In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
Allawala: "The United States and its Western allies should not have been caught so off-guard by Putin’s shrewd but destabilizing move in Syria," writes Jeffrey Stacey in “Undeterred in Syria,” his article on ForeignAffairs.com. "Since the Russia invasion and occupation of Eastern Ukraine, Putin has been poking and prodding the West, seeking ways in which a militarily and diplomatically resurgent Russia can subvert Western security interests and force Western capitals to deal with Russia again as a major world power with its own unique set of legitimate interests."
We sat down with Jeffrey Stacey, who is Managing Partner of Geopolicity U.S.A. and a former State Department official in the Obama administration, to learn more about Putin’s tactics, goals, and potential Iranian involvement.
Stacey: The recent Russian intervention in Syria has a certain pretext in history and some important comparisons, but it also has a novel element, which is not a very positive one. What we have is, not just the largest projection in use of force by Russia outside the territory of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War, we are now also witnessing, I think everyone has to start to admit, a new Cold War. Except it isn't so cold, it's warm and it's getting hotter. This in fact is more dangerous than the famous East-West tank showdown at Checkpoint Charlie that took place in Berlin, the height of the Cold War. May not be as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis, certainly not, but what is very clear is that every major world power, speaking in relative world power terms, is now currently engaged militarily in the Syrian regional war with the exception of China, but there are also now reports that China in fact is sending not only observers, but ships as well. So, we shall see, we might have everyone involved soon and that of course is without precedent. And now Iran is entering Syria with troops, which could have been prevented just like Russia's intervention in Syria could and should have been prevented.
Russia's intervention in the Syrian regional Sectarian War is not just ominous, but probably doubly or triply ominous. First of all, you have Russia engaged in major power projection, which involves a new forward operating base from which it can engage in future forceful military operations all over the region and beyond it. Second, this intervention will only cause the Syrian Regional War to spin further out of control, not only because Hezbollah and Iran and some Shia militias are given new space to operate along with the Syrian regime, but this is going to lead directly to the Saudis and the GCC states, such as Qatar and UAE, only upping the anti in their drive to defeat both ISIS and Assad. So, this whole thing is going to spin further out of control against all western interests. And third, ISIS has actually advanced since the Russian air strikes have started, which of course they claimed they were against ISIS, when in fact, they have been pounding the anti-Assad rebels, clearly contrary to their interests and western interests.
Basically, we have to realize that Putin is not nearly as shrewd as people think. He has made this up as he has gone along. There've been no grand months of long involved planning, which is a bit of a conventional wisdom these days; if that had been the case, this would have happened earlier. For example, Assad wasn't so on the defensive five months ago. Putin and Russia did the same in Ukraine: they winged it, and improvised the entire thing. They had no plan prior to the Maidan Revolution and the EU acceptance of Ukraine in terms of future membership. Putin is now doing the same in Syria, he actually has no end game, but that's what actually is fairly brilliant on his part. It is certainly shrewd and then some, for he doesn't actually need an end game. While he may not be that good at grand strategy or making strategic moves, he is extremely good and increasingly deft at making tactical moves.
Tactically speaking, he has already wrapped up with, I'm sure the Russians and he views as a host of nice wins. There's a list here including negating the positive influence of the Iran deal, wagging the dog for domestic consumption, distracting from the Ukraine occupation and annexation of Crimea, directly subverting Western interests, getting himself an extra large spotlight at the UN General Assembly, getting the ability to poke and prod NATO and its allies and game out their responses, getting to indirectly subvert Western interests by giving the play-ball Iranians cover to pull back from playing ball in Syria, and seemingly prevent a no-fly zone or refugee safe zone that Turkey's been promoting. It also gets to rub it directly in the US’s face by dragging its feet on de-confliction and other things. It gets Assad to stay at least for a good while. It gets a new forward operating base and then, of course, it gets Russian elites to think that they are a super power again, and it gets to display for the world the brand new, you know, "Let's roll back the curtain” -- result of the Russian military modernization strategy.
