Obama Versus Putin: The Making of Another Great Power Proxy War in the Quicksand of Syria
Ehsan M. Ahrari
The United States has announced that its Special Forces will participate in ground operations in Syria against ISIS. That announcement contradicts President Barack Obama’s previous assurances that there would be no American forces participating in ground operations. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter went beyond the aforementioned statement by noting that such Special Forces operations would increase in the future. Is President Obama breaking his frequently iterated promise of no troops on the ground, or is it just a crucial tactical adjustment? Has he quietly reached a moment of desperation whereby he sees his promise of “no boots on the ground” has been overcome by events (OBEs); or has he decided to outdo Russian President Vladimir Putin in his own determination to take drastic action to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad? At this point, Obama’s decision appears to include factors mentioned in both questions. Putin, for his part, seems to have forgotten that military involvement in a Muslim country may turn out to be too costly for Russia. He seems to have forgotten the lessons of the Afghan war of the 1980s.
Things are not going well for the United States in Syria. Despite its heavy reliance on air power (as an alternative to committing ground troops) to degrade and then eradicate ISIS, the latter has yet to lose its effectiveness. The United States decided to rely on recruiting, training, and equipping the so-called moderate Islamists to fight ISIS. It originally allocated $580 million to train and equip those individuals. But the chief restriction imposed on those recruits was that they would only engage in fighting ISIS and not the Assad regime.
To Washington’s dismay, much of the US-supplied equipment and vehicles quickly fell into the hands of Al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate). The next twist in the policy, according to the Wall Street Journal, was, instead of training the moderate rebels, it was also to equip them. The “equip” part of the program was to be “dramatically reduced to providing weapons to some 5,000 friendly moderate Syrian rebels to carry on the fight against both ISIS and presumably, against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.” Senator John McCain was spot-on when he observed that the Obama administration’s insistence that rebels fight only against ISIS was a “fundamental flaw.”
The greatest American hesitation has been about providing heavy equipment to the anti-ISIS forces. Sadly, from Washington’s perspective, the pro-American Syrian insurgents have not impressed the American advisors with their fighting capabilities. In addition, their loyalty to the American objectives of ridding the country of ISIS first conflicted with the Syrian insurgents’ own intense desire to defeat pro-regime forces first.
The US-Turkish alliance also suffers from intricate problems of its own. Turkey remains focused on ousting Assad first, but it also remains acutely worried about enabling the Kurdish forces to emerge as an effective fighting force. Ankara has also remained vexed about the possibilities that the territories liberated by the Kurdish forces are likely to become an integral part of Kurdistan, which is the dream of Kurds of all political stripes. Thus, “Turkey appears to be actively working at direct odds with U.S. anti-ISIS strategy, having attacked Kurdish groups in Syria—the same groups that the United States recently armed and counts among its ‘capable partners’….”
The United States, on the contrary, has a high degree of trust in the commitment of the Kurdish forces to fight, degrade, and destroy ISIS. However, it has to be careful about not antagonizing the government of President Recep Erdogan. Thus, while the Kurds are fighting ISIS, they are also frequently targeted by the Turkish Air Force. That is also one more reason why the United States is careful about not increasing the fighting capabilities of the Kurdish forces by supplying them with heavy equipment. There is a great possibility that those arms might also be used against the Turkish forces.
America’s other problem is that no Arab country is ready or willing to commit its ground troops to the Syrian theater of operations. As much as everyone claims to despise ISIS and its ghastly tactics, no Arab regime is willing to commit ground forces and then becoming a powerful target of ISIS global propaganda that it is killing Sunni Muslims.
Russia has studied the modalities of America’s involvement in Iraq and Syria within a Machiavellian framework. If the United States were to be effective in defeating or at least substantially weakening ISIS forces in either of those countries, Russia would have stayed out of the fray. However, President Obama’s overly cautious approach—indeed, his sustained refusal to commit ground troops to Syria or Iraq—has provided Russia with a superb window of opportunity. Putin fired his opening salvo on behalf of Bashara Assad in September 2013, when the latter violated Obama’s declared “red line” by using chemical weapons. As the United States was poised to take limited military action against the Assad regime as punishment, Putin came up with the suggestion that Assad transfer the ownership of his chemical weapons stock to an outside body. The United States readily accepted that palpably sensible proposition. However, the Russian President had an ambitious agenda up his sleeve. He operates as a believer of that old adage: Nature abhors a vacuum (Horror vacui).
Undoubtedly, Russia has been looking for a long-term, if not a permanent, presence in the Middle East, since its ouster from Egypt by President Anwar Sadat in 1972. It has a naval base in Syria, but the potential ouster of Assad from power would have permanently closed that facility. As an integral aspect of his profound desire to reestablish Russia as one of the great powers to have a major say in the future power plays in the Middle East, Putin needed an even a larger Russian presence. He has already made significant overtures by reaching out to the Egyptian dictator, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in the form of arms sales, and promises of further boosting that aspect of Russo-Egyptian ties in the future. Russia has been well on its way to filling that vacuum.
Putin asserted Russia’s influence in Syria with a bang. He sent bombers to Syria ostensibly for bombing ISIS; however, in reality, he started targeting the US-backed Syrian insurgents, who were already facing an uphill battle because of America’s legalistic requirement of vetting them first, training them, and only then supplying them with light weapons. On the contrary, Putin instantly went after the US-backed insurgents for the explicit purpose of weakening or even eradicating them. That was the most assured way of saving the Assad regime, according to his calculations. Bombing ISIS was only his secondary objective, especially considering the fact that the Iranian Quds forces and Hezbollah were already carrying the heavy baggage of fighting ISIS.
Putin plan seems to be working for him, at least for now. Russia has emerged as a major player. He has already entered into negotiations with the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia over the future of Syria. The Saudis themselves have approached Moscow to inquire about the modalities of the post-Assad era, a topic that is most irrelevant to Putin as long as Russia and Iran have an upper-hand in the Syrian theater of operations. More to the point, Putin has managed to elevate his country as a coequal of the United States, as the American and Russia military officials have started regularly coordinating their air attack plans to eliminate any potential for a mishap.
The Obama administration has maintained that it has no intention of deploying ground troops in Syria. Thus, the decision to insert a small number of US Special Forces is merely a tactical adjustment. As President Obama is becoming increasingly focused on his legacy of not becoming a party to another war in Syria, Putin seems to have calculated that the path to Russia’s advantage leads through the battlefields of Syria, especially while Moscow’s ally, Iran, is bearing the major brunt of the ground fight and the resultant losses in its war against ISIS.
The Syrian conflict has all the markings of transforming itself into another proxy war between two major powers a la the Afghanistan war of the 1980s. One feature of that war materialized when Putin decided to plunge his country into the Syrian quagmire. The ghosts of the Afghan war are awakening in the battlefields of Syria, when one considers the fact that heavy weapons are once again emerging as the game changer of winning that conflict. While reports surged that the Russian bombing decimated the heavy weapons used by ISIS fighters, there was also a report that the United States and Saudi Arabia were supplying heavy weapons to pro-US forces. In the meantime, 55 Saudi Wahhabi clerics have declared a Jihad against the Russian forces. As consummate practitioners of Machiavellian power game, one can be rest assured that Putin’s advisors are busy calculating the long-term implications of their boss’ decision to plunge them into the quicksand of Syria.