February 11, 2016 | In The News | Wesley Clark
In Syria, Russia is the Real Threat
U.S. must use leverage to counter Putin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe.
The latest U.S.-Russian Syria talks have delivered, for the moment, hope for renewed humanitarian aid and the possibility of a partial cease-fire. Thanks to months of Russian air and artillery strikes, diplomacy has locked rebels in a weak position.
Winning now on the ground, Bashar Assad and Russia have little need to reach a long term settlement to the Syrian War that returns control of Syria to the Syrian people. Instead, this shaky partial solution allows the mass of refugees fleeing the chaos to continue to grow, leaving difficult choices for America and Europe.
President Obama has wisely resisted reckless calls to launch U.S. ground forces into Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIL, also known as ISIS or the Islamic State. This would attract a surge of new zealots to ISIL’s ranks. American troops would once again be chasing fighters that would blend back into the population, and just as before, we would be caught in the deep geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Now there is Russia — with its scary S-400 air defense system, new jets and an implicit nuclear threat. As attention turns to some form of coordinated action against ISIL and other terrorists groups left out of the cease-fire, the United States and our allies cannot leave Russia’s position uncontested and a weak role for our allied-funded “good” jihadis.
In considering alternatives, we must understand that ISIL is not just a terrorist group but more a geostrategic “artifact” of the power struggle between Iran and its almost ally, Iraq, on the one hand, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other. That power struggle doesn’t pause during a cease-fire.
ISIL is a Frankenstein emerging from diverse, competitive and poorly coordinated Sunni efforts to strike down Assad’s regime as a means of thwarting Iran’s grab for regional hegemony and a clear path to the Mediterranean. From its very beginning, the groups of fighters that emerged as ISIL have received outside funding, weapons, intelligence and sometimes even direction. ISIL exploited Qatari-Saudi rivalries, Turkey’s ambitions and fears, Kurdish fear of Shiite-dominated Iraq, Sunni resentment of Hezbollah, Sunni disdain for Shiite and many other regional fault lines. Above all, the terrorist group floated upon the decades-long rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And, for sure, it isn’t in U.S. interest to see a still hostile Iran dominate the region between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
If the only real solution lies in diplomacy that lessens the struggles among Iran, the Kurds, Turkey, the Assad regime and Saudi Arabia to enable an effective coalition of all against ISIL, then some leverage has to be found to reduce Russia’s role there. Until Assad’s regime is once more at risk, neither he nor Iran has any reason to make concessions or help resolve the deeper geostrategic struggle in the region. And reducing Russia’s role would also ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria, take pressure off NATO member Turkey and ease the migration crisis in Europe.
More fundamental, we have to recognize that while ISIL is a real threat to the U.S. and our allies, the bigger threat is Russia. President Vladimir Putin has shown his teeth in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014-15 and in Syria today. Eastern Europe remains on edge and under threat, for example, with Putin’s latest “snap” military exercise focused on Ukraine. Putin’s objectives include regaining dominance over Eastern Europe, retaining his grip on Europe’s energy supply, strengthening his presence in the Middle East and, ultimately, ending the sanctions he faces. Such achievements would spell the practical end of the European Union and the failure of NATO. Putin’s behavior doesn’t reflect the actions of a timid, cornered leader of a weak power, but rather a purposeful and deceitful leader willing to use force and risk major conflicts to have his way. History has shown that such leaders must be opposed; they cannot be appeased.
Leverage against Russia could come from intensified sanctions by Europe — a new set imposed for Russia’s contribution to the humanitarian catastrophe that is emerging in northern Syria. It could also come from increased NATO resolve in strengthening the frontiers of Western values in the Baltics, and in Ukraine. Further, with their hand on the oil tap, our Saudi friends could “punish” Russia with continued low oil prices, or by agreeing to curtail production and raising oil prices to persuade the Russians to go home in return for economic revitalization. Other measures are also possible — restrictions on Russian air and shipping movements, intensified special operations activities against the Assad regime using Saudi, Emirati and even U.S. forces. And greater American deployments vis-a-vis Russian presence and interests worldwide.
In this new, multipolar world, the U.S. must supply more than our good offices. Successful diplomacy requires greater leverage. Hence, Vice President Biden’s statement recently that the U.S. might seek a military solution. But more is needed.
In the challenging days of the Balkan crisis more than 20 years ago, many attempts were made to propose solutions. The diplomacy was seemingly endless and fruitless, and the fighting persisted — until the combination of Croatian military prowess, the stubborn resistance of besieged Sarajevo and long-term Western sanctions helped persuade Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to halt his aggression and accept a settlement. That eventually took a commitment of U.S. peace enforcers, a threat to remove sanctions on Milosevic opponents and back their military action with American air power and forceful, direct, personal diplomacy at the highest levels.
The Syria problem is infinitely more difficult than the Balkans — and Russia is today more challenging — but the principles remain the same. And the U.S., working with the U.N. and all the parties in the region and taking the lead in applying leverage against Russia, could broker the solutions we need for ISIL, the larger geostrategic conundrum of the Middle East and Russian threats in Europe. If we don’t, who will?