|Executive SummaryThis week saw a burst of papers on Syria’s civil war – especially concerning the increased Russian involvement.The Monitor Analysis looks at the Pope’s visit to the US. While many see him as a left leaning, political Pope, his background is much more complex and he usually advocates the same issues that his predecessors did. We also note that the US is predominantly a Protestant Christian nation and any political influence by the Pope is likely minimal.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS looks at Russia’s aggressive buildup in Syria. They conclude, “The United States needs to rethink some of its perceptions of both Russian and Chinese power. It is obvious that both states not only have the ability to conduct complex political warfare, but they are willing to do so. The United States needs to be ready to react accordingly, make its own political moves, and do so with sufficient innovation and decisiveness to both deter such moves by Russia and other states and minimize the risk of any serious military incident or escalation. So far, the White House has tended to error on the side of inaction—rather than caution—and the U.S. military has focused on the actual use of forces. Not every hybrid “war” has to involve little green men or even fire a single shot.”
The CSIS looks at the meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They note Russian/Israeli relations have improved recently and say, “Israel has largely remained on the sidelines of the conflict in Syria (despite the Assad government’s rhetorical hostility, Jerusalem sees all the potential alternatives as worse), and has notably not joined the United States in demanding that Assad step down). Nonetheless it remains highly concerned about the ability of Lebanon-based and Syrian-backed Hezbollah to strike targets in Israel—as during the 2006 war when Hezbollah rockets killed 120 soldiers and dozens of civilians. Jerusalem worries that Russian weaponry could find its way to Hezbollah, and wants to ensure that if its forces have to carry out strikes in Syria they will not accidentally hit Russians, prompting Moscow to respond.
The German Marshall Fund thinks the reason for Putin’s moves in Syria is to take the focus off his failures in the Ukraine. They say, “Increasing Russia’s role in Syria presents an opportunity for Putin to put Moscow back in the center of global politics, distract from the quagmire that the Donbas has become, and to score points abroad and at home. Russia has always been a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, delivering weapons and shielding his regime from international condemnation by using its veto at the UN Security Council. But the Russian military build-up in Syria late last week caught the West by surprise. By signaling to everybody that Russia is fully committed to keep Assad in power, Putin is exploiting Washington’s insecurity about its Syria strategy. While the United States and other Western governments have taken a stance against the Assad regime in the past, they have nevertheless focused their fight on the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS), not on the Assad regime. Putin wants to demonstrate that he, in contrast, is a bold actor with a strategy and a reliable patron in the region.”
The CSIS says the US is failing to fully address all the issues that are part of the Syrian civil war. They note, “There is something inherently absurd in the different ways in which the Administration and its Republican critics – along with far too many media reports and think tank comments – focus on ISIS or finding some easy and simple political solution to the fighting. The key question is not defeating ISIS or negotiating some exit for Assad or compromise between Assad supporters and outside exile movements that no serious set of fighters in Syria now care about. ISIS is only one of four major factions shaping the war in Syria. The Assad regime, which has its own divisions and Alawite militias, is one. The Syrian Kurds are a second, and a group of some 26-30 other largely Islamist factions that include the Al Nusra Front, which is still tied to Al Qaida make up the third. All are fighting for their own space and areas of control. None at this point show any signs of becoming strong enough to achieve the objective of taking over all of Syria, being able to govern, or being able to establish any form of stability and popular security.”
