Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Does Russia's Larger Role in Syria Mean For the US?

Russian SU-25 jets on runway at al-Assad airbase in Syria last week (Telegraph)
Russian jets at a Syrian air force base in mid-September. Photo: Telegraph.

Russia has upped its military assistance to Syria, sending troops, tanks, and aircraft in recent weeks, all in an attempt to shore up the government's defense against various anti-Assad groups. The US isn't happy, at least publicly. It disagrees with the idea and practice of propping up Assad, believing that “it is the Assad regime that has been a magnet for extremists inside Syria,” according to State Department Spokesman John Kirby. In other words, Assad is the root of the problem; he must go, either today or in the near-future.

Moreover, the US wants to be kept abreast and consulted on Russian moves in and plans for in Syria, and it hasn’t. In fact, at this point, the US isn’t totally sure what Russian President Putin has up his sleeve and was caught off-guard at the rapid deployment of force in Syria.

What should America make of all this? And how does Russia's deployments impact US policy? My analysis below shows that these events are at best a mixed bag for the US.

The Good

The good part is that Russia might own the Syria problem, getting Team Obama off the hook. After all, it’s readily apparent that Barack Obama doesn’t want anything to do with the conflict, fearing that any involvement with military force is a trap that would eventually, drip by drip, suck the US further into the conflict and violence.

Also, keep in mind that air strikes have done almost nothing to slow the tide of ISIS. Plus, the arming and training of the so-called Syrian moderates has translated to less than a handful of troops ready to enter the battle against ISIS—a multi-billion dollar disaster for The White House. Why not let someone else deal with that mess? Who cares if it’s Russia, America’s current foe?

Does Russia’s assertiveness circumscribe, or even limit, Iran’s nefarious role in Syria? It’s something to think about. It’s possible that Putin is communicating to Iran and its proxies that Syria is Russia’s battleground, that it rules the roost there, not them. And at this point, it does certainly seem like any military and political solution goes first and primarily through Russia, rather than Iran.

Syria, after all, is Russia’s last foreign military outpost beyond the post-Soviet space and is very protective and territorial about what happens there—not only concerned about America’s infringement on its self-declared turf but also about regional meddlers as well. In the end, a watered-down role for Iran in Syria, if it comes to pass, is probably a good thing for regional stability.

Plus, the added benefit is that if Russia gets dragged into a prolonged war in Syria, it will become weakened and distracted over time—thereby putting a noose around Putin’s global ambitions. Syria could potentially become its Afghanistan, which bled the Soviets dry in the 1980s. And consider this: even if its adventures in Syria aren’t sky-high costly, they could still greatly impact Russia. After all, though things are quiet there now, Russia is still engaged in a low-intensity, churning struggle in Ukraine. Can Moscow really fight two protracted limited wars (Ukraine and Syria) simultaneously? Putin should ask George W. Bush how such grandiose, ambitious military escapades turn out.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, however unlikely, Putin might even help to put a dent in the ISIS/AQ networks—which would serve to benefit US interests.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Russian intervention probably only prolongs the violence in Syria, and by extension Iraq. That’s what the literature on civil wars indicates. External assistance and intervention lengthens the shelf-life of these wars—keeping them in motion when they would otherwise fizzle out or end decisively.

Russian force reinforces Assad’s grip on power—something that the US doesn’t really want to see. It’s for years called for the ouster of Assad, and failing that, a managed transition to democracy with Assad overseeing its implementation. Russian moves clearly muck up US policy on Syria, shredding years of strategizing, training and equipping, and billions of dollars.

What happens to the moderates? These are the guys and gals who the US hopes will one day replace Assad atop the throne. There’s speculation that Russian power will be used to target ISIS as well as US-trained soldiers, because anyone and everyone who opposes Assad is the enemy in the eyes of Russia. Without moderates being an active part of the plan in Syria going forward, where does that leave the country? And how will US allies look at America if it allows its friends in Syria to get annihilated?

The US shouldn't be surprised that others are stepping up to the plate at this point, given how little it's done over the years. In fact, that's a risk the US took by adopting an extreme low-cost strategy. Power abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes, and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Team Obama has acted as if all the major players would wait for it to get its act together, but that’s simply not happening. Instead, Iran, Iraq, Assad, and Russia are starting to coordinate with each other on politics and security affairs in Syria, with Russia taking the leadership mantle. And that, in turn, raises the prospect of the US getting squeezed out of any influence on what happens from here on in the war and any post-war outcomes.

