Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Russian Syria Game?

What has Russia learned in the last couple of years?

Well, for one, it knows that the Russian people will always take nationalism over economic self interest. Putin, who seems to have a drive to make Russia great again, has found in Crimea and eastern Ukraine - and earlier Georgia - that he can slowly, bit by bit, get what he wants by force of arms. If he is modest in his moves and patient in his timeline, no one will oppose him.

It is clear that the only Russian client state in the Mediterranean for now is Syria. With the wind at their backs, there is no reason the Russians should let that government and the access it allows Russia, to fall. The time has long past for the West to do anything about Syria's Assad government. 

In a calculus best known to Russia, it appears that it is time for them to move aggressively to shore up Assad. How far will the Russians take it? Odds are, just enough to get what they want. With a newly enriched and emboldened post-nuke deal Iran also helping Assad with her proxies in tow - Russia does not have to do it all; just enough.

Over at FP, Jeffery Lewis is having some fun with a little under the table OSINT;
The satellite image shows far more than prefabricated housing and an air traffic control station. It shows extensive construction of what appears to be a military canton at Bassel al-Assad International Airport (named for Bashar’s elder brother, who died in a car accident in 1994). This canton appears designed to support Russian combat air operations from the base and may serve as a logistical hub for Russian combat forces.

In recent days, using aircraft tracking sites, a number of analysts have begun to document the near-daily arrival of Russian transport planes to the base. The Russians are also sending ships to Syria, though the ships often declare for a nearby non-Syrian port, like Port Said in Egypt, and then take a wrong turn at Albuquerque, so to speak.
What Russia has done, however, is make it clear that it will not let Assad fall. He can’t win, but Russia won’t let him lose. That dooms Syria to what looks like endless war, as Assad fights to the last man. There are those who see Syria as a quagmire for Putin, a kind of matched pair to our own folly in Iraq; just as Washington collectively saw Afghanistan as payback for Vietnam. I am not so sanguine.

So this column does not have a neat and tidy ending. And that is because I am not sure that it is now possible to save Syria. There is no path to resurrect a state that is failing, not so long as Putin has decided to do whatever it takes to preserve Assad’s awful regime and condemn Syria to endless conflict.
To play Devil's/Putin's advocate for a bit here; what is the realistic option besides Assad for Syria? Is there a place where in a cold view of the reality on the ground, that Assad is the best bad option not just for Russia and Iran, but for Western Europe and the USA too?

First of all, the Kurds are for the Kurds, and that is fine. They are more important than Sykes–Picot, and there is no reason for them to do anything against Assad as their front lines are against the Islamic State. Once they solidify historically Kurdish areas, they will stop.

The Sunni Syrians have thrown away any right for moral high ground by throwing in with the Islamic State. The only Sunni formations effectively fighting IS are other radical Islamists. The only forces left in Syria besides the Kurds that respects religious plurality, minority rights, and secularism are ... Assad's forces. If Assad falls, it will look like the fall of Cambodia with Shia, Christian, Druze and others flooding the sand with blood. Even worse that that slaughter will be an expanded and further emboldened Islamic State.

We threw away any chance for a viable and defensible opposition to Assad that didn't have a beard, when we joked about JV teams, and when 16-months ago President Obama glibly stated;
Twice in the past month, President Obama has referred to the Syrian opposition in what some have taken as disparaging terms: “farmers or teachers or pharmacists” or “farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters.” He made these references in the context of trying to explain why military assistance from the United States has not been effective in molding a strong force of fighters.
He forgot, or doesn't care, that the American Revolution was led by farmers, lawyers, doctors, and printers.

Anyway, this is not an option anymore. Those people are now dead, in some rail car outside Vienna, or wearing a beard and burning people in cages.

So, Russia looks to be joining the war against the Islamic State ... or at least those who threaten Assad including Jabhat Al Nusra and other Islamists rebels.

Check out the lastest from the ISW for the details, but the ground game is clear. It wouldn't take too much to clean up the lines in the western part of Syria and then start to push east. If the Western part remains stable, that may relax refugee pressures on Europe unless, of course, they become mostly Sunni refugees that cannot find a home in the rest of Sunni Arabia.

The Syrian civil war has been so nasty from the medieval Islamic State's actions, I'm not sure how the rest of Syria will be able to co-exist with the Sunni Arabs when it is all done should Assad survive. We all know what will happen to Shia, Christians, Druze and others if the Islamic State wins.

Pick a side.

OK. Maybe we should just get out of their way. Let the Iranians and Russians kill Sunni Arab Islamists in the west of Syria while we kill them in the east. How about this: we'll kill them east of the Euphrates and south of road from Nassib in the southwest, through Damascus to Deir ez-Zur on the Euphrates. The Russians, Syrians, and Iranian proxies can kill them in the rest. Once they are done in the north and west, we can just do CAS for the Kurds on the front lines of their frontier as we all push IS forces in to the Iraqi desert.

There, I've deconflicted the airspace for everyone. End game? TBD.

Until then, happy hunting.

As I said over a year ago; if you want to understand what the dynamic is in Syria, you are better off watching Game of Thrones.

A final note, Lewis can't help himself with a little political Tourette syndrome that otherwise sullies some solid pondering in his article;
And there is surely more we can do to shelter the millions of refugees now fleeing the conflict. Having helped create this mess with the invasion of Iraq and subsequent failure to stop the bloodshed in Syria, the United States and its European allies have an obligation to assist these people. This is especially true of those countries that were the loudest supporters of the invasion of Iraq. Coalition of the Still Willing, right? That includes you, Hungary.
Why? We helped create this no more than the Soviet Union, Ba'ath Party, the Nassarites, the Ottoman Empire, the Arab armies of Mohammed, the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the ancient Egyptians or any of the gaggle from the Old Testament.

Who is responsible? The Arabs, that is who. Who has the primary obligation to take refugees? The Arabs. Similar culture, religion, and "civil" society.

Lewis, still suffering BDS after all these years. Sad, rots what otherwise seems a solid mind.

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