This week, Alpher discusses whether there is even the possibility of progress regarding Syria at the UN; how to characterize Putin’s “take” on the region; how this approach contrasts with Obama’s; assuming Russia and the US do not join forces in Syria, what Russia’s military options are; where Israel is in this picture
Q. Middle East-related speeches at the annual UN General Assembly summit appear to be focusing on Syria and virtually ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Do you at least see a possibility of progress regarding Syria?
A. Note that at the time of writing, both PA President Abbas and PM Netanyahu had yet to speak at the UN and that Abbas was likely to dwell solely on the Palestinian issue and Netanyahu to a large extent on the Iran nuclear deal. (We’ll try to address what they say about these issues in next week’s Q & A.) Still, one key reason for the focus on Syria is that in recent weeks that country has become a theater of warfare where both US and Russian military forces are active. This is unprecedented; you have to go back to the Cold War to find circumstances in any way similar.
Another obvious reason is the European crisis with “Syrian refugees”. True, most of the throngs of people making their way from Turkey toward Germany are not Syrians and most are poor job-seekers--technically not refugees. But the crisis has certainly focused the minds of many world leaders on Syria.
As for progress, one must credit Russia’s President Putin with persuading other international and Middle East leaders to at least begin to consider the possibility that Syrian President Assad could be part not only of the problem--but of the solution as well. We have begun to hear heavily qualified remarks to that effect--allowing at least a possible transition role for Assad--from the leaders of the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, all of whom are central actors regarding Syria. If nothing else, this reflects the fact that the American-led air coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has thus far made relatively little progress militarily.
This in turn explains why Putin’s call for an even broader coalition that expands that led by the US to include Syria, Iran/Hezbollah and Iraq as well will probably have to at least be addressed by Washington and its regional and European allies. Note that Putin has just firmed up these regional Shiite partners into an intelligence alliance, and that Iraq’s inclusion takes place virtually under Washington’s military-intelligence nose. Note, too, that Obama agreed to meet Putin (at the UN) for the first time in two years, having avoided precisely such a meeting because of Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine and Moscow’s unilateral annexation of Crimea. At a minimum, the Russian military presence in Latakia has forced Washington to take notice and hear how Putin views the situation.
Q. You seem to be implying that Moscow may be reading the Levant situation better than Washington. How do you characterize Putin’s “take” on the region.
A. Certainly there are Arab affairs experts in Israel and elsewhere who think that Putin has a better grasp on Middle East realities. On the other hand, precisely because Russia is (still?) a minor player in the region compared to the US, it is only fair to note that Putin’s policies have in most cases not yet been tested.
Putin’s Middle East “reality” appears to comprise the following core beliefs and strategic insights. First and foremost, because Russia itself faces the threat of Sunni Muslim extremism (terrorism inside Russia; more than 2,000 jihadists fighting in the Middle East and likely to return home eventually), it prefers, like the US, to counter that threat at its source abroad, in the Levant. And because Shiite Muslim extremism is not perceived as a threat to Russia where there are no Shiites, Moscow seeks (unlike the US) to galvanize Shiite allies--Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq, Allawite-led Syria--for an “intelligence-sharing” coalition in the region. It even allows itself, in the spirit of hard-nosed realpolitik and unlike the US, to ignore Iranian and Hezbollah-sponsored terrorism.
Second, Putin believes that US strategy in the region is mistaken: democracy-promotion and international coalition-building have failed. In Libya and Iraq, even in Yemen, this approach led to dangerous fragmentation and violence. “Do you realize what you have done?” Putin asked the West rhetorically in his UN speech this week? Here is another reason why he supports Syria’s Assad, warts and all, and is apparently prepared to use the force of Russian arms to keep him in power. Meanwhile he can argue that international legitimacy is on the Russians’ side since they are in Syria at the invitation of that country’s sovereign government and with the approval of their own parliament.