Just in the past few days, the Syria army has advanced, ISIS has advanced, the Russian military hardware has grown larger, Putin has engaged the Saudis and the UAE in high level talks. After all of this, does it really matter to him if the end game doesn't work out? I would say no.
But why did Russia intervene specifically in Syria? There are some reasons it didn't intervene. It's not doing this to fight ISIS, despite what some claim is a Chechen connection of importance; it didn't do so because of any need that it had prior to this to consolidate its maritime base in Syria; it's not about backing Assad specifically; it's certainly not about fighting terrorism; it's not about any grand end game or solution to the war, but it is about several key things.
First of all, to wag the dog at home and distract from the economic pain that Western sanctions have caused Russian citizens to go through. Second, it demonstrates to the world that Russia, too, is a world power to be reckoned with and that it's recent military modernization is now largely complete. Three, it subverts Western American interest as much as possible. Four, it pulls off a sustained projection of power with this new forward operating base. Five, it props up Assad, more the regime than the man himself. Six, and we should not forget this, we saw this first in the Ukraine, this has involved a major media push, this time though with the spotlight at the UN General Assembly. It has in some ways … seven distracted from what the Russians have done in Ukraine. And finally, it's about what Russia has always been about. Certainly in my own diplomatic experience, whenever I encountered Russian diplomats, Russians are always attempting to get more respect in the world and specifically from the West; and they're doing that here as well.
How was Russia able to do this? And the immediate answer that it was not successfully deterred. The US was, I think we have to admit, stared down by Putin over Ukraine. It was the US that blinked. This directly emboldened Putin. He concluded that he could go even further without getting a forceful reaction from the West and ever since then, this has been going on for a better part of a year and beyond, Russia has been poking and prodding the West ever since the outset of the Ukraine crisis. Not just to be a nuisance, but to see what Russia could actually get away with and to game any Western responses, which have been fairly meager. He also previously successfully intervened in the Syrian conflict and he got the US, the UK, and France to back off from their own intervention plans, and he did with relative ease and caused great embarrassment for each of those governments in different ways.
But deterrence is extremely hard to build. While it is hard to build, it is very easy to lose and it's especially difficult to rebuild in the midst of a crisis. But it is important -- deterrence is actually especially important in these circumstances, when a great power does not want to or cannot intervene in a crisis where its interests are at stake. That is the case with the US in this crisis. Deterrence only worked and at that barely with regard to keeping Putin and Russia out of Poland and the Baltics. Now we have to realize that deterrence can operate in different conduits or what I would kind of think of as silos at the same time.
In other words, a given adversary or potential adversary can be more deterred from a specific action, say in one silo, but become less deterred and more prone to act in a different silo of deterrence. And that is what we've seen here, that Russia may well completely stay out of those countries (who are) closer US allies but continue to mess around and escalate even more elsewhere. Now how was deterrence successful? Because NATO did a series of exercises. It did very serious and sustained air policing along NATO borders. It has also put into place a troops and major military hardware.
But Western deterrence of Russian projection and use of force has now deteriorated so badly that I am concerned that Russia may yet attempt Baltic incursions. The inaction in Syria may lead to some form of this, so NATO has to be on particular guard. But Putin has basically been counting Western slights to Russia ever since Kosovo. Senior Bush administration officials have admitted publicly that not countering the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 was a major strategic mistake. And now, with… Not just this last year, but a whole series of years where the Russian economy was very successful – particularly successful with regard to sustained oil exports when the price of oil was still high – and that allowed Russia to successfully rebuild its military capabilities and overhaul its training, what academics refer to as fungibility (i.e.the ability to turn economic resources into military resources) has been a brilliant success. But it was only when Putin intervened in Ukraine and found the Western response to be so feeble, in his view, that he decided to up the ante and begin to subvert Western interests wherever and whenever he can.
If the US and the West do not act, Putin will interpret this as additional weakness and he will press further at the very next opportunity. And what has he done that has been costly? The list gets longer by the day. Russia has violated Turkey's air space. It has messed with US drones. Its fighters have buzzed US fighters. It launched cruise missiles with no warning in skies with Western planes in them.
