As TAI already noted this morning, General Lloyd J. Austin III, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, indicated that the Pentagon was still completely flummoxed as to what Russia’s broader objectives were in sending arms and troops to Syria. That’s troubling but not surprising in light of other troubles that are also not surprising. Thus, Austin indicated that the total number of Syrian “moderates” trained and presently fielded by the U.S. military thus far equaled “four or five.” Not four or five platoons or companies (and certainly not divisions), but just four or five guys—for an effort budgeted originally at $500 million. What good are four or five guys, except maybe to set up a breakfast eatery to serve the tens of thousands of immoderate fighters all around them who, after all, gotta find nourishment from time to time?
As to the (let’s be generous) five guys, I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unlike the Iraqis we trained at great cost, there is no indication that these guys have stripped down to their underwear and run away from the combat zone. At least not yet. At roughly $100 million budgeted per guy, we should be confident about that much, right? Of course, to be fair, there were others trained—maybe fifty or sixty guys—but, as we know, their attempt to infiltrate into Syria from their training bases, mostly in Turkey and perhaps a few coming from Jordan, did not go so well. In late July they got ambushed by Jabhat al-Nusra forces, probably on a tip from Turkish intelligence. Most were killed, some were captured, some joined their attackers, and some ran away (but no underwear could be seen). It’s too much to say that this was for the best, but at least these guys then did not have to face the question of whom they were supposed to fight. Any Syrian Sunni in his right mind (and the Turks, too) knows who the real enemy is: The Assad regime and its Alawi henchmen, and the Iranian-backed mercenaries of Hizballah who are helping them. But U.S. trainers, according to the dictates of Administration policy, were duty-bound to point them toward ISIS.
Why has this U.S. training effort for Syria been so small and pathetic? Because, say some, the Obama Administration so ordained, lest a serious effort interrupt the systematic appeasement of the Iranian regime en route to the July 14 nuclear deal. Say others, the effort was small because of persistent slippery slope worries that have dogged U.S. calculations about Syria from the start of the civil war. The matter was over-determined, then, the result being that the Administration only pretended to do something in Syria over the past few years, just to deflect a bit of pressure. As hidebound and lethargically bureaucratized as the Pentagon can be, even it is capable of spending $500 million more usefully than this.
Look at Iraq. That training effort has also been largely a failure—no one is talking anymore about the Iraqis taking Mosul back, since they cannot even secure much closer-by Ramadi and Fallujah. But at least the Iraqis have more than five guys. Nevertheless, just as General Austin and his colleagues seem not to know what the Russians are up to in Syria, so too do they still not understand what has gone so wrong in Iraq. Even Secretary of Defense Carter has from time to time spoken of this issue as though he doesn’t understand its essence, which is perhaps most troubling of all, since he is a very smart and capable guy.
So let me, if I may, just spell it out. Ash, there is no Iraq “of the heart.” Shi‘a farm boys or urbanites from Baghdad, Basra, and elsewhere in the south, who make up the vast bulk of the Iraqi Army today, do not identify with the drier climes of the Sunni homelands to the north and east. They do not know the lay of the land there; most have never gone there out of uniform; they feel no affinity (asabiyya) with anyone who lives there; and they do not think of it as part of their historical patrimony. The problem is not just that they do not know how to handle their weapons, or how to do logistics, or how to follow orders from officers they don’t much trust; it’s that they lack any personal reason to risk their lives for something they just don’t know how to care about. They may fight for tribe or clan or sect or home soil, but not for an abstraction called “Iraq.” After all these years screwing around in that country, it is dismaying that we continue to unwittingly project our own frames of reference onto Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, and so on. But from all appearances, that’s what we do best.
So now we know why there is no moderate U.S.-trained Syrian military force, and why, even if by some miracle the Shi‘a-directed and led Iraqi Army could retake Mosul, a Sunni city, it could not directly or readily rule it anyway. (This is the same reason, more or less, that the Houthis, who are Zeidis, could not hold southern Yemen, which is Sunni.) We thus understand further that, for all practical purposes (and not even bringing the Kurds into the picture), there is no more unitary polity known as Iraq.
