WHY PUTIN WANTS SYRIA
Published by the Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 23: Number 2
Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta
Russia’s military intervention in Syria that began on September 30, 2015, is its first major intrusion into the Levant since June 1772 when “Russian forces bombarded, stormed, and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria.”1 Then as now, the Russians backed a ruthless local client; then as now, they found themselves in “a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.” But why?
Russia has been largely landlocked for most of its history, and Moscow has always valued the Crimean peninsula for its coastline (see above). Catherine the Great took the Crimea, founding the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and established a commercial port in Odessa. But, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in an independent Ukraine, and Moscow lost not only the port of Odessa but its prized naval port of Sevastopol.
the Ottomans, the Turkish Straits remained beyond Russia's Grasp Britain—and to a lesser extent France and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Italy)—repeatedly came to Turkey's rescue. This culminated in the 1853-56 Crimean war and the attendant Treaty of Paris that kept Russia caged in the Black Sea. It is hardly to be surprised that Putin, an avid student of history, repeatedly invokes Russia's "strategic interests" in the Crimea.
Today, Russia is not as militarily dependent on the Turkish Straits as in the past. But throughout the twentieth century to the present day, and despite the technological revolution and Moscow's formidable air forces, the Turkish Straits have remained a factor for the Russian navy.
The Fall of the USSR
The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was an even larger setback than the Crimean war. Analysts have long focused on the loss to the empire of vast pieces of real estate with the newly-won freedom of the non-Russian republics in the Baltics and the Caucasus as well as the second largest republic, Ukraine. Yet they have not given due consideration to what else Russia lost: waterways, coastlines, and ports, in short—the power of the Russian navy.
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Donald Trump's "Obama Moments" in the Gulf and Syria
Jiri and Leni Valenta
July 12, 2019
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: Putin and Trump’s ‘great game’ in Ukraine and Syria
By Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta.
Published Jan. 23,2019 by the Kyiv Post, Ukraine
Children gather outside their makeshift shelters following torrential rain that affected a camp for displaced people near the town of Atme close to the Turkish border in Syria's mostly rebel-held northern Idlib province on January 10, 2019. - More than a week of heavy rains flooded flimsy plastic tents and turned nearby fields into pools of mud in the area. (Photo by Aaref WATAD / AFP)
Photo by AFP
Why Azov and Mariupol seas, and why at this time?
The West has a short memory. The present conflict in the direction of Mariupol actually began in 2014. Then, it re-emerged throughout 2018. But only when it erupted violently on Nov. 25 of the same year did it become of serious concern to the forgetful West. Then the Russian navy and Special Forces attacked three Ukrainian military vessels heading for the port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, and wounded three sailors. Maintaining that the Ukrainian ships had infringed on Russian waters, the Russian navy captured and imprisoned a number of Ukrainian sailors and a few intelligence officers. Most of them are still in jail at this time.
After the March 2014 popular revolution in Kyiv overthrew Russian puppet Viktor Yanukovych, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded with his bloodless invasion of the Crimea. Then he followed with interventions in three regions of eastern Ukraine by proxies, Chechen fighters and “volunteers” — Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol on the Azov Sea. With the bloody conflict also around Mariopul and its brief occupation by Russian proxies, western intelligence anticipated that Putin would conquer the city in 2015. That did not happen. Why?
A character out of Dostoevsky
Studying what we call Putin’s great game with America, the rather poor responses to Putin’s moves in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, have been caused by wrong assessments of the Russian leader’s motivations. The most fitting view of him is Henry Kissinger’s — “a character out of Dostoevsky.” Putin does not share Andrei Sakharov’s democratic vision of Russia, but rather the nationalistic, Great Russian, authoritarian vision of his favorite writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Like the Russian Czars, he imprisons dissidents, liquidates writers critical of his wars, or kills the secret agents who betray the Russian state abroad.
But also a Count Stolypin-like modernizer and reformer, his strategic vision encompasses nationalistic and Orthodox beliefs shared by most Russians. His aim is the protection of Russians and Russian speakers in former, non-Soviet republics, Orthodox co-believers, and Arab Christian protectors.
