Russian and Eurasian Politics

Who Got Syria Wrong and Who Got It Right

by Gordon M. Hahn

As I noted two years ago just after Russia’s military intervention into the Syrian civil war, Russian President Vladimir Putin had several motives in intervening: (1) to preserve both the principle of state and UN sovereignty over Western interventionism and Russia’s role in the Middle East and globally by ensuring Russia’s say in the outcome of the Syrian war and crisis; (2) to weaken the global jihadi revolutionary movement, which includes the Islamic State (IS), Al Qa`ida (AQ) and host of other jihadi groups, in order to reduce the likelihood of jihadi terrorism at home by the IS affiliate ‘Vilaiyat Kavkaz Islamskogo Gosudarstvo’ (the Caucasus Province of the Islamic State) or the AQ-allied Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate); and (3) to create a balance of power between the pro-Western and pro-Islamist Sunni regimes, on the one hand, and the Shi’a, on the other, in the Middle East.

When Russia military involvement in Syria got underway, US government, media, think tank and academic circles claimed Russia was not attacking and would not attack the Islamic State jihadists (ISIS) (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/30/washington-post-urges-more-jihadi-chaos/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/20/spinning-russias-syria-intervention-the-institute-for-the-study-of-war/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/22/more-distortions-of-russias-military-intervention/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/07/lets-get-syrious/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/01/russias-military-intervention-in-syria-update-attacks-against-isis-and-other-jihadists/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/03/russia-is-targeting-jihadi-terrorists-in-syria-including-the-islamic-state-and-russians-approve-of-putins-military-intervention-against-isis-update/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/12/16/the-need-for-international-cooperation-and-a-grand-alliance-in-the-war-against-the-global-islamist-and-jihadist-revolutionary-movement/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/30/russian-military-intervention-in-syria/, and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/29/explaining-putins-counter-jihadi-coalition-proposal-russian-interests-not-a-new-cold-war/). They went further and predicted Moscow’s intervention was “doomed” to failure and become Putin’s quagmire (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/30/washington-post-urges-more-jihadi-chaos/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/05/the-eagle-the-bear-and-the-camel/). Wikistrat wargamed the Russian intervention and concluded that “any escalation of the Russian role in Syria might be able to generate tactical successes on the battlefield but would not bring any lasting victory, would force Russia into a spiral of deeper engagement, and carried with it serious geopolitical costs” (http://wikistrat.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Wikistrat-Russias-Syrian-Military-Surprise.pdf, p. 2).

Much of this kind of ‘analysis’ was strategic communication disinformation designed to paint Moscow as intervening to challenge American hegemony and unwilling to fight not just ISIS but other jihadi groups as well as to cover up Washington’s support for non-ISIS, AQ-tied groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Some US government-tied sources even claimed Moscow was supporting by ISIS by facilitating the exodus of Islamists and jihadists from Russia to Syria (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/08/26/the-daily-ignorance-bestial-distortions-of-jihadism-in-russia/).

I noted at the time of Putin’s intervention that such analyses were misleading and inaccurate in their entirety (see the first set of links above). Russia was and would be attacking ISIL as well as the more numerous AQ-tied jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham (AS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). The false analysis by the DC-tied circles mentioned above tended to deliberately obfuscate the facts, since their allies in the Barack Obama administration and among the neo-cons outside it supported backing such groups in order to rid the region of the Syrian Baathist dictatorship, an important ally of Teheran, and a threat to Israel. Regardless, whether Moscow’s primary goal was and is to keep the Assad regime in power or destroy ISIL and other jihadists, the two obviously go hand-in-hand. One cannot achieve one without the other. To leave ISIS on the battlefield in Syria would leave the very Assad regime that the circles mentioned above said Russia was in Syria to protect in constant peril.

