Analysis 03-19-2016


Russia Pulls Forces Out of Syria

Observers were surprised when Russian President Putin suddenly announced that he was pulling Russian military forces out of Syria. The most of the forces that are to be withdrawn are the ground attack aircraft squadrons that decimated Syrian rebels for the last five months.

However, the withdrawal isn’t total. Russia will keep its naval facilities and air bases, which will allow for a fast redeployment if the situation changes.

While many hold the view that Moscow did this in order to put more pressure on Assad to be amenable to a negotiated, political solution, there is much more to it. In fact, the Kremlin is hardly deserting the Syrian president.

At the time of the intervention, Assad’s forces were in a stalemate, momentum was favoring the rebels in certain areas, and Moscow was worried that” the regime might begin to fragment”.

That has all changed.

Russia has stabilized the situation and achieved much of what it wanted.   The deployment of Russian airpower in September not only changed the arithmetic on the battlefield, it also re-energized the Arab Syrian Army. The scale of the bombing assault, with more than 9,000 sorties flown according Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, allowed government forces to turn back the tide. Not only were they able to retake hundreds of cities, towns, and settlements by Shoigu’s count, but the Syrian Army’s morale recovered considerably too, and with it President Assad’s personal authority.

Russia is leaving its Syrian ally in much better shape. Rebels are pinned down and supply lines to Turkey are cut. ISIS’s oil infrastructure has been destroyed and the vast amounts of money that allowed ISIS to pay its soldiers is seriously hampered. ISIS is now experiencing desertions, while the Syrian government allies (Iranians and Hezbollah) remain in the field. That prompted on observer to suggest “In one of the few times in history, a political leader is withdrawing his military at the right time instead of leaving too late”.

Moscow not only helped Syrian authorities but expanded the number of its allies in the area. The Kurds and even some of the so -called “moderate rebels” are beginning to work with the Russians. This will only help Russia elsewhere as other countries and groups will realize that Russia is a more reliable partner than the US.

It’s obvious that Putin’s withdrawal will not be placing much pressure on President Assad to negotiate in Geneva.

Rather, it appears that Putin picked an ideal time to change tactics, while solidifying his international position.

As a former member of the Soviet KGB, Putin is well aware of the long term damage of the Afghan war to the USSR, which was also intended to be a short term intervention. By pulling out of Syria now, he has managed to stabilize the situation, while avoiding any long term entanglements that hampered both the USSR and the US in Afghanistan.

The Russian intervention was never about winning the war in Syria. As we noted in previous pieces, no one could expect a small number of aircraft and some ground forces to end the war.

Although a major goal was to support Russia’s major ally in the Middle East and the Russian bases there, the real goals of Russia’s Syrian adventure were more strategic.

The major goal was to reassert Russia’s role in the region and its claim to a say in the future of Syria. The Soviet Union had been a major player in the Middle East until the Egyptian/Israeli peace agreement. However, by taking advantage of the Syrian war and the confusing policies of Obama in the region, Putin has managed to create a policy foothold in the region – the first in over a quarter of a century. Now, Russia is a more significant player in Syria’s future than the United States.

Putin has taken the strategic initiative in Syria. He deterred Saudi and Turkish escalation against Assad, and de-coupled the Obama administration from the Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile, America’s NATO allies are more concerned with countering ISIS and slowing the refugee exodus into Europe.

The intervention in Syria also helps Russia reassert a naval presence in the Mediterranean – something they lost when the USSR collapsed. By supporting President Assad (and any potential pro-Assad government negotiated in Geneva) Russia guaranteed the continued use of the naval facility at Tartus. Given the rapidly dwindling US Navy and their major commitments in the Arabian Sea and Pacific, Putin has managed to pose a naval challenge to the American Mediterranean fleet that it could never pose during the Cold War.

The Russian military is also seen in a new light. The Syrian intervention allowed Putin to show off the new, post USSR military. They showed off vastly improved combat capabilities and their air force carried out a number of sorties that is usually only associated with the larger NATO air forces. They also hit rebel forces (including ISIS) harder than the larger NATO air armada stationed in the region.

Clearly the combat capabilities and logistical support of the Russian military have been underestimated by NATO. NATO leaders and military commanders will have to reevaluate Russia’s capabilities and act accordingly.

Putin has also managed to counter much of the isolation that the US and NATO countries imposed in the aftermath of Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. Russia and the United States are joint guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria now. And, in the Ukraine, the two countries have renewed conversations about a settlement in the Donbas, although it was Russia that began the conflict.

Finally, Putin gains the political initiative in Geneva and has the best chance to set the parameters for any peace agreement. In the coming weeks we should expect Russian overtures for a transition away from Assad – but, with conditions. The West can expect a timeline for transition that will take years rather than months. There will undoubtedly be a condition that Syria’s future government will not include former “terrorists.”

