Summary of the Syrian Conflict, Russian Intervention and What We Should Do About It
As the horrific four year Syrian conflict trudges on with no end in sight, and the majority of the world is twiddling its thumbs and engaging in “pinprick” strikes to quell the violence, one world leader has finally taken decisive action to tip the scales in favor of President Bashar al Assad—Vladimir Putin, President of Russia. After several weeks of moving military forces and equipment to an air base in Latakia, an Assad stronghold, Russia has since struck over a hundred targets inside Syria by airstrike and cruise missile, under the banner of fighting Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) terrorists. Yet, thus far, according to the US State Department, 90% of the Russian airstrikes have targeted Syrian rebel forces backed by the West.
Now, in a war that has claimed nearly 250,000 lives and displaced millions while tearing an entire country to shreds, the worst choice possible seems to be aiding the conflict’s instigator and perhaps its prime violator of human rights. At this point it is inconceivable that Syria and all its sectarian divisions could ever be stabilized under the brutal dictator who has demonstrated such a callous disregard for human life. However, with no other countries stepping up with comprehensive plans to solve the intractable crisis, Putin’s Russia looks like the only candidate to end the chaos.
This necessarily forces the United States into a particularly precarious situation. Can the U.S. backtrack on its condition that Assad must leave power as part of any resolution to the crisis? Should the US increase its support for “moderate” Syrian rebels to stave off their possible defeat in the face of an Assad-Putin alliance that may wipe out any chance of a rebel victory? With a war- weary American public and a presidential election on the horizon, is there any decisive action the US can take to counter Russia’s aggressive posture in Syria?
For now, much of the official American response has been one of indignation and condemnation. Various American officials, including Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, have gone on record calling Putin’s efforts “doomed to fail”. He added that while the Pentagon was willing to hold talks with Russia over how to settle the Syrian conflict, “Our position is clear, that a lasting defeat of ISIL and extremism in Syria can only be achieved in parallel with a political transition in Syria,” effectively stressing the “importance of simultaneously pursuing these two objectives.”
For its part, America has been launching airstrikes against ISIS and other extremist targets inside Syria for a year and has also allocated $500 million dollars to train and equip 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels. However, testimony by General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee revealed this effort had only trained “4 or 5” rebels who were fighting by the time of his testimony. While coalition airstrikes, conducted mostly by American forces, have killed thousands of ISIS militants according to U.S. officials, it is still unclear if they have had any serious effect on degrading their capabilities.
Some have argued that the strikes actually have had a net negative effect since they feed into ISIS’ narrative in which they are fighting Western Imperialism in their bid to establish an Islamic caliphate. ISIS uses footage of the airstrikes in their propaganda to draw in new recruits from around the world. Although estimates tend to vary, it is typically suggested that ISIS has a fighting force of around 30,000 troops who are easily replaced by conscription and recruitment from around the globe.
Aside from claiming that President Assad must be removed from power for a peaceful solution to come to fruition in Syria and condemning Assad’s attacks on his own people, the US has yet to take decisive action to ensure his overthrow.
But before we can assess whether Russia’s intervention is “doomed to fail”, a wise seizing of opportunity or something else altogether, we first must gain a better understanding of the conflict itself.
Most people hear "Civil War" or conflict and assume there are two sides fighting each other. Not so in the case of The Syrian Conflict which has as many as 5 sides fighting, if not more:
First, there is president, Assad, his Alawite minority and assorted tribes (Druze and others) loyal to him and bolstered by Iran, Hezbollah and now Russia. This side is most prominent and is in a fight for its life given the stakes (automatic ouster from power) should it lose. Next, is the aforementioned Islamic State, fighting mostly in Eastern Syria and trying to wrest as much land and weapons as possible away from whomever they can. Bent on satisfying a warped view of their religion, they see no point in reconciliation and systematically target and murder anyone who doesn’t submit to their conception of Islam (which may include subjugation or forced conversion).