Russia’s Alleged Non-War Against ISIS

Last week Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that ISIS was on the verge of an unavoidable strategic defeat in Syria, a goal Moscow was purportedly uninterested in and not pursuing, according to the DC consensus. Western media and other less than pro-Russian sources are echoing Moscow’s claims of an impending victory of Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces against ISIS and other jihadi elements in Syria. The apparent imminent Russo-Syrian victory over ISIS is a result of two years of joint Russian-Syrian military operations, combining mostly Russian air and missile power and Syrian ground forces. Moreover, it has come in the face of strong resistance from the West and especially some of its key Middle East and Persian Gulf allies, especially Turkey and Qatar, who have supported jihadi groups such as AS and JN, whose members frequently have ended up fighting for ISIS. This is especially true for thousands of some of the more notorious jihadists from the North Caucasus who left Russia’s North Caucasus and other regions to fight both in Syria and Iraq. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped advance the jihadi cause and the rise of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq –it has finally become almost universally recognized — when they went against the advice of US intelligence which warned that supplying arms to Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist opposition groups would ultimately strengthen jihadi elements in the Syrian and Iraqi opposition and risk turning over the Syria-Iraq border regions to them (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/04/03/obamas-muslim-brotherhood-strategy-the-war-against-jihadism-and-russias-syria-intervention-part-3-obamas-america-and-erdogans-turkey/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2017/02/15/american-misadventures-and-russian-gains-obamas-muslim-brotherhood-strategy-general-flynns-russia-play-and-trumps-debacle/). The intelligence proved correct, Obama’s policy wrong. The power vacuum and instability left in the wake of Obama’s failure and its all too apparent dangers for Russian interests in Syria, the Caucasus and for overall national security prompted Putin to intervene in Syria with Russian air and long-range conventional missile power.

ISIS indirectly and AQ-tied AS and JN more directly were recipients of US, Turkish and Arab largesse. AS brought in and first JN and then ISIS attracted large numbers of foreign jihadists into Syria, partnered with Russia’s own jihadi terrorist group, the Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) or IK, in Syria, undermining the small non-Islamist opposition elements dominating some local councils and part of what civil society actually existed in Syria in places like Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. Under its first leader, Hasan Abboud, AS played a significant role in enabling ISIS’s rise in Syria during 2013—cooperating with it and standing aside when it crushed other groups, such as Ahfad al-Rasoul in Raqqa. At the time an early mobilization against ISIS might have prevented it from seizing major portion of eastern Syrian territory. In response to ISIS’s rise, JN and AS set up in 2015 and led the Jaysh al-Fatah (JF) alliance of mostly jihadist and Islamist groups, which pushed Assad’s forces out of all major towns in Idlib province that spring. JF’s advances in Idlib sparked in good part the September 2015 Russian intervention.

In 2016 AS rejected a merger with JN first because of the latter’s explicit affiliation with AQ and later with JF because “the group’s (AS’s) leadership feared it would damage its relations with Turkey, its main external backer” and a NATO member (www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2017-08-10/jihad-wins-idlib). This facilitated the rise of another jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the new jihadi power in Aleppo before its fall to Syrian-Russian arms.

Now, DC consensus types acknowledge Russia’s efforts against ISIS, if doing so without mentioning Russia. Thus, a recent Foreign Affairs piece noted: “For now the regime and its allies will still focus most of their firepower on ISIS in the east” (www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2017-08-10/jihad-wins-idlib). A recent US defense industry study by IHS Markit and Jane’s Intelligence was forced to acknowledge the Russian role in defeating ISIS, if indirectly once again, by recognizing the key role being played by the Russian-backed Assad regime’s forces against ISIS. “It is an inconvenient reality that any US action taken to weaken the Syrian government will inadvertently benefit the Islamic State and other jihadist groups,” said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “The Syrian government is essentially the anvil to the US-led Coalition’s hammer. While US-backed forces surround Raqqa, the Islamic State is engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian government around Palmyra and in other parts of Homs and Deir al-Zour provinces.” According to the study, between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, 43 percent of all ISIS fighting in Syria was aimed at Assad’s forces, 17 percent against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and 40 percent involved fighting rival Sunni opposition groups — in particular, those who formed part of the Turkey-backed ‘Euphrates Shield’ coalition. “Any further reduction in Syria’s capability of Syria’s already overstretched forces would reduce their ability to prevent the Islamic State from pushing out of the desert into the more heavily populated western Syria, threatening cities like Homs and Damascus,” the analysis concludes (http://news.ihsmarkit.com/press-release/aerospace-defense-security/study-shows-islamic-states-primary-opponent-syria-governmen).

