What We Missed

Things got worse. The Syrian civil war, in its fifth year, 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. Putin 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. We have called for Assad to go for years. Putin wants to keep him there. Putin is helping with ISIS and is our enemy, bombing our guys, the locals trying to oust Assad. Putin is our ally and our enemy, both at the same time. But we should do something about him, right?

That’s what people seem to be saying, when they’re not talking about this week’s school massacre and guns, or the total collapse of the Republican Party, or Donald Trump. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman captured that:

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.

Our pride is hurt, and at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum sees that as nonsense:

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.

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…

We’ll just have to live with this:

The United States doesn’t have the power to fix the Middle East. We can nudge here and there, but that’s about all. … 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.

Still, we should have seen this coming, and we didn’t:

Among the first clues that Russia was mobilizing for a military offensive in Syria were requests Moscow began making in mid-August for permission to cross other countries’ territory with more and larger aircraft.

“We were getting the word the Russians were asking for inordinate overflights,” a senior Obama administration official said, referring to reports from U.S. allies receiving the requests. Russia was seeking clearance for not only cargo planes but also “fighter aircraft and bombers” that Syrian pilots had never been trained to fly, the official said. “It was clear that something pretty big was up.”

But despite that early suspicion – which only intensified as Russia then deployed fighter jets and teams of military advisers – the United States seemed to be caught flat-footed by the barrage of airstrikes that Moscow launched last week.

The Obama administration blew it:

“It seems to me there’s some kind of gap or disconnect between the intelligence side and the policy and operational side” on Syria, said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who tracks the Syria conflict at the Washington Institute. Amid Russia’s buildup “we actually saw quite well what was going on – equipment was tracked,” White said, “and then there was some kind of failure to read what the implications of that were.”

Oops. In the Christian Science Monitor, Anna Mulrine reports on what that led to:

When top United States officials on Friday announced the end – they preferred to call it an “operational pause” – to the unsuccessful effort to train “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting against the Islamic State, there was the slightest bit of a wink and a nudge.

“We’re actually going after the Islamic State, which Russia is not doing,” a senior administration official told reporters. In propping up Syria’s Assad regime, he said, Russia risks getting itself “immersed in a quagmire.”

It is surely cathartic to use the word “quagmire” about someone else. US officials see Russia as getting itself involved in its own Iraq War – or more accurately, a reprise of its disastrous intervention into Afghanistan in the 1980s. Yet that doesn’t necessarily make the situation on the ground any better for the US military.

“If we’re joking about Russians getting dragged into the quagmire, well, we’re in there, too,” notes Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

We’re in there too, and in second place:

Behind the scenes, US military intelligence and operations specialists are grappling with a training mission that “isn’t working,” ethnic divisions that are growing, and a government in Iraq that cannot exert a unifying force on the country, he adds. And now, Russia is essentially calling the shots in Syria. In many ways, the past few days have shown dramatically that Russia’s options to get what it wants in Syria are far better than the US options.

Will that be to Russia’s long-term gain? That is far from certain. But in the short term, it makes some former Defense officials uneasy.

“The terms are being dictated by the Russians.” says Christopher Harmer, former deputy director of operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “They have 30 aircraft flying in Syria. We have far more than that. They should not be dictating to us, we should be dictating to them.”

And that’s not happening:

The Russian military has established a forward operating base in Syria which consists of 2,000 to 3,000 Russian troops, as well as combat aircraft, helicopters, drones, and a battalion of troops, retired Gen. John Keane, now with the Institute for the Study of War, warned in congressional testimony Thursday.

While one Pentagon official told the Daily Beast this week that he greeted the announced intelligence cooperation between Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia “with pretty much a yawn,” Dr. Cordesman of CSIS argues that the cooperation “creates all kinds of complications for the US presence.”

While the Russians are consolidating their allies in the Mideast behind the Syria war, the US has not consolidated its anti-Assad allies, choosing instead to try to avoid a quagmire and focus on the Islamic State.

The Russians are consolidating their allies, and that just became obvious:

The death of a top Iranian military commander in Syria this week has dealt a “psychological blow” to elements backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The killing of a commander in the Revolutionary Guards Corps at the hands of ISIS also highlights the extent of Iranian involvement in Syria and the dire straits in which Assad finds himself, Washington-based analysts say.

Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani was killed outside Aleppo, Syria, where he was advising the Syrian army in its fight against extremists, Iranian state media reported Friday.

Iran’s top general is now dead, and we’re hanging back, but there is even more to this:

Iran has become increasingly public about its aid to Syria’s government, at first not disclosing flights to Syria in 2012 which Washington believed to be full of advisers and weapons. Now, however, Iranian officials praise their officers for assisting and advising Syrian regime forces.

“It’s harder for the Iranians to hide when it’s someone like that who has real visibility,” said Dennis Ross, former adviser on Iran to President Barack Obama.

