A Few Thoughts on Syria


Although I have written mostly about the rise of Trumpenstein of late, I have been keeping track of what has been happening in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iran.   Not so much that I don’t feel painfully ignorant about it all, but enough to express a few thoughts that you can judge how you will.  I’ll  limit myself to Syria today.

But first a word about Trump (one of several reasons I gravitate towards his rise is that he seems such a reflection of us, something I hope to understand some day).   The word is the results of today’s primaries could decide whether Trump’s nomination will look inevitable or whether the anti-Trump Republicans can still hope to stage a fight at the convention in July.  The hope that Trump will not grab the 1237 votes necessary by then.

If Trump wins in Ohio today, divine intervention would seem required to stop him.  If Governor Kasich can beat him in his home state, let the games go on.  More about all that in a couple of days.

Now for Syria.  About two weeks ago a cease fire was signed by Russia and the U. S. and other major powers concerned with  the devastation and to most people’s surprise it has held up pretty well.  Of course it did not include ISIS and it has been uneven, but humanitarian aid has reached various places in desperate need and there has been markedly  less fighting overall.

Peace talks have resumed in Geneva and Russia has surprised by announcing it will be pulling out most of its forces in Syria, which seems a hopeful sign, though one American correspondent has described it as getting out before things get really messy there.

It is hard to imagine what kind of agreement can be worked out in Geneva because “our side” insists President Assad must go, while Russia has backed his staying in power.  Russian intervention has shored up Assad’s position in recent months, with the apparent goal of keeping his position strong at any bargaining table.

However, this exodus of forces makes me wonder just what Vladimir has in mind now.   I won’t even try to guess.

At least there is a glimmer of hope for peace in contrast with the assumption of endless slaughter that now prevails.

The Syrian Calamity: Small Progress, Huge Obstacles

It has been a week since I mentioned the international talks on Syria in Munich noting “there is a ray of hope now regarding a cease fire in Aleppo, the delivery of humanitarian aid to thousands and a continuation of talks aimed at an eventual peace deal.”

As for a cease fire in Aleppo, there has been none.   Syrian governmental troops and Russian planes are still pounding that city and there seems no reason to believe that will halt.  Syrian president Assad and the Russians call any forces that fight the regime terrorists, including rebels we support, so any peace deal is hard to imagine working.  Also, Assad recently said he planned to fight on until all of Syria is brought under government control again, another nail in the coffin of peace prospects.

The most positive outcome of the Munich talks is that humanitarian relief has begun to reach thousands of people trapped and starving in various pockets of Syria.  Though those reached will be a fraction of hundreds of thousands in such situations, it is one positive outcome from the talks.

I could add that there are plans for further talks in Geneva by the various nations represented in Munich, most notably ourselves and the Russians, but ones scheduled today in Geneva have fallen through, for no clear reason and even with differing reports as to whether they have been cancelled or just postponed.

Check out this article in the Washington Post for more on that curious front.

It should be noted, however, that a number of knowledgeable observers are sharply critical of the talks, seeing them as just an ongoing excuse for the U. S. doing little while the Syrian government continues to strengthen its position aided by Russia and Iran.

A more aggressive policy by the U. S. raises the possibility of our conflicting militarily with Russia and the potential for unforeseen, world shattering consequences.  Our present course of muddling along is hard to embrace as well.

For myself, the presidential candidate I think might best serve to guide us though these troubled waters is the one I’ll likely vote for.

For casual observers as most of us are, it is difficult just to sort out the various fighting factions and where they are in Syria.  An article in the The Guardian from the UK describes the initial humanitarian efforts while showing a map of Syria useful in trying to get a grasp of this nearly incomprehensible situation fraught with international consequences.

I tried to link you to it, but cannot, so you will need to apply the cut-and-paste method.




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.



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.


(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.