Dissenting opinion

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.

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22 thoughts on “Dissenting opinion

  1. Callum Carmichael

    What annoys me isn’t really that Russia might be bombing Al-Qaeda as well as ISIS (boo hoo). Russian bombs hitting civilians (presumably) by accident is tragic, but as the US well knows, sometimes with the best precautions you still bomb people you shouldn’t.

    I’m a *little* annoyed that Russia is bombing moderates. Now, the FSA, to the extent that it still exists, is politically fragmented to the point where it probably isn’t capable of acting as a unified force and lots of its units are pretty Islamist at this point. That said, I think some of Bellingcat’s friends did find a few actual moderate formations: http://ruslanleviev.livejournal.com/41730.html

    As to Bashar Al-Assad, Russia’s position is hypocritical but not completely wrong. He is the recognized head of state and in the short term nobody should throw away any potential ceasefire agreement by insisting on his removal, but he also started this mess in the first place. People in Syria were up in arms against him long before the FSA or ISIS existed, and long before Al-Qaeda set up shop in Syria. He’s going to have to go eventually if there’s to be a permanent solution.

    What’s annoying is the bullshit, for want of a better word. Russia first endlessly pontificates about the need to fight ISIS, calling for an anti-Hitler-style coalition and ridiculing the US for its apparent ineffectiveness against ISIS. Then Russia bombs… pretty much every anti-Assad group *except* ISIS. I mean, they threw a few bombs Baghdadi’s way, but so few as to be practically an afterthought: http://www.rts.ch/info/monde/7149071-Nos-cartes-sur-les-cibles-divergentes-des-Russes-et-Americains-en-Syrie.html

    Then, they start flopping around like a teenager caught on the wank.

    “All the anti-Assad groups are ISIS.”
    “Well, they’re all terrorists anyway; we can’t negotiate with anyone who uses such bloodthirsty tactics (well, unless they’re Assad).”
    “Hey, we totally bombed ISIS, like, all the time! Information war!”
    “We’re willing to work with the FSA against ISIS” *starts bombing FSA formations in combat against ISIS*
    “Russian unguided bombs don’t kill civilians, only precision-guided American ones do!”

    Like… for fucks sake…
    http://sputniknews.com/cartoons/20151002/1027919479/us-russia-syria-cartoon.html
    https://storify.com/Ruplomacy/dontaskpenta

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      My main pet peeve is how Putin and all his spineless, submissive worshipers inside and outside of Russia are acting like he’s going to “defeat ISIS.” Even if he did concentrate all 34 of his planes against them it wouldn’t do shit.

      Reply
      1. Callum Carmichael

        That too. The response of people on the ground seems to be less this:
        http://i.embed.ly/1/display/resize?key=1e6a1a1efdb011df84894040444cdc60&url=http%3A%2F%2Fpatriotikus.ru%2Fuploads%2Fposts%2F2015-10%2F1444137485_2015-10-06_16-17-05.jpg&width=810
        And more this:

        ?ref_src=twsrctfw
        (Syrian children see a plane and try to guess what country it’s from).

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Ah you see how Latuff reverted back to his bearish ways? Sad, he was starting to learn.

        The other thing reminds me of a quote from an anonymous German soldier in 1944: “If you see a white plane, it’s American. If it’s a black plane, it’s the British, and if you see no planes at all, it’s the Luftwaffe.”

      3. gbd_crwx

        Wasn’t there an american GI-saying something along the lines of. “When the RAF Bombs the germans take cover, when the Luftwaffe bombs the British take cover and when the US air force bombs everyone takes cover”?

  2. A.I.Schmelzer

    One important fact that you left out is that Assads territory and ISIS territory dont border much. This is because Al-Nusra and friends supported ISIS directly or indirectly when ISIS sacked Palmyra (murdering everyone supposedly Assad in there, and their dogs etc.). ISIS taking Palmyre really pissed of Russia because ISIS tank collumns avanced over hundreds of kms of open desert, and if the US would have been even remotely interested in bombing ISIS militants with nearly no civilian casulties they could have done that. They didnt.
    For the records, the USA also ordered Assad to stay out of the ISIS territories they are claiming to be bombing. And then they go and shed crocodile tears over IS atrocities in Palmyra…

    Add in the fact that a lot of ISIS leadership was either US trained (like Al-Shishani when he was Georgian specops under Sakashvili) or has spent time in US detention (Al-Bagdadi himself), and you dont need to be a paranoid Putin bot to see the US being complete double dealing douchebags.

