Washington,Dc - What the world is seeing in Syria is a painful illustration of politicomilitary reality.
Nature deplores a vacuum.
Politics is even less forgiving of vacuums.
And the West now has the opportunity to watch Russia, accompanied by Hezbollah and Iran, fill that vacuum.
It is difficult to characterize the reactions of observers—something akin to a betrayed spouse or a naïf who believed that Nigerian prince on the internet wanted you to assist him with his million dollar bank transfers. One almost wonders whether Western diplomats and politicians really could be so disingenuous as to believe that the bear wouldn’t eat a lunch that was sitting in front of him while you were dithering over whether you wanted mustard or ketchup on the hamburger?
Now there are finger shaking admonitions that Moscow will rue the day; that Assad really is a bad, bad man who should be removed from office; that Russian air strikes against our carefully trained “rebels” should instead be directed against nasty Islamic State/ISIS insurgents; that Russian Soviet-era vintage equipment won’t hold up and/or be ineffective.
Some contrary points need to be appreciated.
Russia is a bona fide actor in the region and has been so for almost half a century. In 1971 it signed agreement with Damascus for the Tartus naval base—a second echelon facility that fell into disrepair after the USSR collapse in 1991, but now is being upgraded as a core route for supplying Assad and bringing Russian forces into the area. In the 1967 war and during the 1970s, Russian supplied Syria with front line MIGs (some flown by Soviet pilots) which virtually served as target practice for the Israeli Air Force.
The reality remains that Moscow has been an almost ignored, albeit legitimate, actor in the Middle East Peace Process. The now largely forgotten Madrid Conference in 1991 featured both the United States and the USSR extending an invitation to Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians. The conference failed; however, it was the last which both Washington and Moscow attended. Subsequently, the collapse of the Soviet Union directed Russian attention inward, and all European (P5) and Middle East actors implicitly ceded the lead to Washington, which was in the ascendance inter alia for just having incinerated Saddam’s forces in Kuwait during Desert Storm. Throughout the Clinton Administration (1993-2001), we attempted to square circles and make bricks without straw (and sometimes without clay) to devise a Middle East peace accord. For their part, the Russians benefitted by not being involved; they have no history of failure such as plagues the United States.
Fast forward to 2015. Moscow has picked up its dusty cudgel regarding Middle East peace.
Russia is doing what the United States, NATO, the United Nations, Europeans, and “Coalition” members have deigned to do. It is putting boots on the ground and appears ready to make serious efforts to wipe the boards of all factions not direct supporting Assad. Can a hodgepodge of Russians, Assad military forces, Hezbollah, and Iranian special forces put paid to all other combatants in the area? I would give them favorable odds.
First, the Russians are bloody-minded. It will not bother Putin to create a desert and call it peace. One will not find Russians fibrillating over an errant air strike killing a hospital staff, regardless of Medecines Sans Frontieres fibrillating that the attack equates with a war crime.
Second, they have a “stay the course” attitude. You will not find Putin agonizing over an exit strategy and/or which month to pull the plug on Moscow’s commitment to Damascus. Putin certainly may lose, but he is willing to get his hands “wet” in Syria, just as he was in Ukraine. And the combatants he puts in the field will not be the feckless “disintegrators” that we have trained, primarily capable only of transferring their weapons to ISIS in order to run faster.
Essentially, the West had its chance in Syria. We assumed the “Arab Spring” would whisk Assad away as were various other regional tinpot dictators. Instead, his forces demonstrated remarkable loyalty (a point that needs investigation) while his opponents couldn’t organize an Eid holiday banquet. Bluntly, had the NATO-West wanted to make Assad disappear, we had the military capability to do so in short order—just look at the military “order of battle” for Turkey, Germany, France, UK, etc. Syria would have had “regime change” in weeks.
But we didn’t. Now Russia is going to have a go.