Analysis 10-03-2015


Russia Takes Commanding Position in Middle East

For the last quarter century, the US has been the dominant military power in the Middle East; pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and invading Iraq.

That has changed in the last few weeks as a timid US has been superseded by an aggressive Russia that is vigorously supporting Syrian legitimate government with Russian military power. Meanwhile, the US has been cast in the role of an ineffective meddler, that can’t form a small army of moderate rebels to attack Syrian regime forces and ISIS, despite hundreds of millions in military aid.

It has become so bad the Russia has warned the US to stop invading Syrian airspace so as to not interfere with Russian air strikes.

A Change in Middle Eastern Leadership

Fox News analyst Charles Krauthammer said Tuesday night that the Obama Administration went from two weeks ago warning Russia intervening in Syria “was doomed to fail” to today having “not only accepted it – we welcome it as a fight against ISIS.”

Commenting on a new congressional report detailing how more than 7,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in the last three months alone, Krauthammer said on Wednesday Morning’s Special Report that “this is, it is historically unprecedented,” and that al Qaeda never enjoyed such rapid growth. “But what’s also unprecedented is the utter passivity of the United States. The real story this week is what happened at the U.N., where Putin essentially stepped in and took over Syria,”

Krauthammer continued. “He’s now the leader.” “And we concede essentially that (president) Assad will say under the protection of the Russians,” Krauthammer said. “And the irony is that the Russians aren’t in there to fight ISIS. The Russians are in there to support (president) Assad, establish their dominance in the region to bring in Iran and to establish military facilities. They have no interest in fighting Assad.”

In many ways, what has happened in Syria is a continuation of the political and diplomatic maneuvering at the UN in the last week.

During his address to the UN, Obama declared, “We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”

Putin, speaking shortly after Obama, urged the world to stick with Assad.

“We believe it’s a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities, with the government forces, those who are bravely fighting terror face-to-face,” Putin said during his first appearance at the U.N. gathering in a decade.

The private meeting held later on confirmed that the US and Russia remained clearly divided in how the internal war should be resolved.

The difference, however, is that Russia clearly has the most power in the region and is determined to use it supporting Syrian authorities That means that the enemy isn’t just ISIS, which Russia is sure the US and its allies will continue to bomb, but other rebel forces that threaten Syria.

This was confirmed early Wednesday as Russia struck rebel positions after only giving the US one hour of warning.

U.S. officials said targets in the Homs area appeared to have been struck, but not areas held by Islamic State. The areas of the province struck by the Russians were controlled by an array of rebel groups including several operating under the banner of the “Free Syrian Army,” activists, locals and rebels said. Some of the sources named ISIS as one of the groups operating in the areas hit. The targets hit were weapons depots, ammunition, communications infrastructure, and fuel.

The Homs area is crucial to Syrian authority’s control of western Syria. Rebel control of that area would divide the regime area-held west, separating Damascus from the coastal cities of Latakia (where the Russian airbase is) and Tartous (where Russia operates its naval facility).

Striking Homs and rebel groups including ISIS showed the Kremlin’s primary aim was to prop up Assad, a French diplomatic source claimed.

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.

Although the assistance is geared towards helping Syrian legitimate government, Russia is clearly aware that it is eroding US support in the region. After the upper house of the Russian parliament gave Putin unanimous backing for strikes following a spokesman for Putin said the vote meant Moscow would be practically the only country in Syria to be conducting operations “on a legitimate basis” and at the request of “the legitimate president of Syria.”

Putin has already derided U.S. efforts on Monday in a speech at the United Nations, suggesting a broader and more coordinated coalition was needed to defeat the militants. Putin said he still thought the ultimate solution to Syria’s problems was political.   “A definitive and long-term solution in Syria is only possible on the basis of political reform and on the basis of dialogue between moderate forces in the country,” he said. “I know that President Assad understands that and is ready for such a process. We are counting on his active and flexible position and on his readiness to compromise.”

The Russian effort isn’t unilateral and includes several members, which also strike at the diplomatic efforts of the US to retain hegemony over the region.   Moscow has already sent military experts to a recently established command center in Baghdad which is coordinating air strikes and ground troops in Syria, a Russian official told Reuters.

