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article imageA Rubik’s cube with no solution: The debate over Syria Special

By Les Horvitz     Oct 8, 2015 in Politics
Washington - At the end of September Russia launched its first air strikes against rebel positions in Syria. Did the show of force mean that Putin had outmaneuvered Obama once again or was it a desperate move to shore up the crumbling regime of Bashir Assad?
It all depends on which prism you prefer to look through. The same day that Russia entered the war, Ben Rhodes , Deputy National Security Advisor, was vigorously defending the Obama administration at the Atlantic Ideas Forum in Washington. Russia’s military engagement was an escalation, he admitted, but it didn’t represent a radical policy shift. In his view, it was defensive in nature, a last ditch attempt to keep Assad in power. The Russians have maintained bases in Syria for several years, he observed. “Russia isn’t going to expand its sphere of influence.” That Russia started to send military forces and materiel to Syria only one day after the Iran nuclear agreement was announced has fueled speculation that some kind of secret quid pro quo was reached between Russia and Iran, both of which have a mutual interest in propping up Assad, an Alawite whose main constituency is Shiite.
“Russia has policies that aren’t always consistent and neither should we,” argued veteran U.S. diplomat Frank Wisner speaking before a gathering sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association in New York. After all, even while the U.S. and its allies were imposing sanctions on Russia because of its aggression in the Ukraine, Russia continued to work with the West to forge a deal with Iran. Russia sees different conditions as direct national security threats, Wisner said. Russia is more interested in supporting stability than the U.S. and holds a dim view of U.S. interventions. In many countries where we see threats Russia sees opportunities.
Reluctant to get bogged down in another quagmire in the Middle East, the Obama administration has been reluctant to enter the fray in Syria. Its program to train a moderate insurgent force has been a colossal failure even by President Obama’s admission. Its air campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, begun last summer, has so far had limited success. The radical group is still drawing thousands of recruits every month. (In October, Obama announced an additional commitment of arms and support to forces battling ISIS.)
“Air power has a role to play,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell told attendees at the Atlantic forum, “but it leads to civilian casualties and the destruction of infrastructure – water plants, oil facilities, etc. Air power is blunt power.” Reports in the media that U.S. fighter jets bombed an ISIL stronghold are almost invariably exaggerated, he pointed out. “ISIS isn’t sitting around in strongholds. It’s mobile. You tend not to make yourself available to (bombing by) air power.” Nonetheless, defeating ISIL should be the United States’ top priority instead of working to topple Assad. “We need to ask: What comes after him? What happens to the Alawites?” He cited grim precedents in Iraq, Egypt and Libya after authoritarian leaders in those countries were ousted. “There were no structures holding the society together so that when you remove the top there’s nothing underneath.” The result is chaos. A former armed forces Chief of Staff, Powell is nonetheless an unapologetic advocate of diplomacy, stating that he supports frequent contacts between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “I believe that you should talk to everyone. How else can we make sure we don’t run into each other in Syria?” He was referring to the possibility of an accidental confrontation between U.S. and Russian warplanes.
John McCain is having none of it. The Republican senator and former presidential candidate regards Kerry’s diplomatic engagement with Russia as a waste of time. “We see Kerry calling Lavrov three times a day to ask what’s going on, but we first learned about air strikes from Russian military attaché in Baghdad. I don’t get why he (Kerry) is trying to be good pals with Lavrov.” McCain acknowledged that Americans are weary of endless wars in the Middle East, but asserted that the U.S. has an essential role to play in the region. In his view, we’re abdicating it. The Saudis and Arab Emirates are spending billions of dollars buying weapons from Russia, he said, because of uncertainty about American political and military commitment. For McCain, the Russian intervention in Syria represents the first time since 1973 – when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet advisers from his country– that Russia has taken such a major step in the Middle East and the first time that Moscow has ventured outside of its traditional sphere of influence close to its borders. “Everything that Russia bombs will now be called an ISIS target,” McCain said, calling the Russian move “blatant-in-your-face.” Its aggression in Syria demonstrates a complete lack of concern about how America will react. “This will ratchet up casualties and strife.” He is unequivocal about what the U.S. should do in Syria: Stop barrel bombing by Assad, arm the moderates, establish a no fly zone, and dispatch U.S. Special Forces to act as air controllers to direct air strikes against ISIS. This was General David Petraeus’ position , McCain pointed out, one that then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and former CIA director Leon Panetta wanted to implement but were overruled by Obama. “This is the first time that the U.S. is in decline,” McCain declared, “Bullies understand when they can get away with something. “
McCain’s forceful repudiation of Obama’s policy in Syria – and pretty much everywhere else -- was echoed by Mitt Romney. “Obama has consistently painted himself into a corner and limited his options,” he said. “Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster,” he said, adding that Obama has been “pulling back from the world.” He cited “the red line” that the President threatened to enforce to stop Assad from employing chemical weapons in the war, only to accept a Russian offer to intercede. At this late stage of the Syrian conflict, Romney argues that we need to concentrate on the destruction of ISIS while simultaneously isolating Assad. We need to become “a leader on the world stage again,” Romney declared. “We can’t let Russia tell us what role to play.” But for the time being he can only conclude that “Russia has out-gamed us once again.”
“The Republicans view the Middle East through a hubristic prism,” countered Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy. “We don’t have the capability to deploy the military in Syria. The United States should stay out no matter how terrible the images are that we see on television.” The conflicts we’re engaged in now are asymmetrical and building up the U.S. military, as Romney demanded, isn’t likely to help. In the American Revolution, he noted, the patriots successfully used guerrilla tactics against the British army. But in wars in places like Iraq and Syria, the situation is reversed: “We’re the British and they’re the patriots shooting at us from behind trees.” “Russia is playing in two theaters (The Ukraine and Syria) where they have vested interests. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t contest them, but we have a history in the Middle East of doing half-measures and expecting to get a return on our investment.”
Journalist Theo Padnos has a completely different perspective on the war in Syria. That’s because he was kidnapped by Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, which held him for nearly two years before freeing him. (Several other foreign captives held by ISIS weren’t so lucky.) Repeatedly interrogated by his captors, he soon came to the realization that it didn’t matter what he told them. When they demanded to know whether he worked for the Pentagon or the CIA, he asked them what difference it made. “You have a point,” his interrogator admitted. The torture wasn’t intended to extract any information from him, but rather was meant as a kind of initiation ritual for children to instill in them the idea that inflicting pain on infidels will bring them closer to God. In spite of his ordeal, he says that bombing militant Islamic groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra is counterproductive. “If you kill ten men there will be twenty more tomorrow.” Only a negotiated solution has any chance of resolving the conflict.
“Assad’s ouster has to occur at the end of the process,” argued Wisner, not at the beginning, especially because it would be unacceptable to the Russians. The U.S. needs to “produce a political outcome that makes the destruction of ISIS permanent.” But is it possible to ever reach such an outcome? Bitter warfare raged in the Balkans in the 1990s, too, but at least there was at least a political process that eventually brought it to an end with the Dayton Accords. There is no political process in Syria at the moment.
Arguably, no one at the Atlantic Forum better summed up the conundrum in Syria than Lawrence Wright, who wrote about the 9/11 attack in his book “The Looming Tower.” The Middle East, he said, is like a Rubik’s cube that doesn’t have a solution no matter how much you move the cubes around.
More about Atlantic Ideas Forum, Syrian civil war, Frank Wisner, Colin Powell, ben rhodes
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