Putin’s Syrian Intervention: Quagmire or Diplomatic and Military Victory

Put simply, Putin won because Obama was wrong. Washington underestimated the jihadi threat in Syria as it did elsewhere; Moscow had seen enough elsewhere and did not underestimate the threat. Obama’s liberal-leftist worldview required that Putin’s ‘conservative’ position opposed in word and deed. Therefore, Obama and other administration officials called Putin’s intervention in Syria aggression, imperialism, mistaken, and an inevitable quagmire. At the same time, they hoped to continue the flow of weapons to various rebel groups. However, Putin’s intervention, failures in Egypt and Libya, the Benghazi debacle, and disagreements between the administration and intelligence led to exposing the futility of Obama’s Muslim Brotherhood strategy (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/05/the-obama-administrations-muslim-brotherhood-strategy-and-the-war-against-jihadism-parts-1-and-2/).

From the start the Obama neolib-necon narrative that at the root of the anti-Assad uprising was simply a peaceful expression of deep Syrian democratic aspirations proved a false one–just as did during Western regime change efforts in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Ukraine. For example, a video footage of one of the very first anti-regime protests in Banyas near the port city of Tartus on March 18, 2011, for example, shows an imam listing protest demands to wild applause and religious chants that included gender-segregated schools and a requirement that women teachers wear the niqab, both banned by the secular Baathist Assad regime (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_3DAEdf-lY&index=22&list=W). The opposition Syria’s village of Hula issued similar demands in 2011 and complained about the regime’s ban of the books of the medieval Islamic scholar and leading Salafi and jihadi source, Ibn Taimiyya (www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/10/20111023102856446977.html). In sum, the nascent Syrian revolutionary movement, like almost all such movements, was a conglomeration of ideologically antithetical and politically competing tendencies, with the Islamist and jihadist elements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood emigre leadership in Turkey, having at least as good a chance of coming out on top as any other. On the background of a Muslim world in the throes of Islamist and jihadist turmoil, the odds fell more in the Islamic radicals favor.

Worse than the narrative was the policy. These competing groups, rather than being melded into an effective united opposition front, were supplied with gargantuan amounts of weapons and other forms of support from the West and Arab world early on. Thus, outside support simply helped the originally peaceful Syrian opposition movement be quickly overcome by its violent elements, as occurred in Libya and Ukraine in 2013-2014, but with little hope of securing victory without an influx of foreign jihadi fighters. British diplomats report that already in spring 2011 there were armed clashes between armed opposition elements and the Syrian security forces and army; this long before the narrative of regime-shoots-peaceful demonstrators would ever be questioned. Brits report a “fierce gun battle” in spring 2011 just inside the northeastern Lebanese border with Syria between Syrian opposition elements, on the one hand, and the Syrian army and security police, on the other hand, were supposed to be using weapons against unarmed demonstrators. At the same time, an Al Jazeera camera crew showed the Brits footage it never would air taken near the north-eastern border of Lebanon that clearly showed armed men shooting at Syrian troops (www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-civil-war-rebellion-isis-assad-western-intervention-arms-a7921526.html). The US’s and others’ smuggling of arms into Syria from Libya and elsewhere kept the rising tide of foreign and radicalized Syrian Islamist and jihadist fighters well-armed and equipped.

Putin’s intervention turned the tide. It exposed the West’s failure to confront AQ and ISIS in Syria and Iraq under Obama’s feckless leadership and misconceived strategy focused on the Muslim Brotherhood and other ‘moderate’ forces and providing them with covert arms supplies. It exposed Arab and especially Turkish cooperation with IS, JN, AS and other jihadi groups, including the notorious ISIS oil trade through Turkey. More importantly perhaps, its shored up an increasingly embattled Syrian army with strong air and long-range conventional missile support to drive IS and other jihadi groups out of Aleppo, Homs, Deir-ez-Zor, and soon in the jihadists’ last real stronghold in Idlib province.

