As I’ve posted on a couple of time (here | here), the Obama administration has failed at having any impact whatsoever on ISIS, other than encouraging its growth, while Russia has extended its power into the region has had to resort to internet trolling as a policy. Their line is that Putin is getting bogged down in Syria and that he really isn’t all that smart.
There is increasing evidence that not only is Putin a pretty sharp guy but he actually has a plan to get what he wants. And the feckless Obama administration is going along with him.
America’s traditional Middle East allies, having run out of patience with President Barack Obama’s policy in Syria, are now reaching out to a resurgent Russia — even though it is bolstering the very dictator so many of them have pushed to leave power.
Some in Washington see the new ties as a threat to U.S. interests, especially because the U.S. has worked since the 1970s to keep Russian influence out of the Middle East. But the Obama administration sees an opportunity. The State Department is now quietly encouraging U.S. allies to engage with Moscow, as part of Secretary John Kerry’s quest to win Russian support for a political process in Syria.
Kerry is the main U.S. official still arguing for cooperation with Russia to start peace talks that could resolve the Syrian civil war. But the Russian response has been consistently to rebuke Kerry’s offers. Since Kerry began his latest diplomacy push in the spring, the Russians have sent tanks, bombers and soldiers to Syria. The Russian air force has focused its bombing on the U.S.-backed opposition instead of the Islamic State, the terrorists whom Kerry believes present a common enemy for Russia and the U.S.
This view is nonsense. Russia is more than capable of handling terrorists at home, no matter how many people it has to kill in the process. Russia is playing a geo-strategic game aimed at permanently winkling the United States out of the Middle East and making itself the go-to power in the region. The funny thing, even Ashton Carter seems to realize this. From Carter’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee when he announced US forces were returning to direct combat in Iraq and Syria:
Let me now turn to Russia’s involvement in Syria. To be clear, we are not cooperating with Russia, and we are not letting Russia impact the pace or scope of our campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. While we negotiated a document on safety of flight with the Russian Ministry of Defense, we do not align ourselves more broadly with their military actions, because instead of singularly attacking ISIL they are primarily attacking the Syrian opposition, which further fuels the tragic civil war there. Their actions suggest a doubling-down on their longstanding relationship with Assad – sending advisers, artillery, and aviation to enable and support the Assad regime and Iranian forces in attacking moderates who oppose the regime and are essential to Syria’s political transition. And it appears the vast majority of their strikes – by some estimates as high as 85-90% – use dumb bombs, which obviously increases the possibility of civilian casualties.
So, as Russia acts in a coalition of two with only Iran at its side, the United States will continue to strengthen our 65-nation global coalition. Even as we’ve reached an understanding with the Russians on safety protocols for coalition pilots over Syria, we will keep prosecuting our counter-ISIL campaign unabated. We will keep supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, along with our other commitments to friends and allies in the region. And, consistent with our strong and balanced approach toward Russian aggression elsewhere in the world, including NATO and Ukraine, we will keep the door open for Russia to contribute to efforts toward a political solution, which in the final analysis is the only answer to the Syrian conflict.
The administration and Russia disagree on Assad’s fate.
Nevertheless, Kerry has been pushing forward with his plan to convince Russia to be a partner in stabilizing the Middle East. He convened a meeting in Vienna last Friday between the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and expressed optimism the four countries could work together on Syria.
“While we can agree to disagree on what and when might occur with respect to the resolution of the Assad problem, we clearly can agree on a process that helps to bring about a resolution of that question. And that is a very important starting place,” Kerry said.
After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his remarks to the press briefly focused on common objectives Russia shared with the U.S. But Lavrov used the opportunity mainly to launch into a broad criticism of U.S. policy in the region. He complained about the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya and said that Russia would never support a plan that included regime change in Damascus.
“I have already heard rumors that deals are being or will be made here that in a certain time period President Assad will go,” he said. “All this is not so.”
