Matt McDaniel

14 minute read

For the first time since the 1980s, Russian forces are deployed in the Middle East in an official, military, capacity. Using the most advanced aircraft the Russian air force can muster, Moscow has decided that President Bashar Assad will stay in power in Damascus.

The backdrop of this Russian expedition is the Syrian Civil War, a conflict that has been raging in the coastal Mediterranean country for nearly four-and-a-half years. Secular Muslim President Bashar al-Assad has clung to power against the onslaught of both the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS/ISIL/IS) and scattered “moderate” Islamist groups. The War has been the catalyst for the largest international migrant crisis since the end of the Second World War with refugees and immigrants pouring through the gates of Eastern and Southern Europe to flee the violence in their homelands. The conflict has also directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State, a self-proclaimed Caliphate that stretches across wide swathes of Iraq and Syria. Islamic State fighters have repeatedly shown their battle-tested resolve in their numerous victories over the poorly-trained Iraqi Security Forces.

America’s “Red Line” Problem

The United States has remained nominally in favor of a moderate replacement to Bashar Assad, but has largely remained outside of the day-to-day conflict. In 2012, President Obama declared that a “red line” existed, which, if crossed by the Assad Regime, would result in American intervention. This “red line” was the use of chemical or biological agents by Assad’s government on its own people. In the eyes of the American government, if Syria, long thought to have a significant cache of illegal or banned weapons, were to use such weapons, it would be a significant enough international crisis to warrant American intervention

From a foreign policy perspective, this “red line” had certain echoes of not wanting America to sit on the sidelines of another Halabja incident (in 1988, Saddam Hussein, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, used chemical weapons, notably mustard gas, against ethnic Kurds in Northern Iraq) or the total lack of response from the international community over the 1991 uprisings in Iraq against Saddam Hussein (where sarin or a sarin-like agent was likely used on dissidents). However, when, on August 21, 2013 reports emerged that Assad had used chemical weapons, there was no immediate response from the United States outside of a stern verbal rebuke. Much of the resistance to the Administration’s acting on the “red line” violation came from the unwillingness of the United States to play an active role in the clearly internal civil war of another sovereign state. Moreover, Americans were concerned that, since some radical Islamist rebels were aware of the United State’s position on intervention, that they could spur America to action by claiming that the Assad Regime had used chemical agents thereby bringing the United States into the conflict on the side of the Islamist factions.

Though the President was willing to authorize airstrikes, the eventual campaign was called off when a negotiated settlement was made between Russia and Syria that would result in the dismantling of the Syrian chemical weapons program. While it remains a subject of debate as to the rate at which the program has been dismantled, the agreement took the United States back from the brink of attacking the Assad Regime.

The Role of Russia in the Syrian Civil War

What is important to notice in this “red line” sequence of events is that Russia played a major role in deescalating the potential for widening the Syrian Civil War and firmly brought to a close any discussion as to whether Syria had wandered outside the Russian zone of influence. As early as 2013, it became abundantly clear that the Assad Regime was going to be receiving support from Moscow.

Quickly, the United States’ posture changed with respect to the Syrian Civil War after the speed and ferocity of the advances made by the Islamic State in Iraq. The fall of Mosul as well as other key towns and cities across the Anbar province as well as along the Turkish border caught even the United States’ most seasoned generals by surprise. Likewise concerning was the dismal state of the morale of the Iraqi Security Forces. Coupled with their savvy use of technology and marketing to display their savagery, the Islamic State became the United States’ principal security concern in the Middle East. Flush with oil revenue, the Islamic State quickly entrenched itself.

The official American response to the Islamic State started on June 15, 2014 when President Obama ordered American forces to be re-deployed to the Middle East and back into Iraq. The United States first took military action on August 8, 2014 to break the Islamic State’s siege of the Yazidi people trapped on Mount Sinjar. Consistent aerial attacks against the Islamic State have continued for over a year. While the United States has had some successes in eliminating key Islamic State targets and reducing the overall ground control of the Islamic State by about 25%, the entrenchment of the Islamic State remains across much of Iraq and Syria.

