The Eagle, the Bear, and the Camel

photo of russian jets syria

By Gordon M. Hahn

US President Barack Obama rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to build a united coalition to fight jihadism in the Levant. The American president apparently still believes the best way to fight jihadism is to destroy the secular regimes in the region. The Wall Street Journal chimed in with its amendment to the administration’s misguided obsession with removing Assad from power: “The only hope the U.S. now has of a decent settlement in Syria is to create no-fly and no-drive zones, on the model of what the U.S. did in northern Iraq in the 1990s, with the explicit aim of protecting civilians and arming a credible militia to destroy Islamic State and the Assad regime. Syrians would fight for such a group if they were convinced the U.S. was committed to victory. That’s not going to happen while Mr. Obama is President, but it’s the right formula for the next one” (www.wsj.com/articles/putins-syria-tour-de-force-1442790081).

One is tempted to ask why is it “(t)he only hope the U.S. has of a decent settlement in Syria”? And why is that the discussion is about “a settlement in Syria”? There is a mounting global jihad after all, and it has a foothold in every country and region adjacent to Syria and much farther beyond. It is spread across the Eurasian ‘World Island’ and across the seas to Indonesia, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere far afield of the Eurasian mega-continent. At any rate, Russia’s intervention in Syria has preempted any ‘no-fly and no-drive zones’ the next president might wish to implement, at least without Russian cooperation. So Wall Street Journal: Too little, too late, and too off the mark.

The key arguments against the idea of leaving Assad in place even as a temporary part of grand alliance against the jihadi threat to Syrian peoples and the region at large are: the Assad regime’s undemocratic harsh nature; its use of chemical weapons and other brutal methods against the opposition; and its pivotal position in alliance with Iran and Hezbollah against Israel. Let’s be real. Last time I checked the jihadists were not reading The Federalist Papers.

The jihadists are far more brutal than Assad, and our allies in the region are no paragons of human rights. The Saudis had ties to 9/11 and when faced with an uprising of the kind Assad faces respond no less brutally. We know this precisely. When its ally and neighbor Bahrain was faced with Shiite demonstrations, the Saudis sent their American-supplied tanks and guns to put down the revolt. In other words, they did precisely what the West cites as the reason for moving against Assad. Now, faced with a Shiite uprising in its own southeast provinces, the Saudi regime is sentencing people to death by crucifixion and beheading for simply distributing opposition statements (www.ibtimes.co.uk/who-ali-mohammed-al-nimr-why-saudi-arabia-planning-behead-crucify-him-1520160). But there were no calls in Washington or Brussels for the Saudi princes to step down and no covert or overt military supplies to the opposition.

Regarding Assad’s criminal, albeit, use of chemical weapons against its citizens, there is some evidence suggesting that some of the chemical attacks may have been perpetrated by Syria’s jihadists. Moreover, Assad’s use of chemical weapons is as much a defensive measure as an offensive one; he, his fellow Alawis, and the many Christians in Syria will be subjected to the most brutal genocide should the opposition win.

Finally, the consequences of Assad’s support for Hezbollah and Iran against Israel have been rather limited for Israel compared to what will befall Israel when the jihadists control Syria and move into Lebanon and the Golan Heights.

So rather then deluding ourselves about the moral high ground we hold in the region, a more realistic approach should be deployed; one that would have maintained U.S. predominance in the region while partnering with Moscow and other great powers to prevent the world war-scale crisis that now confronts the world in the Middle East.

Let me be clear: that crisis began long ago, not in late September 2015, and it is driven by the rise of the global jihadi revolutionary movement. Instead of joining forces against the common threat posed by Al Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and their affiliates, allies, and imitators, the West (especially Washington), Russia, and insular China looked the other way. The West, especially, remained focused on its old alliances and approaches both globally (NATO expansion) and in the region (obeisance in Riyadh), even as it undermined real and potential allies and pillars of relative stability in Iraq, Egypt and Libya. The West could have helped to build an international coalition in the region and brought Russia and others in to fight the global jihadi revolutionary movement in the Levant and elsewhere. Instead, it backed the Arab Winter.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials have been claiming that without Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutality, the Islamic State (IS) would never have emerged in Syria and that carrying out an air campaign against IS will only strengthen it. These are odd arguments. The Assad Baathists have ruled Syria for some seven decades, and yet IS appeared only three years ago. Assad does not rule Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Afghanistan, Russia and another ten or more countries where there are IS affiliates. The US and its coalition have been carrying out an air campaign. Why did they decide to do that if doing so only helps IS to recruit greater numbers of fighters? Or do only Russian bombs anger ‘moderate’ Syrians and spawn recruits for IS? Finally,

American fecklessness has bled over into outright incompetence and recklessness at best when it comes to the Syrian issue. We now know that the Obama administration was allowing a third party ship lethal weapons to Syria through Bengazi, Libya before the 9/11/2012 attack on the US consulate and CIA safe house there. We also know that the Obama administration, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lied to the American people and the relatives of this killed by mujahedin in Bangazi when they claimed the attack had nothing to do with Al Qaida and was a spontaneous response to a video (www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/judicial-watch-defense-state-department-documents-reveal-obama-administration-knew-that-al-qaeda-terrorists-had-planned-benghazi-attack-10-days-in-advance/ and http://www.facebook.com/ColRobManess/videos/1085717341443700/). Presumably, it was the weakness of the FAS/Mulsim Brotherhood rebels that led to many of these weapons ending up in the hands of jihadi rebels in Syria, including IS.

