Obama lectured Putin in public and in private, telling him not to intervene militarily in Syria.
Putin listened politely enough, then speedily launched bombing raids in Syria.
Putin said any Russian intervention in Syria would be directed against Islamic State forces. In fact, although Australian intelligence does not yet have this fully confirmed, it seems the strikes were mostly in locations where Islamic State is not a significant presence. They allegedly hit some rebel forces trained and approved by the Americans. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said the Russian move was “throwing gasoline on the fire” in Syria.
The Russian moves transform strategic calculations in Syria and have left Washington completely flat-footed and almost irrelevant. The Russians now control the Syrian narrative.
Nikolas Gvosdev in The National Interest draws an even more alarming contrast between the strategic credibility of Russia and the US in Syria:
“While Russia is prepared to use deadly force to defend its interests and its clients, those who have accepted Western patronage will not enjoy such support”.
Obama has become that most grotesque of strategic players — an impotent enemy and a dangerous friend.
All this week at the UN, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has argued it is essential to seek a political solution in Syria, that no option should be ruled out — meaning that Assad be allowed to stay in power — and that negotiating any solution must involve dialogue with Russia and, more important, with Iran.
For this she has been criticised by some US and Australian commentators, who believe she may be too accommodating to Iran or that Assad’s bloody record in the Syrian civil war means he must be deposed. In fact, Bishop has been absolutely right. She has been ahead of the curve and has helped create some extra diplomatic space for the Americans to go where they now need to go.
There is every chance the Russian intervention will prod Obama into some belated action, in a way that the slaughter of 250,000 innocent Syrian civilians and the exodus of millions of people from Syria, many of them now streaming into Europe, did not.
Australian diplomatic engagement has been led by Bishop, who has performed very well. It is not something affected by the change from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull. Rather, Canberra policy has had continuity and evolution, with Bishop providing important nuance and diplomatic energy.
Her long-held position that political talks must involve Iran was cleared with Abbott, as her more recent comments this week on both Iran and Russia were canvassed in conversations with Turnbull and with new Defence Minister Marise Payne.
Abbott had been arguing for months that Obama needed to convene a much more high-powered international political group to find a way forward in Syria. The problem is that most of the Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, as well as Sunni Turkey, several European nations and the US itself, had insisted that Assad leave office as a precondition for such talks.
Morally, this is justified. When the Arab Spring spread to Syria in 2011, it was initially through peaceful protests. Assad reacted with brutality. Unlike his father, he had not been an especially brutal dictator by Arab standards, certainly nothing to compare with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
However, as the Arab Spring developed into civil war, Assad’s response became savage. There was a critical sectarian dimension. Assad is an Alawite, which is related to Shia Islam. Only a little more than 10 per cent of Syrians are Alawite. A similar number are Christians and they also tended to support Assad, who ran a secular regime.
About 70 per cent of the population is Sunni Arab and there is a Kurdish minority, Sunni but not Arab and with no general political affiliation with Sunni Arabs. The surrounding Arab states, except Iraq, are majority Sunni. This has reinforced the hostility of the Gulf Arab states to Assad.
However, Assad now has the strong backing of the Shia Hezbollah militia based in Lebanon, of Iran and now of Russia. If his regime collapsed there could easily be a genocidal slaughter of Alawites and Christians.
Given the degree of international support for Assad, his regime is no longer likely to collapse. Therefore Bishop’s position is the height of realism at its most noble — the West must negotiate with the forces on the ground.
When confronted by interlocutors demanding that Assad must go, Bishop has a series of questions she runs through: Who is going to remove him? How is this going to be achieved? Who is going to replace him? And what happens the day after he’s gone?
The praise for Bishop by Iran’s Foreign Minister in The Australian today may raise some eyebrows, but she has given away nothing in her dealings with the Iranians. Canberra still applies autonomous sanctions. There is no Iranian-ustralian intelligence-sharing agreement. Whenever Iranian leaders attack Israel, Bishop condemns them. But she recognises that you can’t just wish the Iranians away, and that no progress can come to Syria without some degree of Iranian involvement.
