the rebellion in Syria, and in fact, there are many indications that radical Islamists and al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadists have joined the fray and tried to impose their harsh brand of Islamic law on unwilling populations, making both the regime and the rebel groups unpopular among ordinary Syrians.

This leads to a sixth problem: unlike in Kosovo, the problems in Syria won't be easily contained due to the growing bad blood, as the body count rises, between the Shiites on one side and the Sunnis on the other side, in a society where tribal and familial links remains very important. Regardless of whether Assad is toppled, the Sunni Jihadists might very well continue to strike the Shiites' soft targets in Lebanon and Iraq. There could be attempts to get rid of Hezbollah once and for all. Other neighbors, such as Turkey, Jordan, and especially Israel would, to some degree, be impacted as a result of this region-wide mess.

Thus the question is: if the United States and NATO follows the "Kosovo Model" faithfully, and at the same time, topples the Syrian regime, will the intervention open a Pandora's box? More importantly, will the always cautious and risk-averse Obama be willing to shoulder the cost of intervention?

Intervening would be very costly. Yet staying aloof, especially in light of Assad's use of chemical weapons, risks undermining whatever is left of Obama's credibility in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, seeing that Obama didn't want to interfere two years ago, when the situation was not nearly as bad, I predict that he will keep following Calvin Coolidge's advice: "Never go out to meet trouble. If you will just sit still, nine cases out of ten someone will intercept it before it reaches you."

The Egyptian Paradox

A lot of things have happened in Egypt in the past few weeks. First, the Egyptian military deposed President Morsy, causing debates about whether a coup is a coup is a coup when it is backed by popular demand. Then the Egyptian military cracked down harshly on the Ikhwanul Muslimin protesters, arresting many of its leaders and most visible supporters, throwing entire movement into a disarray.

So what happened in Egypt? The Big Pharaoh blog summed this up in an excellent post:
The revolution entered a coma the second day Mubarak was toppled and protesters left Tahrir square. Nothing of what happened during the past two and a half years served the revolution or achieved its demands. Even Mohamed Morsi, who was elected by just 51% of the vote, was not pro-revolution as he claimed to be before he was elected. Morsi won in an election yet his rule was not democratic and his focus was on serving the interests of his dogmatic organization and not the revolution. Those, mostly Western analysts and journalists, who lament the “end of the revolution” after the popularly backed coup fail to understand that the revolution did not rule this country ever since Mubarak was toppled.The MB had a chance to be revolutionary, they chose to focus on their own petty political interests instead. 
Egypt is still mired in the 60 years old fight between Islamists and the ruling establishment that comes from the army. Since the revolution provided no alternatives, Egypt will remaining seesawing between these two. A viable alternative to the Islamists and to the army needs to rise in order for this seesaw to be broken. Judging from the current weakness and disorganization of the revolution camp, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. In the meantime, this camp will stand powerlessly watching this fight unfold in front of them
There is one problem with the Big Pharaoh's argument, notably on the timing of the "coma." I would argue that the coma happened when Morsy declared himself above the law and rammed the Egyptian Constitution through the state. This gave the military an opportunity to stage a comeback by reigniting the fight between Islamists and the army-led ruling establishment, as Morsy's opponents, unable to make a coherent and credible opposition and at the same time, fearing Ikhwanul Muslimin's power grab, decided to back the military to get their way politically.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Keeping Snowden in the Proper Context of Russia-U.S. Relations

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden. Photo via The Guardian.

