Things just got worse. That’s what the pessimist always says. Things just got better – lots of stuff that looks bad is really an opportunity for change, for good things to happen later, or even soon. Optimists say that. Cynics say nothing really changed – it’s the same old crap – and weary realists say things suddenly got more complicated. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing – time will tell – but those complications will fry your brain. There’s too much to think about. It’s hard to keep it all straight. That’s why realists are weary all the time, and things suddenly got more complicated on Wednesday, September 30, 2015. The Syrian civil war, in its fifth year, involving multiple countries with overlapping and conflicting agendas, got more complicated – as if a major global refugee crisis and the rise of the Islamic State weren’t enough. Now Russia has jumped in. No one expected that. No one is sure if this is a good thing. It’s only the ultimate complication.
Reuters covers the basics:
Russia launched air strikes in Syria on Wednesday in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, plunging the four-year-old civil war into a volatile new phase as President Vladimir Putin moved forcefully to stake out influence in the unstable region. Moscow’s assertion that it had hit Islamic State militants was immediately disputed by the United States and rebels on the ground. The attacks also raised the dangerous specter of Washington and Moscow running air strikes concurrently and in the same region, but without coordination.
We’re sort of both fighting ISIS and Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they’re going to meet about this. We don’t want our fighter-bombers running into theirs, and they probably don’t want that either, but this started off badly:
The U.S. State Department said a Russian diplomat in Baghdad notified the United States of the intended air strikes an hour in advance and warned that American aircraft that have been pressing a daily bombing campaign against Islamic State positions should avoid Syrian airspace. Kerry said the Russian warning was ignored and U.S. air strikes continued on Wednesday.
And we think he may be lying:
Putin said he was striking against Islamic State and helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long Russia’s closest ally in the region, in this aim. But Washington is concerned that Moscow is more interested in propping up Assad, who the United States has long held should leave office, than in beating Islamic State. Assad’s opponents in the brutal civil war include rebel groups that oppose both him and Islamic State and that are supported by the United States and other Western countries.
Putin, then, will go after ISIS – good for him – and go after the guys we’re supporting in their effort to get rid of Assad – which is a terrible thing. Putin is helping, and is our enemy, bombing our guys, both at the same time. We make a distinction he doesn’t, and there’s this:
Moscow’s intervention means the conflict in Syria has been transformed in a few months from a proxy war, in which outside powers were arming and training mostly Syrians to fight each other, to an international conflict in which the world’s main military powers except China are directly involved in fighting.
Russia joined the United States and its Arab allies, Turkey, France, Iran and Israel in direct intervention, with Britain expected to join soon, if it gets parliamentary approval.
The world’s main military powers except China are directly involved in fighting? That sounds like World War III starting, but no one is fighting each other, yet – but we want Assad gone. Russia doesn’t. And both sides have the airpower there to fight it out with each other, without the Syrians doing a thing.
It may not come to that, but the trash-talk has started:
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Russia was moving to “ramp up” support for Assad, adding: “They’ve made a significant military investment now in further propping him up.”
Earnest called it “an indication of how concerned they are about losing influence in the one client state that they have in the Middle East.” …
In Moscow, Putin said the air strikes would be limited in scope and that he hoped Assad was ready for political reform and a compromise for the sake of his country and people.
“I know that President Assad understands that and is ready for such a process. We hope that he will be active and flexible and ready to compromise in the name of his country and his people,” Putin told reporters.
At least 200,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes since the civil war began in 2011 when Assad’s forces moved to crush peaceful protests against his family’s four-decade rule. …
Kerry said Washington would have “grave concerns” if Russia hit Syrian targets where Islamic State fighters were not present. Speaking at the U.N. Security Council, Kerry also reiterated Washington’s view that the militant group “cannot be defeated as long as Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria.”
Putin doesn’t agree:
Russian jets went into action after the upper house of the Russian parliament gave Putin unanimous backing for strikes following a request for military assistance from Assad. The last time the Russian parliament granted Putin the right to use military force abroad, a technical requirement under Russian law, Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine last year.
Putin said Russia’s military involvement in the Middle East would involve only its air force and would be temporary. One of the reasons for getting involved was the need to stop Russian citizens who had joined the ranks of Islamic State from later returning home to cause trouble, he said.
None of this, however, seems temporary. We said we’d be out of Iraq in six months. We weren’t. The Soviets were in Afghanistan over nine years, from December 1979 to February 1989 – insurgent groups that received aid from the United States and other Muslim countries fought against the Soviet Army and allied Afghan forces. The Soviets just left. The Soviet Union collapsed the next year. The guys we supported in Afghanistan eventually turned into the Taliban and hosted al-Qaeda. No good came of that. No good may come of this. Things always get complicated.
Now things are even more complicated in Syria, or they’re not:
Donald Trump is giving his approval to Vladimir Putin and his intervention in the battle-ravaged country.
