Russian President Vladimir Putin is well on the way to securing what had been western Syria for whatever dependent Putin might choose. He has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s Alewite forces with fighter-bombers and the Iranian and various Shia militias he recruited and supplied. In the coming months, Putin is likely to consummate his position as arbiter of the Levant—defining the borders of its Kurdistan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-stan, as well as the roles of counties in the region, while excluding Americans.
He is doing this by adhering to elements of political-military success that his American rivals forgot or never learned, incidentally offering us something of a refresher course in these matters.
The simplicity of Russia’s strategy and coherence of the political and military measures Russia is using to pursue it contrast with the diffuse and outright self-contradictory nature of U.S. policy and political-military operations. That contrast will become increasingly clear during the next six months or so.
Putin’s success stems from his focus on Russia’s own interest in securing an expanded influence in the Mediterranean crossroad between Europe and the Middle East. Since the Muslim world’s war between Sunni and Shia now rages in the Levant, and since Russia’s Tartus naval base is located in the Alewite (a branch of Shia) part of former Syria, securing Russia’s interest had to begin with making sure that the Shia side will hold this area undisturbed. But securing it, from the Golan Heights up to the Turkish border between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, also requires accommodating Israel’s interests in the south and obtaining cooperation with the Kurds in the north.
Vladimir Putin Has Strategic Clarity
This was possible because Putin, realizing that people fight only for what they want for themselves, chose to enter the fray unequivocally and irrevocably on the side of the Shia. But the very indispensability of Russia’s carefully calibrated military support to the Shia side limits what it could do.
Moreover, in 2015 Putin actually gave the Shia Alewis what they needed to accomplish what they passionately wanted to do—in the area of Russian interest. In 2016, he is setting about doing the same for the Kurds in their sector of that area. By the same token, he was able to reassure Israel that Iran would not be allowed to use Russia’s intervention to encroach upon the Golan front or outflank it.
This strategic clarity and consistency however, presupposes an equal and opposite enmity to Sunni states—to Turkey most directly, but also to Saudi Arabia and Qatar—as well as to Sunni causes and groups in general, notably ISIS. How far Putin intends to take this enmity depends mostly on the extent to which these oppose his strategic design. Sunni jihadists, after all, do pose a threat to Russian domination in central Asia.
In the case of Turkey, the enmity is structural. Quite simply, Turkey is the immediate, overwhelming source of logistical support for Sunni causes in the Levant—for ISIS, as well as for every other group of “Sunni rebels.” So, from the beginning, Russian-backed military operations have destroyed Sunni threats to the Alewi heartland by cutting supply lines that run northward into Turkey. That job is almost done.
Russia’s tactics—every bomb, every attack—have been steps to its operational objective of closing the Turkish border to Sunni forces. Consummating that objective, however, now requires working closely with the YPG Kurds in the border area. Hence Russia’s main political objective for the first half of 2016 is to cement that relationship. This is increasingly possible because these Kurds’ relationship with the United States is increasingly problematic.
Unlike the U.S. government, however, Putin has no ties to Turkey that prevent him from giving the Kurds whatever they need to take over the border, which is equally in their interest and in Russia’s. Once its allies guard the Turkish border, Russia will be the unchallenged mistress of the Fertile Crescent, while the United States will have become irrelevant there.
American Policy Is Incoherent
Let us now consider the contrast: U.S. policy’s complexity bordering on self-contradiction and the incoherence between its operations and any concept of success.
U.S. policy does not pursue any objective which, if achieved, would serve its interest in a way comparable to how Russia would be served by becoming the Fertile Crescent’s arbiter. The wish of many U.S. policy makers to prevent Iran from becoming the area’s hegemon does not qualify. If this were more than one wish among others, the U.S. government would not be transferring upward of $100 billion to Iran and facilitating its commerce or cooperating with Iran to fight ISIS in former Iraq.
By the same token, if the U.S. government treated destroying ISIS or securing hegemony for itself over the area as Putin treats his objectives, it would be dealing with its local partners—the Turkish, Saudi, and Iraqi governments, and the Kurds and militias of all kinds—as the dominant rather than as the subordinate party. The U.S. government ends up not focusing on its own interests because it confuses them with those of it local partners. Thus does it confuse means with ends.
U.S. policy has also made “stability”—maintaining the territorial integrity of the region’s states—an end in itself, thus sacrificing fruitful relationships with the individual ethnic and religious groups that compose the Middle East. Having become the last defender of borders and regimes against which local peoples are rebelling, America ends up semi-allied with governments that are increasingly impotent and internally conflicted, as well as with ethnic and religious groups that are as partially committed to American objectives as the U.S. government is to theirs.
We’re Undermining Our Own Goals
Lacking focus on America’s own interests, U.S. policy has leaned heavily on the Sunni side of the Sunni-Shia war while trying to combat the Sunni jihadism of which ISIS is but one manifestation. But the Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, etc. governments’ commitment to fighting constituents of their polities is ambiguous at best. Moreover, they have other priorities.
For example Turkey’s ruling party, part and parcel of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been and continues to sponsor all manner of Sunni forces in former Syria and Iraq. War against the Kurds seems to be its primary preoccupation. U.S. officials ask the Turks to close the border to ISIS. The Turks answer, insincerely, that they have done so and demand that the Americans curtail help to the Kurds who, they say, use U.S weapons for terrorism inside Turkey.
Although the U.S. government has no evidence of this and the Kurds have been the only effective ground force against ISIS, the United States refuses to supply them with heavy weapons and support their movement westward to close the Turkish border. In sum, when faced with a choice between pursuit of an operational end and support of a nominal ally, U.S. officials choose the latter.
The same holds true in former Iraq, where the U.S. government has insisted that Kurdistan’s Pesh Merga fight with light infantry weapons against an ISIS armed with the full complement of U.S. armored divisions the Iraqi army abandoned. All this, to content a Baghdad government whose writ runs no farther than the Shia population. At the same time, however, U.S. officials displease that same government by trying to exclude the highly motivated Shia militia from the anti-ISIS fight and by trying to make the Iraqi army more Sunni-friendly.
U.S. military operations similarly invite contempt and disaffection. With the partial exception of the direct air support the United States provided Kurdish forces both on the Mosul/Erbil front and in the Kobani/Euphrates area, U.S. air attacks have been all about attrition of fixed facilities, designed to minimize casualties. There is no sense that series of attacks A, followed by attacks B, C, etc., would lead to any operational success such as destroying or even isolating ISIS, never mind to achieving any strategic goal.
The failures of this complexity, confusion, and half-heartedness—the opposite of Putin’s modus operandi—should lead the United States’ highly credentialed foreign policy establishment to audit the Putin school’s current semester, and to take notes.