Screenshot of Russian Mi-24P Hind Attack Helicopters filmed operating over Syria
The following was first published to Sic Semper Tyrannis. It is republished here with permission of the author. Dr. Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.). He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas until 2012. He writes a column for The Huffington Post which can be found here.
The Middle East almost always has been near the top of the American foreign policy agenda. Balancing commitment to Israel’s welfare with the high value placed on support for oil-rich Arab states has been one challenge. Reconciling rhetorical dedication to democracy promotion and human rights with a pragmatic recognition of friendly despotisms has been another. Hostile relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran added one more stressful element. Then the rise of radical jihadist movements and the phenomenon of transnational terrorism came to the fore. That turbulent mix has been stirred into a maelstrom by dramatic events – some initiated by the United States itself. Occupation of Afghanistan in response to 9/11, invasion and occupation of Iraq, the region-wide Global War on Terror, the Arab Spring, and capped by the unprecedented menace of ISIL.
Consequently, Washington officials face a uniquely complex policy field that places extraordinary demands of a strategic and diplomatic nature.
Surveying the present state of affairs, the observer is struck by the elements of contradiction in objective conditions and in the American policies intended to address them. Indeed, contradiction is the outstanding feature of the United States’ engagements in the Middle East. The swift Russian intervention into Syria exacerbates every one of the contradictory elements in Washington’s various, unintegrated Middle East policies. That is one reason the unexpected moves by Putin are deeply unsettling. They not only add a major variable, but that factor also involves a self-willed player ready and able to take initiatives which are not predictable or easy to counter. An already fluid field of action, thereby, is rendered even more turbulent by orders of magnitude.
Another, related reason is that since the United States has no comprehensive strategy, the repercussions of the Russian actions, military and political, are generating a piecemeal reaction that finds it difficult to gain any intellectual or diplomatic traction in each policy sphere. Theoretically, these developments should highlight the need for such an overarching strategy by underscoring the costs of not having one. There is no evidence, though, of that happening within the Obama administration – or within the American foreign policy community generally. Why? In addition to the manifest lack of aptitude for such an undertaking, the kinds of conceptual adjustments indicated by the Russian intervention touch on highly sensitive questions of America’s status and mission in the world which its political elite is unprepared to engage.
Let us look first at the specific, practical effects on those problems with which Washington already is struggling. In Syria itself, the ambiguous Obama approach of “patience and persistence” is now fully exposed as the empty slogan that it always has been. Its basic flaws lie in the elementary failure to identify your enemy (ies), your allies, the nature of the threat and your objectives. No one has been able to say – from the President on down. Very early in the multi-party civil war, there was a recognition of their being two enemies: 1) the Assad government which President Obama vocally proclaimed “must go;” and 2) the diverse jihadist movements, declared foes of the West and their friends in the Islamic world, who rapidly became the dominant opposition force. The latter have subordinated “moderate” groups – both secular and Islamic – to a secondary status, with their very existence now being at the sufferance of al-Nusra (primarily) and ISIL. The former, in turn, is at war with ISIL for leadership of the Islamist cause – a conflict that creates incentives for it to tolerate tacit forms of cooperation with the “moderates” so as to facilitate the continued flow of assistance from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf statelets, Turkey and the United States itself (via the “moderate intermediaries” who “reverse launder” them).
American policy-makers have sought to avoid the painful choice of selecting a “preferred enemy” by concentrating their rhetorical fire on ISIL while, at the same time, trying to square the circle by building a “third force” of politically congenial elements who would fight, and defeat, both ISIL and the Damascus regime. That latter initiative has failed ignominiously and was officially suspended on October 9 by the Pentagon. Unofficially, it never was viewed as the panacea. I was told by a State Department official who works on Syria, a year ago, that it was generally understood that the training project was just political window dressing. No one in the administration (except for a few incurable innocents) believed in it or thought that it could have any practical results. Oddly, Obama himself stated as much in an interview with Thomas Friedman last summer. That’s $50 million worth of window dressing. It seems that the other $450 million was spent mainly by the CIA to continue supplying their tacit allies up North, i.e. remnants of the Free Syrian Army and their associates which include parts of the al-Nusra apparatus. It has become public knowledge that that program dates from 2011, allowing for a slowdown, if not complete break, in 2012 when Obama rejected a formal proposal from CIA Director David Petraeus to expand it. In practice, much of the sophisticated equipment simply passed through the administrative hands of validated “good guys” directly into the hands of the “bad guys.”
