Belmont Club

The Syrian Offensive

A big Syrian/Iranian/Russian push has started in northern Syria whose general features are depicted on this map.  The big mystery is its goal. There are no deep penetrations, no flashy armored dashes. Outwardly the objectives appear to be limited: prolonging the survival of the Assad regime.  Chas Danner of New Yorker Magazine cites president Obama’s confident prediction that it’s Putin’s Last Gap.  “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”

The Russian offensive may look futile from Obama’s point of view since it does nothing to create what the administration believes should be everyone’s desired end state: “a peaceful, stable, multisectarian democracy”.  Fareed Zakaria notes the president thinks the Iranians and Russians lack the power have to create a stable successor state and therefore Putin’s efforts are doomed. “If Obama’s goal is a peaceful, stable, multisectarian democracy, then it requires a vast U.S. commitment on the scale of the Iraq war. ”  He can’t do it.  How can Putin?

However, as Tom Rogan at the National Review argues, Putin doesn’t need such a tremendous force because the Russian’s goal is different.  It is to ensure that nobody wins, to confirm the stalemate and perpetuate the chaos disrupting a region that was once America’s back yard, probably for decades to come.  Asking himself why Russia is counterattacking against Aleppo (the Stalingrad of Syria) and launching comparatively shallow attacks on the FSA, Rogan writes:

Why are Assad, Russia, and Iran pursuing this strategy?

Simple: It suits their strategic interests. In all likelihood, the only reason Russia persists in claiming that it is targeting the Islamic State because it hopes that doing so will buy time to distract the White House and dominate Syria’s western battlespace. Once the axis offensive is underway, it will secure the strategic initiative towards securing a contiguous area of Assad-regime control in western Syria, reaching from the north to the south. It doesn’t matter that these areas are where U.S./allied-supported rebels are mostly located. They would never admit it, but in the near to medium term, the axis would allow the Kurds to retain de facto control in Syria’s central and eastern north, and hardline Salafi jihadists like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to retain de facto control everywhere else.

But the U.S. cannot stand idle and allow this to happen. Aside from any moral concerns in Syria — an issue the Obama administration cares little about — if Syria divides between Assad, the Kurds, and the Islamic State, the political sectarianism that lies at the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict will explode. The Turks and Sunni Arab monarchies will increase their support for Salafi jihadists in order to counterbalance Assad and Iran, and transnational jihadists will continue their metastasis across western borders.

The asymmetry between Russia’s interests and America’s cannot be overemphasized. Obama’s job is analogous to being a system administrator. He needs a “peaceful, stable, multisectarian” Syria. As CNN reported, Obama really wants to replace Assad without dirtying his hands by toppling him, content to await his fall. 

The U.S. goal is to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the regime. Unlike in Iraq, the United States wants to try to ensure some elements of the Syrian military and key social services and structures in and around Damascus survive if Assad goes, so that Syria can begin to rebuild.

By contrast Putin in his role as a hacker only needs to create trouble. Putin’s goals can be achieved by keeping a rump Alawite state around Tartus and maintaining chaos everywhere else. The strategic benefits to Russia of continued turmoil in Syria are immense.

As Rogan points out, “this is why the United States must not allow Assad to remain in power for the long term, and it is why we must take greater risks in supporting the mobilization of a moderate Sunni resistance to Assad,” because trouble in the region is dangerous. But Putin is exploiting yet another asymmetry.  Obama needs a huge force to stabilize Syria where Putin needs only a comparatively tiny force to cause mischief.

The benefit to the Kremlin of continued turmoil in the Levant are obvious. First, war in Syria will continue to flood Europe with millions of migrants. As the Washington Post notes, a sense of doom is descending on its capitals.

Croatia’s interior minister says Hungary’s decision to close the border with Croatia for migrants hoping to reach Western Europe won’t stop the flow.

The minister, Ranko Ostojic, says that “nobody can stop this flow without shooting.”

As Matteo Garavoglia of Brookings notes the EU is actually incapable of stopping the migrants without undoing much of its law and tearing itself apart politically.  He writes:

Put simply, individual European Union member states are unable to effectively handle migration flows on their own. There are three overarching reasons for this. To begin with, managing migrant flows requires financial resources that most member states find difficult to mobilize. Secondly, migration is a topic that often stirs particularly conflicting perspectives across different domestic political environments. Finally, migrant movements present logistical challenges that individual countries can seldom effectively address.

In particular Italy’s navy can’t blockade the Med. Greece’s border patrol doesn’t exist. The European southern border is as porous as those of the Grand Duchy of Fenwick. There’s no political consensus to even create a unified refugee policy.  Some European countries may even be torching “migrant” centers on the sly. The Left and Right will lock horns to ensure that EU policy on refugees will be gridlocked. But worst of all, restoring the borders will be ruinous to a Europe that is economically stagnant.

To begin with and from a merely logistical point of view, establishing border controls over 8,246 miles is no easy feat. Should border controls eventually be re-established across the Schengen area, inevitable delays and costs would immediately arise for intra-European trade in goods and services. In parallel developments, the freedom of movement enjoyed by European citizens within the area would also effectively come to an end.

