Provocations and Syria: Where Are We Headed?

by Stephen Bryen

The US is once again provoking the Russians, but for what purpose? It seems the US no-win Syria policy is mutating into a lose-lose one which destabilizes the Middle East even more and has repercussions in Europe.

The United States has announced that it has deployed 12 A-10 “Warthog” aircraft to Incirlik air base in Turkey. This is the same aircraft that the Air Force wants to get rid of but has found strong opposition in the Congress to liquidating this battle-tested aircraft. The A-10 is an effective close support platform with a powerful gun system that can destroy even armored targets. The aircraft is hardened, with self-sealing fuel tanks and cockpit protection. It has a range of around 800 miles. From Incirlik that means it can operate in northern Syria and into part of Iraq. Supposedly these aircraft are being deployed to go against ISIS, but an unnamed US official says: “the A-10s could potentially be used to support rebel groups fighting IS in northern Syria, including a group called the “Syrian Arab Coalition” that received a massive airdrop of ammunition this month.” (http://news.yahoo.com/us-deploys-ground-attack-10-planes-turkey-155644211.html) This statement comes at the same time that the US is supposedly working out deconfliction arrangements with Russia to prevent any chance of a clash between US or Russian aircraft. Unfortunately, the official’s remark suggests just the opposite: that by using A-10’s to support these rebel group the US will be directly engaging in actions involving Syrian, Iranian and Russian and other Syrian-proxy forces such as Hezbollah.

While there are a few supporters of the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition on Capitol Hill such as Senator John McCain, it is a well established and known fact that the US-Saudi and Turkish-supported Arab coalition is weak and deeply fragmented and that pro-Islamist hard-

Army Pfc. David Mitchell, a Soldier with 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Battalion, scans the landscape surrounding Vehicle Patrol Base Badel, located at the mouth of the Narang Valley in Konar Province with his TOW missile. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Amber Robinson)

Army Pfc. David Mitchell, a Soldier with 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Battalion, scans the landscape surrounding Vehicle Patrol Base Badel, located at the mouth of the Narang Valley in Konar Province with his TOW missile. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Amber Robinson)

line groups, including most importantly al-Qaeda spin-off al-Nusra, are the real players in Syria. Indeed, after having wasted half a billion dollars on a furtive attempt to train “moderate” Syrian “fighters” who really were al-Qaeda operatives in Mufti, the US is persisting in a dangerous lose-lose strategy in Syria.

Why a lose-lose strategy?

Reason #1 The Russians have been keenly interested in setting up a system for deconflicting air encounters between US, Israeli and Russian aircraft operating in Syria. Sputnik International, which reflects official Russian thinking, says that the deconfliction deal was put in place in the middle of October and is centered in Tel Aviv, where Israel’s Defense Ministry is headquartered. According to the news reports, which is all we have since the parties won’t confirm or deny, a hot line has been established. It is important to note that this is a big concession by the Russians who wanted the deconflict system to have its headquarters in Baghdad where Russia has set up a command center made up of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia whose purpose is to manage the war in Syria. Unofficially the US has tried to minimize encounters with Russian aircraft by instructing US pilots to stay 20 miles away from any Russian aircraft. The only incidents have been with Turkish F-16’s where the Turks have claimed that the Russians violated Turkish airspace on at least two occasions. In these incidents the Russians responded to warnings, retreated to Syrian air space, and apparently apologized to the Turks for any “inadvertent” incursions by its pilots. Looked at from the diplomatic and military efforts to minimize incidents, the US-Russia-Israel deal seems to make sense. But if the unnamed official’s remarks reflect actual US policy, we could be in for a very nasty surprise since the Russians will not sit still while US Warthog’s pound Syrian and Iranian (plus Hezbollah) positions in “supporting” the Syrian Arab Coalition.