American President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin comes as a time of great Russia-U.S. tensions over the most recent development in the case of Edward Snowden. While this cancellation comes at a moment which lends itself to a degree of misunderstanding, it is actually largely a case of bad timing. The Snowden issue is not, according to many experts, the main impetus for Obama’s cancellation.
President Obama has been wise to keep his appointment at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and has most likely made the right decision to cancel his scheduled one-on-one with Putin. This latter point comes mostly because it could be incredibly awkward for Messieurs Obama and Putin to have such high-level bilateral talks in the aftermath of such a hot button issue (a more informal meeting, such as that on the sidelines in Northern Ireland this past June, is more appropriate).
Yet Putin’s top-down approval to grant Snowden a year’s asylum shows an incredible disregard for his country’s relationship with the U.S. President Obama has stated that Putin is using tactics from the old Cold War playbook, and that it's time to start thinking about the future instead of living in the past. Nevertheless, the issue of Edward Snowden is not a proper metric for a holistic analysis of the state of affairs between two countries.
Dmitri Simes, a Russia expert at the Center for the National Interest (formerly the Nixon Center) and James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, have both argued that the meeting was cancelled primarily because of a perceived lack of tangible benefits to having a summit, because of a lack of progress on a multitude of issues. BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus presciently points out that, though Russia is not nearly as powerful or influential as the United States these days, unlike the cold war era, it's still difficult for both states to find ways to cooperate that are mutually beneficial.
The Kremlin’s expression of “disappointment” at President Obama’s cancellation may be a combination of a general diplomatic response, as well as a feeling that Russia is once again being snubbed by the U.S. Obama's willingness to attend the summit in St. Petersburg may show that while Russia is indeed an important part of the G-20 emerging nations, especially since it currently holds the presidency, it does not hold a place on the global stage to merit such high-level bilateral talks. This will obviously upset a Russia still trying to find its place in the world, one that is sensitive to any perceived slights to its greatness. Granting Snowden asylum may be one way in which Russia can “get back” at the U.S. in a subtle yet unmistakable way.
Thus, while the Snowden issue is not the single, all-defining reason for Obama’s cancellation, and probably does not necessarily mark a watershed moment in Russia-U.S. relations, one crucial aspect of Snowden’s offer and acceptance of asylum is the very real possibility of a national security threat to the U.S. in the realm of intelligence and espionage.
Previously I wrote about the need for greater, yet very carefully-managed intelligence cooperation between Russia and the United States. Despite the debacle involving Snowden, this should still be a goal for the U.S. on issues of mutual interest with Russia. As an example, the FSB and FSKN may have greater access to the terrorist holdouts in the North Caucasus or the drug hubs in Central Asia than U.S. federal authorities may have (see my “Cooperation and Geopolitics in the Central Asian Drug Trade” from this past May).
In that previous post on Russian-American intelligence affairs, however, I also highlighted that there was a high level of Russian intelligence operations in the U.S., and that U.S. counterintelligence measures against Russian penetration were absolutely necessary. After all, the distance between the American President and the Intelligence Community is not the reality in Russia, and there may be some behind-the-scenes exchange of favors going on: namely, that in return for asylum, Snowden must provide more, incredibly valuable, information about the inner workings of U.S. intelligence, with Putin’s conditional exhortation to Snowden to “stop harming our American partners” a mere publicity stunt.
Russia’s decision to grant Snowden a year’s asylum in Russia may be an opportunistic move on their part, where a former U.S. intelligence officer is in need. One risk for Snowden is that, after his year-long asylum has expired, he may be the object of a prisoner exchange or spy swap, in exchange for Russian assets captured and imprisoned by U.S. authorities. Snowden is undoubtedly a political embarrassment for the Obama Administration, and the possibility of exchanging Russian assets for Snowden may be a card Putin is willing to play. The focus on the granting of asylum should not be on that fact in and of itself, but on the temporal nature of it. After a year Snowden’s fate may be uncertain again, and that year may be all the Russian intelligence services need to get information from someone who has had inside access to the U.S.I.C. and will never again be allowed into that world. In other words, the length of Snowden’s usefulness to Russia depends on how much he divulges.
Granting asylum to Snowden undoubtedly harms Russia-U.S. relations, at least in the short term. But it should also be understood in the larger context of this bilateral relationship. Overall, what this situation may be more indicative of is that Russia and the United States, while able to cooperate on macro-scale issues such as counter-terrorism and nuclear reductions, may enter into a relationship similar to that between China and the U.S., where the relationship is bifurcated between robust commercial ties and limited cooperation on some important issues, and heated geopolitical tensions, with sporadic irritants in between.
Likewise, Russia-U.S. relations may well also be defined by strong business ties and other areas of bilateral cooperation combined with the throbbing geopolitical tensions over Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The recent repeal of the antiquated Jackson-Vanik Agreement in the U.S., combined with Russia’s recent accession to the WTO has the potential to boost Russia-U.S. trade relations, and recent developments in mutual agreements to reduce nuclear stockpiles are also a cause for hope. Espionage in general is a whole different area, where even purported allies back stab each other. But even in these cases, long-term damage is unlikely. Consider the famous case of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who filtered nuclear secrets to China. Such activities did not unduly disrupt certain aspects of China-U.S. relations, specifically in the realm of trade. It also does not seem to have had any major impact on China’s military buildup and increased projection into the South China Sea, which is a famous sore point for China and the U.S.
Perhaps all of this indicates the fundamental flaw of President Obama’s 2009 “reset” with Russia. It’s difficult to reset relations which a country that does not have a firm raison d’etat and with which the power and influence dynamic is asymmetric. Much as with the case of a rising China, Russia must first find and secure its footing on the world stage before the U.S. can properly define its relationship with Russia.