Iraq’s military also said last Sunday it will begin sharing “security and intelligence” information with Syria, Russia and Iran to help combat ISIS, a move that could further complicate U.S. efforts to battle the extremists without working with Damascus and its allies. A statement issued by the Joint Operations Command said the countries will “help and cooperate in collecting information about the terrorist Daesh group,” using another term for ISIS.

Results of the Superpower Collision

Although Russia seems more aggressive than the US in its approach, that doesn’t mean either country is seeking direct confrontation over Syria.

For the US, recent history shows that attempts to overthrow rulers only lead to civil unrest and civil war. In the case of the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, US support of the rebels only led to more unrest and the growth of radical, anti-American factions that have turned these countries into breeding grounds of radical terrorists that are threatening the West.

However, the Russian policy is projecting confidence that it will succeed.

Russia’s involvement in Syria will be a further challenge for Moscow, which is already intervening in Ukraine at a time when its own economy is suffering from low oil prices and Western sanctions.

Opinion polls also show Russian voters have little appetite for a long campaign, with painful memories of the Soviet Union’s 1979-89 intervention in Afghanistan, in which thousands of Soviet troops were killed, still fresh.

But as Russian real incomes fall for the first time since Putin came to power, the spectacle of the country flexing its military muscles overseas, could also be a useful distraction for the Kremlin.

Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin’s Chief-of-Staff said Russia was only acting to protect its own interests in Syria, where it maintains a Soviet-era naval facility at Tartous, its only access to the Mediterranean.

“We’re talking specifically about Syria and we are not talking about achieving foreign policy goals or about satisfying our ambitions … but exclusively about the national interests of the Russian Federation,” said Ivanov.

By backing Assad, who is popular amongst many Syrians, Russia has made enemies of some Syrian factions. While Russia’s military moves may guaranteed a rump Syrian state with Assad in charge, it risks alienating some Sunnis, Kurds, and ISIS will not forgive Russia. Russia may find itself with influence along a narrow strip of Syria’s coastline.

Clearly, the Kremlin has overcome its costly war in Afghanistan, America’s defeat in Vietnam, and the current unraveling of American influence in the region. In supporting Assad, Putin may be sowing the seeds of Russia’s eventual ascendance in the region.




Syria at the UN General Assembly

By Emma Ashford

Cato Institute

September 29, 2015

Presidents Putin and Obama presented two radically different worldviews at the UN yesterday morning, but both obliquely described the other as the key cause of global unrest. Putin took aim at the United States, implying that the Arab Spring was orchestrated by the United States and that sanctions on Russia are undermining global trade, while President Obama called for a return to the rule of law, and lambasted human rights violators. These disagreements reportedly carried on into the private meeting held by both leaders last night on Syria and Ukraine.  But the root of the disagreement on Syria isn’t differing objectives: both Russia and the United States want to see ISIS contained and degraded, and an end brought to the terrible conflict in Syria and Iraq. The difference lies in the means both sides want to use to achieve this objective. The Russians want to protect the sovereignty and power of the Assad regime, while U.S. leaders insist that Assad must go, to be replaced with a government which includes representation from the Syrian opposition.

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Rethinking the Wars Against ISIS and the U.S. Strategy for Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Insurgency

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

September 28, 2015

By the time a new President takes office, the United States will have been at war for roughly a decade and a half. What began as a limited war against terrorism has become a major counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. military involvement in Syria and Yemen, while the United States largely stands by after having played a major role in the defeat of Gaddafi in Libya. Violent Islamic extremism is a serious threat in all five cases, as it is more broadly throughout much of the Islamic world. At the same time, in every case, the nation involved has been the equivalent of a failed state. The insurgency did not come from some foreign source and the country had a long history of violent politics, failed governance, and failed economic development.

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Syria – A New Russian Asymmetric Challenge

By Paul N. Schwartz

Center for Strategic and International Studies

September 30, 2015

Monday, at the United Nations, we all got to witness a rare spectacle: a set of dueling speeches delivered by Presidents Putin and Obama, leaders of Russia and the United States respectively, each blaming the other for a chorus of world problems, and each describing the geopolitical situation in starkly different terms. Those of us who remember the Cold War came away with a distinct sense of déjà vu, of a world in which Russia and the United States were once again the two dominant powers, co-equal in status, each vying to shape the fate of entire regions. Of course, today’s Russia is a far cry from the former Soviet Union, and it is unlikely to become a peer competitor to the United States anytime soon. On nearly every accepted measure of national power, economic, military and otherwise, the United States remains far and away the pre-eminent world power. Nevertheless, despite this disparity Russia has recently managed to challenge U.S. power in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. And it has done so by employing a variety of asymmetric measures that have surprised U.S. policymakers and kept them off balance.

