Sunday, December 04, 2016

Having Fun Storming the Syrian Castle

Is Russia on the cusp of dread "quagmire" in Syria? Perhaps. But we can't rely on vague forces of historically "inevitable" events to get that result or think we can make a deal on purported common interests and avoid saving Putin, Assad, and the nutball mullahs of Iran.

Back in September 2015 when Russia directly intervened on Assad's side to reverse his looming defeat, I hoped we'd continue to resist Assad and let Russia get bogged down in their adventure:

Russia does not want to fight for Assad. Putin wants to save Assad as cheaply as possible so he can get back to picking apart eastern Ukraine while consolidating the conquest of Crimea (and then Belarus will be in Putin's crosshairs, prior to focusing on the Baltic states). Our cooperation is key to letting Russia win in Syria on the cheap.

Don't fall for Putin's ploy. Bid him good luck and tell him to have fun storming the castle.

Only now is Assad finally in the position to retake Aleppo that has long been partially held by the rebels--and that won't mean Assad has won the war--or is even the last battle for Aleppo--even though he wants everyone to believe that.

Stephen Blank wonders is Putin has "stepped on his own rake" by pledging back in October to fight until Assad has all of Syria:

Putin may have stepped on his own rake without realizing it. Moscow has achieved almost everything it could have hoped for in Syria. But by acceding to Assad and Tehran’s desires, it is not clear that he is now fighting for Russia’s or even his own best interests. It simply is not clear that Russia can provide the support over time needed to establish Assad’s control throughout Syria and eliminate all resistance and threats to him. It is relatively cheap to send air defenses to rebels, and to negate Russia’s aerial advantage and leave the hapless Syrian army face to face with its enemies. Moscow runs the risk of getting ensnared in its own self-made quagmire, as its Soviet predecessor did in Afghanistan.

Unless Putin can get Trump to subsidize Russia's effort by cutting deals and thus completing the journey President Obama began on the road from his "red line" to propping up Assad, trying to retake all of Syria after the heavy casualties Assad's forces have endured already just to survive in their corner is a long hard slog with no guarantee of success.

Of course, I don't take that October statement at face value. Both Russia and Iran only need Assad to control western Syria. Russia for air and naval bases to project power in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. And Iran to maintain overland access to Lebanon and Hezbollah and be closer to Gaza and Hamas in order to have a front against Israel.

Really, Assad would have an easier time just holding portions of western Syria where his base will not be quite as outnumbered as it would be if he controlled all of Syria.

And why wouldn't Russia, Iran, and Assad in a Core Syria enjoy letting America, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan cope with a wild wild east where jihadis and Kurds would still roam?

We should complicate Russia's problems by dropping as many figurative rakes in Putin's path in Syria, of course. But don't assume that Russia is saying anything more than a pro forma declaration in support of Assad's full sovereignty over all of Syria, well aware that far less territory will work out just fine for this Axis of Weasels.

We can still defeat Assad, Russia, and Iran in Syria. Talk of having to accept that Assad will win ignores the cost and casualties Assad and his backers have suffered just to finally--after more than four years--make serious progress in taking Aleppo in Assad's corner of Syria. There are still a lot of people fighting Assad and they will fight if supported.

UPDATE: Russia really, really wants us to believe their victory is inevitable for a very practical reason. Unless we grant the win to them, how do they afford it?

Reviving the Cold War has cost Russia a lot. Mainly because of operations in Syria Russian defense spending rose to $48 billion (4.2 percent of GDP) in 2015. That fell (to $45 billion, four percent of GDP) in 2016. But the government has been forced to cut defense spending sharply in 2017 and 2018 because of continued low oil prices and sanctions. In 2017 spending will be down to about $38 billion (3.2 percent of GDP) and $34 billion in 2018 (2.9 percent of GDP). After that, it is uncertain how the situation change.

Give Russia the chance to flail and fail.