Russia’s escalation also exposes a fatal failure of Obama grand strategy. I know I've previously written on the blog that Obama's grand strategy is similar to selective engagement, but I've rethought that argument. His critics are right; he really doesn’t have a grand strategy at all. His foreign policy is risk-averse and low-cost, but I'm not sure that one can build a grand strategy with those things at the heart of it. The reason is because such an approach is utterly devoid of interests and values, and without those elements US foreign policy is and will remain rudderless.

Let’s apply this logic to Syria. What kinds of outcomes does Obama most prefer? Which ones would be merely acceptable? Which tools of American power can best produce those outcomes? What interests are on the line for the US? Which values should guide US policymaking on Syria? Who (within Syria, the Middle East and beyond) should the US work with to achieve its desired outcomes? Quite frankly, Team Obama would have a hard time answering those questions—as it has in answering similar ones for the past three plus years—because it is fixated on the price of the America’s commitment to Syria, not so much on the substance of US policy on Syria.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Refugee/Migrant Crisis

Syrian Refugees in Greece
Refugees crossing from Greece into Macedonia. Image: Giannis Papanikos/Associated Press

Brad Nelson: Let's start with the basic question: In your view, what's causing the waves of migrants and refugees to swarm to Europe?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Europe is relatively close and willing to put up with them? The Gulf countries simply don't care enough, though not without reason: an influx of millions of refugees would create a huge demographic nightmare. Despite the rhetoric of "religious and Arab solidarity," the demographic politics remain critical. Think about Jordan, which never grants the Palestinians citizenship, with the Palestinians severely underrepresented in the parliament (see here). The delicate tribal politics (see here and here) would be upended by millions of refugees who don't have any loyalty to any tribe.

So religious and Arab solidarity could all go to hell, because by the end of the day, it is realpolitik that counts.

BN: Yeah, that's one aspect of it--the why Europe, as opposed to other countries, regions. The other part is what they're leaving behind. And that's violence and repression in places like Eritrea and Sudan and Syria and Afghanistan and Libya. That's the obvious group of people, but not the only ones. Interestingly--and this is something that's rarely noted--some of the migrants, although probably a small slice of them, are actually from Europe. These are people from struggling European economies like Greece looking to escape poverty and find a better life in a fellow EU nation.

I'm curious to hear your take on the domestic political fallout from refugee/migrant crisis. What do you think happens politically as a result of all this?

YS: Well, the photo of the dead Kurdish boy helped to galvanize public opinion, especially in Europe, in support of the refugees. But that image could only help for so far and for a very short time period. And Merkel did realize that - the backlash of seeing thousands of refugees at the train stations going to Germany was badly damaging to Merkel.

Merkel is probably one of the most ablest chancellors in Germany, in terms of her astute ability to gauge public opinion. She had to do something about the refugee problem, or at least give an illusion of control, otherwise her party would riot -- and that actually had already happened.

BN: I'm interested to see how this plays out domestically across Europe going forward. Already, the right is rising and expanding in various European countries, and this crisis could further tip the balance in that direction. For years the European right has complained about immigrants overburdening state resources, threatening Europe's traditional way of life, and contributing to Islamic extremism and terrorism. It's no surprise, really, to see spikes in populism, given that European economies have struggled with growth and debt and unemployment problems. Well, for the right, the refugee/migrant crisis probably exacerbates those three aforementioned points. And if we see right-leaning, perhaps even far-right, governments popping up into power as a result of this fiasco, what happens then? Predictions?

YS: Worst case scenario: collapse of the EU project.

But at the same time, while the share of people voting for the right has been increasing, most of the "right-leaning" governments have not done much to rock the boat. For example, look at Hungary: even though there are a lot of complaints that the government there has been curtailing freedoms, it is still interested in staying with EU. In Norway, the Progress Party, which is in the right part of the spectrum, is actually part of the ruling coalition and as far as I know, behaves quite responsibly.

I think, while far-right parties might benefit from the anti-immigrant backlash, should they actually become part of more European governments, they would actually behave rather responsibly. However, I might be wrong, because there were two cases that would serve as counterarguments: the Fascists and the Nazis.

BN: Let's move the discussion to the elephant in the room, at least it's an elephant in American policy debates. Does the US bear any responsibility in this mess? And if so, what should Team Obama do about it?