His strategic objective is not to recover the whole Soviet or Czarist empire, nor to undertake Nikita Khrushchev’s and Leonid Brezhnev’s costly, whole occupations of neighboring countries. Rather it is to concentrate on strategically important slices of countries that were part of the former empire, primarily those with sizable populations of Russian speakers, and Orthodox believers. Also misunderstood by the West, have also been low-cost interventions to acquire ports, coastlines, waterways, and littoral lands lost to Russia during the 1991 USSR collapse.
Unlike Donetsk and Lugansk, separatist cities in eastern Ukraine, Mariupo, with a sizable Russian population, is also a commercial port, transporting regional steel and agricultural products through the Azov tributary to other Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea and then, through the Turkish Straits to the eastern Mediterranean — Tartus in Syria.
It’s the Black Sea and Azov, not the Baltics!
While out of Dostoevsky, however, Putin is not crazy. He will not intervene in the Baltic states and Poland — NATO members. Thus, the building of a large, expensive military base in Poland, a Warsaw and Pentagon pet project, is a waste of money and resources, the non-NATO nations of Georgia, Ukraine and Syria , with its eastern coast now protected by Russia. There the Shiite Assad’s elite is again in charge.
Syria and Ukraine. Syria and Ukraine are in fact linked. New diplomatic initiatives and attempts at a limited partnership with the United States in Syria have been accompanied by freezing the conflict in Ukraine, yet determined to return to it and defrost it at a different time. It is happening now. Thus, Russia’s western partners in Minsk I and Minsk II agreements over Ukraine, did not realize that the agreements could not work, since they did not address linkages to Syria.
To put it differently, in order to cage the Russian bear, Western national leaders must link their great games with Russia to various war theaters as the British did in the 19th century. Then, the war theaters were Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains, the Turkish straits, and in the Balkan region — all passages for Russia to the Middle East. Today the primary war theaters are non-NATO Georgia, Syria and Ukraine, countries Russia hopes to dominate.
Putin’s hard power key instruments. The acquisition of coastlines and waterways have gone hand in hand with the buildup of Putin’s Special Forces and a lean and modernized Russian navy. The latter is a comparatively low-cost instrument that allows Russia to compete in Syria and Ukraine with the much more technologically advanced, aircraft carrier- oriented yet enormously expensive U.S. navy.
As far as nuclear power is concerned, both great powers share the perception that in present conflicts, nuclear force will not be employed for achieving strategic objectives. Yet under President Barck Obama, the character out of Dostoevsky succeeded repeatedly in using Khrushchev-ion nuclear but also conventional blackmail to intimidate the weak U.S. president. Thus, with a gross domestic product close to small country Holland’s, and an oil and gas-driven economy unimpressive in technological growth, Putin was able to prevail for years in great power games.
A character out of reality TV
Real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump, unlike his great game partner, Putin, had only a minimal knowledge of history and geopolitics when he took office. The concepts of national interest, hard and soft power, and above all, the linkages between Ukraine and Syria, were completely new to him. Closer to his heart was unique Trump real estate, including, for a while, a Trump hotel in Moscow. Despite his past sexual proclivities and difficult personality, he is strong, patriotic, and at times quite intuitive. It has yet to be proven that he acted as Russia’s agent as the special counselor, Bob Mueller’s denial suggests. Undeniably, he has shown great strength when well advised, with regard to Afghanistan and above all, North Korea.
Deciphering Russo-gate. For a long time, however, Trump lacked an understanding of the strategic importance of Ukraine, a relatively large European country, a former nuclear power with an industrial base, and productive agriculture. To Putin, Ukraine is of vital, geopolitical significance. Thereafter, Trump much-decried admiration of Putin was based on Putin’s skill in achieving successful, limited, low-cost interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.
Trump repeatedly contrasted it to George W, Bush’s Iraq quagmire and Obama and Hillary Clinton’s phony intervention in Libya and covert program for anti-Assad rebels in Syria. All of these countries became Islamist paradises, and the U.S. had to repeatedly intervene, The clumsy U.S. interventions were also contributing factor in the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Unsurprisingly, Putin displayed both open and covert support for Trump, a candidate who during the 2016 elections, neglected Ukraine and primarily advocated a limited, anti-terrorist partnership with the Kremlin in Syria. By contrast, during the campaign, Hillary s principal adviser, former CIA Director Mike Morell of Benghazi fame, advocated “killing Russians” in Syria.