This will give Putin a veto over any future Syrian government.

Considering the inept Obama policy in the region, America’s allies will carry out a wait-and-see attitude. With the US presidential election in eight months, they will hope that the president-elect will formulate a more coherent Syrian policy that will give the US and NATO a stronger hand in crafting a lasting Syrian peace.

Kurds looking at forming their own Syrian State

Added to this Syrian confusion is the news that the Syrian Kurds will be forming their own “state” in northern Syria, along the Turkish border.

“After being excluded from the talks in Geneva, which began on Monday, [the Kurds] are drawing up plans to combine three Kurdish-led autonomous areas of northern Syrian into a federal arrangement,” Reuters reports, adding that “Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish official and one of the organizers, said he anticipated the approval of a new system, and ‘democratic federalism’ was the best one.”

“The system envisions areas of democratic self-administration that will manage their own economic, security and defense affairs,” the document asserts. The details, Kurdish officials said, would be worked out later. The name of the new proto-state: “The Federal Democratic System of Rojava-North Syria.”

Within days, probably today, self-governing [bodies] of three Kurdish cantons in Syria’s north will declare a federation,” Abd Salam Ali, a PYD party rep in Moscow, told RIA Novosti “Separation of Rojava [Western Kurdistan] from Syria is not an option. We remain [a part of Syria], but declare a federation,” he said.

For their part Russia is firmly on the side of the Kurds after demanding that they be invited to Geneva.  “If the Kurds are ‘thrown out’ of the negotiations on Syria’s future, how can you expect them to want to remain within this state?”  Sergei Lavrov asked in an interview with Russian REN TV channel that aired on Sunday.

From Moscow’s point of view, it also further weakens American, Turkish, and Saudi influence in the region.

However, such a move will not be willingly accepted by Turkey and Erdogan. Ankara equates the Syrian YPG with the Turkish PKK and thus with terrorism. Erdogan fears that a Kurdish state on his border will embolden Kurds in southeast Turkey – who, are already under attack by Turkish forces.

This may mark the next phase of fighting in Syria. Erdogan has already shelled the Syrian Kurds in the past month and he’s made it very clear that a Kurdish state on his borders would not be tolerated.  “Unilateral moves carry no validity,” the Turkish foreign ministry said, in a statement about the Kurdish move.  Ankara will now use every PKK attack and every suicide bombing as an excuse to attack the new state and Erdogan will probably invade later on down the road on the excuse that he’s not invading Syria, but rather a hostile country that supports terrorist elements in southeast Turkey.




Afghanistan: Shift to a “Conditions–Based” Strategy or Lose the “Forgotten War”
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 16, 2016

The Obama Administration’s lack of focus on the Afghan War is symbolized by the fact that it is no longer even listed as one of the “Top Issues” on the Department of Defense’s website. It only gets passing attention on the White House’s website—to the point where the “defense” section still refers to the President as having, “ Developed a comprehensive new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan and authorized deployment of more than 33,000 “surge” troops to Afghanistan”—a statement that dates back to March 27, 2009. Another White House Fact Sheet dates back to May 27, 2004 and is entitled “Bringing the U.S. War in Afghanistan to a Responsible End.” The Department of Defense FY2017 budget request is more up–to–date, and the Comptroller of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has issued a separate budget paper on the war—albeit one that seems to assume that there will be no serious losses, and Afghanistan can keep waiting for an effective air force. The State Department does include the Afghan War in its FY2017 request for Overseas Contingency Funds, but this part of its budget request lacks anything approaching a coherent program.

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Poking the Hornet’s Nest in Libya: “War Four” and This Time We Get it Right?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 14, 2016

Very few of the classic writers on strategy suggest randomly poking a hornet’s nest to see what happens next. The key question for anyone talking about intervention in Libya, however, is exactly what outside intervention can actually accomplish. Various media leaks have talked about a major Italian ground force, an Italian-led mix of European forces, a major U.S. bombing campaign, and “a range of potential airstrikes against training camps, command centers, munitions depots and other militant targets. Airstrikes against as many as 30 to 40 targets in four areas of the country would aim to deal a crippling blow to the Islamic State’s most dangerous affiliate outside of Iraq and Syria, and open the way for Western-backed Libyan militias to battle Islamic State fighters on the ground. Allied bombers would carry out additional airstrikes to support the militias on the ground. These reports have generally implied that no decision has been taken and none will be until some form of political unity is forged between Libya’s two separate power blocs in Tripoli and Benghazi.

