The Russians win this round

John Kerry went to Munich this week looking for a ceasefire and humanitarian access. He got a “cessation of hostilities,” which implies less legal status and less permanence, and a promise of immediate humanitarian access. This was entirely predictable and predicted: the cessation of hostilities freezes the recent Russian/Iranian/Syrian government gains in place on the ground around Aleppo. Humanitarian access will shift the burden of feeding and sheltering hundreds of thousands of besieged Syrians from their own government to the international community.

Just as predictable as this agreement is its breakdown. There is no neutral party to monitor implementation. Even if the moderate forces represented in the High Negotiation Commission, which gave a nod to the deal, restrain their cadres, there are lots of other fighters all over Syria, including extremists associated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda who are uninterested in stopping the hostilities. The Russian-backed offensive never made any distinction between extremists and relative moderates, whom it slew with abandon. Some of the relative moderates will continue their efforts to flee northwards. Others who remain will swell the ranks of the extremists.

It would be surprising if an agreement built on such shifting sands were to last more than a couple of weeks. The Russians, Iranians, Hizbollah and Syrian forces will suffer many potshots and will at some point decide to take to opportunity to go at it again. The opposition will be trying to regain its footing, but that will be difficult as civilians flee and extremists recruit. The Americans have given no indication of any willingness to beef up arms to the opposition or to allow the Saudis and Gulf monarchies to deliver anti-aircraft and other higher quality weapons. The logistical advantage lies with the regime and its allies, who are not besieged and will more easily rearm and resupply.

So the next round, whenever it occurs, is likely to find the opposition at an even greater military disadvantage. Russia may want to help the Syrian Kurds take control of the entire northern border of Syria with Turkey, thereby boxing in the remaining opposition forces in the north. That could trigger a Turkish intervention, widening the war and weakening America’s best allies, the Kurds, in fighting the Islamic State. The Russians will also want to clear out the opposition forces near Damascus and in the south, where Russian air strikes had intensified in recent days. It is hard to say that the regime may “win” this war, because much of the country will be destroyed, but Assad could end up remaining in the presidential palace and presiding but not ruling over a fragmented and desperate country.

Without a political agreement that leads to his certain departure, it is hard for me to picture the Americans, Europeans and Gulf states supporting any significant reconstruction. Washington has already spent upwards of $5 billion on humanitarian aid and will presumably spend billions more. The Russians and Iranians, so far as I know, haven’t spent a dime on humanitarian aid yet. With oil prices around $30/barrel, both Moscow and Tehran will be hard strapped. Even at $80/barrel they wouldn’t have much to spare. They won’t be willing to spend any significant amount on reconstruction in Syria.

So an Assad “win” will make Syria a ward of poor step-parents with their own offspring to nurture. Some days I think the opposition should just stop fighting and allow the regime to confront the challenges of governing post-war Syria, with its ruined infrastructure, its decimated security forces, its limited oil production, its drought-ridden agriculture, and its dwindling water resources. How long would Assad last? Many Syrians have already been governing themselves through local councils for the better part of five years. It is going to be hard to take the legitimacy and authority they have built up back and stockpile it again in Damascus. Assad may win the military fight, but he has lost his country.

The Russians and Iranians are also likely losers in the long term. They have doubled down on supporting Assad. Their efforts will drive more Syrians to support extremists and guarantee that no successor regime will be friendly to their interests.

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The ceasefire/humanitarian trap

Secretary of State Kerry is in Munich at the annual security conference reportedly talking with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov about a ceasefire and humanitarian access in Syria, focused on Aleppo and the north. That’s where Russian air attacks have decimated both the Syrian opposition fighters and their civilian supporters in recent days.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether Kerry should ever speak with Lavrov again after his mendacity of the past several months, when he led the admittedly gullible Secretary of State to believe that Moscow might make common cause with Washington against the Islamic State (ISIL). Instead, Moscow’s main military targets in Syria have been relative moderates. But we all have to talk with people who have treated us shabbily. The question is whether there is any hope of a ceasefire and humanitarian access.

Surprise: the answer is yes.*

At some point the Russians, the Iranians and Bashar al Assad are going to conclude that they have reached their main objectives. Going further will result in diminishing returns. Having displaced well over 100,000 people and besieged several hundred thousand more, the triumvirate will not want to feed and shelter them, much less provide medical care and sanitary facilities.

Particularly if the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, who are friendly with the Russians and the Syrian government, are able to seize the stretch of the border with Turkey that they don’t already control, Moscow will want to halt its offensive and consolidate its gains. In addition to dumping the humanitarian burden on the UN (which gets its resources from the US, the Europeans and the Gulf), from Moscow’s perspective agreeing to a ceasefire would reduce the (already small) risk that Turkey will enter the fray to block Kurdish advances.