Trump then almost lost the election by hiring and then firing Paul Manafort, to manage his campaign. The main lobbyist for corrupt, former pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Manafort allowed several Russian agents of influence to change the GOP platform to ensure no deliveries of defensive weapons to Kyiv.
Psychological effect of Javelin weaponry.
This, of course, was a key element of Putin’s strategy. For four years with both Obama and Trump, the Russian leader skillfully fielded all U.S. attempts to arm Ukraine with anti-tank, Javelin weapons, also convincing the inexperienced Trump that Ukraine was not important enough for America to engage in such deliveries.
However, Trump has always been interested in his own survival besides promoting America’s national interests. After negotiations with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko he reversed himself and approved the sale to Ukraine of 210 Javelin missiles and 37 launchers. And without even realizing it, he changed the great game in eastern Ukraine
Putin returns from Syria to Azov Sea
Use of the U.S. made weapons had a tremendous psychological impact on the Russian tank crews in Donetsk and Lugansk. As Poroshenko just revealed, “They refused to deploy and shell Ukrainian positions” as they had for years earlier. As we predicted already in 2014, these weapons made a huge difference.
Throughout 2018, and aided by Iran, Russia finally prevailed in preventing the fall of Assad’s Shiite regime to the rebels. Then, after Russia’s victory, he deployed some of his navies back to the Black Sea with a new mission — economic strangulation of Ukraine in the Azov Sea. While previous attacks in 2014-15 were land attacks on Mariupol, Putin’s new tactics utilized naval power on the Black and Azov Seas.
The new strategy became obvious as in 2018 the Kremlin finished building a bridge from Russia over the narrow Kerch Strait to the Crimea. The 18 km long bridge is so low that tall Ukrainian commercial ships cannot pass through the Kerch bottleneck, and being inspected by the Russian navy, only a limited number of then have been allowed to do so.
America must fully engage in the great game in Syria and Ukraine. With Putin returning to Azov in the direction of Mariupol, yet keeping his forces also engaged in supporting Assad’s regime, we must, as Great Britain did throughout the 19th century fully engage in our new great game. To avoid global war in the nuclear era and preserve a modicum of peace is sadly all that we can hope for.
However, new global war can originate elsewhere than expected, as happened in 1914. It did not come as expected it, between Russia and Great Britain over Afghanistan or the Turkish Straits, but over the terrorist act against Archduke Ferdinand in Bosnia Herzogovina. And Russia became a British and American ally in WWI before she became Bolshevik. Yet the 19th-century Great Game prevented major global war for many decades.
In our own era, nuclear weapon have had a stabilizing effect. But to preserve peace, we must engage in deterring rising ambitious powers like Russia and China. Thus, we are condemned to continue as ever great games with competing powers.
Our presence in Syria is indispensable!
Deterring Russia in the Crimea and Azov Sea is as well. Without our presence in Syria, Turkey will engage in destroying our Kurdish allies, and Iran, with Hezbollah and Hamas will continue attacking our partner, Israel, until Israel will use its air force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. the U.S. contingent presence in Syria is indispensable. Thus Trump must reverse himself on Syria and stand up to Putin in the Black and Azov Seas as he did in eastern Ukraine
Finally, we cannot disregard the new military linkages emerging between Russia and two failed regimes close to our shores; Venezuela and Nicaragua. Here, as George Kennan argued years ago in the case of Cuba, some reinstatement of Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean might be in order.
Finally, it behooves us that experienced analysts born during the last great war, and who have survived the Cold War-like these writers, help to educate national leaders and the American people about the need to pursue the great game with Russia while negotiating and waiting for Mr. Putin’s successor.
We thus hope to enlighten Trump and other national and western leaders who just woke up to the new danger in the ongoing great games. In the Black Sea, the U.S. and Great Britain are deploying some naval ships. Is that enough? We think not. While strictly following the international convention on the deployment of foreign ships through the Straits of Turkey in the Black Sea, nevertheless, we must bring more naval power into play. Above all, we must help to rebuild the minuscule Ukrainian navy to a much larger deterrent.
In 2009, our on-site research in Georgia as well as in the Crimea led us to believe that a Russian invasion of the Crimea might become inevitable. I said as much while lecturing to students at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv. Students and faculty were unimpressed. So were our Western colleagues.