But no one is hiding anything:

“The fact that you have a senior Iranian general shows both the desperation of the regime, as well as now the degree of Iranian involvement now in Syria,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Tabler says he believes Iran was instrumental in bringing Russia into a coalition to come to the regime’s aid — and planning a two-tiered military comeback campaign to do it.

“Iran and their Shia militias, and Hezbollah, are the ground component to Russia’s air involvement,” he said.

“While most attention seems to have been focused on Russian intervention in the last week or so in Syria,” he continued, “actually it is combined with a giant Iranian offensive that was planned months ago with the Russians – and that is unfolding.”

How did we miss that? Why does Russia even care about Assad and Syria? Is Putin simply trying to make Obama look bad, and Syria was available for that, at this moment? John McCain and Donald Trump seem to say that all the time – Putin is out to show up Obama (and America) – that’s all there is to it.

That’s the easy analysis, and the lazy one. There’s history, and there are historians like Simon Sebag Montefiore – he does brilliant work – and he suggests taking the long view:

In June 1772, Russian forces bombarded, stormed and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria. The Russians were backing their ally, a ruthless Arab despot. When they returned the next year, they occupied Beirut for almost six months. Then as now, they found Syrian politics a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.

Today, President Vladimir V. Putin has many motives in Syria, but we should keep in mind Russia’s vision of its traditional mission in the Middle East, and how it informs the Kremlin’s thinking. And not just the Kremlin: Russia’s Orthodox Church spokesman said that Mr. Putin’s intervention was part of “the special role our country has always played in the Middle East.”

Russia’s ties to the region are rooted in its self-assigned role as the defender of Orthodox Christianity, which it claimed to inherit from the Byzantine Caesars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – hence “czars.” The czars presented Moscow not just as a Third Rome, but also as a New Jerusalem, and protector of Christians in the Balkans and the Arab world, which, including the Holy Places of Jerusalem, were ruled by the Ottomans after 1517.

This has been going on a long time:

Russia’s first major intervention began in 1768, when Catherine the Great went to war with the Ottomans, and Count Alexei Orlov, the brother of her lover Grigory, sailed the Baltic fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar to rally rebellions in the Mediterranean. Recruiting Scottish admirals, Orlov annihilated the Ottoman fleet at Chesme, after which Russians temporarily dominated the eastern Mediterranean. …

They left in 1774, when Russia dropped its Syrian allies in return for Ottoman concessions over Ukraine and Crimea. Yet a Russian Mediterranean base was now a strategic aim: Catherine and her partner Prince Potemkin annexed Crimea, where they founded a Black Sea fleet, then tried to negotiate a base on Minorca.

Catherine’s successors saw themselves as crusaders, with Russia destined to rule Constantinople and Jerusalem. Ultimately it was this aspiration – and a brawl over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, between Russian-backed Orthodox and French-backed Catholic priests – that led to the Crimean War.

Russian defeat in 1856 persuaded Alexander II and the last czars to back off on using military force to dominate Jerusalem, preferring diplomacy and soft power. But during World War I Russian forces occupied northern Persia and invaded Ottoman Iraq, nearly taking Baghdad. In 1916, Nicholas II’s foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, negotiated the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Treaty, which promised Russia Istanbul, sections of Turkey and Kurdistan, and a share of Jerusalem – a Near Eastern empire foiled by the Bolshevik Revolution.

But there may be a straight line here:

At Potsdam in 1945, Stalin demanded a “trusteeship” over Tripolitania, Libya, and later recognized Israel, hoping in both cases to gain a Mediterranean base. He was rebuffed, but the Cold War made Russia a Middle Eastern power, backing Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt with 50,000 Soviet advisers.

Until the recent intervention, the closest Russia came to fighting was the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970, during which Soviet pilots dueled with Israelis. When Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, expelled the Russians, they cultivated a trio of dictators, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. All three, running merciless, dynastic-Mafia regimes behind the facade of socialistic parties, central planning and Stalinesque cults of personality, took quickly to their new benefactors: General Assad and Colonel Qaddafi were regularly photographed in moist fraternal hugs with the Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev. And General Assad, trained as a pilot in Russia, granted Moscow access to its Tartus naval base, now its last asset in the region.

General Assad’s son now runs Syria, so Putin wants his Middle East back:

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian influence collapsed and Moscow came to bitterly resent the Western interventions that destroyed Mr. Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi. American retreat from the region grants Mr. Putin, who sees himself in an unbroken tradition of Russian personal leadership and imperial-national power from the czars to today, the opportunity to diminish American prestige and project Russia as indispensable world arbiter. The rescue of Mr. Assad’s son Bashar, while fighting the opposition and Islamic State, dovetails with Russia’s struggle against Chechen jihadis who flock to the black caliphal banners – and success will bring leverage in Iran and Turkey, where Russia once had muscle.

Catherine the Great went to war with the Ottomans. That was their empire, damn it!

There’s nothing new here. We shouldn’t have been surprised, and what the hell are we doing there anyway?