The other main faction is comprised of the moderate, secular rebels who are loosely coalesced around the banner of the Free Syrian Army which operates mostly in northern Syria and areas near Damascus. The U.S. has pledged support for this group in particular, and they receive "aid" in the form of the previously described training and humanitarian assistance. For now, they are also the main target of the government forces and lack an air force to defend themselves against Assad’s back attack helicopters and fighter planes.
Another well established, yet lesser known group is the Kurds operating almost exclusively in northern Syria. In the hopes of forming a new independent country, Kurdistan, where they can have political autonomy, they have mobilized to defend their territory and repel any encroachment on their land. They were forced into this position when the government troops left Kurdish regions when the war started. Kurds across the region have been moving and pushing for autonomy for some time now and tend to be marginalized in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. None of those countries like the idea of an independent Kurdistan, because it would probably motivate their Kurdish minorities to seek independence as well. For the most part, the Kurds have proven to be effective in combatting ISIS and have even taken back the city of Kobani, home to a large population of Kurds, in an effort backed by American airstrikes, demonstrating the two groups’ ability to cooperate. In 2014, they declared the cities of Kobani, Efrin, and Cizire cantons in the new “Syrian Kurdistan”.
Lastly, there is Jabhat al Nusra (a branch of al Qaeda) that many would just conflate with ISIS, but which disagrees with ISIS and is competing for the mantle of dominant Islamic fighting force. In fact, this group has sworn off any alliance with ISIS due to the latter’s extreme methods.
For now, while the fighting rages on and analysts predict the long-term outcomes of the war, it is unclear which side will ultimately triumph, or what kind of power-sharing arrangement or division of land will be implemented as part of the solution to the crisis. This great unknown has paralyzed Western leaders who are either too timid or unsure to bring an end to the conflict.
With that being laid out, America needs to chart its best course of action in both the short and long term.
I think we've hesitated on what to do for far too long. Putin has stepped in to ease the discord and, more importantly to him, protect his regional allies as he continues to work to make Russia the superpower of the Eastern Hemisphere, challenging the United States’ world hegemony. I think, regardless of his success, he certainly uses his military in a way that is far wiser than we have, dating back to the Vietnam War. He projects power without sacrificing thousands of soldiers’ lives and trillions of dollars. He steps in to defend and support his allies, and he only gets involved (for now) in situations he knows he can handle at arms-length and in which he won’t face substantial backlash. He also knows he can operate freely in the Middle East without risking severe military backlash (as long as Russian involvement remains in the air), because his country won't be seen as the "Great Satan," thereby preventing it from becoming the top target for international terror attacks.
Let us not forget, Putin was a Lieutenant Colonel in the infamous Russian KGB , and while many analysts are quick to dismiss his actions as misguided and erratic, his service and experience certainly lends to a shrewder understanding of warfare than that of many analysts. So while it’s possible his Syrian strategy may be plagued by folly, and while some perceive his involvement in the Middle East as a distraction from his alleged failures in the conflict in Ukraine, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss his military and strategic acumen.
Which leads me to the Obama administration's completely childish responses. In my mind, this is the international equivalent of shouting and stomping your feet with a spattering of self-righteousness. People in the administration (and their backers) are so convinced "20th century" strategy and diplomacy are outdated because they studied diplomacy and strategy in the ivory towers of Ivy League colleges and not by actually serving in the military. It pains me to listen to the press secretary comment on Russian moves and say things like they are "doomed to fail". Russia is running circles around them strategically, surprising them at every turn. We’ve gone from aimlessly bombing ISIS targets to arranging “de-conflict zones” with the Russians in order to prevent in air-collisions and accidental combat situations, while the Russians are mostly bombing the rebels we’ve committed to supporting. The administration seems to have no idea what Russian intentions are, so how can they call them doomed to fail? I’m not necessarily arguing Putin’s intervention will be successful, but the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate his moves and initiate proactive policies to prevent them is a testament to our disjointed strategy.