The US failure to deal with the Syrian crisis effectively has led to defections among its allies. New French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the fait accompli facing the West in Syria as a result of Putin’s diplomatic and military demarche in Syria by abandoning the West’s ‘Assad must go’ policy. He stated that in Syria France has “We have one main goal, which is to eradicate terrorism. No matter who they are, we want to build an inclusive and sustainable political solution. Against that background, I do not require Assad’s departure. This is no longer a prerequisite for France to work on that” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/07/13/remarks-president-trump-and-president-macron-france-joint-press). London withdrew Britain’s military trainers from Syria last week who were there to prepare “70,000 rebels” who to overthrow the Assad government (www.independent.co.uk/voices/syrian-war-ending-bashar-al-assad-won-robert-fisk-syria-middle-east-israel-british-troops-a7933966.html). The US Trump Administration subsequently joined Moscow in setting up a ceasefire in the south along the Lebanese border with the hope of extending the cooperative practice across the country. US officials no longer call for Assad’s removal from power. There can be no clearer evidence that Putin has outmaneuvered Washington and the West in Syria than that.

Yet even more objective analysts still underestimate the Russian performance in Syria. Two recently noted: “As for Putin’s military efforts in Syria, despite the difference Russian firepower has made on the battlefield, the country is still a smoldering mess. Stability remains elusive, as does a pathway to a Russian withdrawal. The gains Putin has made could crumble unless Russian power continues to prop up the Syrian state” (Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, “What Is Putin’s Endgame?,” Boston Review, 24 July 2017). What the authors  fail to note is that the war in Syria is being won. With Syria’s second city, Aleppo, recaptured by the Syrian army a few months back, ISIS’s hold on Deir ez-Zor and the abovementioned AQ’s dominance in Idlib province remained the only real jihadi strongholds.  But while the West vacationed in late August, Syrian forces, abetted by their Russian and Iranian allies, broke through ISIS’s three-year encirclement of Deir ez-Zor and its 80,000 civilians and 10,000 soldiers. The Syrian army is cleaning up the rest of Deir ez-Zor now and preparing to move ISIS’s retreating remnants to the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Stability will return to Syria and the Russians will withdraw will when the war is won. The image of a quagmire which the use of words such as ‘withdrawal’ conjure up are misleading, since Russian military intervention has been limited to air, missile and intelligence support and occasional special forces operations. Russia is not involved extensively on the ground; that has and will be the job of the Syrian army. In sum, there is no quagmire, and defeat of IS in Syria is in the not too distant offing.

The Western debacle and Syrian-Russian-Iranian victory in Syria raises three difficult security issues for the West. First, the ISIS retreat east will add to its Iraqi ranks, complicating the West’s effort to combat ISIS revived by Russia’s arrival in Syria and Trump’s arrival in Washington. Second, the Syrian army has gained invaluable combat experience, making it a more formidable foe for US ally Israel. In addition, Iran has made deeper inroads into Syria and concomitantly in Iraq, further complicating the security calculus for Tel Aviv and the West’s Arab allies. Third, the West’s failure in Syria and Iraq, combined with NATO expansion’s forging of the Sino-Russian alliance, has now made the latter alliance a factor in the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions’ politics by strengthening its diplomatic cover for Iran’s efforts in Syria and Iraq.

All of this might have been avoided, but alas American revolutionism, along with other factors, gave rise to the hubris of NATO expansion, humanitarian intervention, democracy-promotion and regime change policies and the mislabeled ‘new cold war’. All or almost all of the noted policies are destabilizing and yet seem destined to remain in place. The rest, as they say, will be history, and that probably of the turbulent sort.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com; a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), www.aigeo.org; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, and three well-received published books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.