General Petraeus on Vladimir Putin and Syria

Vladimir Putin  grabbed world attention yesterday with a disturbing power play in Syria.  He recently announced his intention to get militarily involved in Syria, supposedly to primarily degrade ISIS, but his long term support of the Assad government prompted doubts that was all he had in mind.   He acted surprisingly quickly by launching an air attack yesterday, but not on ISIS areas.  On “moderate” rebels that we have been supporting.

There had been plans to develop communication between the Russian military in the area and our own, to avoid accidents, but this had yet to begin.  Reportedly, we were given a one hour advance notice of this attack.

Not a good way to work together.

This seems pure Putin, talking about doing one thing and doing the opposite, always seeking some kind of edge, a routine on display in Ukraine over the past 18 months of civil war.   For example, he’d say his troops were not involved but many were easy to identify.   He would agree to some truce arrangement and then ignore it. (1)  

Not the kind of guy you want to normally partner with on anything, but there is a caveat:  Putin has been reliable in partnering on issues he deems vital to himself and Russia, which I tend to think are one and the same in his mind.   He partnered with Obama on removing most of the worst chemical weapons in Syria, which worked amazingly well given the nature of the conditions there.   As far as I could tell, Russia was a useful partner in the Iran nuclear deal, as well.   That Putin also cashed in on a lucrative arms deal with Iran in the process does not erase the rest.

So, what does Putin really want to get out of this Syrian incursion?   Rather than listen to me I suggest you turn to a piece by one of our most widely respected generals, David Petraeus, who  recently gave the Senate Armed Services Committee a multi-hour “tutorial” on the  Middle East.

He talked about Russia’s  provocative actions while adding that “doesn’t mean that we need to be provocative in return. But we do need to be firm in return; we do need to establish what [are] unacceptable actions.”  For example, telling “Assad that the use of barrel bombs must end — and that if they continue, we will stop the Syrian air force from flying.”  

And how might Russia react to that?  He doesn’t say and therein you can see what a delicate, dicey process this is.

Because of a deteriorating economy (2), Petraeus thinks Putin “has actually a limited window of a couple of years to continue provocative actions,” but he cautioned, “we have to be very careful during this time, when he could actually lash out and be even more dangerous than he has been.”

Here is the Wapo piece on Petraeus written by Walter Pincus.

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(1)  In thinking about this post I thought of how little coverage Ukraine gets these days, even though a civil war is continuing there. Just isn’t a hot topic now, but I did just read of yet another truce in the making there.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Putin pushed for that, as he has bigger fish to fry right now and doesn’t want to be distracted.

(2)  That deteriorating economy has much to do with the sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia since the invasion – that and the drop in oil prices.  In time I think he’s on the losing end, but it is the danger of the lash out that most concerns.

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The Wisdom of Muddling Through in the Middle East

President Obama’s conservative critics often lambast him for being indecisive when it comes to foreign policy and dictatorial when it comes to domestic policy, so I guess in their eyes he’s sort of an indecisive dictator, or more to the point, whatever he does or doesn’t do they don’t like.

I think the president’s biggest foreign policy mistakes have come when he has succumbed to the temptation to talk tough, a manly thing, and only realized later he spoke too hastily, saw more clearly the consequences and then acted more prudently. Syria in particular comes to mind. He tends to be criticized for not arming the “moderate rebels” early enough, but who knows if the more effective radical forces wouldn’t have wound up with those arms as they did later when ISIS became weapons rich after Iraqi troops fled Mosul.

The mistake was asserting from the beginning of the rebellion that Assad must go, this while miscalculating the actual international support to make that happen, and the will of Putin to resist it by providing much support to Assad. So, the president encouraged the rebels’ dream of freedom while not doing much to assist them.

Now we have the odd situation of actually helping Assad stay in power by focusing on destroying ISIS, which is deemed the greater of two evils. And since Assad is the most stable force in Syria, we are not nearly as eager to take him down as we were before, this coming from a change in perspective regarding democracy and chaos in the Middle East. The Arab spring. which seemed so promising, now looks like the roots of Mid-East disintegration and the bad old dictators don’t seem as bad as they used to because they at least maintained order.

Eugene Robinson covers similar ground in a Washington Post column March 30“U.S. policies on the Middle East are inconsistent but wise”.    He addresses the Yemen Issue as well and how it raises one more foreign policy dilemma for the U. S..   He leads off with:  “As gung-ho ‘experts’ press President Obama to do this, that or the other in the Middle East, keep a simple rule in mind: Whatever the avid interventionists suggest probably won’t work — and surely will have unintended consequences.”

I can’t imagine more fertile ground for unintended consequences than the increasingly chaotic Middle East.

Degrading and Destroying ISIS: Something to Be Thankful For

When receiving news of our battle with ISIS in the Middle East does it feel like we really are at war? It seems more like a video game played in the background of a party.  You may notice the action but it has nothing to do with you.   I’d say the main reason for this is because our part of the war is mostly money and machinery, with only a few flesh and blood Americans risking their lives, and no announced casualties for us.   There is something surreal about it all, but enough of that mental meandering for now.

Let’s look at a couple of promising recent developments on the ground.

Ultimately destroying ISIS means developing some kind of political solution in Syria, their home base, and that situation seems best described as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, to borrow a few choice words from Winston Churchill aimed at Stalinist Russia decades ago.   As such, we’ll leave that issue for a later time.

But recent news suggests our alliance is at least degrading ISIS in Kobani in Syria and in a few areas of Iraq.   Situated next to Turkey and with most of its residents evacuated, Kobani has been turned into mostly rubble by the fighting of the past couple of months.

During that time the city has seemed constantly about to fall to ISIS, but the combination of continued U. S. air strikes, some 270 of them, and the addition of about 150 Kurdish troops, which Turkey finally let cross their land to get there, seems to have ISIS stymied and actually losing ground slowly, with an estimated 600 of their fighters killed.

In a Huf Post article, according to John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition fighting the Islamic State militants, losing Kobani would be a blow to the ISIS image of invincibility, so they keep massing their forces there providing good targets for our air strikes.

Also, Iraqi forces have regained a couple of towns taken by ISIS last summer while they are also making progress in retaking Ramadi. According to CNN, “The battle for control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, is shifting in favor of Iraqi and tribal forces fighting ISIS militants, Iraqi officials said Monday.”

While the article does not expand on the degree of Sunni tribal support, it is welcome news to find any at all as turning Sunni tribes against ISIS Sunni fanatics is a key part of our strategy to degrade them.   The failure of the central government in Bagdad to be inclusive of these tribes is what has paved the ground for the easy ISIS advances.  Separating those Sunni tribes from ISIS is essential.  Otherwise, fighting ISIS appears an attack on Sunnis in general, making us seem allied with Shiites as opposed to Sunnis in that age old conflict that contributes so much to what is happening today.

But that’s another thorny issue best postponed to later as well.   Let’s be thankful that ISIS seems in check for the moment, even though there’s a long winding road ahead to check mate them.