Obama’s Syria Strategy: Is a Wait and See Approach Enough?

Barring the unforeseen, I think Barack Obama’s Syrian foreign policy will go down as the worst part of his presidency.   His chief mistake was to talk big while producing small actions during that nation’s decent into hell over the past four years.  The biggest mistake of all was to insist that Assad must go without accurately assessing his staying power with the aid of Russia and Iran.

Perhaps heady from deposing Kaddafi in Libya, Obama miscalculated the will of the international community to force Assad’s leaving and was too ambivalent about our own role to provide much leadership.  At the time Putin and the leaders of China seemed to feel they were being played in Libya, that they never endorsed a regime change, but only a protective no fly zone.    They did not want a repeat of that and vetoed UN efforts to put some sanctions on the Assad regime.

Assad has gone nowhere and now with Russia’s increased backing (along with Iran’s), he seems even more likely to stick around, at least as long as Vladimir Putin finds him useful.   Putin’s incursion into Syria has put Obama in an awkward situation, fertile ground for more ambivalence to blossom.   We have conveniently ignored international law in our supportive efforts to rebels we more or less like in Syria in that our aid has usually been given covertly via our CIA.

Not that it is a big secret, but when you support some group with the CIA it is not something you want to hold up for attention  as they don’t adhere closely to international norms.   Meanwhile, Putin can make himself look like the protector of these norms by backing the established government in Syria.   Whatever we might think of Assad, his is the established government.

So, we have Putin’s planes and missiles bombing the “terrorists” in Syria but he makes no distinction between the rebels we like and ISIS whom we despise.    Actually, one can infer a distinction.  That the terrorists he is concentrating on are not ISIS, but our preferred rebels who have been making strides in weakening the Assad regime

Here is our dilemma.   Putin is clearly bombing rebels whom we have supported and all the Obama administration has been able to come up with publicly is a verbal condemnation of Putin’s actions and some kind of air war agreement with Russia to make accidental clashes in Syria’s skies between our air forces less likely.

It has been reported that covertly we are now supplying our preferred rebels with a Santa-like abundance of anti-tank weapons from Saudi Arabia via our CIA.  Actually smaller quantities of those arms have been surprisingly effective in weakening Assad’s forces, which may have prompted Putin’s stepping up his support.  But that quiet support is lost in the news shuffle and we appear to be doing nothing in response to Putin’s attacks.

Right at this moment Russian planes are assisting government troops attempting to secure Aleppo in northern Syria.  It is reported that there has been an influx of several hundred Iranian troops and Hezbollah rebels to aid in this fight.   Meanwhile Putin continues to speak about his attacks in Syria as if most were aimed at ISIS, while the reality is just the opposite.

So, basically Putin is working against our interests while lying about it, his m. o. I would say.

The big question is how much does our inaction hurt our “super power” credibility in the Middle East and perhaps on the world stage?   When it comes to that credibility, how does one measure it?   I don’t know, but those who insist we need to push back harder on Putin believe the harm is great.  Others argue that our true interests are not at stake and emphasize the need for caution.

The debate is alive in the White House as described in an article in Politico:  Rift in Obama Administration Over Putin, though those pushing for more action are losing the argument for now.    The Christian Science Monitor  examines the credibility issue and how some of our allies in the region may become drawn to Putin’s decisiveness and determination when compared with Obama’s image of indecisiveness.

A defender of Obama’s cautiousness can be found in this article in Reuters with the catchy title:  How to respond to Russia in Syria while avoiding world war three.   The writer argues that our important interests are not being challenged by Putin and cautions against over reaction.   Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have an answer to the problem other than Obama must give up the notion that Assad must leave so that talks can begin to stabilize the country.

After four years of asserting Assad must go I can not imagine Obama allowing him to stay, so if some form of peace is to come some day to Syria it will be at a time of Putin’s choosing, his deciding he would be better off without Assad.

In the meantime we may just keep waiting and seeing.



THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR: Hell is Heating Up

Prior to the rise of ISIS I referred to Syria as the problem from hell.   In the interim Syria has become hell and hell has spread beyond its borders.  Now on this very day Vladimir Putin ratchets up the inferno with a power play on behalf of President Assad while pretending to help us fight ISIS.

For days Russian planes have been bombing mostly “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters while Russia has either denied that or just clumped together all anti-Assad forces as “terrorists”.   Today I read that Russian ships have added missiles to the fray and some Russian troops have been landed.  What is this?  Ukraine all over again?

This is gut wrenchingly awkward for us because we have been supplying some of those moderates who are being bombed.  And this is where Putin has us by the you-know-whats because he can argue, unlike us, he was invited in to support the legitimate government of Syria, i. e. the bastard scores points in international law.

HERE’S THE BIG NEWS FOR TODAY!   We face a dilemma.  Chancing war with Russia or facing humiliation for failing to stop them.