Why won’t Russia get rid of Assad? Logically they should. Assad is not a particular effective ally and replacing him with someone only a little less genocidal could probably increase the area under the control of the Syrian government by a third. They won’t because getting rid of Assad is a US policy objective and letting the US win even a little bit is not part of Putin’s plan. While Kerry seems to be under the illusion that he is negotiating, all he’s actually doing is dickering over the terms of American surrender.
The Saudis are turning to Russia.
The Saudis have been at least our nominal allies for a half-century, but the end to that relationship is in sight.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington and former intelligence chief, said as much Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. There he gave President Vladimir Putin credit for outmaneuvering the U.S. and said Russia was now in a position to demand attention and respect.
“Putin is a man who has done so much harm to innocent people throughout the area in Syria. But I must also consider that he is the head of a state, and that state is a big state, and he feels that state should have a decision-making role in the world,” he said. “And we have to deal with him. And it’s not that you ignore him or cast him off as a megalomaniac. He has a vision of the world and a strategy to put that vision in place.”
The Saudis are directly threatened by ISIS, which practices a form of Islam that would be instantly recognizable to any Saudi citizen, and Iran. A Russian presence tamps down the ISIS threat. More importantly, the Iranians acting under Russian direction are much less of a threat to Saudi Arabia than an Iran operating on its own.
The Jordanians and Iraqis are turning to Russia.
On the same day as the Vienna meeting, Russia signed an agreementwith Jordan to coordinate militarily against the Islamic State. The next day, Kerry traveled to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria with leaders there. (Putin didn’t have to go to Saudi Arabia; the Saudi defense minister had visited Moscow earlier this month.) And while Kerry was in the region, the government of Iraq announced it had given Russia the green light to begin airstrikes there too, over U.S. objections.
Israel and Egypt are turning to Russia.
American allies who are not active in multilateral diplomacy over Syria have been establishing closer ties to Moscow as well. This month, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to see Putin,Israel established a hotline with Russia’s military to avoid an accidental confrontation between their forces. After Egyptian President Abdel el-Sisi visited Putin in August, he pledged Egypt would work with Moscow against the Islamic State.
The Indirect Approach and a once in a century opportunity.
Before World War I, British strategist, Basil Liddell-Hart advocated what he called The Indirect Approach. It had two priniciples, a) direct attacks against an enemy firmly in position almost never work and should never be attempted, and b) to defeat the enemy one must first upset his equilibrium, which is not accomplished by the main attack, but must be done before the main attack can succeed. In his words, “In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender’s hold by upsetting his balance.”
What we are seeing is Putin using this strategy to profound effect. On paper, the contest between the US/EU and Russia should be a joke. Russia is a miserable Third World piss-ant country with a cratering birthrate, moribund economy, kleptocratic government and a crapload of nukes. But by raising the odds of conflict Russia has been able to accomplish a lot. Ukraine is never going to be part of either the EU or NATO, Crimea being ripped away from it is merely icing on the cake. Latvia and Estonia are being very reticent because they know what was done to Ukraine could be done to them.
The Obama administration’s string of egregious blunders (withdrawal from Iraq, allowing ISIS to grow, overthrowing Ghadafi, and overthrowing Mubarrak) upset the balance of power in the region and made being a US ally much more of a liability than an asset. The attempt to overthrow long-time Russian client, Bashar Assad, convinced the Russians that their national interests were being threatened. They could object but did not have the strength to challenge the US directly.
Then two things happened. The Russians used the role of US interlocutor with Iran in the Iran nuclear weapons deal to create a bilateral relationship whereby Iran got what it wanted (nukes and protection in the UN Security Council) and Iran acted to destabilize the Iraq government and shore up Syria.
This is not to say that all of this is part of a grand design. Far from it, Russia is playing an opportunistic game and because Putin’s OODA Loop is much smaller than that of any possible opponent it is able to move faster and seize chances not available to others. When one combines Putin’s realpolitik with Obama’s dislike and distrust of American power you have the ingredients of a strategic rout… which is what is happening.
Without actually forcing a confrontation with the United States, Putin is slowly and irrevocably evicting the United States from the Middle East. Our allies are turning to Putin because they know they cannot turn to Obama. Before this is over we will see the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean closed to US forces and existing inside a Russian sphere of influence.