Mere days after President Obama and Russian President Putin met at the United Nations in New York, Russian tactical aircraft began carrying out targeted strikes against targets opposed to the Syrian regime. It is here where the complexity of the situation begins for most observers. On the one hand, the United States’ official position is that it supports a peaceful transition of power away from Assad and to a new, secular representative government. In practice, however, the United States has been sponsoring rebel groups in the country to oppose Assad. The other factor at play is that the largest of these “rebel” factions is the Islamic State. The United States is carrying out attacks against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq while also supporting other moderate rebel groups in Syria to oppose Assad.

Therefore, the situation with Russian intervention looks like this: the United States hopes that Russian forces will join allied forces in attacking the Islamic State. This type of joint strike cooperation would help Russian interests by propping up Assad and it would help American interests by giving “moderate” rebels breathing room to only fight against the regime in Damascus. However, like any “enemy-of-my-enemy” scenario, the situation is nowhere near as clean-cut. Rather, on the first day of Russian operations in Syria, Russian planes carried out targeted strikes against one of the “moderate” groups that the United States has been supporting near the city of Homs.

Russian Military Objectives

The reality on the ground in Syria may be confusingly muddled, but the geopolitical ramifications are enormous. Since the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s decision to back separatist forces in the Donbass War (the conflict in the Eastern regions of Ukraine primarily Donetsk and Luhansk), the Kremlin has been interested to see how far it can go in its power projection. The Russian military underwent a series of rapid modernizing improvements in 2012 and had its first real action in the Georgian conflict. Since that point, when it became clear that the United States was not planning on intervening in affairs that did not involve direct American interests, Moscow has been increasing nationalist rhetoric.

The Syrian intervention comes at a particularly interesting time for Russia. At the moment, there is some continued fighting in Eastern Ukraine, but both sides seems entrenched. Certainly with the winter months quickly approaching, there is very little chance of the war breaking out in full. Similarly, while Russian forces continue to violate the airspace of the Baltic States and the nations in Scandinavia, it looks like it will take more time to push partisans in Latvia or Estonia to make anti-American moves. Coupled with the collapse of the ruble earlier in the year and the significant decline of the Russian market (in no small part because of depressed oil prices), Russia needed a “quick win.”

Despite having remained nominally outside of the fight in Syria for the better part of five years, the Russian intervention comes at a time when the Kremlin needs to continue on a roll of projecting its influence abroad. The majority of the Russian people still have memories of the Soviet Union and the economic disaster that marked its downfall. Likewise, the majority of the Russian high command and leadership structure understands the “late-empire” model of national support, that is: nationalism over the economy. The goal is to have a constant and consistent message of victory reinforced by nationalistic messages. Clearly, if the majority of the Russian population did not come of age during the late-90s, early 2000s resurgence of the Russian economy, any sort of prosperity will be written off by the population as an aberration. Let’s remember that the American model of “boom and bust” retains an optimistic notion that we must do everything in our power to extend the boom and work back quickly from the bust. There is no equivalent in the modern Russian economy. Rather, the end of the Soviet era was marked by “communism” declining into state capitalism. Then, in the 90s, that state capitalism became a form of oligarchic opportunism that fueled the late 90s, early 2000s surge for Russia’s ultra-elite. Only recently has some degree of prosperity reached a developing Russian middle class but it appears likely that this growth will be cut short given the depressed market conditions and likely major recession.

While in the United States we expect our leaders to be at the forefront of preserving and extending economic growth, the Russian model does not have that same prime motivating factor for leaders. Rather, nationalism takes the place of prosperity. Certainly this is an over-simplified model. There are very powerful forces involved in Russian politics related to economic forces, but the political legitimacy of the Putin regime is tied far closer to his strength rather than to economic prosperity.

So, what does this mean for the United States in the context of Syria? Indiscriminate Russian bombardment of American-aligned rebels in support of the Assad regime is designed to test to what degree the United States will show restraint or weakness in light of Russian aggression. The United States only issued strong words over the annexation of Crimea and then offered targeted sanctions in light of Russian partisans and regulars invading parts of Ukraine. These sanctions, a Western tool that would convince other Western powers to back down from conflict, are, as discussed above, merely economic in nature. The effect on the Russian population, therefore, is to reinforce the idea that the United States does not have the interest of the Russian people at heart and that Russian strength is growing on an international stage.

