I just watched CNN go full Breaking News, all-hands-on-deck about the Russian airstrikes in Syria today and the very real concern about having NATO and Russia both running non-coordinated air operations over a single country, albeit at least for now different parts of the same country. There was lots of heavy breathing and dramatic music. But the whole thing brought home to me not simply the incoherence of our own Syria policy but the incoherence of the entire world’s Syria policy.
At the moment we are against both sides in the Syrian Civil War. It’s true that there are more forces in play than just the Assad regime and ISIS. There are various rebel groups of different shades of radicalism, some of whom we support. But in essence we are not only against the two most dynamic sides in the conflict, we’ve defined both sides as threatening the vital strategic interests of United States. On top of this, we rightly define the vast numbers of refugees streaming out of Syria as not only a humanitarian crisis but a threat to regional stability of various of our allies in the region. Holding on to all of these goals or beliefs or red lines together makes no sense. It’s really that simple. The Obama administration and more importantly the world community is simply in denial about the situation and unwilling to entertain the distinct possibility that not only may Assad not be going anywhere but that Assad’s staying in power and reconsolidating power may be the best of the very bad options on offer.
Assad killed civilians and used nerve gas? Fine. It’s not 2012 anymore. What is your better option? A fairy dust post-Assad regime cannot simply be conjured out of the air.
But back to CNN for a second.
After the first lead-ins Wolf Blitzer had a discussion with Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in the mid-90s (basically top US commander in Europe) and Julia Ioffe, a gifted writer and Russian emigre.
It was a relief to see Joulwan, a seasoned military man who has real experience dealing with the USSR/Russian military inject some sanity and knowledge into the discussion. As Joulwan made clear, the Russians have reasons beyond trying to get in our faces (which is certainly also happening) to be concerned about not just ISIS but all the Islamist rebel groups operating in Syria. He argued, not unreasonably, that they are a greater threat to Russia than the US.
This observation was quickly pooh-poohed by Ioffe in what one would have to generously call warmed-over and swaggery maniachean/humanitarian nonsense-speak. The Russians have deep ties to the Assad regime, their only genuine ally in the Middle East region and the host of their only Mediterranean naval base. As we’ve seen over the course of the Syrian Civil War, it is quite unrealistic to imagine the Russians will let the Assad regime fall if it can do anything to prevent it. Today’s escalation seems to say very clearly that Russia will at a minimum not allow Assad’s regime – now controlling only part of Syria – to fall. As Joulwan made clear – Joulwan being a military professional who actually knows something about military-to-military coordination, the Russian military and security issues outside the preening Beltway – the Russians are there and we need to take very rapid steps to make sure we don’t have some accident which leads to a uncontrollable and possibly cataclysmic crisis between Russia and the United States.
To which Ioffe replied, in essence, how can we coordinate with the Russians when they have opposite interests and they’re bad …
US interests in Syria seem to me as follows: a) to avoid direct involvement with ground operations which would likely be counterproductive and which we cannot afford in any case. b) prevent the consolidation of a revisionist Islamist regime like ISIS c) cauterize the conflict and prevent it from becoming the seat of proxy wars between outside players and d) for humanitarian reasons and to prevent the destabilization of allied regional governments avoid a refugee crisis.
On many levels the horse has already left the barn on c) and d). It’s close to it on b). We’ve only avoided a).
This is clearly a dangerous situation precisely because the current Russian regime is aggressive and reckless. We know that from Ukraine. It is tempting to say that it is a dangerous regime atop a degenerate culture. But there’s no point in engaging that debate. All of this is a reason to avoid pundit chest thumping and other nonsense. Before the Joulwan/Ioffe exchange one pundit in the CNN package said that Putin was threatening to kick the US out of the Middle East!! – a painfully ridiculous claim. Ioffe connected Joulwan’s reference to Russian ground air defense weaponry, which Russia is using to help Assad, to the shoot down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. That is something that sounds like a chilling point until you realize it’s a total non-sequitur whipped together to sound good on TV.
Realism as a foreign policy vision is sometimes rightly critiqued as amoral and not up to the challenge of American values. Except when you see the poverty and intellectual flabbiness and preening of so many of the alternatives.