The second strategic benefit to the Kremlin of an ME stalemate is existential pressure on Saudi Arabia. Bruce Reidel, former CIA point man for Saudi Arabia wrote in Brookings that the Kingdom is now on a political knife-edge. “What the future has in store for the kingdom is of great concern to Washington. Within months of becoming king, Salman plunged into what appears to be a quagmire war in Yemen, snubbed President Obama, and endorsed hardline clerics who are opposed to reforms that Obama argues are necessary if Saudi Arabia is to remain a stable partner for the United States.”

The Saudis are now at a crossroads, divided between those who realize ISIS and al-Qaeda are now an existential threat to the monarchy itself, and those who still see cooperation with the jihadis as the only hope for survival. What makes things even more interesting is the division at the top.  The current Saudi King was once the prince in charge of funding the Jihad, and his son the crown prince Nayef, was buddies with Osama bin Laden.

The alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabis dates back nearly three centuries, to the very beginning of the rule of the Saudis. In 1744 an itinerant preacher and cleric named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab joined forces with the then head of the Saudi family, Muhammad al-Saud, to create the first Saudi kingdom. While the Saudis provided political and military leadership, Wahhab and his descendants provided religious leadership and legitimacy. Wahhab and his disciples preached a puritanical and sectarian version of Islam that called for a return to literal fundamentalism and an intolerance of any deviation from their hard line views on what constituted the original faith of the Prophet Muhammad. …

In November 1979, the kingdom experienced a major challenge to the Saudi royal family’s legitimacy and governance. A band of Islamic extremists who believed the apocalyptic End Times had arrived took control of the Great Mosque in Mecca. The largest in the world, it houses the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, which is believed to be the first house of worship….

The episode frightened the royal family into moving even closer to the Wahhabi establishment, slowing reform, and stepping up support for militant Islamic causes in other countries. …

The current King Salman, who was then governor of Riyadh, was put in charge of raising private funds for the mujahedeen from the royal family and other wealthy Saudis. He funneled tens of millions of dollars to the mujahedeen, and later did the same for Muslim causes in Bosnia and Palestine. Later, when Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaida, Nayef was conspicuously slow to recognize that al-Qaida posed a threat to the kingdom.

Unfortunately it is now all too clear that al-Qaeda and ISIS represent a mortal threat to the House of Saud, a fact which Saudi counterterror official reluctantly accept as an empirical fact. But the Kingdom’s brutal and herculean efforts to stamp out the Islamists via a long and expensive internal dirty war have ultimately failed because they relocated to Syria. Reidl continues:

It took three years to beat back al-Qaida inside Saudi Arabia, but it has not gone away. Instead, the organization has metastasized throughout much of the Middle East and into Africa. In 2009 al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the successor to the group MBN defeated at home, surfaced in Yemen.

The Kingdom’s Wahhabi Islam is the most fundamentalist Sunni branch of the religion. But it has now been outflanked by religious radicals who are even more intolerant, xenophobic, and far more violent. The blood-curdling appearance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014 represents a new challenge to the world and, in particular, to MBN and his counterterrorism program. Heir to al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, which went deep underground during the American surge in Iraq in 2007 only to resurface after the withdrawal of foreign forces, the Islamic State has staged a multipronged comeback campaign. In 2012-13, it began targeting Iraqi prisons where al-Qaida terrorists were incarcerated and creating an infrastructure in neighboring Syria to assist in its revival. In the summer of 2014 it waged a blitzkrieg-like offensive across Sunni populated Iraq, took command of the country’s second city, Mosul, and declared the creation of a caliphate to rule all of Islam.

In November 2014 the Islamic State announced that its goal is to take control of the mosques in Mecca and Medina and oust the “serpent’s head”—the Saudi royal family. Its English language magazine published a cover story with a photo of the Kaaba with the Islamic State’s black flag flying over it. Islamic State militants have attacked Saudi security posts along the Iraqi border and sent suicide bombers to attack Shiite mosques inside the kingdom in order to fuel sectarian enmity. In response to the threat the Interior Ministry has arrested hundreds of Islamic State operatives and is constructing a 600 mile long security fence or wall along the Saudi-Iraqi border, similar to a 1,000 mile long wall it built along the Saudi-Yemeni border to defeat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Clearly if Putin gets his way, the coming winter will create a migrant crisis that will shake Europe to its core. Saudi Arabia, bogged down in Yemen, will face a nation of Jihadis based in Syria. From this point of view Obama’s breezy dismissal of Putin’s intervention is hardly justified.  It is almost comically obtuse.

If Putin’s offense in Syria succeeds enough to breath the life into Assad’s regime, Syria’s agony will be extended for years. Far from being something Obama can watch from afar, it has the potential to break open NATO’s southern flank like a can-opener and deliver up the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, into the hands of  America’s mortal enemies.

Obama should be casting around for asymmetric alternatives of his own to counter Putin.  Instead he appears to have adopted a policy of denial, refusing to believe that anyone could have outsmarted him.

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