On the background of all this, it should be clear that Washington’s and Brussels’ Syria (and Iraq) counter-jihadi policy needs to be completely overhauled at this (too?) late hour. It is also clear given all of the above, that Russia has no reason to wait for the West to solve a Syrian crisis that it repeatedly has helped to worsen and do so at the expense of Moscow’s ally? Worse of all, it appears that President Obama is simply too stubborn and/or lacks the courage to reverse course in the face of liberal and leftists lobbying groups of all sundry sorts. Worse still, despite his denials, it is clear that this is now personal for Obama, and he will not acknowledge that Putin has had a more realistic and accurate assessment of the global jihadi crisis. Obama is frozen in his stubborn resistance to the Russian position because in many ways, it mirrors what many conservatives and Republicans say. The only thing that would gall Obama more than acknowledging the rightness of Putin’s position would be to acknowledge his opposition’s correctness. In an election year, the ‘unthinkability’ of such a shift becomes an impossibility on the order of a world turned both upside down and inside out.

Ultimately, the moment for a Western-Russian modus vivendi and counter-jihadi alliance has been lost. Washington and Europe, as they have for a decade, were more interested in other things: expanding NATO to Georgia and Ukraine; paving the way for EU and NATO expansion by supporting the illegal seizure of power by opposition forces in Ukraine; rejecting any cooperation with the Russian-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and refusing to develop trade ties and coordinate EU integration issues with the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russia countered with overreactions in Georgia (recognizing Abkhaz and South Ossetiyan independence) and Ukraine (annexing Crimea), a deepening Shiite vector by aligning with Iran and Syria. Russia’s recent diplomatic moves in the Middle East appear to have convinced Moscow that the corrupt monarchies are naked, incapable of joining together against the growing jihadi threat without a strong push from Washington….or some other party….Russia.

However, Putin may be biting off more than he can chew. Without a broad coalition, Putin’s intervention could mobilize against Moscow the Middle East’s pro-jihadi forces, and they can be found not just in Aleppo, Anbar, Kunduz, and Makhachkala but also in corridors in and around power in Doha, Muscat, and Riyadh. He could get pulled down into a quagmire, or does Putin have an exit strategy? If not, will Russian coffers suffice to cover the costs of a growing, lengthening intervention and maintaining some standard of living acceptable across Russia’s multifarious regions? In Russian history, war has rarely served Russian political stability well.

With the betrayal of the 20 February 2014 Kiev agreement, Putin threw off all restraint. Subjected to Western military and/or political intervention in the domestic politics of its allies and neighbors for nearly two decades in violation of the UN Charter and Helsinki Final Act, Russia is returning the ‘favor.’ Putin has embarked on his third and most ambitious unilateral military action inside the territory of another state in the last seven years. The Kremlin’s logic is simple. If the U.S. can bomb Serbia unilaterally, then Russia can bomb Syria unilaterally. If the U.S. can build up the militaries of Russia’s neighboring states with irrational leaders leading to an attack on Russian-allied ethnic groups on Russia’s very border (Georgia, Saakashvili, and South Ossetiya), then Moscow can invade that country’s breakaway regions to protect its allied ethnic groups and even recognize their regions as independent states. If the U.S., in flagrant violation of the Helsinki Final Act, can march its Deputy Secretary of State, ambassador and senators through the central square of the capitol of Russia’s key neighbor in order to encourage demonstrators (many of whom were organized by people receiving U.S. moneys) to overthrow the government, then Moscow can annex territory of that neighbor acquired extra-legally and support rebels elsewhere in that country who oppose the new government brought into power by the U.S.-backed takeover.

Finally, the failure of Washington and Moscow to come to a modus vivendi continues to play into the hands of the jihadists. NATO expansion and resulting policies succeeded in destroying any and all trust between Moscow and the West, as I predicted nearly twenty years ago. We are brought perhaps to the brink of a world war in a place where NATO has little presence and is unlikely to have much of any for another year-and-a-half at least. Hey Pentagon, I guess the most important item on the national defense agenda is to get that Latvian navy and air force in shape and reinforce those Baltic states against ‘Russian aggression in Europe’ (sarcasm intended and abundant).

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Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.

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About Gordon M. Hahn