Should the Americans, Europeans and Gulf states fall into the ceasefire/humanitarian trap?

They don’t have much choice. There appears to be no real possibility of a military response to the Russian-backed offensive. Syrian suffering is monumental. The Europeans will want to use humanitarian assistance to stem the tide of refugees. The Gulf states will feel obligated, not least because they too don’t want the refugees. The Americans have never stinted on humanitarian relief.

There is something wrong with this picture. Moscow and Tehran have created the current humanitarian crisis in northern Syria. They, not the Americans/Europeans/Gulf, should be paying to alleviate the humanitarian consequences of their military advances. So far as I am aware, neither Moscow nor Tehran has anted up a ruble or a rial. All the assistance they provide to the government in Damascus goes to the regime and areas the regime controls.

It is high time for the Americans to tell Lavrov that we expect Russia to do its part. Putin wants Russia to be counted among the great powers. He should start spending like one. I’d start the bidding at $2 billion from the Russians for UN humanitarian relief efforts and settle for $1 billion.

I’d also make it clear that Moscow’s indiscriminate bombing entails responsibility for post-war reconstruction. The Russian approach in Syria resembles what Putin did in Chechnya: level and rule. Post-war Chechnya cost Moscow a bundle. The bill for Syria will be many times that. Assad’s international opponents may feel obligated to provide humanitarian assistance to his Syrian opponents as they are chased from their homes, but they should not provide any assistance to rebuild a Syria still ruled by Assad or his regime. That is a Russian and Iranian responsibility.

Washington has already provided over $5 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syrians inside and outside the country. American aid is distributed inside Syria both in regime and opposition controlled areas. But if Assad wins this war, we’ll have to take a much harder-nosed attitude when it comes to funding reconstruction.

*For the record: I wrote this before the Russians proposed a March 1 date, and well before the proposed cessation of hostilities.

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Syria options

There aren’t many options left, as Syrian security forces advance to besiege Aleppo and Idlib with Russian and Iranian support. But here are the ones that make some sort of sense to me, with a few pros and cons:

  1. Impose a no-fly zone over a humanitarian corridor from the Turkish border to Aleppo or even Idlib.

Pro: protects hundreds of thousands of civilians currently at risk from Russian bombardment.

Con: would require the Russians to cooperate, which is unlikely, or American willingness to shoot down Russian aircraft, which is even more unlikely.

2. Down Syrian helicopters that use barrel bombs to terrorize civilian populations, either with US or Turkish air assets or by providing opposition fighters on the ground with the needed anti-aircraft weapons.

Pro: protects civilians without challenging Russian fixed-wing aircraft.

Con: brings the US or Turkey into direct conflict with Syria, or risks proliferation to unreliable forces of anti-aircraft weapons that might be misused.

3. Open the arms supply spigot to the opposition, which has seen the flow sharply reduced in recent months.

Pro: enables Syrians to protect themselves and provides leverage over the regime and the Russians.

Con: re-escalates a war Washington had been trying to end, and in any event it is late in the game for this move to have much impact.

4. Support deployment of Arab ground troops, taking up a recent Saudi/Gulf offer.

Pro: could be deployed to protect some civilian areas, though the offer appeared to be premised on US participation, which is unlikely.

Con: Gulf troops would likely end up clashing with Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra fighters, with uncertain consequences.

5. Expand US air attacks to include Hizbollah.

Pro: Washington says it is fighting terrorists in Syria; Hizbollah has attacked and killed many more American in terrorist acts than the Islamic State.

Con: Hizbollah and Iran can be expected to retaliate against Americans, most likely somewhere in the Middle East but possibly even at home.

6. Do nothing military and stick with the diplomacy.

Pro: the US stays our of a situation that is increasingly messy.

Con: Putin’s Russia gets to dictate terms, Assad stays in place and Syrians suffer.

None of these propositions is a slam dunk. All would entail American willingness to get more deeply involved in Syria. I haven’t heard a great clamor for that, despite some bold op/ed writing.

President Obama, who is often criticized for being irresolute, is demonstrating iron commitment to  not getting involved in the Syrian civil war and keeping his focus exclusively on the Islamic State. His predecessors have been far less disciplined, even if most of them also resisted at first. Bush 41 intervened in Panama and Somalia, Clinton in Bosnia and Kosovo, Bush 43 in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even Obama intervened in Libya, but regrets what happened thereafter.

The results of all these interventions were mixed, with the best results in Panama and the Balkans. Afghanistan and Iraq are arguably closer to the situation in Syria than some of the other countries named. That’s not a good omen. Obama has good reason to hesitate, even if I think he made a big mistake (years ago) that will dog his legacy.