The strategic argument for removing Assad is that the brutal actions of his government act as a recruitment driver for Islamic State. But it is much more realistic to try to persuade Assad to confine his regime’s efforts to defending its core territory, the coastal area around Latakia and the strip of cities running down through Homs to Damascus, than it is to replace him with a new leader who has the military grunt to hang on but who is committed to moderation. There is no such leader.
Russia has no intention of trying to help Assad retake the territory he has conclusively lost. The Australian Defence Department prepared an analysis of Putin’s motives in his latest deployments. They involved three key purposes and overlapping scenarios.
One, Putin wants to maintain the rotation of his forces at Russia’s Tartus naval base.
Two, most critically, Putin wants to shore up Assad’s regime. This is much more important to Putin than combating Islamic State.
Three, Putin wants to maintain a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. This complicates life for NATO, especially now that Putin has moved in highly sophisticated air defence capabilities, even though none of Syria’s rebel forces has an air force.
Putin has not moved a very big force into Syria but it is capable, and focused on air assets. Whereas the Western air campaign against Islamic State has been understandably so concerned to avoid civilian casualties that it has had limited military effectiveness, Putin can run devastating tactical air campaigns. They will be vastly more capable of providing close combat support to Assad’s troops in battle than Syria’s ageing and declining air force was.
Putin will be happy to attack Islamic State formations on behalf of Assad. But it is not that group which is most lethally attacking Assad’s core positions in western Syria and near the coast. He is being attacked there by other rebel groups. The fact that some of these forces received some help from the Americans adds to the confusion and danger. But here again is the catastrophic failure of Obama to have any effect at all in Syria.
It is difficult to work out who the US-trained forces are. As soon as they cross the border into Syria they seem either to disappear, get captured or defect to al-Qa’ida or one of the other militant groups. The original Obama idea of training rebel forces who would simultaneously fight both Assad and Islamic State turns out to have been strategic fantasy.
When the Americans engage in strategic fantasy they typically get people killed.
The Russian play does not materially affect Australia’s operations in either Syria or Iraq. This is partly a result of prudent Australian planning.
Although Obama went out of his way to cause Abbott political harm with his climate change hot gospelling in Brisbane in connection with the G20 summit, he nonetheless had Abbott on his speed dial whenever he needed a favour in an international crisis.
Obama rang Abbott to ask that Australia undertake airstrikes in Syria. Abbott was positive without formally agreeing. He spoke to then defence minister Kevin Andrews about it. Andrews instructed Defence to make sure the formal request would be one that Australia could meet within its interpretation of the legality of the mission, and which would involve Australia working only in eastern Syria, near the Iraq border, certainly venturing no further west than Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital. With Russian planes now in western Syria, that turns out to have been smart planning.
In late August, US Defence Secretary Carter wrote to Andrews saying: “I thank you for Australia’s continued vital contribution towards aiding the government of Iraq in countering ISIL (Islamic State). Your participation in planning efforts, airlifts, combat support to airstrikes, advise and assist and building partner capacity, have been a key element of the coalition’s efforts to date.
“As you know, operations in Syria are equally critical to the fight against ISIL. Coalition strikes have enabled our partners to retake significant territory in north-eastern Syria. We continue to work to build additional partners on the ground including through the (US) Department of Defence’s train and equip program which has already begun training new Syrian forces.
“I ask that your government join this effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. There are several areas where Australian capability could bring more pressure to bear on ISIL in Syria including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and support to manned strikes such as combat aircraft and aerial refuelling. I ask you to consider making these capabilities available and to remain engaged with US Central Command to identify other Australian capabilities that might play a role in Syria.”
If the Russian intervention does galvanise the Americans into trying to put together a new conference on Syria, perhaps under UN Security Council auspices, Australia might well be a direct participant. Washington and others would have to drop their demand for Assad’s immediate removal and have virtually already done this by talking of transition arrangements under which Assad could stay for a time (the time being infinitely negotiable).
Bishop has played a constructive role in this diplomacy. But only the powers with big capabilities on the ground can make a deal. The obvious political outcome is as much ceasefire as possible, with some sort of loose federal structure for Syria, with a separate Assad controlled area predominantly Alawite, de facto autonomy for the Kurds and a series of Sunni areas, perhaps under different leaderships with, hopefully, a broad anti-Islamic State alliance..
It’s a long shot, but it’s better than nothing. And for the last few years nothing has been all that Obama has offered.