Nor is there anymore any unitary polity known as Syria, proved by the fact that its regime has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran—an Iran apparently ready to bargain away large swaths of Syrian real estate (rumors spread amid tentative post-nuclear deal diplomatic jockeying that the Iranians, on Assad’s “behalf,” would seek only Damascus, the Qusayr pivot toward the west, and Latakia) and to overturn Syria’s traditional caution against pissing off the Israelis near the Golan Heights. And here we come, finally, to what the Russians are up to.
As military campaigns are wont to do, the Syrian civil war has known many battlefield fluctuations over the past few years. In the beginning, the regime was reeling so badly and so quickly that President Obama felt safe in demanding that “Assad must go,” since that seemed likely to happen anyway regardless of what we did or, more accurately, didn’t do. This was like urging a floating stick in the Niagara River to go over the Falls. But alas, then the Syrian opposition failed to get its act together for the big push to the palace, and the Iranians and the Russians came to Assad’s aid just in the nick of time. The situation stabilized and then gradually turned around, especially thanks to Hizballah shock troops introduced in a few crucial battles, notably the battle for Qusayr in April 2013.
Then, for a while, the regime kicked ass, but only for a while. The coalescence of Jabhat al-Nusra, the sudden rise of ISIS, and the gradual manpower shortages afflicting the Alawis eventually shifted the momentum back against the regime. In recent months, things have gotten worse and worse. Without going into the bloody details, regime forces have been forced to retreat on several fronts, not least around Aleppo and all along the border with Turkey. Assad himself has admitted losses; the complaints of the Alawi clans have grown more vocal over the human costs of the war and the penetration of murderous hostile forces into parts of Latakia Province itself. Some 7,000 members of Iraqi Shi‘a militias hurried to Damascus to protect the capital. They were followed by battalions of Iranian Quds forces. And that having failed as well to provide the necessary protection, enter the Russians, stage right.
Now, anyone who thinks that Russian military involvement in the Syrian civil war is a new thing simply has not been paying attention. There have been weapons deliveries aplenty almost from the start, and there have been advisers playing critical roles. As I pointed out already years ago, this became evident in the regime’s brutal tactics aimed at civilians, because those tactics mirrored exactly Russian tactics used in Chechnya.
But now we have a far more overt Russian role: advanced tanks and other equipment, a forward air base, and probably Russian pilots flying combat missions. Why? General Austin and his colleagues may be “flummoxed,” but that’s their problem. I’m not.
As in Ukraine, Russian aims are best defined by a set of concentric circles, the innermost circle being the most defensive and least ambitious, and the outermost the most offensive and expansive. In Ukraine, the innermost circle concerns the creation of yet another rubble heap on the Russian periphery—conventionally called a “frozen conflict.” These rubble heaps are designed to make Ukraine (and Georgia, and Moldova) very unappealing to Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO. By making sure that countries on Russia’s periphery do not prosper from free economies joined to pluralist politics, the Russian regime believes it protects itself from contagion that could spread to Moscow.
The next circle outward would not just paralyze an unfriendly Ukrainian government but suborn or replace it. This would not require an actual march to Kiev, of which the Russian military is probably not capable. If that were to work, and Russians arms could walk forward instead of fight forward, the outer circle then becomes not just stopping NATO and the EU from expanding eastward, but destroying them politically. How? Send “little green men” (meaning: use hybrid warfare) against a NATO member, probably a Baltic State, and watch as a feckless U.S. and European response essentially destroys the credibility of NATO and, with it, the entire U.S.-led global alliance system.
Of course, this is pretty dangerous, and despite a lot of nuclear rocket rattling lately from Moscow, few Western analysts think Putin would be so crazy as to risk a nuclear war to complete the third circle. The Western reaction to Russia’s Ukraine operation has been pretty flaccid, but not entirely so. The shift in the German attitude is most relevant here, and that must have been a key determinant of Putin’s inclination for risk-taking.