Instead of de-conflicting right up until now, it has forced the US to stay out of its way and perhaps worst of all, it has relentlessly attacked US-backed and trained anti-Assad rebels, which should have been a red line. But in addition, demonstrating that Putin is finally moving from the tactical to the strategic, he is further emboldened and now engaging and aiding governments around the world, including our own allies, doing this to enlarge his influence, but also enlarge and gain more prestige. But all of this, Putin has done thus far with relative impunity. Ironically, his getting away with it, makes it destined to backfire for the U.S., in action, in other words. These provocations have to be answered or Putin will escalate even further.He has stated that no Russian troops will be sent, but the West should cease taking these assurances at face value. There is already a battalion worth of Russian troops, already in place.
Here's what the US should not be worried about, which is, by acting causing further Russian escalation, because what we have is that, not acting has directly caused Russian escalation. Therefore, logically speaking, ipso facto, acting should cause de-escalation. And the reason is this: Putin views the US and our leadership as weak, which is reinforced when the US and its allies don't act. Thus, not acting is an action in itself, which gets a Russian reaction, which is greater escalation.
This is what the US doesn't get about Putin and his advisors. Thus, it was a bad idea for the President to actually meet him at the UN in New York because that was interpreted as a further sign of weakness. As with Ukraine, Putin only respects either the direct show of force or credible threats of its use. We actually don't have to worry about escalation into a major direct battle or war with Russia, because Russia fears that more than we do. If we show force, they will back down. Russia’s modernization, which has involved not only building new capabilities in terms of military hardware and software, but also an overhaul of its training, and upgrading the professionalization of its troops and officer corp (including getting rid of a lot of officers who didn't know what they were doing) The conventional wisdom is, "Oh my god, we should be worried. We have a far more angry and strong Russian bear on our hands, so we had better not risk any kind of altercation with them."
That plays right into Russian hands, having view. In fact, these capabilities, these troops, these officers are not battle-tested; they are not battle-ready. They are going to town in terms of learning lessons as rapidly as they can learn them in these current operations. Hence, for example, this new caliber cruise missile which, at full capability, is believed to be better than most of the same types of missiles in Western hands. Voila, on its second volley of these things from the Caspian Sea it sent four into Iran accidentally. So that is just an indication of how Russia actually is not ready to go tête-à-tête.
Therefore the US should do following: it must re-establish deterrence. It can do so by actually confronting Russia directly. First, it should tell Russia that it will shoot down the next plane that violates either Turkish or other NATO air space. When and if this actually happens,, Western pilots should fire warning shots and lock on in radar terms -- that might do the trick, but they should go ahead and shoot down (any Russian aircraft) if this happens again.
With Turkey, the UK, and France, the US should also set up a mini no-fly zone, and a refugee exclusion zone on the ground. People say that you can’t do this any more, because of the Russian air strikes and the cover from Russian ships off the coast. But we need to think about it a little more strategically and operationally in the following terms. Turkey has been pushing for this, and there is a good reason for having one (related to re-establishing deterrence). Not a large one, but a small one de-limited only to the zone on the ground.
On the Turkish border in northern Syria, just north of Aleppo, extended just east of Kobani is where this should take place. Patriot missiles should be put on its perimeter, it should be air-policed with planes and helicopters both. Russia should be warned that if it violates (the air exclusion zone), the allies will respond directly with force. This is important. People say that,, well, now – and I’ll speak about this in a few minutes – now if the Iranians are set to intervene in another push with Hezbollah and the Syrian forces around Aleppo, that this is off the cards. But it actually isn’t. It would actually cause Russia to back off. And that is the number one reason why it needs to take place. It would also help Turkey, which is being squeezed in a number of ways recently and is increasingly unhappy with how things are going.