    As to who started the war in Ukraine: The first declaration of indendence came from Lviv in early february (iirc), the first successfull use of violence to seize total political power came from Maidan after it openly betrayed the terms of the February agreement by force.

    People declaring independence and violently seizing power in the capital do not get to claim that the other side started the civil war, as both of these acts are effectivly civil war acts.

    That the seperatists in Donbass started the war is incredibly debatable. Both Russia and Maidan imho have more guilt.

    Link concerning Shishani:
    http://uk.businessinsider.com/omar-al-shishani-isis-commander-and-us-2015-9?r=US&IR=T
    Link concerning Lvivs independence
    http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ukraine-facing-civil-war-lviv-declares-independence-yanukovich-rule-1437092

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      The symbolic act in L’viv had no follow through or sincerity behind it. It’s not like they actually armed themselves and then fought back when police forces came to reclaim the buildings. Sorry, but Russia started the war.

      Reply
      1. A.I.Schmelzer

        It is widely accepted that the shelling of Fort Sumter by the confederacy was the formal start of the US civil war. Maidan did seize Ukrainian army installation before Russia did anything militarily.

        The protestors in Lviv stormed an army barracks and appropriated its artillery to use them in barricades, after assaulting the legitimate govermor and beating him up on stage.
        Here from a Maidan source:
        Google “Interpretermag battle for Maidan part 2”, it should be the first result, nad then the second or so picture with the artillery pieces.

        If shelling an army barracks makes the Confederates “start” the US civil war, why does capturing an army barracks not make Maidan start the Ukrainian civil war?

        This was before Russia did anything in Crimea, and much before Donbass did anything.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I’m sorry but that logic doesn’t follow. War is about what actually happens. If that were true, then we could say civil war was inaugurated when snipers fired on people at Maidan.

      3. A.I.Schmelzer

        Also, apperantly posting links from interpretermag can cause the posts to disappear, it is kind of weird.

  3. Dan

    I’d like to jump on board with the FSA, but allying with al-Nusra makes them no better than Assad. I doubt anything will come of this adventure. If the Iraqis can’t even take Baiji with US air support, it doesn’t seem likely that Assad will be able to do much with Russian support.

    Reply
  4. Josh

    A”dick thrust into a hornets nest” – Dont know how you come up with some of these phrases Jim, but this one is tremendous, pure poetry, a thing of beauty.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Op-Edge is getting dull | Russia Without BS

  6. EP

    I really regret not discovering this blog until now… 😦

    I think you’re exactly right that Putin isn’t really capable of making a significant impact on the Syrian conflict, that he is almost certain to pay a huge price politically and economically by becoming involved in it, and that the West should just keep out of the way of the Russian trainwreck as much as possible at this point.

    I suspect that a lot of the unimpressive flailing on the part of Western leaders has to do with political pressures they are facing domestically. They are compelled to respond to accusations that they are too weak, or ignoring the humanitarian catastrophe, or abandoning their allies… and they cannot answer all these accusations consistently or to everyone’s satisfaction.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      They do certainly have a much harder job since they don’t control their own domestic media and are subject to contested elections.

      But I think a major part of the problem is that they pissed away their credibility in the early 2000’s, and we all know why. I’m not one of these vulgar left types who insists that the US or West can never be a force for good(Civil War, WWII), but the problem is that Western and particularly American leaders continually used flimsy excuses for “humanitarian intervention” time and time again, with the Iraq invasion being the worst example. The result is that when you have genuinely worthy causes, nobody on either side of the spectrum wants to get involved because they’ve been burnt out.

      Another problem is that the US is really great at the whole invading and bombing part of intervention, but no so much when it comes to the nation-building part. Various incentives and the need for expedients makes it likely that US forces will strike deals with corrupt or unpopular people, which in turn creates more resentment. What is more, the US government generally doesn’t seriously have the welfare of these people in mind. The most important non-military issue they’re thinking of is likely to be something like- how can we make this place attractive to investors. Unfortunately this doesn’t help when ordinary people need food, shelter, security, etc.

      Reply
      1. EP

        I wonder how much of the nation-building problem you mention is simply the consequence of it being nigh-impossible to adjust state borders in ways needed to solve these issues. Under the present UNSC system, at least. That, and the absence of an internationally respectable, relatively neutral peacekeeping force, which is also hard to envision under the UNSC system… Thus – deals with “lesser evils” and brokerage of unworkable coalitions.