As in the past, only one thing will prevent the strangulation of Mariupol. As in the past, only a strong response by the democratic West will reduce the potential for an expanded conflict that could engulf neighboring countries and far more.
Jiri Valenta: Presently a non-resident, senior research associate at the BESA [Begin-Sadat] Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. A long-standing member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he has also served with two other leading think tanks in America; Brookings Institution and the Wilson Center for International Scholars. See photo and short biography here. Leni Friedman Valenta is Jiri’s wife, partner and long co-writer on Perspectives for BESA, The Middle East Quarterly, The National Interest, Aspen Review, Miami Herald, Kyiv Post, and Tbilisi Georgian Messenger. A graduate cum laude of Brandeis University, she holds an MFA in play-writingfrom the Yale School of Drama. Her historical works include The Fortress, a full-length play about Benedict Arnold and a biography of Clara Barton.
Jiri and Leni Valenta at the Syrian-Turkish border, photo courtesy of the author
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The continuing bombardment of the Syrian province of Idlib by Russia, Iran, and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has been ignored for far too long by the international community. Attention must be paid – in particular by Donald Trump, who is showing himself worryingly prone to “Obama moments” of hesitation and lack of resolve.
On June 3, 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are ‘bombing the hell’ out of Idlibprovince in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The world is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you. Stop!”
Fine words, but he has said little else publicly about it since. Nor do we know the content of his conversation with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit (though a US cruise missile strike on rebel positions in Idlib on June 30 might have been connected to that conversation).
In May, the authors were able to perform some on-site research at the Turkish-Syrian border. The following reflects what we saw in Idlib.
The beleaguered province has become the last major stronghold for rebel fighters supported by Turkey: about 20,000 Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham [HTS] militants. Some are also former members of an-Nusra, which was formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda.
But the assault on Idlib by Assad, Russia, and Iran has caused hundreds of fatalities and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, more than half of them women and children. According to World Vision, about 6.7 million Syrians are now refugees, and another 6.2 million are displaced within Syria.
They are driven from place to place, and some are now sleeping in open fields. Others crowd toward the Turkish border, which has been closed to them. Turkey has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has no desire for more. Thus, the offensive on Idlib has released the potential for yet another massive migration to Europe.
Particularly horrifying is the report by UN officials that “a total of 22 hospitals and health clinics have been hit by air strikes or shelling since April 28.”
As reported on May 30 by the Daily Sabah, Krem Kimuk, president of the Turkish Red Crescent, believes civilians have been intentionally targeted by the bombings. “This is an obvious war crime,” he said.
Agreeing with Kimuk is UN Undersecretary General for Human Affairs Mark Lowcock, who on June 25 reiterated fears he had expressed a month earlier that geographical coordinates supplied to Russia and the Assad government by the UN to protect medical centers and hospitals in northwest Syria were being used by both Russia and the Assad regime to “deliberately destroy those targets.”
Lowcock said there have been numerous pleas to both the Assad government and the Kremlin to “make [the bombing] stop.” But, as he told the UN Security Council, “It has not stopped or even slowed.”
In its May 9, 2019 article “Only Trump Can Save Idlib, but Time is Running Out,” the Washington Post reported that aide workers often cannot operate because of chemical weapons usage, including white phosphorous bombs.
Trump’s first Obama moment
An “Obama moment” refers to 2013, when the then-president back-pedaled from his plan to punish Assad for crossing Washington’s red line on the use of chemical warfare against insurgents and civilians in Syria.
We applauded Trump’s demonstration in April 2017 that he is not Obama. He launched a well calculated but limited Tomahawk strike on Assad’s airfield to punish him for having engaged in chemical warfare. He also blasted ISIS and dumped a MOAB bomb on Afghanistan. Then he went after “Rocket Man” in North Korea with blistering verbiage.
He thus forcefully demonstrated that he wasn’t afraid to use force and threats when warranted, and he gave our adversaries pause.
But in December 2018, Trump – to the disapproval of many of his supporters – decided on a rapid and complete withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria, most of whom were serving as advisers to Washington’s Kurdish allies struggling against ISIS and Iran.
Disapproval was registered at the highest level through the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis. The subsequent outcry led to the president’s decision to leave 400 token troops in Aleppo.