I’m feeling cognitive dissonance because I see little mention of what is happening today on the three major cable stations.  I keep flipping back and forth and finally found a piece on CNN, a good piece by the way, describing what I’ve been writing about.  Oh, and I just saw something on Fox, but rushed apparently to get the latest on the Hillary emails.

Googling, I find little up to date news on the subject and what news there is shows nothing about how we will react to these developments.   In a piece in USA Today, I see this quote from Secretary of Defense Aston Carter:   “They continue to hit targets that are not ISIL. We believe that is a fundamental mistake.”

A fundamental mistake?   That’s it?  Please get back to me when you have a real response Mr. Secretary.

It reminds me of our President stating a few days ago that these moves by Russia were really a sign of their weakness, the weakness of Assad that is, who needs propping up.   That may well be true, but what are we going to do in reaction to the propping up of someone we religiously insist must go?

Frankly, Mr. Obama, I really wish you had never said “Assad must go,”  Some sort of deal might have been reached a long time ago.  The sad truth in international politics is that some times one must forge a deal with the devil.  Do you think Winston Churchill liked dealing with Joseph Stalin?

Mr. President, I know the danger of clashing with Russia in Syria, but if we keep letting Putin bomb the sh.t out of the people we supposedly are supporting, who will believe in our support in the future?

I know it is a tricky decision Mr. President, so I’ll try to be patient.

(P. S. – 10:20  a.m. Pacific Time) Just heard on CNN that there was a close encounter between an America and Russian Jet.)

Inside Putin’s Brain: “Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

Perhaps you would like me to write about something other than Ukraine.   I wouldn’t mind moving on myself,  but I’m like a dog with a Ukrainian bone for this reason:  Ukraine is an increasingly volatile  situation that may be sliding towards a civil war even as I type.  And that could have incalculable ripple effects world wide.

English: Vladimir Putin in KGB uniform Deutsch...

English: Vladimir Putin in KGB uniform (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To begin with, that instability places the future of Eastern Europe dangling in doubt, more so than since the break up of the old Soviet Union.  There is a paradigm shift underway:   American led NATO must readjust its relations with Russia to something not quite like the Cold War yet more adversarial than in recent years.

It’s tricky business.

Not quite Cold War because we, and even more so, our European allies/fellow members of NATO have developed many political and economic deals with Russia during the post Soviet Union years.  Politically, we still cooperate with Russia on several fronts, including ridding Syria of chemical weapons.  Economically, Europe now does about 500 billion worth of trade with Russia;  we do about 40 billion.  Most efforts to hurt Russia economically will hurt our allies as well, which is why they are less eager than we to apply stronger sanctions.

It is like Russia has been partially swallowed into the globalized community, but it sticks like a bone in our collective throat.  A bone we might label Vladimir Putin.

In reading and thinking about Ukraine over the past month I have often asked myself:  What does Putin want?  And what is he willing to risk to get it?   He is smart, ruthless, loves the spotlight, resents Russia’s loss of international prestige and seems willing to risk much to reinstate that position, and himself, in the global equation.   His actions in Ukraine (and in Syria) reflect all of that, along with an impressive tactical craftiness….

….but he operates within a paradox with no clear reconciliation in sight.

I view the Ukraine  situation through a double lens, one short term and the other long.   The view in the short term focuses up0n the chaos in eastern Ukraine, undoubtedly fomented by Putin ( except for a few actions taken to appear helpful, such as in the recent release of several European observers sent to monitor events in eastern Ukraine).    Putin’s goal for the moment is do what he can to keep Ukraine in disarray, as opposed to becoming united with closer ties to the West.   In this short view Putin is winning in that he prompts Ukraine to remain unstable, keeps the West in a reactive stance,  boosts his popularity in Russia and keeps himself in the international spotlight (he’s had quite a string of hits in recent months – the Syria chemical weapons deal, the Sochi Olympics, the Crimea land grab and maybe this…)

However, Putin’s successful “living in the now” risks a big problem down the road, and that is a failed Russian economy.  True, its gas and energy output gives them an amount of economic power now in terms of the needs of Western Europe but also of the faster growing economies of China and India (it seems significant both abstained in the UN from condemning Russia’s take over of Crimea) .  However, gas and oil are the lion’s share of Russia’s trade income and, while Western Europe needs those resources, Russia also needs the money it sells them for.   Also, while the present high cost of energy boosts Russia’s economy now, that cost could well come down for a variety of reasons, one being greatly increased production in the U. S.

Finally, even the present limited sanctions are having an effect while greater combined U. S. and European sanctions  could greatly damage an already weak Russian economy as described in this article in The Telegraph.   In their recent meeting President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel announced much stricter sanctions on Russia if it invades or otherwise disrupts presidential elections to be held May 25.