The Washington Institute says demographics are the reason for Russia’s military deployment to Latakia and not Tartus, site of the official Russian military base. They also see this city as critical to a pro-Assad microstate should Syria fall apart. They conclude, “A real possibility exists that the civil war will reach Latakia. A rebel army could find strong support from Sunni residents, many of whom have long dreamed of revenge for regime efforts to impose Alawite control over the city…As for the influx of Russian troops, they are needed to protect the city given the present weakness of Syrian forces. If the rebels succeed in taking all or part of the city, rooting them out would be extremely difficult. Such a takeover would challenge the Russian path forward, perhaps modeled on Abkhazia, the territory that now exists almost entirely independent of Georgia thanks to Russian protection — and that fits the Russian practice of grooming microstates on its periphery to serve as military bases. A Russian-backed Alawistan, should it become viable, would provide many of the advantages of a real state, including complete dependence on Russia, without the same costs. For his part, Assad has no better choice than to accept a strong Russian role in the coastal region. His army can no longer defend Latakia, which faces the prospect of a rebel offensive strongly supported by Turkey.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the Egyptian government’s repression of the independent Egyptian labor movement. They conclude, “Ever since June 2013, the wind has run decidedly against the labor movement. The state has mounted its repression of labor protest and strikes. Hundreds and even thousands of labor activists and unionists have been arbitrarily fired in the past two years. The rising repression has gone hand in hand with calling for national unity against terrorism and in support of the current regime. The effect of this nationalist overtone is to render calls for social protest or labor strikes as acts of treason. Most of the repressive measures aimed at the labor movement have been implemented amid general popular consent or at least passivity and apathy. All of these factors combined suggest that the labor movement is likely to wane in the near future.”
The Pope Visits the United States Respect, but Differing Views
When the Pope arrived in Washington, Obama greeted him, noting that about 70 million Americans are Catholic and consider him the head of the Christian Church.
But, that didn’t mean that all the Catholics in America agree with the Pope. Nor do many other Christian denominations in the US side with this Pope.
How much disagreement is there? Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona in his third term in Congress, attracted more attention than he ever has before by announcing that he would boycott Pope Francis’s speech to Congress. Gosar is a Catholic himself, but he objects to the pope’s pronouncements on climate change: “[W]hen the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.”
Most conservative Catholics are not quite as unhappy about Francis as Gosar is. But Gosar is giving voice to a sentiment that many of them express in a more muted form. Some polling suggests that American conservatives, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have been growing less positive about Francis as his pontificate has proceeded.
So, how is it that American Catholics can disagree with this Pope, who is traditionally considered infallible? This is where the unique American Christian experience comes in – one that blends Catholicism with a strong dose of the Protestant Reformation.
Ironically, Pope Francis’s visit to America comes on the eve of the 500th anniversary of an event that forever changed the Catholic Church and defined European nationalism and led to the creation of the European concept of nation states – the Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation began in 1517, when a Catholic monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg posted up a document on the church door that challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church. By doing this, Martin Luther would destroy the Catholic Church’s hold on Europe and lead to the creation of Modern Europe.
His theology challenged the authority and office of the Pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God. For the first time, the Pope’s opinion on political (or even theological) issues was considered no better than another man’s.
That belief is at the core of American’s skeptical view of Pope Francis’s political statements. They may listen to them, but they have no influence on their political views.
America is clearly a Protestant Christian nation that was founded as religious persecution throughout Europe led many Protestant Christians to immigrate to the American colonies. They brought along with them a distrust of the Catholic Church’s teachings, a skeptical view of the Pope, and a more Protestant view of government and church.
And, although the American Catholic Church is strong, these views have suffused themselves into American Catholic thought. This was quite evident when John F. Kennedy was elected as president – the only Catholic American president. He had to make it quite clear that he was president and he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope.
Since then, Popes have been on the borders of American politics, but not directly involved. They have tried to focus more on traditional Christian issues like caring for the poor and abortion rather than stepping directly into more controversial American political issues.
Pope Francis is different. The Pope’s two immediate predecessors, by contrast, were more popular among conservatives than among liberals. The tenor of media coverage of Pope Francis also breaks that mold. He is the “progressive pope” who challenges the American Right on poverty and the environment as much as previous popes challenged the American Left on abortion and sexual issues. Democrats are planning to use the pope’s visit to advance progressive causes.
Pope Francis gets criticism from the left too, since he has not in fact changed Catholic doctrine on any of the moral issues that divide it from progressives.
Francis’s immediate predecessors, Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict, were scholar-intellectuals, who wrote scholarly works. Before them had been several popes who came up through the Vatican diplomatic corps. They were trained, all of them, to weigh their words carefully. The same cannot be said for Francis, whose background is more focused on being a pastor to the people.
