The focus this week remains Russian military moves in Syria.
The Monitor Analysis also looks at the Syrian situation in light of the conflict between Russia and the US. We see Russia challenging the notion that it will face another Afghanistan falling into the same problems that the US experienced in the last 15 years in the region.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Cato Institute looks at the Syria issue as it unfolded at the UN. They say that the US and Russia have the same general goals – defeat ISIS. However, they differ on how to do it. They note, “It’s in the interest of both sides to continue to discuss Syria to see if common ground can be found. And Russian involvement in Syria is not necessarily a bad thing for the United States for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Russian involvement against ISIS could actually be more effective than U.S. involvement, if only because the Russians have a reliable allied military on the ground. Secondly, violence has actually dropped in Eastern Ukraine, as Russia shifts its attention and military resources towards the Middle East.”
The CSIS looks at the failed counter terrorism strategy of the UD over the last 15 years. They note, “The rise of extremism came after the failure of secularism, and because of deep religious, ethnic, regional, and other internal tensions and violence. The result was not simply insurgency, but civil war. These conflicts were sometimes triggered and fed by the actions of outside states, including the U.S. and former Soviet Union, but they escalated because of massive civil failures as well as growing violent incidents and military clashes.”
The Carnegie Endowment sees Putin’s Syria move as one of desperation. They note, “The Assad regime’s collapse would be a big problem for Putin. Moscow increased its support for that brutal regime after the 2011 Syrian uprising. This was less out of love for Assad than because the Kremlin views Washington as the source of regional instability – orchestrating not only the Arab Spring but the other uprisings that brought down authoritarian leaders along Russia’s southern borders. This is a key reason why Putin makes opposition to “U.S.-sponsored regime change” the centerpiece of his foreign policy and claims these policies stoke instability. It is also why Russia hung on to disgraced former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to the very end. Western support for the “moderate” opposition has neither pushed Assad out nor led to the rout of Islamic State. Putin’s latest approach, though, is risky.”
The Institute for the Study of War sees a new era of geopolitics with the Russian move into Syria. They note, “The deployment of Russian military forces to Syria is a major geostrategic inflection. Its significance goes far beyond the situation in Syria. It may well herald, in fact, a new era in global geopolitics and security. Russian forces are establishing an airbase likely to become capable of conducting operations throughout the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean. It would be the first time in history that Russia had an outpost on land for projecting force beyond the confines of the Black Sea. The U.S. and NATO must consider and respond to this development recognizing its true stakes.”
The Washington Institute looks at the snap elections in Turkey. They note, “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”
The CSIS sees a new asymmetric challenge from Russia. They note, “Now in Syria, Russia has pulled off another coup. By the simple expedient of inserting Russia military forces into Syria, President Putin has managed to turn U.S. policy on its head, effectively shoring up Assad, complicating U.S. efforts to fight ISIS, while simultaneously ensuring that Russia’s interests are taken into account in any future settlement. Moreover, the mere presence of Russian combat aircraft in Syria makes it less likely that the United States and Turkey will move forward with plans to impose a no-fly zone, out of fear that Russian planes could be inadvertently targeted. Furthermore, Russia’s actions in Syria have forced the United States to re-engage with Russia to avoid direct air encounters in Syria. All of this was achieved without firing a single shot, although Russia has now reportedly begun to launch air strikes in Syria.”
The CSIS looks at the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz. In reference to American foreign policy failure, they say, “In each case, the “Transition” since U.S. combat forces left at the end of 2014 is failing. This failure is only partly the fault of the Obama administration. The Afghan government has failed to provide effective leadership in each critical dimension. Many of the problems involved also have their origins in the UN’s failure to play a meaningful role in coordinating any aspect of the civil aid effort, and the erratic politics and programs the Bush Administration pursued – partly because of its focus on the Iraq conflict.”
The Washington Institute looks at the Syrian refugee problem in Jordan and Lebanon. They conclude, “The sad reality is that many if not most of these refugees will never return to Syria. Given the level of destruction — nearly half of all Syrian housing has been demolished — there would be little to return to. Even if Assad is eventually vanquished, the war will most likely continue as a new battle between the various Sunni militias. Although UNHCR and other international organizations don’t readily admit it, according to the Oxford Centre for Refugee Studies, “when displacement has been prolonged, many refugees have become established in their new place of settlement and their desire or willingness to return may diminish.” In short, refugees who spend a decade or more outside their countries of origin seldom repatriate. The longer the fighting continues, the more likely these refugees will put down roots, never to return.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Russia’s Fight in Syria Reflects the Kremlin’s Fears at Home
By Paul Stronski
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.
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.
Turkey’s Snap Elections May Not Change Much
By Asli Aydintasbas and Soner Cagaptay
September 28, 2015
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.
Syria’s Good Neighbors: How Jordan and Lebanon Sheltered Millions of Refugees
By David Schenker
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.