Reason #2 The main combatants in Syria are different flavors of Islamic extremists. The so-called moderates are only a small fraction of the fighters operating there and no one today believes they will emerge from the fighting as winners. In any case, if the non-ISIS faction would somehow manage to topple Assad’s government, which was one of the operative theories before the Russians got there (and one of the reasons they went there), the next stage in the action would be a fight between ISIS and the non-ISIS factions, which will mostly if not wholly be al-Qaeda operatives. Either ISIS and the others will work out some deal, or the civil war will continue to try and determine the winner. Naturally this assumes the Russians and Iranians have gone home.

The US with its various allies, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman and Jordan has been backing the non-al-Qaeda fighters, although exactly who we are really backing is anyone’s guess. Even the Pentagon really does not know. There is no way to vet these characters, but nonetheless meanwhile we are either shipping or allowing to be shipped, US TOW missiles, which are anti-tank missiles. In order to ship these into Syria, a Presidential decision would need to have been made, because otherwise it is against the law. And even if a Presidential decision was made, the Congress would have to be notified under the requirement of the Arms Export Control law. Was Congress notified? It is unlikely because such notification could not legally go to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is often used by the administration to hide secret operations; it would need to go to the Senate Armed Services Committee, who might have a lot of questions and who might take action to try and block such deliveries.

The recent delivery of TOW missiles has angered the Russians because it is a weapon that can destroy the current generation of tanks deployed in Syria, the most modern of which is the model T-72. . TOW stands for tube launched optically tracked, wire-guided weapon. The TOW operator is exposed when firing the missile, but the missile effects are devastating. It is almost a certainty that many of the TOW missiles delivered will end up in al-Nusra or ISIS hands. The Russians have been searching for weapons stockpiles and are trying to destroy them, but how much success so far is unclear.

These weapons deliveries, along with the threat of the Warthog, open up important questions on how far the United States will go, and what the end result will be. If, as most think, it will be some kind of radical Islamic entity taking over in Syria eventually, the outcome is very destabilizing and could lead to war with Israel and Jordan, neither of which could tolerate that kind of regime. This makes offering such support with such an uncertain and dangerous outcome a risk not worth taking. Yet Washington continues to push while the Russians keep knocking off major Syrian Arab Coalition leaders, the latest to fall was Basil Zamo, formerly a captain in the Syrian military, who headed what is called the “First Coastal Division” who receive arms from the US and its partners. Zamo, who headed the group, was killed by a Russian air strike on October 19th. Also killed was one of Zamo’s fighters who was trained in how to use TOW missiles. On the same day, the commander of another such group, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Brigades, was killed in fighting south of Aleppo.

Reason #3 US and Turkish goals are not congruent, and the US presence in Incirlik makes it seem that the US targeting of ISIS is a NATO operation. In fact, the Turks have been promoting the idea of NATO taking a more active role against ISIS, leaving the Turks free to blast away at the Kurds, a major irritant to the Turkish government. The Incirlik base agreements allowing US operations there is supposed to require the approval of the Turkish government and is also supposed to be a NATO operation. But exactly why would NATO want to play a role in the conflict, especially if the outcome of the fighting is to swell the number of refugees pouring into Europe, which is being facilitated by Turkey who wants to liquidate the refugees it has on its territory. As of mid-March, 2015 there were 1.7 million refugees in Syria. But these numbers are estimates and many of the refugees are not registered, meaning that the number may be far higher. The increased fighting in recent weeks means even more refugees fleeing to Turkey, including many combatants who have shaved off their beards and even dressed as women as they cross the border. Sooner or later these may flee to Europe, posing a substantive threat that goes beyond just housing and caring for refugees who were victims of the civil war.

From a purely NATO perspective a rapid settlement of the civil war would be the best outcome, even if it meant some accommodation with the “hated” Assad regime. But the chances for that are not improved if the US continues to push ahead supplying Russia and Syria’s adversary. Perhaps some in Washington think, as the White House has made clear, that Russia is getting itself into a quagmire from which it cannot win and which will eventually force a deal to be reached replacing the Assad regime. This involves a number of factors that depend largely on how tenacious the Islamists are and how long they can stand up to a professional army and air force. The early evidence is they are taking large losses. What we know less about is how severe are the Syrian army losses, and the losses of the Iranians and Hezbollah. The Russian boots on the ground are minimal so far, and there are internal reasons why it is likely to stay that way. But as the US has surely learned, although the lesson has to be constantly repeated, is that air power alone won’t decide a conflict. The Russians also know this, which is why they are trying to grease the war in such a way as to better empower land forces to win decisive battles and that by knocking out the rebel stockpiles and their ability to move out in the open. With most of the fighting now is in areas that have been depopulated to a large degree, the Russians can use more massive air power without too much collateral damage to civilian populations, and the rebels are more exposed because they cannot hide in the population.

