Sunday, October 18, 2015

Russia, Syria and analogies in a vacuum

Robert Fisk's blunt reporting on the Middle East can be refreshing and discouraging at the same time. This article is an example: Everyone wrote off the Syrian army. Take another look now The Independent 10/18/2015.

He discusses how just a few months ago, the Syrian Army "was being written off, the Bashar al-Assad government said to be reaching its final days."

But now their reputation is changing, with a little help from their Russia friends:

Then along came Vladimir Putin with his air and missile fleets and suddenly the whole place is transformed. While we huffed and puffed that the Russians were bombing the “moderate” rebels – moderates who had earlier ceased to exist according to America’s top generals – we’ve been paying no attention to the military offensive which the Syrians themselves are now staging against the Nusra Front fighters around Aleppo and in the valley of the Orontes.
The Nusra Front is the group that identifies with Al Qaeda, although Bin Laden's original core group hardly seems to exist any more.

Nothing that the armies of other Arab states are either inexperienced or weakened ' Libya's own army is in bits," he writes - he notes that Syria could come out of the current situation with more prominent clout in the Middle East: "If it wins – and if it holds together and if its manpower, which is admittedly at a low level, can be maintained – then the Syrian military is going to come out of this current war as the most ruthless, battle-trained and battle-hardened Arab army in the entire region. Woe betide any of its neighbours who forget this."

Fisk also writes of the current state of the Russian intervention:

... the Russians are now telling the Turks – and by logical extension, this information must go to the Americans – their flight coordinates. Even more remarkable, they have set up a hotline communications system between their base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast and the Israeli ministry of defence in Tel Aviv. More incredible still is that the Israelis – who have a habit of targeting Syrian and Iranian personnel near the Golan Heights – have suddenly disappeared from the skies. In other words, the Russians are involved in a big operation, not a one-month wonder that is going on in Syria. And it is likely to continue for quite a time.
Fisk also refers to the verbal analogies/metaphors/similes that observers were making not long ago about the sad state of the Syrian Army: "We employed our own army of clichés to make the case for regime change. The Syrian army was losing ground – at Jisr al-Shugour and at Palmyra – and so we predicted that the whole Assad state had reached a 'tipping point'."

Analogies are tricky in foreign policy. They can be terribly misleading. Paul Pillar recently wrote about this (Dominoes Falling in a Vacuum: The Hazards of Metaphors in Foreign Policy The National Interest 10/14/2015):

The most recent popular physical metaphor applied to foreign relations—so popular that its usage has become almost a fad—concerns a “vacuum” in the Middle East. A search on Google News (which covers only articles that have been “crawled” in the last 30 days) for items with both vacuum and Middle East yields 68,900 hits. The imagery has become a major part of criticism of President Obama from those who believe the United States ought to be intervening militarily in the Middle East more often and more deeply than it has been lately. The escalation of Russian military involvement in Syria has stimulated a chorus of commentary about how Russia is moving into a “vacuum” created by insufficient U.S. intervention in the region (and how this is bad).

The application of the “vacuum” imagery to Middle Eastern affairs is seriously misleading on several counts, beginning with the central fact that metaphor is not reality. Even the more physical aspects of foreign policy do not exhibit characteristics similar to true vacuums and how matter responds to them. Moreover, the Middle East is not a vacuum not only in the sense that it has an atmosphere with not much less than sea level pressure but also that it is filled with people, governments, armies, militias and much else that collectively make it what it is. The vacuum imagery implicitly assumes that there are important attributes of the region that don't really count unless they involve intervention by an external power, and especially by the United States. It is insufficient attention to the heat and pressure involving what already is in a particular country, and too much emphasis on what external intervention ought to be able to accomplish, that often has spelled trouble, for the external intervenor as well as for people inside the country.

The metaphor further assumes a sort of zero-sum quality to events in the region, comparable to how two bodies of gas cannot move into the same space without increasing heat and pressure, and to how if one body moves out that can create a vacuum that sucks the other body of gas in. International relations do not work that way. U.S. and Russian international activity are not really like two blobs of gas. The imagery takes no account, for example, of how external forces can work together and not just work to push each other out of the same space—and in Syria, external forces working together offer the only hope for de-escalating the civil war there.
Juan Cole makes an important point which will tend to be drowned out by anti-Russian revisionism (How Putin Adopted Obama’s Way of War The Nation 10/13/2015):

President Obama did not invent the war from above, using drones and warplanes against a guerrilla force, but he has a clear preference for airborne counterinsurgency. He has loosed drones or airstrikes in some seven countries, regardless of whether the United States was on a war footing with them, and his use of drones dwarfs that of George W. Bush. Obama deployed the US Air Force extensively against the Taliban in Afghanistan, even while trying to build up the Afghanistan National Army. After the fall of Mosul in the summer of 2014, he went back into Iraq with drones, fighter jets, and a plan to rebuild the Iraqi Army. Other great powers have clearly been watching and learning, and Vladimir Putin’s Syria intervention is arguably a Russian adaptation of the Obama Doctrine of counterinsurgency.

Putin’s Syria campaign has exactly the same shape as Obama’s preferred methods. The Russians have expanded a military airbase near Latakia to allow provision of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army with more tanks and heavy artillery, brought in by huge military transport planes. Russian trainers and advisers are attempting to up the game of the SAA, now shrunk by defections and fatigue to only 90,000 troops from its former strength of some 300,000. The Russian air force is hitting arms depots and armed convoys of Syrian insurgents. It is giving close air support to the troops of the SAA and its Hezbollah allies in the region just north of the provincial Sunni city of Hama and in Idlib Province. [my emphasis]
Cole contrasts this approach with the counterinsurgency strategy of The Surge in Iraq, which was really just a rehash of that applied in Vietnam under Gen. Creighton Abrams.

Cole supported the NATO intervention in Libya. But he acknowledges here that the result was obviously less than optimum:

One difficulty with the Obama Doctrine can clearly be seen in Libya, which is that mere air support to one side in a revolution or civil war does nothing to build institutions in the aftermath. The very militias supported by NATO from the air declined to disarm after the war and then went to war with one another, leaving roughly 3,000 dead last year and the country in disarray.
Cole's view of the prospects for the Syrian Army even with the new Russian assistance is less optimistic (from Syria's viewpoint). And for the prospects for Assad's government: "In the end, though, Russia’s hope of restoring the authority of the Assad regime, which is guilty of mass torture and mass murder, seems forlorn."

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