Thursday, February 11, 2016

America’s Latest Freefall in the Middle East

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to roast American support for the Kurdish fighters who have taken on ISIS, one of the few ground forces willing to try. To Erdoğan, these Kurds – who have been struggling within Turkey for autonomy – are his ‘terrorists.’ Despite Erdoğan’s pledges to join the fight against ISIS, virtually all of Turkish military efforts in the region have been directed against these Kurds… to the delight of Sunni extremist ISIS.
Sunni Erdoğan is equally adamant that the cruel Assad regime (part of a 10% Shiite minority in an overwhelmingly Sunni Syria) has to go as a part of regional stability. This admonition, at least, is consistent with US policies. Meanwhile, the other folks willing to deploy ground forces against ISIS are Shiites troops from Iraq (which is squarely in Iran’s sphere of influence now) with a smattering of Iranian irregulars deployed by Tehran. Not a great combination, especially as other Sunni powers in the region, under Saudi leadership, are more concerned with fighting Shiite terrorists (Houthis) in Yemen than battling ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
But what really makes this mess close to such a disaster for the United States is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has aligned himself with Assad, has great relations with Iran and has even cozied up to Erdoğan (despite Putin’s position on Assad)… and has lent the full force and power of his air force (pictured above) in a massive bombing campaign in support of Assad and his government against Syrian rebels (non-ISIS folks seeking a way out from Assad’s repression).
We had always assumed that such Russian efforts were doomed to failure in light of the overwhelming unpopularity of Assad and his cronies almost everywhere in Syria. Apparently, we underestimated the effectiveness of the Russian intervention. Russia has turned the tide against the rebels, who are dying in droves, from the bombing or simply from a rather complete lack of medical and food supplies. Assad must be cackling.
The United States has been trying to keep all the parties (other than ISIS) to the Syrian conflict at the negotiating table, but with Russian help, Assad’s forces are finding little reason to talk when they are winning on the battlefield. “For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.
“But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded [February 10th], ‘just not our solution,’ but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“That is what Secretary of State John Kerry faces as he enters a critical negotiation over a cease-fire and the creation of a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to relieve starving Syrians besieged in more than a dozen cities, most by Mr. Assad’s forces. The Russian military action has changed the shape of a conflict that had effectively been stalemated for years. Suddenly, Mr. Assad and his allies have momentum, and the United States-backed rebels are on the run. If a cease-fire is negotiated here, it will probably come at a moment when Mr. Assad holds more territory, and more sway, than since the outbreak of the uprisings in 2011.” New York Times, February 10th.
Simply put, the anti-Assad rebel forces are losing and losing badly. But the US has so built its policy on ousting Assad, which Putin has flagrantly resisted, that it is the United States that has lost the most credibility in the region. And Putin has simply learned that the US is a paper tiger when he wants to use his military, a bad sign in Ukraine and other CIS territories where Russia has territorial ambitions.
“Testifying on Capitol Hill on [February 9th], the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, offered a sobering picture of Russia’s success, even if it proves a temporary one. ‘Putin is the first leader since Stalin to expand Russia’s territory, he told a Senate committee. In Russia’s first major overseas military effort since its humiliation in Afghanistan 35 years ago, he said, ‘Its interventions demonstrate the improvements in Russian military capabilities and the Kremlin’s confidence in using them.’” NY Times.
But we seem to have no cards to play anymore, and innocent Syrians in the war zone are dying as victims in a struggle that has no good solutions for them. “As Mr. Kerry arrived [in Munich] for another meeting of the 17 nations that agreed last fall on principles for a political solution, several of Washington’s own allies complained bitterly about American policy, saying the United States is absent while the Russians change the nature of the situation on the ground.
“Mr. Kerry enters the negotiations with very little leverage: The Russians have cut off many of the pathways the C.I.A. has been using for a not-very-secret effort to arm rebel groups, according to several current and former officials. Mr. Kerry’s supporters inside the administration say he has been increasingly frustrated by the low level of American military activity, which he views as essential to bolstering his negotiation effort.
“Publicly, Mr. Kerry is circumspect about his dilemma. ‘We are all very, very aware of how critical this moment is,’ he said on [February 9th]… His colleagues in the administration, however, fear that a three-month-long effort to begin the political process is near collapse. If it fails, it will force Mr. Kerry and President Obama, once again, to consider their Plan B: a far larger military effort, directed at Mr. Assad. But that is exactly the kind of conflict that Mr. Obama has spent five years trying to avoid, especially when any ground campaign would rely on forces led by a fractious group of opposition leaders that he distrusts.
“Without a political solution or a stepped-up military effort, the United States is not only left with little influence over the course of the Syrian civil war, but without a viable strategy to bring all of the warring parties together to fight the Islamic State.
“As Mr. Kerry arrived here for another meeting of the 17 nations that agreed last fall on principles for a political solution, several of Washington’s own allies complained bitterly about American policy, saying the United States is absent while the Russians change the nature of the situation on the ground.” NY Times. As substantial contributors to the regional instability that has given rise to all this turmoil, we are short on answers. Russia has filled the void.
Prior to the conference, and addressing both the Syrian rebellion and the growth of ISIS, “Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev raised the specter of an interminable or a world war if powers failed to negotiate an end to the conflict in Syria and warned against any ground operations by U.S. and Arab forces.
“Medvedev, speaking to Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper on the eve of talks between major powers on Syria in Munich, said the United States and Russia must exert pressure on all sides in the conflict to secure a ceasefire… Asked about Saudi Arabia's offer last week to supply ground troops if a U.S.-led operation were mounted against Islamic State, he said:… ‘This is bad as a ground offensive usually turns the war into a permanent one. Just look at what happened in Afghanistan and many other countries.’
“‘The Americans and our Arab partners must think well: do they want a permanent war?’ It would be impossible to win such a war quickly, he said according to a German translation of his words, ‘especially in the Arab world, where everybody is fighting against everybody.’” Reuters, February 11th. Hey America, you can’t win this one, and we are the new boyz on the block anyway, he seemed to say.
So on February 11th, the best the US could extract was a ceasefire and immediate humanitarian access to besieged areas. The rebels are going to have to live with the “no change in government” for the foreseeable future that the Russians fomented… and the potential of future retaliation from the Assad regime. Subject to the battle with ISIS, Assad is otherwise now firmly in power. USA – Minus one; Russia – Plus two. And Bashir Assad doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Sending US ground forces into this mess risks a direct shooting war with Russia and gives ISIS their cherished direct confrontation with the US military. Given our past track record in the region, we were and are left with nothing but bad choices.

I’m Peter Dekom, and this mess is all the more challenging in a year of presidential candidates with big mouths, very little experience and stupid proposed solutions that will never work.

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