YS: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that this entire refugee crisis could have been contained to some degree had the entire region not been engulfed in war for the past several years. The "red line," declared by Obama, was a major policy blunder. It emboldened the Syrian regime, led to the rise of ISIS, and worse, destroyed any hope for quick a resolution. After all, people don't start leaving until they think that there's no future in the land!

But to dump everything on Obama's lap is also wrong, because at the end of the day, there's really few things that he could have done, aside from putting boots on the ground, which would also be unpopular. So his options have been limited.

These two might sound contradictory, because on one hand I essentially said that the US could have done much and on the other hand, there are political constraints. The political constraints happen due to inaction: that after a while of doing nothing, the problem snowballed, and at a certain point there was nothing Obama could have done, except if he was really willing to bear significant political costs. Had Obama grown some spine and acted earlier, at least during the "red line" fiasco, that could have limited the refugee problem.

BN: Here's my take. Of course, the main blame rests with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Assad and his henchmen. That said, for a while now, I've thought--though I don't remember if I made the case on this blog--that the US should have created and enforced safe zones in Syria.

No, they wouldn't be a panacea, because, given the number of people fleeing the area, the safe zones would eventually fill up and the refugees would have look elsewhere for sanctuary. Plus, sure, safe zones would be difficult to execute in practice, and they would've run the risk of America getting sucked into the civil war there.

Nevertheless, the risk was and probably still is worth it, as it would've helped alleviate some of the political and security and humanitarian problems we see now--in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and throughout Europe. Moreover, if the US was simply creating humanitarian corridors, not militarily intervening in the fight in Syria, I think Obama could have gotten several countries plus a number of international institutions and organizations to assist with the effort, boosting its chances of "succeeding."

YS: The question, of course, is whether there was the political will to do something if the safe zones became endangered. By definition, the safe zone is another red line, and Obama has demonstrated little appetite to act strongly. He is a very safe player, a cautious president, and he never take risks. If you look at his accomplishments, none of them entails taking any risk. Putting a safe zone means taking some risks of escalation from Assad.

I think aside from Obama administration's own reluctance to get involved, the other reason why the safe-corridor doesn't exist is Turkey. Face it, the corridor would benefit the Kurds the most, strengthening the de-facto Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq, which Turkey is loath to see.

BN: You're right. There's the chance that a safe zone plan could force the US to become ever more involved militarily. That's the risk. But by not taking that gamble, the US has been complicit in thousands of people getting hurt and killed, and in millions more fleeing their homes to nearby countries. I also think there were things the US could have done to reduce chances of escalation, had such humanitarian corridors been created. For instance, the US could have communicated to Assad that it wasn't seeking regime change, that it was only interested in the welfare of the people caught in the crossfire of violence. It also could have pledged to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, that safe zones were not a prelude to the break-up of those states. Would those pledges be credible? Maybe, if the US was willing to put in the effort to create a real, viable international coalition that included neutral parties like the UN.

YS: You do realize by proclaiming that the US doesn't want a regime change in Syria, the US would have handed Assad a huge diplomatic coup, which he then would broadcast all over the region, and that, in turn, would piss off the Saudis and the Turks, and whoever else out there?

BN: If giving people an opportunity to be safe is the goal, does that matter? Probably not--at least it wouldn't to me, if I was in Obama's position. I think we're getting at problem with leadership decision-making, especially as it works nowadays in the US.

At times leaders think that by making a decision--or avoiding one--they can have their cake and it too. It would be nice, I suppose, but real world politics rarely works that way. Most decisions, or the absence of making them, will make some people/groups/states happy and anger and alienate others. The trick is to win the balance. Obama thought he could win all sides--here in the US and abroad--by staying out of it and acting as a peripheral player, by being the anti-W. Bush. My main point: no matter which way Obama moved in Syria, there would've been challenges and difficulties. He choose the simplest path, to do almost nothing. That backfired massively. Inaction allowed the rise of ISIS and other extremists, the elimination of the so-called moderates, the probable permanent fracturing of Syria, and now, the strengthened position and centrality of Russia in this bloody mess.

YS: While the goal is noble, it would have riled up the Saudis even further (well, with the Iran deal in pipeline, they'd be pissed off anyway). But now that I think about it, in a de-facto way, Obama has given the assurance that Assad's position is no longer in danger -- just look at the"train the moderates militia" fiasco, where many simply refused to join because one of the requirements is that the militia can only be used to fight ISIS, not Assad. So maybe you are right, that Obama could have told Assad that he is no longer in danger as long as he goes along with an international effort to keep the refugees safe.