The result is that the Pope is more likely to make statements that are very controversial. In June he sweepingly condemned weapons makers who call themselves Christian and then criticized the Allies for not having bombed “the railway lines that brought the trains to the concentration camps.”
In some cases, the Pope’s statements have been taken out of context. Pope Francis did not, in fact, refer to capitalism as the “dung of the devil.” Rather, he was speaking instead of the idolatry of material things.
When it comes to economics, the Pope admits he know little about the subject, which can lead to controversial statements. Francis recently wrote that “the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.” Does this mean businesses should never modernize or mechanize to improve efficiency by reducing labor costs?
More likely, this represents the views of someone whose understanding of economics has been shaped by an Argentinean economy, which is very different from America’s. The capitalism practiced in most of Latin America is based on a few powerful families controlling the entire economy. The current pope knows no other economic system, and seeing the poor of Argentina being forced to live in cardboard boxes on garbage dumps has influenced his views on what he thinks is capitalism.
Pope Francis’s views on the environment have also created controversy. Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the care of the earth, which was widely taken to be a kind of environmentalist manifesto, which combines traditional Church teachings (such as the condemnation of materialism and the need to take care of the poor and weak) with expressions of personal opinion (about, for example, the alleged overuse of air-conditioning).
Needless to say, these statements have been widely supported by liberal Democrats, who were often at odds with the last two Catholic Popes. However, their joy may be fleeting.
Again, it is the influence of the Protestant Reformation that influences Americans more. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, 70.6% of the American population identified themselves as Christians, with 46.5% attending churches that could be considered Protestant, and 20.8% attending or profession Catholic beliefs.
That means that the political influence of the Pope in America is very limited indeed. Although seen by many as a good man, his writings and ideas aren’t considered infallible – even by Catholics.
The result is that some on both sides of the political spectrum will wish to use the comments and writing of Pope Francis for their own political purposes. However, anyone expecting his comments to have a major impact on American politics is mistaken.
General Allen’s Departure Sheds Light on Obama’s Poor Syria Strategy
As the Russians built up their military forces in Syria and stories spread about the American failure to build a moderate Syrian militia, it was announced that Marine General Allen will step down within a few weeks as the State Department’s envoy to the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS.
White House spokesman Earnest said Gen. Allen signed up for a six-month tour, and has been on the job for more than one year. He said the general deserves much credit for forging an international coalition of 62 nations to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
However, others maintain that the Syria strategy has been an abject failure. Last week, a Pentagon official told Congress that the year-old, $500 million plan to train and equip thousands of Syrian fighters had produced “four or five” soldiers.
Retired General Petraeus, who was the architect of the so-called “surge” of U.S. forces in 2007 that helped stabilize Iraq, assailed Obama’s handling of the crisis in Iraq and Syria and faulted U.S. “inaction” for some of the upheaval in Syria that has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to the West. He also suggested the administration’s timid approach in Syria is partly to blame for Russia’s aggressive moves to defend the regime of Syrian President Assad, whom the U.S. wants to step down.
Petraeus offered specific ideas for protecting Syria’s civilian population and taking the fight to the Islamic State more aggressively. He claimed that Mr. Assad’s alleged attacks on civilians, with an arsenal ranging from barrel bombs to chemical weapons, have “been a principal driver of the radicalization” fueling the Islamic State and the refugee crisis.
“Sunni Arabs will not be willing partners against the Islamic State unless we commit to protect them and the broader Syrian population against all enemies, not just ISIS,”
He also called for the outdated idea of establishment of “enclaves” in Syria “protected by coalition airpower” where refugees could find safety. Events on the ground and decisive Russian actions rendered these kind of declarations hallucination of the pretenders…….
According to reliable press reports, President Vladimir Putin has already made major changes in the Russian military role in Syria. No one can yet estimate how many more forces and weapons Russia will provide, but so far Putin’s major actions include: Expanding Russian port facilities in the naval base at Tartus and expanding an airfield south of Latakia into an air base. Deploying 3-4 Su-27 fighters, 12 Su-24 strike fighters, 12 Su-10 close support fighters, and Pchela-1T UAVs. Providing R-166-0.5 (ultra) high-frequency signal (HF/VHF) vehicles with jam-resistant voice and data communications, which have been seen driving through Syria. Providing an unknown number of new artillery weapons, reportedly 152 millimeter (mm) systems.
