Why Putin will probably bring a [bloody] end to the war in Syria

By Livingston T. Merchant, The Near East Window

The reason why Putin will probably bring an end to the war in Syria, and he is utterly ruthless and he plays to win. Putin does not play unless he is sure he can win. The United States under Obama cannot afford to play to win. Putin is wildly popular in Russia and has very little effective opposition. Obama is not seen as a strong leader at home and is hamstrung by an electorate aware of the disaster when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Now he has a Republican congress that hates him and blocks his every move. 

The United States can do nothing to end the fighting in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Its most important goal is to extricate itself from these three countries with minimal losses, and hopefully with its head held high. It is unlikely to achieve this goal in the short term. And it is unlikely than any successor to Obama will pull this rabbit out of the hat. It is possible that American leadership abroad will be noisy, but unlikely that it will be strong.

Consider Putin's track record:

Take Chechnya. When faced with a rebellious Chechen people that were spawning terrorism, he came down on them so hard that there was no fight left in them. The Chechens suffered untold casualties and major destruction in cities and towns. There was no talk of human rights and no skimping on Russian military expenditure. And now the area is relatively peaceful. As the Roman historian Tacitus once wrote: "where they make a desert, they call it peace".

Or take the Ukraine. Taking advantage of a civil conflict between the Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking populations, Putin swallowed the Crimea whole without any embarrassment or apology. He also fueled an on-going insurrection inside the Ukraine as a useful thorn in the side of the West that had been supporting the government in Kiev.

Now Putin is sparing no expense and shunning no risk in order to rearrange the political geography of the Syrian conflict. Again there are no half-measures. Erdogan handed him an excuse to sideline Turkey by shooting down a Russian jet, and the Turks are paying where it really hurts, in their economy.

Decades ago, Professor Henry Kissinger gave a seminar at Harvard in national security policy. It was a brilliant analysis of realpolitik at time when the US and the Soviet Union were squared off in the Cold war. One of the things he mentioned was that in the balance of military power, the following equation of the military inequality between the two countries is incomplete:

[  B]

Where A is US nuclear weapons + US conventional military + US military spending and B is Soviet nuclear weapons +  Soviet conventional military + Soviet military spending.

In fact the equation is wrong as written. It is just  not a matter of 

[  B]

[A(X)   B(Y)]

where X is the US willingness to use its power, and Y is the Soviet willingness to use its.

Two examples of this dynamic: 

1. the Cuban missile crisis in which Kennedy convinced Khrushchev that he was willing to go to war to prevent Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles to be deployed in Cuba.

2. Obama's abject retreat from his "red line" in Syria, the commitment to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its own rebellious civilians. In the latter case, Putin actually bailed Obama out by brokering a deal with Assad to give up his chemical weapons supply.

In the Middle East America is not willing or able to fight to win, but Putin is. Putin is not just an insane blowhard like Kim Jong-un threatening to wage a preemptive nuclear war. Putin's strength is a willingness to carry out his plans, a willingness lent credibility by a cruel history of success.

And so, look for a more or less quiet Syria in a couple of years with the eradication of most of the Jihadists, an autonomous Syrian Kurdish province, and a territorial division between a united government under a successor to Assad and some guarantees for the Sunni population. Whether in the future the Syrian state will remain in its present official boundaries or will break down into its component parts will depend on factors that not even Putin can control.


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