The logical contradiction between the White House’s lack of conviction in successive programs in support of “moderate” elements of the Syrian opposition, on the one hand, and the persistence in pursuing one ill-fated venture after another became publicly manifest when Obama’s Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the President had backed the now discarded training program only because he had been pressed to do so by critics in Congress and the media. Hence, he did not judge its termination as a failure of his administration’s judgment. This is a first.
Never before has a sitting President admitted that he had taken a risky foreign policy course without conviction in its value but strictly as an expedient gesture to domestic forces whom he was not prepared to confront. To disown so cavalierly what was rolled out with fanfare, and cited routinely as the foundation stone of American strategy in Syria, is high-level fecklessness without precedent.
That politically circuitous route has been supplemented by direct supply routes from the Gulf and Turkey into the inventories of al-Nusra and its affiliates. By implication, but not in declaration, Washington therefore has been drawing a clear line of differentiation, for some time, between ISIL and al-Nusra – despite the latter’s being an acknowledged affiliate of al-Qaeda. A great anomaly of the situation, of course, is that al-Qaeda has been figured as the “Great Satan” against which America has been fighting a global war since 2001. Yet, there is no political reaction to this extraordinary policy turn – whether by politicians, the media or the unofficial foreign policy community.
There is more than a touch of absurdity in this. Just last week, the White House justified its policy reversal in regard to the maintenance of a substantial troop presence in Afghanistan to counter a persistent al-Qaeda and ISIL threat. (Where the Taliban fit into the picture is conveniently left obscure). Yet far more formidable units of the latter, which are operating close to American strategic interests in the region of Syria and Iraq, are being treated as tacit allies of the United States. In addition to indirect arms supplies via other members of the Army of Victory, they are immune to American airstrikes. Even ISIL gets less attention from the United States Air Force than do the Taliban around Kunduz. Over the past month, it has flown fewer missions in Iraq and Syria combined than the Russians have flown in one day.
As far as the Obama people are concerned, this oddity owes in part to the premiums placed on maintaining close relations with traditional allies in the Gulf and with Turkey who view all Islamist forces in Syria as the key to toppling Assad. He bulks largest in their strategic thinking due to his Iranian ties at a time when, for them, the Sunni-Shia civil war within Islam eclipses all else. It also owes in part to the administration’s independent judgment that Iran is the region’s greatest menace insofar as American interests are concerned. In part, it further reflects Israeli strategic thinking that parallels that of Riyadh and the GCC minnows, with political resonance domestically. In part, there is the simple inability of the White House and associates to devise a strategy of a subtlety that matches the complexity of the situation – or to make the tough decision to scale back objectives in recognition of the severe limits on American influence.
This last has been underscored by the Russian intervention. Official Washington was caught by surprise – once again. Intelligence failed in terms of foreseeing the scale of the operation, of properly estimating Putin’s will and nerve, of appraising Russian military capabilities for swift action, and of readying a set of possible responses. Consequently, a pre-existing state of intellectual and diplomatic disarray has now degenerated into general disorientation and confusion.
The ad hoc response is characterized by these elements. One is a definition of the crisis mainly in terms of a Russo-American contest. Hence, the talk is of a second “Cold War”, of a “test for NATO” that includes beefing up Nordic defense; rejecting if not ignoring out-of-hand Putin’s proposals for cooperation in finding a formula for stabilizing Syria; edging even closer to Turkey and the Saudis; and envisaging an entirely fresh approach to creating another version of a “third force” that would join the Syrian Kurds of the YPG with disparate splinter groups, who have given themselves the acquired surreal name of The Euphrates Volcano. They, in fact, are the flotsam and jetsam of the four year civil war: displaced locals, brigands, Turcomen recruited by Ankara from Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus or Central Asia. This last is strictly a public relations gesture whose accompanying rhetoric betrays the undercurrent of desperation in Washington. The Kurds of the Kobane region (Rojani) will not fight for anything more than their homes and fields – most certainly not for some abstract Sunni cause or to satisfy the ambitions of outside powers to unseat Assad with whom they long had reached a modus vivendi. As for the Euphrates Volcano, their loyalty as well as capacity for sustained military action is viewed as a very dubious commodity everywhere but in Langley, Virginia. They are no more the solution than have been the petty warlords and bandit militias in Afghanistan – another CIA and Special Forces creation.
