Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Sorry, David Ignatius, We Never Had Syria to "Hand Over to Putin"

Today the usually perspicacious David Ignatius in the Washington Post declares in a column labeled "Don't hand Syria over to Putin," that"simply acceding to Moscow...would be significant mistake."  Funny thing is that he follows up this statement with the probably accurate observation that "the Russians can't defeat the Islamic State."  But, escalation by Russia to bomb in Syria (as the US has  been doing for some time) might "may fuel the Sunni insurgency even more."  Maybe, but the more serious problem here is that the US has not "had" Syria ever.

The hard fact is that Russia has "had Syria" for a long time, far more than the US ever has, basically ever since the Ba'ath Party came to power in a military coup more than half a century ago over the immediate successors of the French rule after  WW II, although, of course, prior to 1991, it was the Soviet Union that "had" Syria, not Russia.  But we know that there has been a lot of continuity in terms of global interests from the old Soviet Union to the modern Russia in many places.  The Soviets and then Russians also supported Saddam in Iraq and his branch of the Ba'ath Party, Arab nationalist socialist in its ideological orientation, even as those two branches and the Assads and Saddam became enemies of  each other.  Indeed, in Putin's speech to the UN General Assembly, he complained about the US overthrow of Saddam noting that what has followed has been chaos, along with the beginning of Daesh/ISIS/ISIL/IS, the collapse of pro-Russian Libyan regime into chaos (with the division into its historically distinct eastern and western parts as I frequently forecast here on Econospeak), and the mess in Yemen. 

So, Putin has been very traditional in his approach to many parts of  the globe.  In this regard, he has focused on military bases, especially naval ones.  One can argue that Russia as a major land power should not be so focused on its navy, but this is an old concern, dating at least to Peter the Great three centuries ago when he grabbed the land from Sweden that he build Saint Petersburg on to provide a naval "Window to the West"(with this emphasized by the fact that the radial roads of the city emanate from its Admiralty Building).  A little noted aspect of Putin's seizure of Crimea is that its naval base at Sevastopol is located there, and although generally Ukraine had been "reasonable" continuing to allow Russia to hold it and use it, Putin simply got tired of having to worry about unfriendly governments in Kyiv giving him a hard  time about it.

So, the fact that few note as they bark about this awful cave by Obama is that Russia has its only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea in Syria at Tartus, a base dating well back into the Soviet period.  The US has never had a military base in Syria and has pretty much always been opposed to the Assad regime, both the current one and that of his even nastier dad.  Putin also seems to be establishing an air base in Latakia in the heart of Assad Alawite territory in the northwest of  Syria near the Russian naval base, possibly laying the groundwork for defending its base even if Assad loses power in Damascus to whomever.

Now the big difference between the US  and Russia now is indeed over Assad, who has without question been brutal, dropping barrel bombs on civilians and previously using chemical weapons.  Of course lots of people are angry with Obama did not bomb Assad for doing the latter after he declared a "red line"on that issue.  That in fact he worked with Putin to get Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons (or at least the worst of them) is barely noticed by any of these complainers.  So, when Putin argues that Assad is all there is to stand against Daesh, Obama may be taking this seriously in private, if not in public.

So, Obama's critics, including a pack of VSPs, are full of the claim that Obama should have supported earlier and more fully a "moderate" third force.  But, he did support these people pretty substantially, and all they have done is lose every battle they have fought and have a bad record of handing over their weapons (given by the US) to either al Qaeda-related al Nusra or to Daesh itself.  But VSPs, including Hillary Clinton, say things would have been great if we had done more, but I think Obama's skepticism on this was and has been proven right.

I note one more point. Russia has a more immediate concern about Daesh than does the US.  Chechens have joined Daesh, and while I do not approve of how Putin crushed the revolt in Chechnya, it is also true that Chechen Islamists have carried out major terrorist attacks in Russia.  Russian citizens are not supporting Russian troops going to Syria, but the hard fact is that Daesh is a more serious immediate threat to Russia on its homeland than it is to the US on its homeland.  Given what has happened after the removal of Saddam and Qaddafi in their nations, one can appreciate that Putin has a strong desire to "prop up Assad," and even more given their long presence in Syria with their naval base in Tartus.  The general ignoring of this fact by such generally "realist" observers like Ignatius is somewhat disturbing (and, yes, the situation in Syria is plain awful, but anybody putting forth an easy or straightforward "solution" obviously has not figured out just how complicated and messed up the situation there is).

Barkley Rosser


Thornton Hall said...

Although he never uses the words, Ignatius's column is a towering example of what I call, "what the fuck does 'our national interest' even mean?"

He avoids using the phrase that must not be explained by writing a column that fails as a matter of language to express a coherent thought. It has the form of coherence--subjects plus verbs--but something is wrong: all the verbs are transitive but there are no objects. Obama had good cards and lost... What? What the fuck did he lose? American lives? No. American profits? No. WTF?! And what did Putin win by stepping into this vacuum? Territory? No. Russian profits? No. WTF?

