Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How Far Will Assad and Putin Go?

Russia doesn't seem to show any shame about supporting Assad despite some hints that Moscow was trying to distance itself from Assad. But if this support is to mean something, Moscow needs to provide overt support for Assad to reach an achievable objective.

Assad is losing his battle to hold all of Syria, and large sections of the country are not controlled by Syrian forces. Further, Assad focus on fighting for the large city of Aleppo seems to be a failure as press reports indicate that the rebels hold two-thirds of the city. I felt the battle was futile and seems to be so.

Yet Assad has vocal Russian support:

Russia and China have opposed military intervention in Syria throughout the revolt. They have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions backed by Western and Arab states that would have put more pressure on Damascus to end the violence.

After meeting Lavrov in Moscow, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said Obama's talk of action against Syria was media fodder. ...

"Direct military intervention in Syria is impossible because whoever thinks about it ... is heading towards a confrontation wider than Syria's borders," he told a news conference.

That's bold talk for a Russia with a military with little capability below strategic nuclear weapons. What is the wider combat zone that Russia has in mind with that statement? Or is it mindless talk to scare off others?

Even without overt Western support, the rebels are gaining ground on Assad. Syria's army is plain wearing out with no rotation base able to relieve the troops in combat.

The questions are, what would Russia do to support Assad?

And what can Assad do to reverse his losing momentum?

The latter question must be answered first. There is no way Russia can send a couple hundred thousand troops to Syria to pacify the entire country. So Assad has to abandon some part of the country to shrink the area and population to be controlled to one that is manageable.

At the beginning of the year, I thought Assad could hold a Core Syria running in an arc from Idlib province leaving Aleppo to the north out of the perimeter) through Hama, Homs, and Damascus and then down to the Israeli and Jordanian borders. That would allow Assad to continue to call his realm "Syria" by holding the capital and also maintain leverage in the region by remaining in control of land access to Lebanon and have borders with Israel and Jordan.

But Assad's armed forces have eroded to a level too small to hold even this region.

Now, Assad can either hold his Rump Alawite homeland in the western mountains along the coast; or perhaps hold a Rump + Buffer by adding inland land along the main Damascus-to-Aleppo highway from Idlib down to Homs. I leave open the question of whether Assad has the capabilities to add Aleppo to that realm. I don't think he does, but maybe he could build that capabilities if he contracts his state down.

Then we get to the question of Russian support that goes beyond shielding Assad from UN authorized Western intervention and scaring the West from going outside the UN.

Marines in Tartus with a hefty naval visit would be a start. Money, fast delivery of lower tech training aircraft capable of ground attack, and oil would all help Assad survive in a smaller state.

If Russia wants to be really bold, they might send a regiment of paratroopers (Russia's only ready ground force) to hold positions along the smaller border with Turkey that would result, and deter direct Turkish intervention in the western part of Syria that would be the entirety of a Rump Alawite Syria or a Rump + Buffer Syria.

Russia wants to give "space" to President Obama in order to get American concessions after President Obama wins reelection. Is Russia willing to risk the loss of Assad by refraining from this course of action and thus contribute to achieving that space?

God help us if the Russians have already written off our president's reelection campaign.