Why Russia Is In Syria

Russia is in Syria, not to get rid of the Islamic State, not to prop up the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad but to get back at the US and its allies for their support of the Ukraine. To understand how, one needs to understand where the US and NATO are in the evolution of middle-east policies. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair succinctly stated: "We've tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq. We've tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya. And we've tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria." It's all pretty turned out the same.

The US recognizes its limited power and has begun a policy of supporting pretty much anyone who is an enemy of our enemy, regardless of how you'd feel about them dating your sister. We supply the relatively riskless, but effective, air power and our proxies do all the heavy lifting on the ground. It's worked moderately well in some areas. The Kurdish Peshmerga has been quite effective in Iraq at driving the Islamic State out of Kurdish Iraq, and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria has had some success along the northeast Turkish border. This is good news for the US, but not so much for NATO member Turkey. Turkey and the Kurds have had continuous fighting for more than two centuries. In recent times the Kurdish section of Turkey has been a gigantic problem for Turkey. Constant bombings, abductions and assassinations have caused Turkey to brand most Kurdish political entities, including the YPG, as terrorist organizations." The claim has merit.

Turkey is amassing troops just across the border from the Islamic State in northern Syria, but after they downed a Russian plane in November, they don't want to risk sending their own planes in support of an invasion. So, the US and other NATO members are quietly amassing planes in Turkish airfields in Batman, Diyarbakir and Malatya for support missions for Turkish forces. However, Turkey isn't hugely interested in using their troops against Islamic State. They far more fear further YPG successes from the east taking over the territory. Any incursion by Turkey won't be about attacking the Islamic State, although that will be how it is publicized. It will be a blocking action preventing the Kurds from controlling a huge swath of Turkey's border. The YPG will still be able to go south into the heart of the Islamic State, but it will be territory away from Turkey and be much bloodier -- both of which suit Turkey nicely.

Russia has figured out precisely how to ruin the US/NATO strategy of letting proxies do the groundwork while NATO supplies air cover: Attack all the anti-Islamic State troops the US and NATO are supporting, to force NATO to use their own ground troops. Naturally, they say they are there to help in the process against the jihadists, but almost all their activity has been directed toward the NATO-supported anti-IS/anti-Alawite rebels in and around the Aleppo province in the northwest. They have even directly attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces, the portion of the regular Syrian army that defected when the revolution started. No one considers them jihadists, except the Russians. If they haven't been attacking in the northwest, they have been working south where they are attacking Jordanian/Israeli/Saudi supported rebels. The one force the Russians haven't attacked much? Islamic State.

Russia has allowed a Kurdish embassy to be opened in Moscow and has also begun to support the YPG. Because the YPG have no particular quarrel with Assad and the Alawites, Russia is happy to have help getting rid of the Islamic State, or at least draw forces away from where it is in conflict with the Alawites. Recently, the YPG has attacked Islamic State centers in northwest Syria, with the assistance of Russian air power. Turkey is frightened and upset. If the Kurds, with Russian and US help, were able to defeat Islamic State all across the northern border of Syria, Turkey would have Kurds almost all along its border that isn't water.

Turkey has been supporting al-Nusra and other former al Qaeda Sunni groups who have been fighting the Shia Alawites. While it isn't politically correct, Turkey would prefer to have al Qaeda or Islamic State as neighbors than the Kurds. The US and, to a lesser extent Russia, would prefer the opposite. But then, they don't share borders with the Kurds. Syria is awash in contradictions. The enemy of your enemy may well be your friend elsewhere, but not in Syria.

With very little risk and only a relatively few pilots and support personnel, Russia has been able to test their latest weapons systems, defeat the proxies from the US, NATO, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and force the NATO members to do their own fighting. Russia may drop a few token bombs on Islamic State as they aren't friends of the al-Assad regime either, but that won't be their emphasis. They will be quite content to prop up al-Assad on the west coast of Syria and only attack any Sunni rebels who are proxies for the ones Russia wants to get back at. In the process, once the proxies are stripped away, if NATO wants to get the Islamic State out of Syria they'll have to use their own troops. There simply aren't any anti-al-Assad troops that aren't contaminated with the "jihadist" label one way or the other. Because Turkey has special enmity toward the Kurds, Russia will be happy to help the Kurds replace the Islamic State anywhere the Alawites couldn't get to.

Russia will probably step up efforts in the south as most of the rebels there are supported by Saudi Arabia and Russia has had no luck trying to get Saudi Arabia to cut production to prop up world oil prices. Russia is hemorrhaging economically as a result of the low price of oil and needs major players (other than Russia) to cut production and bring the price back up. It is extremely doubtful that there is anything Russia can do in Syria to coerce the Saudis to cut production, but Russia will still get some satisfaction from tweaking the Saudis.

With nearly half a million dead in Syria and somewhere around 5 million Syrian refugees (none of whom are seeking asylum in Russia) Russia is thrilled to extend the suffering for as long as possible. The flood of refugees overwhelming the EU will be payback for the EU sanctions against Russia arising out of the Ukrainian conflict. Forcing NATO to put their own forces into Syria will make sure there are limited resources should Russia try some more mischief in the Baltics or elsewhere. So far it has cost them two pilots, one jet fighter, a moderate amount of jet fuel and some munitions.

This could well be the greatest triumph of Putin's career.

February 14, 2016