Foreign policy hacks get away with this all the time. If you can't explain how you saved Anerican lives or expanded American profits, you fail. There is nothing else. How can they have so much to say about nothing? It's all inside baseball talk, BUT NO ONE IS PLAYING ACTUAL BASEBALL.

john c. halasz said...

Hope this might help: said...

It has been reported that some of those bombed by the Russians were not Daesh. Very unclear. Certainly Putin is propping up Assad, whom he has supported all along. Maybe we do not like that he may have bombed some of those we are currently arming/training, most of whom have not been very effective, which makes the effort to bomb them somewhat silly. The Russians claim that they are only bombing Daesh, but this looks not accurate. In any case, they are the ones who have had a major military base there for decades, and are doing this with the approval of the government, even if we do not approve of that government.

Yes, Thornton, the talk around this on all sides is barely coherent, if that.

john c. halasz said...

What was so striking was the uniformity across Western media, with the line that the Russians didn't attack IS. !) It's likely that the Russians associate all Islamic extremist groups/jihadis with IS; and 2) it's pretty clear that the Russians have a plan, ya know, a long-term strategy, and that the first moves were to defend their perimeter in Latakia against potential attack from nearby regions, which would be likely otherwise. One doesn't have to like Putin, let alone the Assad regime, to recognize the initial media response as itself an orchestrated propaganda campaign, covering up the sheer incoherence and hypocrisy of U.S. "policy" in the region. And whatever else you say about Putin, he's proven to be time and again an adept tactical operator, in contrast to "our" own war-mongering and moralizing.

Peter T said...

One of the benefits of being a superpower is that you don't have to think too hard about what others want, or where they might be coming from. One of the drawbacks is that this becomes a habit - a dangerous one if the situation is not amenable to the power you have, or your adversaries have found some way to negate or side-step your strengths. Also, in war you don't get to choose your allies, never mind your enemies.

In Iraq the choice is between the majority sectarians and the rabid Islamists; in Syria the choice is between a plurality coalition of sectarians (Allawi, Druze, Christian, Shi'a, Kurds), the extreme Islamists and the rabid Islamists. Pretending there are some others, or that US power means it can ignore the local reality in favour of whatever flavour of unicorn Beltway imaginations can come up with, is just another symptom of political narcissism. At least Putin seems to have a coherent strategy, rather than a fantasy. said...

For all the talk of US warmongering, on this one I must note that despite all kinds of war drum beating by many, including many Dems (including Hillary it looks like), Obama has so far kept his cool and not increased military action in Syria in response to this, apparently going out of his way to avoid getting into any sort of direct conflict with the Russians. Whether or not this turns out to be a quagmire or not for Putin and Russia, is unclear, and I agree that Putin's main concern is to defend Russia's own bases. But it should also be noted that all polls show that serious intervention in Syria is reportedly very unpopular in Russia, where memories of their sojourna in Afghanistan remain strong, even if the intervention in Ukraine is popular. This will have its definite limits. said...

Juan Cole reports that most of the forces bombed in the northwest by Russia were al Qaeda affiliated, with only a few Free Syrian Army forces hit, some of whom have also allied with al Nusra, the al Qaeda force. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting these folks, but why should the US do so?

Jim Walker, Realtor said...

Professor Rosser, I hope your optimism is prescient. I speculate that President Putin would love to have overwhelming support for his military campaigns, I also speculate that he will proceed to do anything he wants to do. Russia is no longer a democracy, if it ever was. We might have to go back to Kerensky in 1917 for that. I hope President Obama resists the pressure to blow his cool and get all up into a Missile Crisis with the Russian bear.

SwampNigger said...

So, who defines what is "democracy"?

When you chest and Mc Donald eaters learn the hard way that you have become a nation of group-thinking zombies, with very little to point to as commendable or exceptional...

Well, that will only be learned through hurt.

Face it, there is are multiple nations that Re tired of your state terror and tyrrany.

You will most likely be stupid enough to try to destroy Russia.

But your vice news addled youth are no match for Russians--and their weapons Re equal or superior.

Your collective narcissism and the putrid preening on the world stage that you are 'exceptional' is exactly the mindset that communicates to anyone with the capacity to critically think (a trait that is punished in the US) that you are not super, and have entered a phase of senescence as far as your ability to project power is concerned.

But you can always resort to using nukes and mirderimg hundreds of thousands instantly.

Don't flatter yourselves little ones--billions of your fellow humans won't miss your vainglorious leadership on bit.

The moving finger writes--and you are unartful writers. To be respected is diametrical to merely being feared.

You freaks have not an iota of piety, and the drones (the decrepit intelligentsia and your soulless weaponry) signal that you are without wit.