The problem with doing an update on Syria is that I’m not sure anyone knows what the hell is going on there.
The motivations of the major local players are clear: Assad wants to survive and maintain power, while his paymasters in Iran want to back him and the Shia against the Islamic State and other Sunni groups. The Islamic State wants to establish its brutal medieval caliphate over first Mesopotamia and the Levant, then the entire Ummah, then the entire world, exterminating Shia and subjugating Christians and Jews to dhimmitude along the way. The Saudis want to back Sunnis (possibly including the Islamic State). The Kurds just want to survive. Etc.
However, what Barack Obama and Vladamir Putin want is considerably less clear.
Obama, after royally screwing Iraq by pulling U.S. troops out after Bush had largely stabilized it (at great expense in money and lives), seems to want to fight a pretend air war against the Islamic State and a pretend insurgency against Assad in order to keep reporters from asking him about it, thus kicking the can down the road for the next President to deal with. (Then again, perhaps this gives Obama too much credit. Maybe, like Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to give the Falklands back, Obama screwed up Iraq just for the pure leftish joy of undoing the achievements of a conservative leader he loathed…)
What does Putin want to accomplish in Syria? Prop up a military equipment-buying client state in Syria? Support a more important client state in Iran? Give Obama a black eye? Keep Russians distracted from domestic economic woes with military adventurism abroad? Make Russia the dominate political power in the Middle East, filling the vacuum Obama left with America’s withdrawal and betrayal of regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia? Actually destroy the Islamic State? Take the Shia side in a the wider Sunni-Shia conflict?
Here are some links on Syria:
If Russia ends up bolstering Iran’s position in Syria (by expanding Hezbollah’s influence and capabilities) and if the Russian air force effectively takes control of Iraq thus allowing Iran to exert a greater influence over the government in Baghdad, the fragile balance of power that has existed in the region will be turned on its head and in the event this plays out, one should not expect Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem, and London to simply go gentle into that good night.
Sure enough, some experts now predict Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will move to counter Russia militarily if Moscow continues to rack up gains for Assad.
because Vladimir Putin, with all the unpredictability of the morning sun, has invaded Syria on behalf of Assad and Putin’s more important ally Iran — Assad’s longtime string-puller. The Russian strongman’s claimed purpose is to fight the Islamic State — a pretext no more real than was the supposed need to protect indigenous Russian populations that Putin cited in invading Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine.
The Syrian mess has gotten messier
Putin, with China’s indulgence, is obviously attempting to fortify a sphere of anti-American influence across the Middle East. Anti-Americanism in this Islamic-supremacist region long predates Putin, of course. What has changed is that the United States is governed by a man of the hard Left — a president who is sympathetic to the Islamist narrative about American imperialism, ambivalent at best about American power, and determined to diminish America’s regional commitments, and thus American influence.
The move provides a foothold in a part of the world that the Soviet Union was kicked out of four decades ago. At a moment when the United States appears to be washing its hands of the increasingly bloody and chaotic region, it gives Russia an expanding military presence in the Mediterranean on the doorstep of a NATO ally (its newly established airfield at Latakia in eastern Syria sits just 75 miles from the border with Turkey), and the gambit may yet serve as leverage with the West as Putin seeks to get out from under economic sanctions imposed as a result of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.
The problem for America is that a logical Middle East policy is impossible as long as Obama is President and Kerry is Secretary of State.
Can Putin achieve long-term victory in Syria where Obama’s fecklessness couldn’t? Maybe. Can Iran and Russia together crush the Islamic State? If Russia wanted to commit serious ground combat forces (think Operation Iraqi Freedom), probably, but that would be an exceptionally expensive move that would spread Russian forces dangerously thin elsewhere. But considering that does not appear to be Russia’s immediate goal, which seems to be crushing the Free Syrian Army and allied forces in Western Syria, expect the war against the Islamic State to drag out indefinitely.
Except for the Kurds (which Obama’s feckless policies have refused to adequately support), the Syrian Civil War is bad guys vs. bad guys all the way down. Assad surviving, or a long-running war between Russia and the Islamic State, are far from the worst possible outcomes…