Another sign pointing in the same direction is provided by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, among others, referring hopefully to the Russians experiencing another Afghanistan-like quagmire in Syria, of heavy casualties eroding Putin’s popularity and maybe even leading to his unseating (a la Kiev). Frustration over being outmaneuvered, of its less than serious campaign against being exposed for the pretentious failure it has been, of muscular Russian military performance – all are irritating that nerve of insecurity that runs through America’s body politic these days.
The most radical move, one with far-reaching complications, is to solidify what has been the tacit and partial understanding between the United States (pressed by Turkey and the KSA) and the al-Nusra dominated alliance renamed the Army of Victory (al-Burkan Furat) which also includes the radical Islamist group Ahrar – al-Shams. The implicit sanitizing of al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise entails the following steps: insistence on using the innocuous term “rebels” to refer in aggregate to all non-ISIL opponents of the Assad government – terminology that has been universally adopted by the media under administration pressure; denunciation of the Russians for striking al-Nusra and associates as well as ISIL; continued abstention from any American air strikes against even unmistakable al-Nusra sites; a pledge to bolster material support to groups operating under the Army of Victory umbrella without noting its essentially jihadist identity; and keeping up the drumfire of virulent criticism of the Iranian campaign to destabilize the Middle East – Syria nominated as the central front.
More serious is the ramping up of the CIA’s program to provide sophisticated armaments likely to strengthen the al-Nusra inventory. They include TOWs to counter the government’s armor and rockets that could threaten Russian bases. Director John Brennan visited the region early in October to forge a pact with the Saudi government to expedite the TOW shipments. The possibility exists that this step represents a desire on the part of the Obama administration, or at least certain elements of it, to exploit its links with the recently constituted al-Nusra led Army of Victory that could transpose the second “Cold War’ onto the Middle East in response to the dramatic Putin initiative.
In short, insofar as Syria is concerned, we are observing Washington’s progressive adoption of the Israeli cum Saudi perspective. There is no indication that the Obama White House recognizes that the Russia factor has made that perspective academic and the chances of realizing its objectives nil. The potential implications are profound.
Cossetting the royal family and passive tolerance for all their weeks; ignoring the KSA as the source and abettor of radical Wahhabi movements; all-out backing for the assault on the Houthis in Yemen; refusing to cooperate on a tactical basis with Tehran despite manifest convergent interests – an attitude expressed with vehemence even after the nuclear accord; failure to confront Erdogan for his support to ISIL and al-Nusra; and fostering the Israeli-Saudi de facto diplomatic alliance. At no time have we heard an explanation of why we have taken these missteps or a recognition of their net effect. The Russian intervention in Syria (and Iraq) has highlighted the full geo-strategic implications of that strategic blindness. Our alignment with a self-conscious Sunni bloc (anti not just Shia but any non-Sunni Muslims, e.g. Alawite, Zaidi) is an enormous burden in an already flawed campaign against ISIL and AQAP. That is becoming evident in Baghdad as well as elsewhere.
The errors of American policy in the Middle East over the past fourteen years are legion – as anyone paying attention knows. Those errors are conceptual, analytical and operational – at both the diplomatic and military plane. To this sorry record now has been added the macro error of choosing sides in Islam’s sectarian civil war. It should have been obvious to even the novice that any contribution to its exacerbation was detrimental to the United States’ interests and to those of the region as a whole. Instead, we have jumped in like fools where angels dare not tread. It is apparent that the implications of incremental decisions made disjointedly over time never were thought through – if thought about at all.
An ancillary error, as highlighted in this discussion, is the elementary mistake of having “chosen” the “wrong” side. By this I mean that it is a basic principle of realpolitik that an outside power that seeks (for sound reason or other) to intervene in such a situation to its advantage should not associate itself with the weaker side, as a matter of principle. The reasons are too obvious to cite. It is hardly surprising that the maladroit Obama crowd should add this misjudgment its long list of tragic mistakes.