I’d certainly like to see the President consider downing the barrel-bombing helicopters and expanding US attacks to Hizbollah, which is becoming a major force multiplier for an Assad regime that is running short on manpower. Those two moves could be justified on humanitarian grounds and would vastly improve the American diplomatic posture, without clashing directly with the Russians or committing ground forces.

Tell me: which option would you choose?

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The Superbowl and American foreign policy

That’s patriot Lady Gaga for those like me who wouldn’t recognize her on the subway.

While you were all enjoying the Superbowl, I was wondering what it tells us about US foreign policy. I’m late with this post, but it took me time to convince myself to publish it. Some of you will think I made a mistake.

First the obvious. American football is a sport in which bringing overwhelming force to bear is paramount. Many American politicians feel the same way about foreign policy: they want to bomb the smithereens out of anyone who threatens the United States. Finesse, so important to that other sport known as “football,” is the least of their concerns. Making the sand glow and wiping out enemies are the goals.

But of course that is a superficial view of events both on the battlefield and on the gridiron. There is a cerebral dimension to both, one that requires coordination between different players on the field, offense and defense as well as “special teams,” analogous in more than their name to the vital “special forces” that now dominate the American approach to killing terrorists. The ground and air games also require careful coordination, in both football and war, as well as a lot of intelligence on the opposition.

The parallels extend to the audience as well. Both American football and modern war are best viewed from a distance. Even the half-time show is far more interesting on TV than in the stadium, where many of the special effects appear piddling. Nor can you see all that much of the game, unless you’ve got terrific seats. TV has learned to make warfare look spectacular too. You can’t smell it or hear how loud and terrifying it is. But you can admire its precision without worrying about its accuracy.

The long-term effects of football and war bear comparison as well. Both cause real and visible harm to some of the participants, but they cause far more but less visible harm to many more. I’m amazed that people are still watching football knowing its effect on the players’ brains and life spans. Its popularity sheds new light for me on the Roman passion for gladiators. Post-traumatic stress and suicide are the analogous long-term effects of warfare. They should certainly be weighed in any future decision to go to war, though I doubt they will be. Our political leaders show little more concern for the brains of our troops than football coaches show for the brains of their players.

There is really nothing glorious about war or football. Nor are they proper entertainments. War it can be argued is sometimes necessary, or unavoidable. Football isn’t. There the already stretched analogy breaks down.

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Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is making noises about conducting a referendum soon to decide its political future. A drafting committee is working on the wording of the proposition. President Barzani and his PDK are committed to conducting the referendum this year.

Whatever the wording, Kurdistan’s largely young Kurdish population will understand it to be about independence. Ditto the large Kurdish diaspora, which referendum advocates want to enfranchise. Most of Kurdistan’s now substantial Arab population of people displaced by war will not be able to vote.

The outcome is predictable: 90% and likely more will vote yes, whatever the precise wording.

The case for Kurdistan’s independence is on the face of it compelling. Saddam Hussein’s regime mistreated its population, chasing Kurds from their homes and even out of the country. Kurds were even gassed during the 1988 Anfal campaign. Kurdistan won a large measure of autonomy in the 2005 Iraqi constitution, but the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil has been at best rocky since then. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has not received all the oil revenue it is entitled to, it has had to defend its own territory from the Islamic State without help from Baghdad and it faces demands from its population, most of whom no longer speak Arabic, for complete independence. The KRG claims to be a democracy and to treat minorities well.

So why shouldn’t it happen?

The geopolitical circumstances are not favorable. While Kurdistan has vastly improved its relations with Ankara, large parts of eastern Turkey were slated at the end of World War I to become part of a Kurdish state. Turkey will not want to see independence for its southern neighbor while it represses a violent Kurdish rebellion on its own territory, for fear of the irredentist consequences. Iranians feel even more strongly on this issue: what the Kurds call “eastern Kurdistan” is inside the Islamic Republic. Iran’s population is not much more than 50% Persian. Tehran will fear the Kurds won’t be the only ones looking to get out. The Baloch have been rebelling since 2004.

Iraqi Kurds naturally look to the Americans for support. Washington was vital to their survival in the 90s, when it protected them with a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The Kurds supported the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and happily hosted American forces. The KRG has welcomed Iraqi Christians displaced by ISIS and maintains friendly relations with the US, even welcoming American investment and admitting Americans without the visas the Baghdad government requires. My Kurdish friends ask plaintively: don’t the Americans want a new friendly ally in the Middle East? One with at least a nominal commitment to multiethnic democracy?

Washington might, but it has global concerns, which include maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, where Moscow is supporting breakaway territories in each of those countries. Independence for Kurdistan would open the proverbial Pandora’s box, strengthening Russian arguments and undermining the international consensus that has formed against independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the annexation of Crimea and the rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as the aspirations of Transnistria. China will be no less opposed to Kurdistan’s independence than the Americans, for fear of the implications for Tibet.