I believe Putin is well aware of the paradox described above, but have only the vaguest idea on how he might act to maintain a winning hand that spans short term and long.

Though he has 40,000 troops near the border, I do not think he wants to invade for several reasons, a key one being because eastern Ukraine, while having a sizable Russian ethic population (let’s say around 30%) does not have a majority desire to become annexed to Russia according to a respected poll.  While a large majority does not recognize the legitimacy of  the Kiev government,  unlike Crimea they are not eager to become part of Russia, either.

The great unknown at the moment is how hard the Kiev government will continue to press to gain control over eastern Ukraine over these next 19 days before the presidential election and how capable they are of succeeding given the mixed results so far.   Might they be successful enough to make Putin feel obliged to send troops across the border since he has said over and over he has the right to protect Russian ethnics anywhere in danger?    His popularity at home is fueled by his actions to reassert Russian power, along with tweaking the collective Western nose in the process.

What if Putin does invade, how then will he handle the tougher economic sanctions which seem locked and loaded?   Will he try to negotiate a withdrawal in exchange for both the cessation of those sanctions along with greater sovereignty of eastern Ukraine?   That way he might maintain his image of grand protector while also evading the difficulties of actually trying to rule eastern Ukraine.

I will continue to observe and to gnaw on this bone while wondering whether Putin actually believes he has control of what is to come because he is in the position to call some of the shots.

Ukraine: Lost in the Globalized Shuffle?

I have read quite a bit about the Ukraine situation over the past week and find it difficult to sort out.   It is not quite an international crisis (that word overused to the point of a yawn), but it has great potential to become one.   Of course, so does Syria, which remains a “problem from hell,” but Syria does not pit the U. S. vs. Russian interests as directly.

Yes they are on opposite sides of the Syrian struggle, but as reported in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, they have worked together to remove an estimated 90% of the worst chemical weapons in Syria, a fairly amazing achievement in the midst of a civil war.

Lesser Coat of Arms of Ukraine

Lesser Coat of Arms of Ukraine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That is the kind of news that doesn’t get much coverage.   As you know, the news most covered is almost always bad.  The good news has to be very good to draw the spotlight (*1).   Also, there is another aspect to this good news that undercuts its goodness.  In making this deal with Putin and Assad, Obama was acceding to Assad remaining in power for months to accomplish the task, deflating those rebels (some of the many) we have supported somewhat.

That is the ugly underside of “realpolitik” boys and girls.

Leaving news coverage aside, the simple lesson to be learned from the removal of Syrian chemical weapons is this:   Russia and the United States can work together, even now, when our governments see a mutual interest.   What gives Ukraine such potential for a crisis is that Washington and Moscow have not established  a clear path that will satisfy their mutual interests.

We and our allies would like to see a stable Ukraine developed (which would likely favor the West), while an unstable Ukraine afraid to get too close to the West works in favor of Putin’s Russia.  If he can not have Ukraine as an ally, the weaker it is the better he likes it.

Not to mention that the present day focus on eastern Ukraine has made the Russian gobble up of Crimea yesterday’s news (*2).   It is a fait accompli and we have all moved on to other issues.

I mention “Putin’s Russia,” while generalizing who is in charge of “our Western” efforts, because in Russia so much of the power seems centralized in that one man, with his revival of nationalist pride backed by an often reported 80% in public opinion polls.   Power in the West is much more decentralized, at least when it comes to economic power and in a globalized world, that power is more effective than arms in the long run.    “We”, meaning  the U. S. and the European Union could cripple the Russian economy, but at a cost to ourselves, with Europe bearing much more of that cost.   America can only lead as far as the Europeans are willing to follow.

I am of the opinion that despite his 40,000 troops on the Ukraine border, Putin does not want to invade eastern Ukraine because if he does who knows what the unintended consequences might be?   As is, ingesting a poor Crimean economy into Russia is predicted to be very expensive in itself, and the eastern Ukraine’s economic struggles would figure to be another burden.

But Putin acts like he doesn’t care, so Western analysts can only guesstimate just how much of a gambler Putin is and how he defines winning.   And what with violent clashes popping up here and there who knows what events on the ground might prompt?

In any event, finding an equilibrium between Russia and the West in Ukraine appears to be quite a balancing act and the government in Kiev is walking a shaky line with globalized interests swirling about it.


(*1)   Receiving more attention are recent reports of the likely use of chlorine gas by the Assad forces, but that is not as deadly nor mentioned in the U. N. chemical disarmament agreement.   One more wrinkle in a complex calculation that you can read more about here.

(*2)  Having said that, I Googled “Russia and Crimea” and found a couple of interesting, though  disparate articles.  One describes the present chaos in Crimea and the other Putin’s plans to build Crimea’s economy, including a boom in casinos.


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Obama’s Foreign Policy, Reality and Putin: Enough with the tough talk, already!