Maybe we’re trying to stop the next World War. Fred Kaplan – who wrote The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War and 1959: The Year Everything Changed (it wasn’t 1968 of course) – also turns to history:

Watching the events cascading in Syria makes it eerily easy to see how the political elites of 1914 stumbled into World War I while believing they were pursuing a sensible set of national interests. …

Like the Europe of 101 years ago, the Middle East today is a tinderbox, with plenty of kindling supplied by the combination of weak regimes, millenarian militias, and freelance rebels of various persuasion, each faction backed (or directly armed and aided) by larger powers, some engaged in proxy wars, others drawn in for converging motives while trying to resist the centripetal pull of deeper involvement (with diminishing success). It doesn’t require a wild imagination to envision the lighting of a match – some contemporary counterpart to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

After all, all the elements are falling into place:

President Obama stepped up airstrikes against ISIS one year ago, with the intent of focusing the effort in Iraq (which had a quasi-allied government and a familiar array of military commanders) while putting Syria (which had neither) on the back burner. When this plan proved infeasible (because ISIS was rooted in Syria), he started training and equipping some “moderate” rebels, if just so he could tell the region’s Sunni leaders that he was doing something about Syria. This approach backfired when these U.S.-trained rebels were pummeled on the battlefield, and it may have backfired further this week, when Russian cruise missiles destroyed a weapons depot of a CIA-funded rebel force in southern Syria. All of this puts Obama in a spot. Does he back away or go into wait-and-see mode to avoid the escalating the conflict, or does he rise to the challenge by pouring more resources into a mission that he’s never seen as particularly vital? The first choice risks alienating allies, who clamor for more tangible commitment from America (while, in some cases, shirking from seeing their own boys bloodied); the second risks inciting a war with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent planes, tanks, and possibly “volunteer” troops, in recent weeks, to help shore up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his only politico-military ally outside the former Soviet Union. In recent days, he has gone further and launched cruise missiles – 26 of them just on Wednesday – from ships 1,000 miles away, in the Caspian Sea, reportedly hitting not only a few ISIS targets but also some of the “moderate” rebel groups that the United States and other countries in the region have been supporting.

But Putin, who is often portrayed as a strategic wizard (by some American columnists and legislators, no less avidly than by his own PR teams), may be digging himself in a hole as well. On a merely technical level, the Russian military hasn’t conducted prolonged air-to-ground operations for many years, and there’s some evidence it doesn’t know how. CNN reported Thursday (and a senior administration official confirmed to me) that four Russian cruise missiles crashed in Iranian territory on their way to Syria. It is unknown as yet how many of the other 22 actually hit their targets inside Syria and how many veered a quarter-mile or so off course. (Some of their missiles have primitive guidance systems compared with the most advanced satellite-guided U.S. models.) Will some Russian missile, perhaps one launched tomorrow, crash into an American base in Iraq? Then what?

Don’t ask, but consider this:

Besides protecting Assad’s regime or strengthening Russia’s foothold in Syria so that it plays a role in picking a successor if Assad himself is somehow ousted, it’s unclear what Putin is up to. Given the state of Russia’s military technology (about a decade behind ours), its inexperience at high-tempo combat operations, and its inability to send many ground troops (conscripts are out of the question, and special-ops forces may be weary from, or still based in, eastern Ukraine), Putin probably can’t keep this up for very long. Some regional specialists predict his airstrikes will be counterproductive, rousing more jihadis to the battlefield – and possibly radicalizing the “moderate” rebels whose outposts they’ve damaged.

Then again, it’s not entirely clear what the United States is up to, either. … The Obama administration’s broad aim is to defeat ISIS while imposing diplomatic and military pressures that might lead to Assad’s ouster from power and a transition to a new Syrian government that doesn’t kill its own people. The problem is that it’s very hard to achieve one of these goals – and practically (perhaps logically) impossible to do both.

The best you can do is to keep someone from shooting Archduke Ferdinand:

Some of Obama’s critics decry his resistance to military entanglements that might escalate out of control. But in a region where so much is beyond anyone’s control, and where so many armed factions have converging and conflicting interests with one another, a resistant president is far preferable to one whose first instinct is to assert American power with unjustified bravado – or to view Russia’s recent steps through a Cold War lens. However imperial Putin’s swagger might seem, the Soviet empire is long kaput. Syria is the only country outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a solid military ally and something of a base – and Putin had to move in with force because it was on the verge of collapse.

At the same time, the West, including the United States, can’t afford to view the Syrian conflict as an obscure, intractable blood feud that it would be best to ignore. A case might have been made for this position several months ago, but can’t be made now given that four million Syrians have sought refuge – and sparked a humanitarian, economic, and political crisis—throughout Europe. Some of these millions are fleeing Assad, some are fleeing ISIS, but most are simply fleeing war.

And there’s a good chance someone will do something stupid, and then all parties will line up on one side or the other and have at it. It’s happened before. Lots of stuff has happened before.

What did we miss? We missed all that had actually happened in the past. Those who forget history aren’t only doomed to repeat it. They’re going to get themselves killed.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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