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Afghanistan and the Defeat in Kunduz: The Crisis in Transition

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

September 29, 2015

The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz does mark its first major capture of a major urban area, but it is only a symptom of a much broader crisis in the Transition process in what has begun to approach a forgotten war. The Broader Crisis in Afghanistan and a Failed Transition Plan. Afghanistan is now caught up in a much broader series of crises: political, governance, economics, security, and Afghan force development. In each case, the “Transition” since U.S. combat forces left at the end of 2014 is failing.

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Russia’s Fight in Syria Reflects the Kremlin’s Fears at Home

By Paul Stronski

Carnegie Endowment

September 29, 2015

Russian tactical fighters have arrived in Syria, to join the tanks, transport and attack helicopters, and troops reportedly already delivered. These deployments have triggered cries that Russian President Vladimir Putin is again flexing his muscles at the West’s expense — as he has been doing in Ukraine since 2014. Some argue that Putin’s Syria gambit is part of a grand scheme to rebuild Russia’s global status. The Kremlin’s moves, however, are better understood as a desperate, risk-laden attempt to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because his country is one of the few left in the Middle East over which Russia still holds significant influence and where Moscow has long had a military presence. In fact, the Kremlin truly believes that Washington organized and financed the entire Arab Spring — as well as a string of other “colored revolutions” — that toppled authoritarian leaders along Russia’s borders.

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Putin Ushers in a New Era of Global Geopolitics

By Kimberly Kagan

Institute for the Study of War

September 27, 2015

The positioning of Russian aircraft in Syria gives the Kremlin an ability to shape and control U.S. and Western operations in both Syria and Iraq out of all proportion to the size of the Russian force.  It can compel the U.S. to accept a de facto combined coalition with Russia, Syria, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah, possibly in support of indiscriminate operations against any and all regime opponents, not just ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.  It may portend the establishment of a permanent Russian air and naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Russian forces have prepared and trained to conduct close air support and possibly special operations in Syria, and may begin doing so within days.

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Turkey’s Snap Elections May Not Change Much 

By Asli Aydintasbas and Soner Cagaptay

Washington Institute

September 28, 2015

Policywatch 2491

As a deeply polarized Turkey approaches the November 1 snap elections, it is unclear whether the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) will recoup any or all of its 20 percent overall drop in support during the June vote, which ended thirteen straight years of single-party rule in the country. Judging from recent polls, the AKP may not gain much at all, owing to the resumption of fighting with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish lira’s sharp decline. Polls are showing the AKP hovering around 40-41 percent — in line with its June outcome (40.87 percent). What is different from previous elections, however, is the tighter party control by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP’s founder and erstwhile leader, who resigned from the party in August 2014 to assume the presidency. Over the past eighteen months, Turkish citizens have voted in three major elections (local, presidential, and general), all of which seemed to be referendums on Erdogan and his assertive style of governance. Five weeks before the new vote, little evidence suggests that this contest will be much different — or that Erdogan will shy away from campaigning for the AKP, even though the constitution bars partisan affiliation by the president.

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Syria’s Good Neighbors: How Jordan and Lebanon Sheltered Millions of Refugees 

By David Schenker

Washington Institute

September 28, 2015

Since the start of the civil war in 2011, nearly four million Syrians have fled their country. Around half a million have sought political asylum in Europe; over the past eight months alone, more than 200,000 Syrians have reached the continent in what one British parliamentarian described as a “tsunami.” To be sure, the number of refugees arriving in Europe is staggering, but it pales in comparison to the numbers who have settled in Jordan and Lebanon. In the past four years, Jordan, with a pre-refugee population of eight million, and Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, have opened their borders to approximately a million and 1.5 million refugees, respectively. They did so despite the fact that Lebanon has a 120 percent debt-to-GDP ratio — among the world’s highest — and that Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Until now, these states have coped surprisingly well with the dramatic and sudden changes to their population. But there are signs that Lebanon and Jordan are about to reach their saturation point. Should the war in Syria and the refugee flows continue, economic and social pressures could destabilize these states.

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