Russia and Syria

I’ve been coming across a lot of interesting takes on Russia pulling out of Syria. There’s the idea that Russia played it smooth and that Putin is savvy as hell. I won’t disagree with that, but to compare how Russia dealt with the Syrian situation to how the US did is absurd. Russia backed Assad instead of some random ill-prepared rebel alliance. We know why the US backed the fractured rebels, but why did Putin back Assad?

First, let’s check out the motivations. Russia got involved with Syria for a few reasons: 1) to prop up a client state and thereby preserve the ability to project influence. 2) wage war on Russian extremist militants. 3) show off new Russian military hardware that’s totally on sale now! 4) to present themselves as a genuine superpower. 5) to reinsert themselves into the world at large after their castigation by the West for the debacle in Ukraine.

Now, basically every one of those was a slam dunk. All the goals were achieved. But five months? Five months doesn’t win a war. Five months is NOTHING. So, you know, why only five months? From Slate:

But over time, the mission’s costs have soared and the benefits have waned. As for costs, the Russian air force ran out of “smart bombs”—munitions that can hit targets with pinpoint accuracy—after the first few days of airstrikes (this is why its jets hit so many civilians and hospitals), and it is now fast running out of dumb bombs as well. In other words, in addition to his many economic and political problems at home, Putin cannot keep this up for much longer.

It’s not just the money drying up. It was genuinely a good time to go. Here’s a few choice quotes from a New York Times article:

“Syria doesn’t have to be a slippery slope,” Mr. Tabler said. “Putin actually demonstrated you could intervene, bomb, put troops on the ground and still get out. They effectively changed the situation on the ground, and kept the regime from collapsing.”

HOWEVER. Right before this, it says:

“He clearly set out to buy time for Assad, and that worked,” said Derek Chollet, a former State Department and White House official in the Obama administration, referring to Mr. Putin. “But he made the situation in Syria demonstratively worse. When you go in without scruples, it’s fairly easy to succeed.”

Which is interesting, but not entirely accurate. The Russians got a peace deal. Sure, they committed some hardcore human rights violations that the US couldn’t have gotten away with, but to say the situation is worse, that is not true. That shit was already really bad and now there’s a tenuous peace.

So here’s we’ve got Russia, with an economy in shambles but with a serious desire to make Russia great again. And they go do their thing in Syria. It sorta works? Yet, everything isn’t exactly peachy in Assad-land.

Russia is leaving. That’s no secret. But, Iran is quietly slinking away too. From the National Interest:

The Israeli report, according to which Iran is withdrawing all of a 2,500-strong fighting force while leaving 700 military advisers in Syria, is consistent with a brief comment by Secretary of State Kerry in a Congressional hearing less than two weeks ago that Iran had withdrawn a “significant number” of its Revolutionary Guard Corps troops from Syria.

And there’s this fascinating tidbit from that Slate article I mentioned before:

Putin’s exasperation with Assad has been clear for a while. After Russian airstrikes allowed Syrian ground forces to recapture Aleppo, a chest-thumping Assad declared that he would now proceed to reconquer all of Syria—until Moscow diplomats slapped him down. Just days ago, when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem proclaimed that there would be no talk of elections or a political transition in Geneva, Moscow once again told him to pipe down.

Assad may not want to be a client state, but the fact is, there’s no choice in the matter. It’s either get a solution now or slowly fall into the black hole of instability and perpetual revolution (looking at Libya here).

Assad doesn’t really have much of a choice anymore. Putin has put him in a situation that doesn’t have any good outcome except bowing to Russian interests. First, in terms of military, Assad doesn’t really have much to offer. From Foxtrot Alpha:

Although Russia has left Assad in a far better tactical position than before their intervention, strategically he remains very vulnerable with few military cards left to play should the fighting reignite.

This puts Russia in a nearly perfect position to attempt to broker a solution to the conflict on an international stage. Once again, such a solution would be partial to Moscow’s interests—but it could very well include using Assad as a sacrificial pawn.

With this in mind, you can see why Russia agreed to stop its cooperative hammer and anvil operation against Syrian rebels in the battleground metropolis of Aleppo. If they had finished the job, and Assad’s forces took the entire city and continued their hunt for rebel forces with the help of Russian air power, the rebel threat would be almost totally diminished. Without that threat to the Assad regime in place, there would be far less leverage when it comes to pushing Assad to the negotiating table.

All in all, there’s something very interesting going on and it is nothing like what the US wants. The US uses pretend goodwill to try and help countries, which of course, that means the US fakes compassion to get whatever it wants. But the US has to pretend.

The Russian people lay down no such demands of the Russian government. Putin has run on the exact same platform as Trump. Make Russia great again. Well, this is it. Will it fail? Who knows. It certainly might. As the Slate article pointed out, Russia frequently surprised the world, be it Syria, Ukraine, or way back in Afghanistan. But just because it’s a surprise doesn’t mean it actually ends well for Russia.