Even inside Iraq, there are issues. The boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan are not agreed. While the KRG seized the so-called “disputed territories” during its offensive against the Islamic State in 2014, Baghdad has not agreed that they belong within Kurdistan. The KRG is offering to conduct referenda in these territories on whether they want to join with Kurdistan, fulfilling a provision of the Iraqi constitution. But doing that while the KRG is in control is unlikely to convince Baghdad that a free choice is being made.

At current oil prices around $30/barrel, the KRG is nowhere near having the financial resources to be independent. Baghdad isn’t providing the funding it should, but independence would leave Kurdistan even worse off. It is still an oil rentier state, despite its hopes for a more diversified economy. My guess is that oil prices in the future will have a hard time going over $70-80/barrel, because above that level massive quantities of unconventionally produced oil and gas (as well as other alternatives) will come on line. The KRG needs closer to $100/barrel to meet its financial requirements with oil production even well above current levels.

Advocates of an independence referendum are claiming that it would be prelude to a re-negotiation of the relationship with Baghdad, not necessarily a one-way street to independence. Anyone who knows young Kurds will doubt that after voting for what they think of as independence they will accept some sort of confederal arrangement to stay nominally inside Iraq. An independence referendum is far more likely to be prelude to still another war, in which Arabs (both Sunni and Shia) fight Kurds to determine the borders they have failed to agree on for more than a decade.

The implications of a referendum without prior agreement, both on the legitimacy of the process and on Kurdistan’s borders, are dire.

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Assad is fulfilling his own prophecy

With Syrian government and Iranian forces encircling Aleppo aided by Russian air attacks, it behooves us to consider what happens if President Assad wins. He is close to achieving his main goal by taking control of what he regards as “useful” Syria, which includes the corridor north from Damascus at least to Aleppo and west to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.

This Assad victory would not defeat ISIS, which controls territory to the east of this corridor, or the Kurdish forces that control most of the border with Turkey. Neither ISIS nor the Kurds have clashed more than occasionally with Syrian government forces, the Iranians and Russians. The Kurds appear to have an explicit understanding with the regime, which maintains government facilities within Kurdish-controlled territory. The regime and ISIS stay out of each other’s way.

Aleppo was once the largest city in Syria, with more than 2 million inhabitants. How many remain is unclear. Tens of thousands have fled in recent days north to the Turkish border, where they are blocked from entering. Many more presumably remain in the city, some in areas that have long been regime-controlled. If the encirclement of opposition areas is successful, they face starvation, bombardment and eventual surrender. Large parts of the city are already destroyed.

Idlib, to the soutwest of Aleppo, is also under attack and at risk of being cut off from Aleppo and from Turkey.

Syria Direct, 3 February
Syria Direct, 3 February

Judging from what has occurred elsewhere, there will be little effort to rebuild, except in areas dominated by or repopulated with Alawites and Shia. Syria’s Sunnis and others who have opposed Assad will be left to fend for themselves. Neither Russia nor Iran has provided significant reconstruction aid, the bill for which will be well over $100 billion. The Europeans, Americans and Gulf have provided most of the humanitarian assistance, relying in part on the United Nations, but they will presumably be unwilling to pay for reconstruction in areas where the regime regains control.

With moderate rebel forces defeated in the north, the odds are that the extremist forces of Jabhat al Nusra (JN), an Al Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State (ISIS) will gain. JN cadres appear to be mainly Syrian. ISIS is not. We should expect that whatever moderate Syrian forces remain will ally with JN, which will continue to fight. ISIS relies heavily on foreign fighters and is much less likely to attract many Syrians. Kurdish and allied Arab forces have been pressing south towards Raqqa, which is the de facto “capital” of the ISIS caliphate, but taking the city would require a far bigger Arab force than appears to exist right now.

In the south, moderate forces are holding up a bit better, but they have not come under the same kind of intensive regime, Russian and Iranian assault mounted around Aleppo. ISIS has been active in a small part of the south, but so far without any big success. It remains to be seen what will happen there.

A regime takeover of Aleppo and Idlib will end any serious military prospects for the moderate non-Kurdish opposition, except in the Azaz pocket near the border with Turkey. Even there, the Kurds and regime, Iranian and Russian forces may combine to push them out and force displaced Arabs into Turkey. Assad would be glad to add to Erdogan’s woes.

Assad has long wanted the contest in Syria to be seen as a fight between his regime and the extremists. He is getting close to driving the relative moderates off the battlefield, fulfilling his own prophecy. The consequences for many Syrians, for Turkey and for the prospects for peace will be disastrous.

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