        (I think that Iraq is a bad example for your generally correct point about credibility, however. The United States never really presented humanitarian intervention as a central plank of the War on Terror.)

        I think that the pattern of slow response can be explained by much more banal considerations. Wars are expensive and politically unpredictable, and if things go haywire even the best intentions won’t save the would-be peacemakers from fallout. Fallout from inaction isn’t as significant as fallout from failure, for the most part. Or from merely being more openly assertive. Just imagine the consequences of restructuring NATO into something with a more proactive mandate

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I was merely adding humanitarian interventions to the Iraq War, which was as you said, billed as a defensive operation in the War on Terror. There was one common point, which was the portrayal of the war as a WWII like moral cause, occasionally sprinkling in arguments like “Saddam’s a tyrant who kills his own people!” between claims about WMDs. When the latter suddenly turned out to be quite elusive, the argument quickly switched to: “It doesn’t matter if we find WMDs because this war was really about liberating the Iraqi people.”

        I might add that the kind of lying from the administration in those days is very reminiscent of the methodology of the Kremlin in recent years.

  7. A.I.Schmelzer

    Actually, Russia has so far found a way to gain advantadges in Syria with a pretty minimal intervention.
    http://www.nationalinterest.org/feature/lowdown-making-sense-russias-syria-strategy-14047

    They are running some risks (but these are unrealistic. Russia taking a side in the Syrian civil war will not lead to an All Sunni Jihad vs. Russia), but they do have an exit strategy (claiming that their intervention has successfully degraded the IS enough, easy to do because IS gains were hugely overstated), 4-5 credible allies on the ground, and are leaving the door open to a Sunni faction joining them.

    From what I got, the intervention is, in the Russian elites eyes, seen as the least bad strategy for intervening in Syria.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      The problem is that sooner or later the Assad regime will fall, and you can’t claim victory when that happens. There are worse outcomes of course, but none are particularly great for Russia. It’s just more money down the drain to prop up Putin at home.

      Reply
      1. A.I.Schmelzer

        The Alawites have nowhere to run, and will fight to the end. The thing is, many of the smaller Sunni brigades are interested primarily in not being ruled by Assad. They are not neccessarily interested in ruling over the Alawis.

        Russias position, since 2012 at least, was that Assad is not indespensible, and that some Lebanon style democracy with ethnic safeguards (meaning that Alewites, but not neccessarily Alewites named Assad, are present in the goverment) is the least bad possible outcome. This is an outcome that would still allow Russia to claim victory, another possible outcome is a significant degree of decentralization in Syria, again, as long as none of the “statelets” coming out of this call themselfs IS, Russia can claim victory.

        Russia actually did something “new” by stating that they see the Kurds as legitimate fighters against terrorism (well, not that new if you take into account the fact that RT was doing propaganda for the YPG/YPJ), and effectively “forced” Assad to make deals with the Kurds (didnt take much forcing, Assad just prefered to gain “paid” for that).

        They want to switch to a “2 vector strategy”, having both Assad and the Kurds as possible allies, and may actually pull this off (Kurds are effing mad at Nato ally Turkeys antics, and these antics cause considerable blowback, I would not put it past the Russians to have used some added Maskirovka, f.e. by feeding Erdogan false information about how “pro Russian” the kurds are, for making that happen).

        This is not “bumbling ahead without a clear plan” as was the Russian reaction to Maidan. Russia did, prior to intervening, gauge the reaction in other arab capitals, happily (and somewhat callously if you are Yemeni) didnt stop SA from inserting its dick into Yemen which greatly reduces SAs options to counter Russia in Syria, it convinced Egypt (not much convincing neccessary since the FSA is basically the Syrian muslim brotherhood, and Sisi is not very keen on them gaining power in Syria) to back them, made backroom deals with the Israelis concerning their goals in Syria (along other things advancing the idea that Assad is too important to leave him to the Iranians).

        Their policy in Syria is vastly better thought out then their post Maidan policy in Ukraine. That is not saying much of course, but if you intervene in Syria, Russia is currently doing it in the “least bad way” strategically speaking.

        It is was to early to tell, but the crushing defeat Russia suffered in Ukraine did seem to remind some players in the Kremlin that they better improve their game or lose everything.

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