There is circumstantial evidence that the troop withdrawal decision helped convince Putin, Assad, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that they had carte blanche to launch a decisive battle for Idlib in the coming months.
The Russo-Turkish zone deal on Idlib
On Sept. 18, 2018, Putin met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who supported the rebels, and brokered a ceasefire at the Russian resort of Sochi. They agreed to establish a demilitarized zone around Idlib’s borders with Turkey to protect Syrian civilians from ongoing warfare. The approximately 12 mile-wide area was to be free of insurgents and heavy weaponry and monitored by both sides.
However, almost 10 months into the truce, the demilitarized zone has largely failed despite further negotiations. Its two highways for civilian traffic are now at the very center of the Syrian government’s military offensive. Russia claims rebel militants are still present in the zone and blames Turkey. The zone’s two lanes have thus become highways of death.
On May 17, in the face of a new Idlib offensive, the Washington Post wrote, “Assad Just Raised the Stakes for Catastrophe in Idlib; Trump is Silent.” So too has been the international community.
The Kremlin answered Trump’s “What is the purpose, what will it get you. Stop!” tweet with continued support for the Syrian offensive. Moreover, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov disingenuously condemned the rebels for using Idlib to launch attacks against civilians and military targets, and claimed that “measures are being taken to neutralize these strike positions.” He then blamed Turkey for not preventing such attacks.
Why has Trump been so meek in his response – particularly as in 2017 he didn’t shrink from a limited attack on the Syrian regime as retribution for Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians?
Another Obama moment for Trump
Since then have come Iranian attacks on US allied shipping in the Persian Gulf and their shooting down of a US drone. It was expected that Tehran would be punished through military counter-force, but that did not happen. American planes took to the air for a retaliatory strike, but Trump pulled them back – another Obama moment.
Instead he resorted to punishment by non-military economic sanctions and a cyber attack. He claims to have felt that the deaths of an estimated 150 peopleif he used military force were disproportionate to the offense of shooting down an unmanned drone.
This may be true as far as it goes, but is avoiding the use of even minimal direct force the way to keep the US out of war? Iran has only grown more belligerent. And if that’s how Trump feels about loss of life, why has he been essentially ignoring Idlib?
A word here about NSA John Bolton, who has sadly acquired a (false) reputation as an imprudent hardliner. Some analysts wonder if Trump is using the old good cop, bad cop strategy. Keeping Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with their more hawkish reputations, by his side has helped him appear more moderate.
Trump would be wise to keep Bolton and Pompeo close, because they see what he does not. The areas of conflict – Syria, Ukraine, the Persian Gulf, and Venezuela – are linked, and sanctions are not working effectively because ways around them have been found. Russia has eased the sanctions on both the Maduro regime in Venezuela and the mullahs with the help of oil manipulations.
Thanks to the enormous profits reaped by the drug trade in central America, corrupt Venezuela has not yet crumbled. A moribund Hezbollah has revived, and Iran is thumbing its nose at Trump.
Trump’s performance as president has been laudable in many areas. He has improved the economy, kept the US far safer than Western Europe through controls on immigration, trimmed bureaucracy, and done what he can with sanctions and other non-military methods available to him. But great presidents also take risks when necessary.
While aiding ISIS or al-Qaeda rebels is unacceptable, Trump should threaten and deliver on punishment when chemical warfare is used. He should also stop referring to Bolton as a hardliner in contrast to himself. He needs Bolton, as well as Pompeo, to keep the military option alive and use it if necessary.
Bolton recently attended a three-way meeting in Israel with Russian and Israeli national security advisers to discuss the Iranian presence in Syria, which Israel is eager to reduce. The Russians, seeking to stabilize Idlib in the future and also reduce US sanctions, may see an opening for achieving such stability via a deal on Iran.
Dr. Jiri Valenta served for a decade as a tenured professor and Coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterrey, CA. He is a non-resident senior research associate at the BESA Center and a longstanding member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
Leni Friedman Valenta is senior editor of the Valentas’ website, jvlv.net. She has written for Middle East Quarterly, The National Interest, The Aspen East Central Review, Miami Herald, and the Kyiv Post, among other publications.
For further writing by the Valentas on the Syrian conflict, see “Why Putin Wants Syria,’ Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2016. Vol. 23.Paragrafınızı buraya yazın.