While I have written a few preliminary thoughts on Putin’s new Syrian adventure, I’ve been way behind. I had meant to write something more substantial before my most recent trip to Ukraine, but I was literally swamped with Syria opinions and information. Having seen a sufficient amount, I’m willing to weigh in on this.
There seems to be an opinion as of late that people who support Ukraine should suddenly become supporters of the enigmatic “Free Syrian Army” and condemn Putin’s actions in Syria just as we did those in Ukraine. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to tread down that path yet. It’s not that I support Putin’s actions- they’re unbelievably idiotic and naive. It’s not that I support Assad either. But I see major problems with come of the most vocal critics of the Kremlin’s policy here.
For me, peace in Ukraine and Ukrainian territorial integrity are paramount. Thanks to the Kremlin’s latest idiotic gambit, Ukraine has the former and the latter is far more within reach than it was before. All the evidence coming from the rebels these days suggests that they have been more or less cut off, the Minsk agreement will be fulfilled, and Ukraine will regain control of the border. It can still go either way, but as long as all these things are fulfilled, Ukraine will buy some major breathing room to sort out its internal political and economic problems. The Crimea can wait.
Now as for Syria, let’s be honest and admit that there’s enough blame to go around for this, starting with Assad and the West. When I see US officials and some of the main cheerleaders going after Russia for its most recent dick thrust into a hornet’s nest, I can’t help but notice that none of them seem to have solutions. Here are a few of the arguments I’ve been hearing, and my response to them:
-Russia is hitting the Free Syrian Army/Moderate rebels! Not ISIS!
I think it’s clear to anyone with common sense and the ability to count that Russia wasn’t going to make a big impact against ISIS. Their main goal is to prop up the regime, and the regime’s main enemy right now consists of other groups. On the up side, much of the opposition in that region consists of Al Nusra and similar Islamist groups.
The problem is that when it comes to “moderate rebels,” concrete details even from their backers seem to be severely lacking. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Russian idea that the Free Syrian Army is non-existent or that its members all deserted to Al Nusra and ISIS may not be entirely true, but the truth is that the hunt for moderate rebels and the fortunes of the FSA have been less than stellar, facts which have been routinely reported by Western news sources. Check out this one from the supposedly “Russophobic” Daily Beast from 2013, which puts a damper on the prospects for the FSA and suggests US airstrikes would only help ISIS and Al Qaeda, an opinion shared at the time even by some officials at the Pentagon.
-Propping up the Assad regime will mean more refugees!
Well yes, it will, but so will the fall of the regime. There’s no way out of this that doesn’t involve more refugees. And face it, this is one of those situations where the ball was in Team West’s court, and they screwed it up thanks to wishful thinking and indecision. Sure, Putin continued supporting a dictator, but it isn’t whataboutery to point out that supporting dictatorships isn’t the best line of attack when you’re the US government. And speaking of whataboutery…
-Russia airstrikes are killing civilians!
Of course they are. Airstrikes do this. Artillery does this. This was the same thing I told separatist supporters when they screamed about civilian casualties (only those in rebel territory, of course), just before I reminded them who started the war itself.
Is it a good idea to go after Russia on the topic of civilian casualties from airstrikes? Well not if you’re the US government, that’s for sure. Just look what happened in Kunduz, Afghanistan, a few days after the hysterical responses to Putin’s little adventure and the feigned concern over civilian casualties, AKA “collateral damage” when killed by NATO countries or their allies. And in a fashion that would make the Russian Ministry of Defense and RT proud, the US officials have repeatedly changed their story about what happened that day.
See if they’d kept their mouth shut about this, they could have used the Kunduz bombing as a lesson, “See! This is why you have to be careful with air strikes.” It wouldn’t be that effective, but it’s better than immediately screaming about civilian casualties and then causing some.
Add to this the fact that Russian airstrikes have apparently hit at least some ISIS positions, and you can see why it doesn’t make sense to get all upset about this and pretend like this is the next Ukraine. For one thing, say whatever you want about Assad, but his regime is still the legally recognized government, which invited the Russian presence, in stark contrast to the invasion and aggression in Ukraine. I’ll be pissed if Russian bombs fall on the Kurds, but that is unlikely. I wanted them out of Ukraine, and this helps get them out.
Another factor to consider is the strain this is putting on Russia economically and militarily. Right now their commitment is small, but it’s more than the commitment the US once had in a small country called South Vietnam. The point is, that these things can escalate out of control really quickly. Already Russia’s two airspace violations against anti-Assad Turkey has prompted Turkish president Erdogan to threaten the possibility of shutting down the Turk Stream pipeline project, a project which was far from agreed upon and which was meant to replace the canceled South Stream pipeline project. Turkey may be prepared to go even further in the future if Russian pilots don’t pay attention. Supposedly yesterday, Assad’s forces launched a ground offensive with the help of Russian support, yet earlier this morning another offensive was reported, suggesting that the first one was unsuccessful. Whatever the case,the Russian presence encourages offensive action, which in turn leads to more casualties as warfare tends to favor defense.
So let Putin piss away more money and play superpower before running his country into the ground. He can’t really project his power far enough to be a threat, and for the time being his attention is directed away from those countries that are threatened by Russia. And hey, if a few hundred ISIS, Al Nusra, or similar fundamentalist militants die in the process, all the better. At most, they’ll just buy Assad a little time and then get the hell out before the place collapses. After that, everyone will have a whole new problem on their hands.
In the mean time the West needs to learn to stop these knee-jerk responses to everything Putin does. He and his base are basically like that teenage class clown in high school. They do things because they know it will get a rise out of the West, and in turn getting a rise out of the West is interpreted, quite wrongly, as “standing up to the West.” The best response is something like, “Well I don’t know what impact he expects to make with roughly 34 ground attack aircraft, his economy’s still going to shit, and we’re not going to remove the sanctions until he gets out of Ukraine, but okay, I guess. We’re not going to stand in his way here.” Then just throw up the hands and ask for the next question. And hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s Galeotti’s recommendation.
So go on and raise a one-sided fuss about Syria if you want to, but don’t blame me for not jumping on your bandwagon. That’s just not my part of the world. There’s enough mess to clean up in Ukraine.