What else should the US do? It should and is – I’m pleased to see – not ceasing and is backing the Free Syrian Army and the Sunni Assad opposition groups. It needs to continue to arm them, continue to support them; and if we see Russia backing down in the other ways I’m discussing,, a red line can be instituted. The US was smart, not to accede to the Russian request to get a list of which parts of the anti-regime opposition the US didn’t want bombed, because of course the Russians might have bombed those directly. But it also is one small way that the US has pushed back. And in addition to this, it needs to continue with its plan to squeeze ISIS with greater backing of the Kurds, coordinating air strikes with the Kurdish push; and in fact, it is doing so. Weapons have been dropped, such a significant amount of them that the Turks have actually lodged a mild protest for this. We also see in a good sign that Russia is likely to back down if U.S. makes these moves.
Putin is already publicly complaining about the lack of coordination with the US. We are finally gonna get a deconfliction agreement with regard to the air operations and avoiding air collisions and these kinds of things.But Putin's loud complaints are indicating that these US moves have already been effective. The US should add to that, putting in place this small refugee-exclusion zone and no-fly zone as well.
The Iran nuclear deal's impact is very important in terms of what is going right and what is going wrong in the Syrian crisis. The Iran nuclear qua peace deal as I think of it, against almost all predictions inside the Beltway, has up until now had a net positive contribution both to regional politics and world politics including Syria itself. What evidence of this do we have? First of all the leader of the Quds Force, General Soleimani was reined in Iran backed off from fully supporting the Houthis in Yemen, and now the Houthis have been increasingly routed by the Saudi-backed forces there. Iran has also worked less indirectly with the US in Iraq and remarkably, it has even increased civil liberties inside Iran since the deal. Now we've just gotten reports that US journalist that has been held there, Jason Rezaian, has been convicted. Of course that was just cover for the Iranian Parliament and the Council of Guardians to give full legal approval of the Iran deal, so now they can start implementing it themselves. But in Syria, Iran up until the Russian intervention had already moderated its behavior. The deal led directly to seriously ramped up diplomatic discussions which had been aimed at finding a solution to the conflict; and Iran contributed positively to those discussions.
Furthermore, something that no one saw coming, (Iran) directly intervened in Syria and to considerable surprise actually negotiated not one but two cease fires in a small northwestern border region of the country, which didn't last very long after the Russian air strikes started and hit that very area. Now, by allowing the Russian intervention the West is watching the Russians give Iran room and further enticement to begin tacking away from that positive behavior toward that negative behavior. Up until now, Iran has had only military advisors in the country. But we can see that they have now made a decision, it's even in the Iranian media now in the last couple of days, that Iranian troops are in the process of entering the country. Not only do western analysts expect, but it's increasingly clear and in direct statements in public from all three of these actors -- Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia -- that the the regime backed by these forces is on the verge of a major push around Aleppo, yet another reason why this refugee-exclusion zone should be put in place first.
What is so negative about this is that Iran has now calculated with successful Russian cover, that it too can afford to even out its recent tacit and overt cooperation with the US and the West. This wasn't stitched up months ago, as Iran has kept its military involvement largely confined to having military advisors in Syria. Well, not any more. And that is very negative indeed.
In Conclusion the U.S. and the West have to respond with toughness, potential use of force -- at least the credible potential use of force --and if necessary the actual use of force. Otherwise Putin will continue to escalate, continue to subvert Western interests whenever and wherever he can; to take his road show further down the road somewhere. And, in addition to that, what do we think China is doing with all of this? It is watching this as closely as anyone, and we can expect further buildup in the South and East China Seas and movements by other potential adversaries of the West. In other words, all of this is connected. By leaving any sort of of security vacuum, we are watching very powerful counties and less powerful countries fill this vacuum against our interests, against the interests of our allies, and frankly against the interests of lots of average people, mostly half of the Syrian population that has now left the country. And we can expect another quarter to leave, as this conflagration really takes off.
Allawala: That was Jeffrey Stacey discussing his new article on Putin and Syria. For more on the subject, catch our weekly podcast, Foreign Affairs Unedited, or follow our continuing coverage on ForeignAffairs.com.