“Putin is now taking over what we started and he’s going into Syria, and he frankly wants to fight ISIS, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Trump told Fox News Tuesday, after ending his boycott against the network. “If he wants to fight ISIS, let him fight ISIS. Why do we always have to do everything?”
Trump’s position has always been that we should let Assad and Isis fight it out, and then go in and wipe out the winner. Now he’s simply impressed with Putin:
The GOP contender gave the Russian leader a high grade on his skill as a leader, contrasting it to what he considers President Obama’s poor performance.
“I will tell you in terms of leadership he is getting an ‘A,’ and our president is not doing so well,” Trump said. “They did not look good together.”
And there was this:
On Tuesday, Trump also seemed to be open to the idea that Assad may not be as bad an actor as the U.S. thinks.
“I’ve been looking at the different players, and I’ve been watching Assad,” Trump told O’Reilly. “I’m looking at Assad and saying maybe he’s better than some of the people we’re supposed to be backing because we don’t even know who we’re backing. We have no idea.”
Assad is okay? He killed thousands of his own people. The Obama administration led the international effort to force Assad to stop using chemical weapons against them, stripping him of those, but he still uses barrel bombs and carpet bombing, wiping out civilians only, and there are those millions of refugees showing up in Europe. What is Trump thinking?
This must have to do with having that “killer instinct” Trump talks about. He has it. It made him rich. Putin has it. Assad has it. Maybe it’s more than a metaphor, but it does seem real enough:
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban thinks there is a single word central to understanding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign: “killer.”
“His most important word is Killer,” Cuban recently wrote on his Cyber Dust social media app. “If you are not a killer, he doesn’t respect you. If you are a smart killer, you have used knowledge, effort and something that makes you special to accomplish what most dream of.”
None of Trump’s rivals, Cuban added, can match the real-estate mogul’s killer instinct.
“There is no one running that can stand up to him. He knows it. That’s why he isn’t leaving anytime soon. He smells the kill,” he wrote. “We want to vote for a killer of those who threaten our future. He has sold his way to that position.”
Cool, but it’s not that simple. The New York Times has a grid of where everyone stands on Syria at the moment, which in a simplified form looks like this:
United States – BACKS more moderate elements among the rebel forces in Syria. OPPOSES the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the Islamic State and other Islamic extremist groups…
Russia – BACKS Mr. Assad, the leader of Syria, which has been Russia’s only persistent ally in the Middle East for decades. OPPOSES the Islamic State, which several thousand young Russians have joined… Russia says it fears a so-called blowback of militants coming home to carry out attacks. But Western nations question whether Russia uses that as cover to counter any threat to Mr. Assad’s rule.
Turkey – BACKS the United States-backed coalition and, tacitly, rebel forces in Syria. OPPOSES principally the Assad government and Kurdish groups allied with the PKK an insurgent group active in Turkey; nominally, also the Islamic State.
Iran – BACKS Mr. Assad and the Syrian government. OPPOSES Sunni insurgents, the Islamic State and other Sunni extremists… (Iran is Syria’s staunchest ally, and has been providing military support, weapons, supplies and financial aid since the start of the civil war in 2011. In 2012, Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy joined the fight on the government side. The next year, Iran sent hundreds of military advisers to assist Mr. Assad’s army, and Hezbollah committed to an all-out battle to defeat the rebels. But recent seizures of territory by Sunni insurgents and the Islamic State have weakened the Syrian Army, and there are signs that Iran is conserving its resources to defend government strongholds, including the capital, Damascus, and areas along the Lebanese border and the Mediterranean coast.)
Saudi Arabia – BACKS a number of rebel groups fighting the Syrian government. OPPOSES Mr. Assad and the Syrian government… (Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, reiterated in New York on Tuesday that there were no circumstances in which his country would accept a Russian effort to keep Mr. Assad in power. Mr. Jubeir warned that if a deal to remove the Syrian leader was not reached, the shipment of weapons and other support to Syrian rebels would be increased – and a military option to remove him remained on the table. In addition to funding and arming rebels on the ground, Saudi Arabia began conducting airstrikes with the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State in Syria a year ago.)
Qatar – BACKS a number of rebel groups fighting the Syrian government. OPPOSES Mr. Assad and the Syrian government…
Britain – BACKS more moderate elements among the rebel forces in Syria. OPPOSES: the Assad government, the Islamic State and other Islamic extremist groups… (Because of strong opposition in Parliament to military intervention in Syria, Britain has so far focused mainly on coalition airstrikes in Iraq. However, it recently conducted a drone strike in Syria that killed two British citizens it said had joined the Islamic State.)
France – BACKS more moderate elements among the rebel forces in Syria. OPPOSES the Assad government, the Islamic State and other Islamic extremist groups… (Facing a refugee crisis and stepped-up jihadist recruiting in Europe, France recently expanded its participation in coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State and other extremist groups to targets in Syria as well as Iraq. But it has ruled out any ground intervention.)
Those are just the highlights. Trump’s killer instinct won’t untangle all of that, but Trump is not alone. At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum thinks that Tom Friedman gets it right on Syria:
Today’s reigning cliché is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart.
