Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Didn’t Vladimir Putin turn 63 on October 7?  And didn’t the Russian military provide him with a spectacular birthday present – the launch of 26 cruise missiles from the country’s flotilla in the landlocked Caspian Sea that very same day?  It was an impressive display of night time fire power in honor of the President in Chief (or Perpetuity).  Previously, the Caspian – this landlocked sea with waves lapping both Russia and Iran – has been best known for scarce high quality Beluga caviar that commands a hefty price on the world market. 

And weren’t the 2014 Sochi Olympics really part of the continuing spectacle crafted primarily to pay homage to Putin followed on by the invasion of Crimea?

Let’s face it Russians love a spectacle from fireworks displays on every conceivable military and patriotic holiday – of which there are many – to hours’ long religious services celebrated on Easter in the country’s great cathedrals.

Exactly how many of the 26 missiles hit the target – well – do we know?  The US military tells us that four crashed in Iran so that leaves 22 to be accounted for.  Do we know what or whom they hit? How many civilians or goats were killed as collateral damage?  Or what the more recent bombing raids have struck?

But the current debate on this home front is what – oh-my-gosh – should the US do.  In my view, the answer remains restraint.  I’m glad to see that we have a President who does not think countervailing force is the answer to complex problems demanding diplomatic solutions and I’m frankly skeptical that the US trade-off with the Turks that has allowed US bombing missions from the Incirlik airbase is worth the price.

What Dog in this Fight?

In 1989, James A Baker, then Secretary of State erroneously stated that the US didn’t have a dog in the fight between the Serbs and the rest of what was then Yugoslavia as the country spiraled into chaos.  In fact, he was wrong – we did – as history played out over the course of several years with the US engineered Dayton Accords and then later US recognition of Kosovo.  But by Dayton time the calculus on the ground had dramatically changed and the Croatians were on the march.

Nevertheless, Syria is not Yugoslavia, which became neutral during the Cold War after Tito’s split with Stalin in 1949. This resulted in the end of the Greek Civil War because Tito closed the border so the Greek Communists lost vital safe-havens and staging bases.  And Moscow, for whatever reason, did not invade Yugoslavia despite threats and fears to the contrary at the time.

The Assad regime has been allied with Moscow since the early 1970s providing the latter’s navy with its single refueling station on the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, there are way too many “dogs in this fight” and the Obama administration recognized the mosaic-like ethnic and religious rivalries early on.

Yet with Moscow upping the ante, the Kremlin is primarily making the hostilities worse.  By targeting Assad’s near enemies – which are not ISIS but an amalgam of 80-95% groups ranging from the Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front to Sunni groups supported by the US and others – the Russian military actions are foremost opening territory to ISIS and other militant Sunni groups aimed at toppling the Assad regime.

This just rains more misery on what’s left of the Syrian population and expands the outflow of refugees: 48,000 arriving in Greece just in one week.

According to Amnesty International over 50% of Syria’s population had been displaced as of September 2015 and more than 4 million of them have fled abroad mostly to five nearby countries. Meanwhile, Russia has agreed to take in zero Syrian refugees and the US only recently agreed to resettle 10,000.  Germany and Sweden have been the most generous approving 47% of the Syrian refugee asylum requests between 2011 and summer 2015.

I don’t see how any of this will help Assad remain in power over the long run if that’s the Kremlin’s objective.  Or is it? In fact, the Kremlin’s objectives remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma to quote Winston Churchill’s long ago words.

In a front page New York Times news story on October 21, 2015 by Steven Lee Myers and Anne Barnard, the two reporters characterize the Assad-Putin relationship as anything but warm – but then Putin’s relationships with most people including every single US President – have been frosty.  (Personal comments from several of my former colleagues who met him even before the end of the Soviet Union corroborate this description.)

Myers and Barnard also observe that Assad has a habit of following his own lead – not kowtowing to Moscow’s commands.  As the US discovered in Vietnam, the Philippines and elsewhere, dictators have a way of marching to their own drums.   

I suppose Putin could threaten to withdraw Russian military support to the Syrian government if Assad steps out of line (Myers and Barnard argue that Russian military intervention will make Assad more dependent on Putin) but I wonder.  US history abroad in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan suggest that is not necessarily the result. If the Russians were to carry out a threat to depart, pack up and go home, and the Assad government falls to ISIS and Moscow’s two Mediterranean bases are overrun where does that leave the Kremlin?  In short, worse off than before.  This insurrection cannot be won by foreign air power alone and Assad’s forces have not exactly been shining examples of military power.

The increasingly likely downing of Russia’s Metrojet filled with mostly Russian holiday makers by some kind of incendiary device planted apparently by an ISIS-affiliated terrorist group is just the latest example of how barging into someone else’s conflict can have unexpected and tragic results. Russians may love spectacles – but this is not one either they or their leader bargained for.