Elsewhere in the region, the reverberations from the Russian intervention are also being felt. The most immediate effects are to diminish Israeli and Turkey hopes for using the civil war to advance their own ends. The Saudi royal family, enmeshed in a succession crisis and stressed by its imperial war in Yemen, is unprepared to change course and instead will persevere in its self-defined mortal combat with Iran and its Syrian ally. As to Iraq, the equivocations and incompetence of the United States over the past year have made the al-Abadi government sympathetic to the arrival of Russia on the scene. It strengthens their hand in playing off Washington, Teheran and now Moscow while adding a powerful military ally in the fight against ISIL. That is why they have gone so far as to join the Russian sponsored alliance and welcomed establishment of an intelligence and planning cell in Baghdad. This ‘4 + 1’ unit registered its first success on October 11 when it prompted an Iraqi airstrike that killed a number of Daesh leaders on a road near Ramadi and injured al-Baghdadi himself.
A paradoxical twist is the opening of a divide in the Sunni bloc. Egypt and Jordan within days expressed their backing for the Russian military campaign. Al-Sisi in Cairo made it clear that the Islamists of all stripes (including the offshoots and residue of the Mother Brotherhood who play a minor role in the ranks of the opposition) are politically haram. He sees them as a menace to his rule which, as such, must be crushed. That takes precedence over removing Assad or curtailing the Shi’ite bloc. So strong is this conviction that al-Sisi saw fit to break with the Saudis on this issue despite Egypt’s critical dependence on the KAS’ financial largesse. As far as the American view is concerned, he continues to discount it in the aftermath of what he views as Washington’s betrayal in its acceptance of the Morsi government.
A similar line of thinking prevails in Amman where King Abdullah is well aware that both al-Nusra and ISIL have his monarchy in their sights. Moreover, he is more vulnerable in terms of geography and the fragility of Jordanian national identity. Defection of Egypt and Jordan jeopardizes the informal coalition of status quo powers that the United States has sought to reconstitute in the wake of the Iraq and Arab Spring upheavals. That odd-fellow grouping brought together the KSA, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and, implicitly, the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority. Their common enemies were radical Islam, Iran and its allies, and popular democracy.
It remains to be seen whether the fissures created by the Russian intervention will endure. One consequence is that it provides a further incentive for the U.S. to tighten its embrace of the Saudis and the Gulfies as staunch allies. That conclusion does mean overlooking their financial and material backing for Islamist extremists and their reckless assault in Yemen. Obama’s overriding concern to placate them in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal, which they ardently opposed, is cited as the principal motivation behind this policy of concession and deference.
Another factor is the high value that Washington places on the military bases they make available. The Pentagon has pressured the White House hard to avoid doing anything that might call into question current arrangements. So long as some possible hot war with Iran is contemplated, they retain significant value for both the defense establishment and the President. Indeed, so long as the American military strategy aims at maintenance of “full spectrum dominance” in that part of the world, basing rights will trump other considerations no matter what path relations with the IRI take.
Taken together, these developments associated with the sudden entry of Russia into Syria, reestablishing itself as a Middle East power, have the net effect of weakening the American position. Since its loosely drawn goals remain maximalist and constant, the discrepancy will bedevil Washington policy-makers who already manifestly lack the adequate talents to manage the maelstrom of forces at work in the region.
In the broader perspective, Russia’s move into Syria has overturned some central pillars of the American worldview. As Alistair Crooke has written, since the Cold war’s end “NATO effectively has made all the decisions about war and peace. It faced no opposition and no rival. Matters of war were effectively a solely internal debate within NATO — about whether to proceed or not, and in what way. That was it. It didn’t matter much about what others thought or did. Those on the receiving end simply had to endure it.” That manifestly is no longer the case – whether in Europe or in the Middle East.
What irritates Washington more than anything else is the display of Russian military prowess thought relegated to history. Moreover, it has been done with impressive speed and efficiency. The unipolar moment that lasted for a quarter of a century is gone. America resists accepting that new reality. Hence, the denigration of Russia simultaneously with steps to impede its efforts in Syria rather than to form a tacit partnership.
These compounded frustrations lie behind the incandescent outrage at Russia’s temerity by American officials and the entire commentariat. The latter category includes highly regarded veteran “Sovietologists” like Strobe Talbott (former high official and now head of the Brookings Institution) and David Remnick (author of excellent books on the break-up of the Soviet Union and now editor of The New Yorker) whose supposed intimate knowledge of Russia is belied by the tenor of their emotional anti-Putin diatribes at once simplistic and at variance with the facts. Americans are reacting erratically to omens of the country’s mortality as global hegemon.
One never should underestimate the extent to which belief in American exceptionalism/superiority sustains collective and individual self-esteem.