Drum sees that too:
Yep. Charles Krauthammer, for example, is nonplussed. “What’s also unprecedented is the utter passivity of the United States,” he said yesterday. “The real story this week is what happened at the U.N., where Putin essentially stepped in and took over Syria. He’s now the leader.” And here’s another Republican on the same theme:
“Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) says Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating his support for the Assad regime in Syria because he thinks the Obama administration won’t stop him – ‘He sees no pushback, no price to pay,’ said Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday. ‘What he’s doing is raising popularity in his country.'”…
“The Foreign Relations chairman also criticized the Obama administration for missing opportunities in Syria, citing the decision to pull back from its red line after the regime used chemical weapons.”
“‘We have missed opportunities, he said, ‘that could have really changed the momentum at a time when we really did have a moderate opposition. By us not taking that action, it took the wind out of their sails,’ he said. ‘That was the biggest moment of opportunity … and that was mishandled.'”
Drum is a bit frustrated by all this:
This has become almost pathological. Every time Putin does something, Republicans start wailing about how he’s taking charge, showing what a real leader does while Obama meekly sits back and does nothing. They assume that military action always shows strength, while avoiding military action always shows weakness. That’s just crazy. Let’s take a quick survey of the real situation here:
Syria is the last ally Russia has left in the Middle East. Putin didn’t suddenly increase his military support of Assad as a show of brilliant grand strategy. He did it because he was in danger of losing his very last client state in the Middle East. This is a desperate gamble to hold on to at least a few shreds of influence there.
On that, Drum cites Fred Kaplan:
In the past decade, Russia has lost erstwhile footholds in Libya and Iraq, failed in its attempt to regain Egypt as an ally… and would have lost Syria as well except for its supply of arms and advisers to Assad… Syria is just one of two countries outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a military base… His annexation of Crimea has proved a financial drain. His incursion into eastern Ukraine (where many ethnic Russians would welcome re-absorption into the Motherland) has stalled after a thin slice was taken at the cost of 3,000 soldiers. His plan for a Eurasian Economic Union, to counter the influence of the west’s European Union, has failed to materialize. His energy deal with China, designed to counter the west’s sanctions against Russian companies, has collapsed.
Intervention is unpopular with Russians. Corker is dead wrong about Putin doing this to curry favor with the public. On the contrary, they don’t care about Syria and are reluctant to lose any lives helping Assad. Putin is assisting Assad despite the domestic difficulties it will create for him, not because he expects the Russian masses to rally to the flag.
There he cites Amanda Taub:
A recent poll by Moscow’s Levada Center shows that only a small minority of Russians support giving Bashar al-Assad direct military support. Only 39 percent of respondents said they supported Russia’s policy toward the Assad regime. When asked what Russia should do for Assad, 69 percent opposed direct military intervention. A tiny 14 percent of respondents said that Russia should send troops or other direct military support to Syria.
Putin is targeting anti-Assad rebels, not ISIS. For public consumption, Putin claims that he’s helping the US in its counterterrorism operations against ISIS. This is obvious baloney, since Russian jets aren’t operating in areas where ISIS is strong. They’re operating in areas where anti-Assad rebels are strong.
That makes no sense:
The benefits of getting further entangled in Syria are…what? Russia may be concerned about Syria becoming a breeding ground for terrorists who then make their way up to Russia. But that’s about it. Putin isn’t going to win Syria’s civil war, and Assad will become a bottomless pit of demands for more military support. Aside from winning the admiration of American conservatives, it’s hard to see Putin getting anything of real worth out of this.
The same is true of the United States. There has never been a cohesive “moderate opposition” that would have ousted Assad if only we had supported them earlier. Republicans keep repeating this myth, but when they had a chance to support strikes on Syria in 2013, they didn’t do it. That shows about how much they really believe this. Nor has there ever been a chance that the United States could topple Assad short of committing tens of thousands of ground troops, something that nobody support. “Arming the opposition” is the last refuge of hawkish dead-enders: something that sounds tough but rarely has much effect. You mostly hear it from people who don’t have the courage to recommend ground troops but are desperate to sound like they’re backing serious action.
So yes, things just got far more complicated than they were. The pessimist says that’s very bad. The optimist sees opportunity. The weary realist, however, just gets more realistic:
The United States doesn’t have the power to fix the Middle East. We can nudge here and there, but that’s about all. As Friedman says, Obama may have caused some of his own problems by talking a bigger game than he’s willing to play, but he’s still right not to play. If Vladimir Putin is so afraid of losing his last foothold in the Middle East that he’s willing to make a reckless and expensive gamble in the Syrian quagmire, let him. It’s an act of peevishness and fear, not of brilliant geopolitical gamesmanship. For ourselves, the better part of wisdom is to stay out. Modest action would be useless, and our national interest simply isn’t strong enough to justify a major intervention.
That’s it? Yes, that’s it. If it weren’t an election year, or the year before an election in this case, America would shrug. Things got more complicated? Yeah, that happens.