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A Well-Timed Retreat: Russia Pulls Back From Syria
By Alexander Baunov
Carnegie Endowment
March 2016

President Putin’s announcement that he is pulling back from Syria should not have come as a big surprise. He believes he has met most of his goals there—many of which have nothing to do with Syria itself. Russia has found a way back to the table where the world’s board of directors sits and resolves regional conflicts together. This time, Vladimir Putin did not need to pretend too hard when he announced that a mission was accomplished.  Putin’s declaration on March 14 that the “main part” of the Russian military forces was pulling out of Syria was unexpected in the West. But when Russia first started its big intervention in the Syrian conflict last September, the Kremlin said it would be only for a few months. Now, as far as Putin is concerned, domestic, diplomatic, and military goals have all been achieved.

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U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda
By John Lawrence
Institute for the Study of War
March 14, 2016

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute conducted an intensive multi-week planning exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. ISW and CTP are publishing the findings of this exercise in multiple reports in a series titled U.S Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda. The first report – Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe — describes America’s global grand strategic objectives as they relate to the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda. The second – Competing Visions for Syria and Iraq:  The Myth of an Anti-ISIS Grand Coalition — defines American strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria, identifies the minimum necessary conditions for ending the conflicts there, and compares U.S. objectives with those of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in order to understand actual convergences and divergences. The third report — Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS:  Sources of Strength — assesses the strengths and vulnerabilities of ISIS and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to serve as the basis for developing a robust and comprehensive strategy to destroy them. Subsequent reports will provide a detailed assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria and present the planning group’s evaluation of several courses of action.  The key points from each report are below.

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NATO in a World of Disorder: Making the Alliance Ready for Warsaw
By Michal Baranowski, Bruno Lete
German Marshall Fund
March 17, 2016

NATO matters. Threats emanating from Europe’s east and south give particular urgency to the Alliance’s next summit, scheduled for Warsaw in July. The nature of these threats ranges from military to economic to cyber to energy security. The 28 NATO Allies must decide how they want to tackle these threats and what role they want to see NATO play.

At the Wales Summit in 2014, the Alliance succeeded in realigning its priorities with the realities of the changed security environment. The challenge for the allies in Warsaw will be to decide on next steps on the path laid out in Wales by generating the political will to implement new and expanded forms of cooperation among NATO member states. NATO leaders need to engage with their domestic publics to explain the current security environment, as well as the utility of defense policy and the armed forces in meeting present and future threats. Such engagement is critical to preserve and extend NATO’s unity of purpose and solidarity of action.

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Iranian Impunity
By Lee Smith
Hudson Institute
March 11, 2016

Last week, Iran tested ballistic missiles capable of striking American allies in the Middle East. As the Islamic Republic is eager to make clear, Israel is the primary target. The second launch featured the Qadr H, a precision-guided missile with a range of roughly 1,250 miles. The clerical regime stamped the Qadr H with a Hebrew translation of the slogan “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth“— just so there would be no mistaking the message. But it’s not just Israel that Tehran means to terrorize. As Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari put it, “It is the enemies of the Islamic Revolution and regional security that should be afraid of the IRGC missiles.” That is, the IRGC means to scare other Iranian adversaries within range as well as Israel — for instance, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Saudi Arabia most prominent among them.

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The Israeli Perspective on Safe Zones in Syria
By Nadav Pollak
Washington Institute
March 10, 2016
PolicyWatch 2584

Since the beginning of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, the humanitarian situation has grown worse. In the northwest, Russian airstrikes and ground advances by the Assad regime and its allies have spurred tens of thousands of Syrians to flee into Turkey. And in the south, similar offensives have pushed more Syrians out of Deraa province and toward Jordan, whose border is effectively closed at the moment. In response, policymakers from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States are once again floating the idea of establishing safe zones inside Syria to mitigate the human suffering and relieve some of the pressure on countries that host the most refugees, such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Yet Israel has not publicly participated in this dialogue despite sharing a border with Syria, and the reasons behind this deliberate absence merit a closer look.

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How Iraq warped Obama’s worldview
By Shadi Hamid
Brookings Institution
March 12, 2016

President Obama styles himself a cool, modern technocrat, writes Shadi Hamid—but looked at another way, Obama has proved to be an ideological president. On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama gave a speech opposing war in Iraq—perhaps, in retrospect, the most important speech he ever gave. He was right, of course, and the foreign-policy establishment was largely wrong. The problem is that politicians who were right about Iraq tend to overestimate what that says about their foreign-policy judgment. For Obama, the effects of being right are magnified. He became president, in part, because of Iraq and the considerable damage the conflict had done to the country. Obama offered the promise of a decisive correction and, for true believers, a kind of spiritual atonement.

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