Belmont Club

The Principle of Calculated Risk

The former administration left Syria in sinking condition.  It is unclear whether the ship can still be saved, but the cries of the victims are so heart-rending and their number so huge that the pressure to row back the lifeboats to save them even at the risk of swamping is difficult to resist.  In December of 2016 Jamie Dettmer at VOA wrote:  “Assad’s survival now looks almost certain, thanks to Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian regime on the battlefield.”

Russia’s influence inside Syria appeared so great at one point Israeli prime minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to seek Putin’s reassurances that Hezbollah would not be allowed to take up positions along the Yarmouk river-Shebaa line across the Golan.  Perhaps Assad’s greatest stroke of luck was the abortive Turkish ‘coup’ which took Ankara out of the fight. Yezid Sayigh writes for Carnegie that “the abortive coup of July 2016 … has prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to defuse foreign policy crises in order to focus on challenges within his country’s borders. This means abandoning the effort to remove Assad from power.”

Together these developments have forced Syrian rebel groups to perversely gather under the Jihadi flag to survive against a resurgent Assad. “After years of byzantine internal disputes, Syria’s armed rebels are suddenly gathering into large, centrally directed organizations of the kind they always needed to threaten President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. But rather than a winning move, these last-minute unifications look more like the prelude to ultimate defeat. The balance of power in opposition-held northern Syria has now swung sharply in favor of hardline Islamists and an internationally targeted jihadi group, whose growing influence is more likely to drive Western states over to Assad’s side than to topple him.”

The reality is that knocking out ISIS only begins to address the problem of battlefield full of villains. The Boss fight still lies ahead. As Aaron Lund wrote “an aggressive intervention of Gulf money, Turkish military aid, and U.S. drone strikes might be able to shift things around, but that is by no means certain and even less likely to be tested.”  But now there’s a chance.  With Russia and Iran weakenened by falling oil prices and Putin beset by internal opponents they no longer seem so invincible.

If anything the renewed calls for action against Assad — and by implication Russia — are a backhanded compliment to Donald Trump.  But compliments don’t win conflicts. As if to remind the civilian world of what a campaign in Syria involves Agence France Presse reported that “The United States has expanded a runway at a northern Syria air base to accommodate the large C-17 military plane needed to help with logistics for the push to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa … The huge military air freighter will play an essential role in supplying the Syrian Democratic Forces as they mount an offensive to retake the city, ISIS’s last big stronghold in Syria.”  Amateurs it is said, talk strategy but professionals talk logistics.  The logistics of a fight against Assad will be substantial.

In the case of Syria both strategy and logistics must be invoked.  Although Donald Trump said that the recently reported chemical attack  on civilians (its actual occurrence is disputed)  “crosses many, many lines” the decision to take down Assad must be based on grand strategic and not simply humanitarian grounds.  While Assad’s atrocities may, like the Lusitania sinking, be the emotional fuel on which policy depends it cannot be the sole foundation.  The potential costs and risks of conflict are so huge they need equally monumental goals to justify taking the chance.

The larger arguments for toppling Assad are that 1) Syria cannot be left a failed state whose destruction threatens not only its neighbors but Europe; 2) it cannot be abandoned to the sphere of influence of Iran and Russia without posing a mortal danger to Israel; and 3) Assad has no useful role in either re-stabilizing Syria or ousting Russia and/or Iran from it.  The argument would be that for these grave geopolitical reasons — and humanitarian ones too — the US should actively topple Assad and create a successor regime.

It’s a hard choice, like that facing a patient who must agree to an amputation to save his life, accepting a lesser evil to avoid a greater. Unless it is pitched thus high the risks associated with a major conflict in the Middle East will be too high to undertake.  Who doubts the progressives now calling for Assad’s end will soon be calling for withdrawal and war crimes investigations at the first setback?  It is in the nature of war to have setbacks.  “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”  No progressive support for conflict survives the first accidental mass casualty airstrike.

Perhaps the worst legacy of the Obama years is how it increased 2 declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to 7 by mere executive action.  The last 8 years have been a decade of feel good pretend even while international tumors grew.  Now as the anodyne wears off and the press once again feels the pains of Middle Eastern cancer it is important to remember that wars require a national purpose if there is to be any chance of achieving that nearly forgotten thing: victory.

If Assad is overthrown it must be for urgent strategic reasons; undertaken the survival of the West and incidentally but not inconsequentially, for the salvation of the Syrians.  It must be done with Congressional approval only after a national consensus to undertake it has been forged.  In other words it must be worth the risk.  Otherwise it will be one of those projects where you just know that someone is going to be left holding the bag .

The football gag is a joke that has been featured many times in Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip, Peanuts. There have been several variations on the joke over the years. The football gag has also been included in some Peanuts animated television specials.

The characters involved in the gag are Charlie Brown and Lucy van Pelt. Lucy tells Charlie Brown that she will hold a football while he kicks it. Charlie Brown usually refuses to kick it at first, not trusting Lucy. Lucy then says something to persuade Charlie Brown to trust her. Charlie Brown runs up to kick the ball, but at the very last second before he can kick it, Lucy removes the ball and Charlie Brown flies into the air, before falling down and hurting himself. The gag usually ends with Lucy pointing out to Charlie Brown that he should not have trusted her.

In the face of the genuine clamor to “do something” the question is: do you kick the football?

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War With Russia: An urgent warning from senior military command, by General Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Russia’s invasion and seizure of Georgia in 2008 was our ‘Rhineland moment’. We ignored the warning signs – as we did back in the 1930s – and we made it ‘business as usual’. Crimea in 2014 was the President’s ‘Sudetenland moment’ and again he got away with it. Since 2014 Russia has invaded Ukraine. The Baltics could be next. Our political leaders assume that nuclear deterrence will save us. General Sir Richard Shirreff shows us why this will not wash.

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Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, by Nicholas Reynolds. This newly released book is the stunning untold story of an American literary icon’s dangerous secret life — including his role as a Soviet agent code-named “Argo” — that fueled his art and his undoing.

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For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
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