The worst part of the deal is the presence of Iranian military forces in Syria, which has been enlarged. It is the worst part of the deal because in the long term it threatens Israel. Iran wants to put its brigades on the Golan Heights, and Israel will not permit this without conducting a clearing operation, which means Israel would enter the war in order to liquidate Iranian and Hezbollah presence. Indeed, if a deal could be found, a key part of any arrangement would have to be clearing out the Iranians and Hezbollah. Israel is supposed to be an American ally, and Israel has a strategic agreement with the US. At the moment the administration largely ignores Israel as it pursues other objectives, especially radical Islamists and Iran.

The US has said next to nothing about the Iranians, focusing most of its ire on Russia and Assad. The same holds concerning Hezbollah. What can we say about US policy objectives?

1. It is generally agreed that the US push to defeat ISIS is broadly shared among Washington policy-makers, both Democrats and Republicans. Defeating ISIS would remove a threat from Iraq and from Syria, and prevent the spread of ISIS operatives in Africa, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

2. It is also generally agreed that the US will supply air power but no ground troops. Efforts to promote a US ground presence have little or no public support.

3. The US has no answer to the refugee crisis and has been silent about the infiltration of ISIS and other radical elements in Europe. By agreeing to take such refugees into the United States, the terrorist danger inside the US is exacerbated. No steps appear to have been taken to manage the emerging problem caused by the White House’a unilateral policy taking large numbers of Syrian refugees.

4. The US support for the Free Syrian Army and the so-called Arab coalition is continuing. The statements by an unamed official about providing them air support invites a response by Russia and a serious escalation that may have implications well beyond the Middle East.

5. US policy is badly conflicted because of the US nuclear deal with Iran. This means considerable confusion. In Iraq it has meant that Iranian-supplied aircraft and pilots (Su-25’s) are in use against ISIS targets while the Iraqis learn how to fly the dozen used Su-25’s sent there by Russia. Meanwhile the US has been flying its own missions, and no doubt coordinating with the Iraqis and probably the Iranians. The outcome of all this is that Iraq is aligning itself with Iran. The US has some options to help the Kurds, but it wants to do this through Iraq because the Turks otherwise are against it. All of this makes the US look even weaker and ineffective.

6. While maintaining a strong anti-Assad posture, the US has also stepped up its anti-Putin rhetoric as well. This presents Putin with some opportunities in Europe if he decides to up the pressure on vulnerable and exposed NATO countries. Likewise, it shuts down avenues for accommodation. Some politicians also have picked up on anti-Russian rhetoric, most notably Marco Rubio. However, his position on Russia does not seem to have bought him much political support.

The key question is when does “no-win” mutate to “lose-lose.” Right now the best that can be said of the US posture is that it is, optimistically, a no-win policy. Sustain the civil war and hope your guys win out, however unlikely the outcome. But lose- lose would mean that the war’s result is a truncated Syria with a good portion of the country under Assad-Russia control. If that happens the Russians can also come up with a government change that will make it appear they have put “responsible” leaders in place, effectively a Russian-engineered coup d’Etat to placate Europe and to show Russian flexibility and sensibility to European “values.” If this happens then the US goes to a lose-lose, leaving much of the once American-dominated Middle East in a shambles and Europe increasingly up for grabs.

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2 thoughts on “Provocations and Syria: Where Are We Headed?

  1. […] questions the US policy objective in provoking the Russians in Syria, concluding the […]

  2. […] Conflicting Objectives in Syria – Stephen Bryen – A day before Bashar Assad’s meeting with Russian President Putin in Moscow, the United […]

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