Putin tends to say one thing and do another, and it's impossible to get a clear story amidst all the chaos. He imported supplies, troops, and planes and knew there was nothing we could do to stop him. Subsequently, he insisted he was only going to attack ISIS and pulled the military equivalent of “trolling” us when his first targets were secular rebels that we supported and aided. He knows the State department is only making empty threats when they question his moves. We're not going to do a thing that might upset him, but I must add, rightfully so. There would be no reason for us to start a huge war with Russia over the conflict in Syria. The problem here is we let the conflict simmer for too long without taking decisive action and allowed Putin to assume the primary role as crisis-solver even if his approach to ending the crisis involves a significant amount of bloodshed.
I feel that it’s important to note how quickly Putin made an accord with Iran and Iraq over confronting ISIS. Iran and Iraq are two of our "allies" on which our two previous administrations (Bush-Iraq and Obama-Iran) expended TONS of diplomatic capital (and literal capital) to make them our regional partners. However, both IMMEDIATELY signed a deal with Russia after Russia took on an active role in the conflict. It just seems like Putin and the Russians are trying to get things done, while we sit on the sidelines and “lead from behind”.
Which brings me to what should the US do?
For starters, I'm a big fan of the no fly zone over refugee camps. We say we don't like Assad, and he's the only one with airpower in the conflict. He's barrel bombing the people he doesn't like including thousands of civilians. The least we could do with our superior air force would be to give the refugees (non-combatants) cover in designated areas (and who knows, maybe this would stem the tide of immigrants fleeing).
Next, we ensure that whatever air operations we conduct grants territorial integrity and protection to the stable countries around Syria (Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). We can't risk any of the turmoil spilling into their territories and causing more issues, so we should launch airstrikes on troops that attempt to disrupt those borders (ISIS doesn't recognize borders and seek to cause chaos and turmoil wherever they can, so this is mainly targeted at them.)
We should also start backing the Kurds whether our other "allies" (see above where they dropped us for Russia) like it or not. Kurdish territory is mostly stable and secure in a region becoming more and more defined by chaos. They display a degree of inclusion and tolerance not seen in the countries in which they have been marginalized. Their fighting forces include both women and men, and their land is inhabited not just by Kurds but by christians and other regional minorities who are treated as equals. Helping them create an autonomous state would yield a stable country in a highly unstable region that would (should) be forever in our debt. Now is the perfect opportunity to help the Kurds of Syria, given the free-for-all that currently defines the country.
Lastly, we should probably look for some way out of the conflict that doesn't include our explicit endorsement of Assad, but perhaps, an implicit one. If we aren’t going to involve ourselves directly with boots on the ground, as I imagine no serious administration official, politician or military leader wants, our only option other than “pinprick” (in the words of the President) airstrikes is to sit out the conflict until Russia tires of it. We can never bring ourselves to support a murderous dictator and cannot come to his side. But realistically, he may be in the best position to recreate a stable government given that we’d never tolerate an ISIS or Al Qaeda backed regime. We've already given Putin the opportunity to seize control of the situation. It remains to be seen if he is doomed to fail or, what I suspect is more likely, capable of propping up Assad to the point that he can recreate a new Syria. This new Syria would consist of the Western regions of old Syria and turn Eastern Syria into some no-man’s-land like parts of Iraq and Afghanistan and would ultimately gets ruled by terrorists. But we must resign ourselves to the fact that there is nothing we can do about it.
The conflict in Syria is complicated and fraught. Long term solutions seem to be just that--long term and moreover, unknown. Russia seems to have some direction and is working to preserve its interests, yet we are hesitant to effectively defend ours. But for now, there are certain decisive actions we can take that would further our own interests, especially in the realms of promoting freedom and democracy. We can strengthen our allies’ positions while working to build stability piece by piece in a conflict that has cost far too many lives.