Intervention in Syria also rings of a precursor to testing the Article 5 NATO provisions in the Baltic States. Certainly Syria and Latvia are two very different places. However, especially if Moscow decides to attack US-backed forces in Syria, it holds that it is testing to see America’s willingness to defend its nominal allies. The logic in the Kremlin would go something like this: “Certainly the United States would defend Poland, but would the American people authorize Washington to go to war over Latvia?” The test case, then, is whether Washington will authorize strikes against the Assad regime or whether President Obama will simply write off the loss of moderate rebel lives as the cost of doing business with Russia for their potential future cooperation in joint strike missions against the Islamic State.

It is also important to note that Russia is making a calculated gamble that the Assad regime will survive the Civil War. Consequently, Moscow anticipates that, when the dust inevitably clears, history will record only Russia as being on the side of the “legitimate” government in Damascus. This connection will also continue to build Russian ties with Iran (who has long held Syria as a near-client state). Especially in light of the Iran nuclear deal and the coming economic bounce for Tehran, a continued Russian presence guarantees future strategic partnerships.

The End of Red Line Diplomacy

The drawing of lines in the sand is a powerful diplomatic tool as long as the person on the other side of the line knows that the line in enforceable. In 168 BC, a Roman Consul (during the Roman Republic), Gaius Popillius Laenas drew a circular line in the sand around King Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire when the same was preparing an invasion of Egypt. The King was told by the Consul that the King was to give a reply to take back to the Senate of Rome before he stepped out of the circle. The meaning of this line, clearly, was that if the King was to cross it, he would know that the Romans would intervene to protect their interests in Egypt. As a consequence, the King withdrew his army.

The United States is playing a dangerous game when it draws lines in the sand that it chooses not to enforce. This commentary is not meant to be one proposing that the United States attack Russia or the Assad regime. Rather, it is a critique of broken diplomacy. No “red line” should ever have been made in the case of the Syrian Civil War. The Administration was likely aware that it would not have the political capital or domestic support to wage, yet another, war in the Middle East. While bluffing can be an effective strategy, it made for a disastrous foreign policy blunder. The result of this blunder was that Moscow and the Putin regime understood that the United States was unwilling to enforce its pronouncements.

The next big “red line” that the United States will likely have to face with respect to Russia is the Article 5 guarantees of NATO. In short, it holds that an attack on one NATO member is taken as an attack on all NATO members. Certainly we are aware that the Kremlin is savvy enough not to send tanks into Vilnius, but in the event of a partisan uprising, Moscow is banking on the fact that the United States will not intervene.

More important than the Russo-European sphere of influence are the brewing conflicts in the South China Sea and the increased militarization of industrializing nations. A sudden decrease in Chinese economic dominance over the Pacific as well as a developing India will make for a powder keg of international affairs. Certainly Beijing is watching with significant interest to see if the United States intends to honor its obligations with respect to its allies. With Chinese fleet basing increasing both in the South China Sea and in the Pacific, Chinese military projection should be a concern to the watchers of foreign affairs.

An Appropriate Path Forward

Unfortunately there is no easy cure for the damage that unenforced “red line” diplomacy has done to America’s influence abroad. At this point, there is no way the United States can attack the Assad regime without sparking a major international incident with the Russian Federation. Instead, American diplomatic and military forces need to do their best to coordinate joint strikes against Islamic State targets and minimize the impact of strikes by Russian forces against allied moderate rebels. Moreover, behind the scenes, the United States needs to do everything in its diplomatic power to arrange for a ceasefire between Damascus and the moderate rebels. While a full transition of power may not be in the cards, arranging for regular humanitarian ceasefires will blunt the Russian attacks against allied forces.

The United States and NATO members need to take steps immediately to protect the governments of the Baltic States. It remains unlikely that the United States would be willing to actively defend Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia in the event any of those nations invoked Article 5. Consequently, we must do everything in our power now to root out Russian-backed dissidents that are already working towards the eventual confrontation.

We must stop making red line pronouncements that would immediately draw the nation into an armed conflict. Especially with regard to Chinese territorial claims in the Pacific, the United States needs to be prepared to actively defend any major pronouncement or guarantee.

Looking to the future, especially in light of the upcoming Presidential election in the United States, mere bellicose rhetoric is not the way to effectively deal with Russian aggression. Rather, targeted diplomacy mixed with workable firestops could work to contain Moscow’s expansionist mindset. Candidates for Federal office must have an intricate understanding of the delicate foreign policy position where the United States currently finds itself. Missteps at this juncture could easily result in a heightening of tensions with world powers to levels unseen since the Cold War.