Netanyahu’s Moscow Meeting
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Vladimir Putin at the Russian president’s Novo-Ogarevo residence near Moscow, with the two leaders reaching agreement on a “joint mechanism” to “prevent misunderstanding between our forces.” Netanyahu’s twin goals seem to be ensuring Russia’s deployments do not strengthen Hezbollah, and gaining clarity about Russian intentions to prevent inadvertent clashes with Israeli forces. Netanyahu’s trip comes amid accelerating Russian military deployments to Syria. News reports suggest that Russia is deploying fighter aircraft and reinforcing its naval base at Tartus with tanks, artillery, and air defense systems, while expanding an airfield near Latakia to host up to 2,000 troops.
Beyond Partisan Bickering: Key Questions About U.S. Strategy in Syria
The second debate between Republican presidential candidates, recent testimonies by the Administration, testimony to bodies like the Senate Armed Service Committee, and statements by more neutral voices like General John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, and General Lloyd Austin III, the Commander of USCENTCOM, at first appear to have little in common. In fact, however, they all find ways to ignore the key issues shaping U.S. strategy in Syria. The Administration ignores the issues by putting a positive spin on a steadily deteriorating situation. Republican candidates and members of Congress ignore them by blaming the Administration for problems that are now beyond its control and by offering half-defined solutions that cannot work. General Allen and General Austin focus on parts of the problem with few public specifics and no clear picture of an overall U.S. strategy and the issues it raises.
Like It or Not, America and Russia Need to Cooperate in Syria
Many outside observers view the Russian military buildup in Syria as a way for President Putin to force his way through to the negotiating table with Barack Obama ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. There is some truth to that. To be effective, diplomacy should be backed by facts on the ground, and Moscow is busy creating them—in the face of mounting U.S. concerns. However, coercive diplomacy is just another form of diplomacy. The current spike in Russia’s involvement in Syria, however, does not need to be linked solely to UNGA. Even without it, Moscow would now be sending more weapons and more instructors to Syria. As the Islamic State has expanded its control over more territory in Syria, it has posed more of a threat to the survival of the Russian-backed regime in Damascus. Thus, Moscow’s Plan A now is to help Bashar al-Assad keep his remaining strongholds; its Plan B is to help him secure the Alawite enclave around Latakia.
Low-Cost Authoritarianism: The Egyptian Regime and Labor Movement Since 2013
Authoritarianism under military auspices has been reimposed in Egypt since mid-2013. The state has outlawed protests, strikes, and sit-ins in the public sphere and has subjected public spaces and private media to tight surveillance. It also has mounted repression of the independent labor movement. When taken together, these factors suggest that the labor movement is likely to wane in the near future. Whether this will last over the long term remains uncertain.
Putin Losing in Ukraine, Looks to Syria
In Ukraine, the Kremlin’s overarching goal has been to bring that country back under Russian control. But as Ukraine has become a stronger state that is integrating itself with the West, the likelihood for the Kremlin’s success is getting smaller every day. In order to distract from this strategic defeat, Russian President Vladimir Putin has increased his military engagement in Syria. In the Kremlin’s view, Syria is another country where the United States and Russia fight for dominance, and it seems that Putin thinks that Syria presents an opportunity to win. The West should tread carefully, and take Moscow’s initiative as a further sign that a major diplomatic push is way past due in Syria – but not on Putin’s terms.
Latakia Is Assad’s Achilles Heel
Over the past few months, the Syrian army has grown weaker and lost many positions, a development that explains Russia’s recent deployment of troops. Previously, Russia had sent only military advisors and technical staff to support the Syrian army. Another key question, however, involves why these troops are being sent to Latakia and not Tartus, site of the official Russian military base. Indeed, this new, strong Russian presence along the northern Syrian coast can be explained by the Assad regime’s weakness in the area, where Alawites no longer constitute a majority.