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Gambling with Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu adopted a refined view on an Iran nuclear arms deal. His previous claim of requiring Iran to have exactly “ZERO” of anything concerning nuclear materials was dropped. Still, he says Obama’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Previously, anonymous Israeli officials leaked some of the plans to put pressure on Obama. (NYT)

With Netanyahu’s speech to the conservative-majority US legislature, relations between the leaders of the US and Israeli are in an icy freeze. Not only is that stupid for pure military reasons, it’s also short sighted and potential damaging to Israel’s vibrant democracy as US conservatives and Israeli conservatives start to team up.

On top of that, a former Mossad chief said Netanyahu’s time table of Iranian nuclear progression is way off base and that Iran’s ballistic missiles could not hit “every part of the United States.” For one thing, that would be very, very impressive if it could. Netanyahu either respects Iran a whole lot or he’s playing a tightrope political game to win the upcoming elections. It’s seems insane to gamble with the future of a country for a single election. (AP)

The State of Failed States: Recent Events in Syria and Iraq

In Syria, Aleppo is a human rights catastrophe. There is little hope the fighting will end soon. Previously, the fighting had mostly been between “moderate rebels” and government forces. However, extremist groups recently moved in. Al-Nusra unleashed a potent attack on Assad’s intelligence services in Aleppo. Most recently, the Syrian regime conducted an operation that ended with the death of the leader of al-Nusra. The battle is still raging, extremists battling moderates battling Assad’s regime.

Meanwhile, fighting in the south is going poor for Assad. Hezbollah, the elite proxy force based in Lebanon and receiving training and funding from Iran, is making rapid advances in Syria. They’ve recently pushed into the area near the Golan Heights, a disputed zone on the southern border of Syria, shared with Israel. This marks the first time any Iranian forces have gotten near the geographical borders of Israel.

Over in Iraq, the fight for Tikrit has been slow-going and rough. The plan, devised by Iranian generals and enacted mostly by Shiite militias, calls for the encirclement of the city. However, as predicted, roadside bombs are slowing the advance. The primarily Sunni citizens are fleeing, fearing both the fighting and potential atrocities by the sectarian forces under Iranian command.

The US hasn’t participated in the Tikrit campaign, leaving the Iranian and Iraqis to control the skies. Cooperation between Iran and the US doesn’t exist in Iraq. It’s mostly strategic dancing around each other, the Iranians on the ground and the US in the air. What do we gain from avoiding direct cooperation? Is this a matter of political optics?

Because it’s pretty clear we’d have more progress if the US worked with the Iranians. Even if the US don’t help them, the influence of Iran is already deeply ingrained in the Iraqi regime and even more so in its army. If the US does help, they’re essentially giving Iran the Sunni areas of Iraq on a platter. On the other hand, if the US doesn’t get involved, then how many will die because of partisan foreign policy?

The Atrocious UN Security Council

Amnesty International called for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to give up their veto power in cases of atrocity. Those members are the UK, the US, France, China, and Russia. Each of these countries can veto any action by the UN Security Council. Now, you might also recognize those countries as the top five weapons exporters in the world. That’s right. But that’s just one small part of it.

They’ll never give up their advantages in the highest arena of power politics. As the Amnesty International secretary general stated, those five countries used the veto power to “promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians.”

While it’s a noble effort, China doesn’t have an elected government, so no amount of citizen pressure could change that. Russia and the others do technically have representative governments, but even still, there’s no way they’d let go of that veto power. Furthermore, even if they did, the simple fact that China couldn’t be pressured means China would never let it go, and the whole idea would never work unless they all agreed.

Dead on arrival.

Commando Coups

There was an attempted coup in Venezuela. It was a whopping 10 soldiers and a retired general. There were others implicated, of course, politicians and business people. But their plan was to attack the presidential palace, among other targets.

In 2004, there was an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea, which was intercepted by police and 79 soldiers were arrested (in two different countries). Most recently in Gambia, a small group attacked the presidential palace. Reports are the fighting was much more difficult than they expected.

Even had any of these coups successfully captured a presidential compound and managed to kidnap the president, they don’t control the government. What makes them think that would work? The rest of the government isn’t going to install a puppet regime for 10 people, presidential hostage or not.

A Mediterranean Nightmare

There was another tragedy on the Mediterranean. This time, over 300 migrants have died. These deaths are directly caused by gross and utterly vicious Libyan (and other) people-smugglers who leave migrants with no food or water, drifting. As usual, it was the Italian navy who found and rescued a few survivors.

Is the Italian Navy obligated to do this? They used to patrol all of the Mediterranean Sea, looking for migrants, but the program stopped last year. Between budget issues and questioning whether it was a good idea to encourage migration, the Italians pulled back closer to their coast. So here we are, tragedy upon tragedy, yet what moral obligation does Italy have to save them?

While it’s true that a concentrated effort to save them is the human thing to do, this comes at a time when Italy has plenty of its own problems. I would think that saving migrants from greedy human traffickers would be the right thing to do, but I can’t say that Italy holds any obligation to do it. Perhaps what is really needed in a UN or EU mandated task force dedicated to saving migrants and relocating them. That, however, smacks into the nasty issue of where. Where do they go? How much financial, social, and spacial resources can truly be spared? At what point does moral authority infringe on local sovereignty?