Ah, but not even a successful consummation of the outer circle in Ukraine—if Putin were willing to risk it—could destroy the European Union. This is where Syria comes in.
In Syria, the innermost Russian circle of aims concerns propping up Assad, the only ally Russia has (if one doesn’t count Viktor Orban’s Hungary) and the only place (Tartus) that Russia has a military base beyond its own frontiers. Besides, the Russians just don’t like regime change, any regime change, because to them it reflects badly on their own possible future. As Ivan Krastev has pointed out, Russia today behaves a lot like Russia in 1848, when Nicholas I, hearing of the uprisings against the conservative order further to the west, was reportedly ready to send the Russian army to break down the barricades in Paris. (He satisfied himself by sending it only as far as Poland, of course.) The Putin regime is reactionary to the core, and Syria is a test case following that of Libya, as the Russians probably see it.
The intermediate circle has to do with coercive diplomacy—the only kind that really matters when discussions are not conducted among friends. If there has to be a political settlement to the Syrian civil war, the best way to get the largest share of influence at the table is to torque the battlefield in one’s favor. And one may reasonably infer that Moscow prefers a political settlement to either Assad’s defeat or a continuing stalemate, because a stalemate aids ISIS, and that, in turn, threatens to spill over into Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya (again), and other parts of the Russian Federation that are not all that firmly in hand as it is.
And the third, outer circle, the most ambitious one? Consider that, so far, the brutality of the Assad regime, aided by Iran and its proxies, has made more than four million of Syria’s 24 million people refugees, and killed more than a quarter of a million. Many more are internally displaced persons; exactly how many, no one really knows. This has been done over the course of several years with, frankly, a not-too-impressive Syrian order of battle. The Russians could, if they wanted to, double the number of dead Syrians and perhaps triple the number of refugees in just a couple of months. The Russians are very well practiced at migratory genocide, after all; they earned their stripes doing just that in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s.
But why do this? To destroy or seriously degrade the viability of the European Union, which is perhaps incapable of holding itself together in the face of such pressures. It is already decaying rapidly over the prospect of dealing with fewer than a million asylum seekers. What if it has to deal with two million, or three, or more in just the next six to nine months?
Just as attacking a Baltic State hoping to politically destroy NATO would be a high-risk undertaking, turning Syria into a free-fire zone in the hope of politically destroying the European Union would be as well. Which doesn’t mean the Russians won’t do it if they think the benefits exceed the risks. There are risks of deploying to Syria in the first place; ISIS swarm tactics could kill a lot of Russian soldiers, and Russian participation in combat could aid ISIS recruitment more than harm the proto-state the Caliph al-Baghdadi and his friends are trying to consolidate.
As in Ukraine, however, the Russian calculation of benefits as against risks in Syria turns on what others do, notably on what restraints and countermeasures they can muster. If EU member states keep henpecking each other over the asylum crisis, it is likely—all else equal—that the Russians will be encouraged to make Europe’s dilemma worse. As for a possible U.S. reaction, the Russians probably discount anything serious from the current Administration—an Administration that seems somehow unable to frame what is going on in Europe right now as the long-term security issue that it of course is.
And why shouldn’t they discount the U.S.? President Obama seems ready to meet Putin in New York over Syria, breaking his colonial New England-style shunning behavior. And Sergei Lavrov’s foot is so far up John Kerry’s gastrointestinal track by now that the Secretary must be tasting bootblack. The Russians are playing a weak hand, and they may come soon to regret the risks they are taking, but it seems unlikely that anything U.S. policy will mete out during the next 14 months could translate those risks into actual liabilities.
And so it is, strange as it may sound, that the verve of a “conservative” German Chancellor whose refugee policy, as a colleague has put it, appears to originate from Human Rights Watch, whose energy policy resembles that of the early Greens, whose defense policy seems to derive from the peace movement, and whose social policy (minimum wage) is set by the trade unions, is pretty much all that stands between the Russians and their goals. Her and those five guys in Syria.