Third, Putin perceives Syria as an arena where he can restore some of Russia’s superpower prestige at western expense. His force-building investment in and around Latakia is thus far minimal and cheap. He can snicker at the American failure to create a serious “moderate” Syrian anti-regime military force and at the US and Turkish failure to neutralize an “ISIL-free zone” in northern Syria. And he can project authoritarian indifference toward Europe’s current refugee crisis which, after all, has been generated first and foremost by Russia’s ally Assad.
Finally, Putin appears to be very careful regarding Israel. He readily spoke early last week with PM Netanyahu about instituting some measure of coordination between Russian and Israeli military activity in Syria. He does not invite Israel into his projected international coalition. He does not apply pressure on the Palestinian issue. Ostensibly, he is not asking Israel to “choose” as long as Netanyahu maintains caution and minimalism in protecting Israeli interests in the Syria-Lebanon arena.
Q. How does this approach contrast with Obama’s?
A. Putin leads with force, then invokes cynical realpolitik. Obama is far more oriented toward promoting human rights internationally and galvanizing broad coalitions rather than going it alone militarily. Obama continues to call for Assad’s removal because the Syrian leader’s hands are drenched in the blood of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Obama sees Assad as a major cause of the conflict; Putin sees Assad as an anti-terrorist ally. Obama’s coalition combats the Islamic State while asserting that Assad must be removed in order to begin healing Syria. Putin wants a coalition dedicated to supporting Assad. And in the Ukraine, while Russia applies force stealthily to achieve its aims, the US and the EU apply sanctions, thus far without significant results in the field though they have definitely hurt Russia economically and perhaps even provoked the Russian deployment in Latakia.
Q. Assuming Russia and the US do not join forces in Syria, what are Russia’s military options?
A. Well-informed Russian experts point to a broad spectrum of options. They range from sitting tight in Latakia and helping protect “Useful Syria” (Damascus, the Mediterranean coast and a strip of land abutting Lebanon and including Homs and Hama that joins them) from the “terrorists” until further notice, to various degrees of combat against IS or more moderate anti-Assad rebels, all the way to inviting China to send troops as well. The latter option would reflect growing Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation and Beijing’s own concern with Uigur Muslim fighters from western China joining IS. Another conceivable scenario is a grand US-Russian trade-off recognizing one another’s interests in both the Ukraine and Syria, thereby reducing tensions in both arenas.
One key constraint on Putin’s freedom of maneuver is the memory of Afghanistan, where in the late 1980s Russian forces suffered heavy losses at the hands of Afghan militias armed by Saudi Arabia and the CIA--a trauma that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. (Putin is undoubtedly well aware that Obama has not yet succeeded in extricating US armed forces from the Afghanistan quagmire.) Another constraint is the danger of Russia alienating the entire Sunni Muslim world by allying itself with the Shiites, who make up no more than 15 percent of global Islam. These constraints militate against the deployment by Russia of any significant ground forces and in favor of limiting Russian actions to salvaging the “Useful Syria” Alawite-led rump state that comprises about one-quarter of sovereign Syria.
Q. And where is Israel in this picture?
A. One Levant-related area where Putin and Obama appear to see eye-to-eye concerns Israel, which neither mentioned in their UNGA speeches and neither wants to see in Syria. But note that Netanyahu takes issue with the inclination of both Obama and Putin to prioritize the fight against IS and ignore or tactically minimalize the fact that Iran continues to lead a Shiite coalition that actively targets Israel. Here is one issue where the potential for Russian-US cooperation in the Levant could prove troubling for Jerusalem.
Still, assuming neither Russia nor the US now escalates its military activity in Syria, both preferring a kind of status quo stalemate billed as “mowing the lawn”, and assuming both restrain Iran and its Shiite legions and proxies from targeting Israel, Jerusalem can live with the situation. This is a likely scenario, even if US Secretary of State Kerry, who is far more of a diplomatic activist than Obama, takes a variety of initiatives concerning not only Syria but Israeli-Palestinian relations as well. Note that Netanyahu met recently with Putin to discuss Syria and put into place a military coordination mechanism, and that an Obama-Netanyahu meeting projected for November will likely focus on US strategic support for Israel as it deals with the twin threats on its northern borders: both (Shiite) Iran/Hezbollah and the Sunni Islamist militants.