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin's dacha...

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin’s dacha 2009-07-07 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On March 2 the Washington Post editorial board opined that “President Obama’s foreign policy  is based on fantasy, the fantasy being:  “Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — these were things of the past.”

It is hard to believe Obama is that naive, since we have practiced our own  invasions, brute force and great power games in recent years, but let’s not complicate the Post’s simple fantasy of reality just yet.

When people talk about reality, they barely get the half of it, not to mention the nuanced complexity revealed when a given situation is truly examined.   The reality ignored by the Post is that these countries, at least Russia and China, are integrated into our global economy for the most part.   Yes, they rely on brute force, but again so do we.  And this being a global economy makes little if anything simple in terms of foreign policy because ramifications abound since we are so interlinked.  This limits our options when it comes to taking decisive actions in a crisis like Ukraine because hurting Russia economically, in this case, is also likely to hurt our allies.   It is hard for us to get tough, when they have little or no inclination to do so.

The armchair warriors  seem upset by Putin’s ability to play us as seems the case in Crimea, implying that Obama should be able to act with similar decisiveness.   Putin is a brutal dictator with no one in Russia effectively blocking his moves and no international considerations that he is unwilling to ignore for passing glory.   He is also acting on his doorstep, so actions are simple to take and, given the historical ties with Crimea, with a sliver of justification.

Obama, on the other hand,  is constrained by actual relations with many other countries whose interests he takes into account, while about half of our Congress carps at everything he does, including his failing to come through on the “red line” statement in Syria even though they would not back his acting in Congress.  They blame Obama for projecting a weak national image, while they do their best to weaken that image with their politically driven propaganda assailing him for being weak.

While there are various economic sanctions that we can muster against Russia,  much depends on our allies’ willingness to string along because we don’t trade all that much with Russia and some of them do.   Germany in particular has a lot of trade with them, but you may have noticed Angela Merkel is not talking tough.  She is barely audible at all.  For her to put economic sanctions on Russia is to also shoot Germany in the foot.   Along with much trade, Germany depends on Russia for a sizable share of its natural gas which is piped through Ukraine, by the way.   Angela is all about letting things cool down rather than warm up.  Her inclination is to make a deal and tough talk does not help, it hinders.

In short, our options to be tough and decisive are limited because we have gotten mostly past the cold war them-or-us reality to a point of economic integration with the likes of Russia and China.  But Putin has remained a law unto himself.   He operates with no concern for anyone but Russia and even then is willing to risk Russia’s future for gleaming moments of super power like glory now.   Reportedly Angela Merkel has said he lives in his own reality.  We have to somehow come to terms with that.

If I have persuaded you of nothing else, hopefully you realize how any talk of reality that hinges upon being tough and decisive vs. weak and slow moving in foreign policy is the most dangerous fantasy of all.

The Destruction of Syria’s Chemical Weapons: How’s it going?

The answer:  Surprisingly well it seems.  That’s why we hear little about it.   Problems with the roll out of Obamacare, on the other hand, receive hours of coverage each day by the mainstream media.   I recall the old expression “no news is good news.”  It also seems:  Good news is no news.

The Hague (the Netherlands) Organisation of th...

The Hague (the Netherlands) Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But back to those chemical weapons.  When they were big news a couple of months ago it was because it looked like the Assad government had used them and perhaps even worse, they seemed in danger of being grabbed by one or more of the extremist groups which make up much of his revolutionary  opposition.

Then if you recall (or if you don’t  check out this refresher post), through an odd series of events, the U. S. and Russia made a deal (with Assad’s acceptance) to destroy all of the chemical weapons and facilities to make them, a proposal whose chances of working seemed very “iffy” at best.

Well, according to several articles I have read, despite the ongoing civil war, considerable progress has been made in dismantling those weapons sites in Syria and the biggest challenge now seems to be finding a nation that is willing to take the deadly chemicals and destroy them.   Albania seemed a good prospect, but demonstrations against the idea changed its government’s mind and no other European nation is willing to take on that role.

At least Norway has offered a ship and several escort vessels to tote that evil stuff somewhere to be destroyed should there be any takers.  Over the last few days there has been talk of bringing the means to destroy the chemicals to Syria itself instead of the other way around, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The point is that despite the huge difficulties, the The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (which has been tasked with the job), has said that ‘the most critical chemicals’ would be removed from Syria by the end of 2013″…..(and the)….”destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons facilities would take place between December 15 and March 15 “according to a risk-based criterion.”

This according to a recent article in CNN on line, which you should click if you want more information than given in this thumbnail sketch.

If those chemical weapons wind up destroyed, that will be great news, but not likely to garner as much attention as would the whole plan falling apart and Muslim extremists grabbing a goodly supply of killer chemicals with which to terrorize the region and perhaps the world.

Now that’s  a story our news people could sink their teeth into.