How Russia Can Help in Syria

Despite Official Washington’s annoyance, the Russian involvement in Syria could work in favor of U.S. national interests by adding forces experienced in dealing with Islamic extremists and capable of restoring some stability, a prerequisite for a political settlement, writes ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

Washington has been wrapped in confusion and indecision for years now in trying to sort out just what its real objectives are in Syria. The obsessive and ultimately failed goal of denying Iran influence in the Middle East has notably receded with President Barack Obama’s admirable success in reaching a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue and gradual normalization of Iran’s place in the world.

But while the Israel lobby and its Republican allies failed to block Obama’s painstaking work in reaching that agreement, they now seem determined to hobble its implementation in any way possible. This is utterly self-defeating: unable to block Iran’s re-emergence they seem determined to deny themselves any of the key payoffs of the agreement, the chance to work with Iran selectively on several important common strategic goals: the isolation and defeat of ISIS, a settlement in Syria that denies a jihadi takeover, the rollback of sectarianism as a driving force in the region, a peaceful settlement in Iran’s neighbor Afghanistan, and the freeing up of energy/pipeline options across Asia.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on Sept. 13, 2013. (Photo credit: Press TV)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on Sept. 13, 2013. (Photo credit: Press TV)

But let’s address this Syrian issue. There’s a new development here, stepped-up Russian involvement, that poses new challenge to the American neocon strategic vision. So here is where Washington needs to sort out what it really wants in Syria.

Is the main goal still to erode Iranian influence in the region by taking out Iran’s ally in Damascus? Or does it want to check Russian influence in the Middle East wherever possible in order to maintain America’s (fast becoming illusory) dominant influence? These two goals had seemed to weigh more heavily in Washington’s calculus than Syrian domestic considerations. In other words, President Bashar al-Assad is a proxy target.

There are two major countries in the world at this point capable of exerting serious influence over Damascus, Russia and Iran. Not surprisingly, they possess that influence precisely because they both enjoy long-time good ties with Damascus; Assad obviously is far more likely to listen to tested allies than heed the plans of enemies dedicated to his overthrow.

The overthrow of Assad seemed a simple task in 2011 as the Arab Spring sparked early uprisings against him. The U.S. readily supported that goal, as did Turkey along with Saudi Arabia and others. As the Assad regime began to demonstrate serious signs of resilience, however, the U.S. and Turkey stepped up support to nominally moderate and secular armed opposition against Damascus, thereby extending the brutal civil war.

That calculus began to change when radical jihadi groups linked either to Al Qaeda or to ISIS (the “Islamic State”) began to overshadow moderate opposition forces. As ruthless as Assad had been in crushing domestic opposition, it became clear that any likely successor government would almost surely be dominated by such radical jihadi forces, who simply fight more effectively than the West’s preferred moderate and secular groups who never got their act together.

The Russian Card

Enter Russia. Moscow had already intervened swiftly and effectively in 2013 to head off a planned U.S. airstrike on Damascus to take out chemical weapons by convincing Damascus to freely yield up its chemical weapons; the plan actually succeeded. This event helped overcome at least Obama’s earlier reluctance to recognize the potential benefits of Russian influence in the Middle East to positively serve broader western interests in the region as well.

Russia is, of course, no late-comer to the region: Russian tsars long acted as the protector of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Middle East in the Nineteenth Century; the Russians had been diplomatic players in the geopolitical game in the region long before the creation of the Soviet Union.

During the West’s Cold War with the Soviet Union the two camps often strategically supported opposite sides of regional conflicts: Moscow supported revolutionary Arab dictators while the West supported pro-western dictators. Russia has had dominant military influence in Syria for over five decades through weapons sales, diplomatic support, and its naval base in Tartus.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Russian influence in the area sharply declined for the first time as the new Russia sorted itself out. America then began declaring itself the “world’s sole superpower,” allegedly free to shape the world strategically as it saw fit.

And the significant neoconservative and liberal interventionist factions in Washington still nourish the same mentality today, predicated on the belief that the U.S. can continue to maintain primacy around the world, economic, military, and diplomatic. In this sense, any acknowledgment of Russian influence in the Middle East (or elsewhere) represents an affront, even “a threat” to U.S. dominance and prestige.

For similar reasons Iran’s long-time open challenge against American ability act with impunity in the Middle East has always constituted a deep source of American strategic anger, viscerally surpassing the more Israel-driven nuclear issue.

Today the combination of Russia and Iran (whose interests do not fully coincide either) exert major influence over the weakening Assad regime. If we are truly concerned about ISIS we must recognize that restoration of a modicum of peace in Syria and Iraq are essential prerequisites to the ultimate elimination of ISIS that feeds off of the chaos.

Russia appears now to be unilaterally introducing new military forces, stepped up weapons deliveries, and possibly including limited troop numbers into Syria specifically to back the Assad regime’s staying power. Washington appears dismayed at this turn of events, and has yet to make up its mind whether it would rather get rid of Assad or get rid of ISIS. It is folly to think that both goals can be achieved militarily.

Even More Chaos

In my view, the fall of Assad will not bring peace but will instead guarantee deadly massive long-term civil conflict in Syria among contending successors in which radical jihadi forces are likely to predominate, unless the West commits major ground forces to impose and supervise a peace. We’ve been there once before in the Iraq scenario. A replay of Iraq surely is not what the West wants.

So just how much of a “threat” is an enhanced Russian military presence in Syria? It is simplistic to view this as some zero-sum game in which any Russian gain is an American loss. The West lived with a Soviet naval base in Syria for many decades; meanwhile the U.S. itself has dozens of military bases in the Middle East. (To many observers, these may indeed represent part of the problem.)

Even were Syria to become completely subservient to Russia, U.S. general interests in the region would not seriously suffer (unless one considers maintenance of unchallenged unilateral power to be the main U.S. interest there. I don’t.) The West has lived with such a Syrian regime before.

Russia, with its large and restive Muslim population and especially Chechens, is more fearful of jihadi Islam than is even the U.S. If Russia were to end up putting combat troops on the ground against ISIS (unlikely), it would represent a net gain for the West. Russia is far less hated by populations in the Middle East than is the U.S. (although Moscow is quite hated by many Muslims of the former Soviet Union.)

Russia is likely to be able to undertake military operations against jihadis from bases within Syria. Indeed, it will certainly shore up Damascus militarily, rather than allowing Syria to collapse into warring jihadi factions.

What Russia will not accept in the Middle East is another unilateral U.S. (or “NATO”) fait accompli in “regime change” that does not carry full UN support. (China’s interests are identical to Russia’s in most respects here.)

We are entering a new era in which the U.S. is increasingly no longer able to call the shots in shaping the international order. Surely it is in the (enlightened) self-interest of the U.S. to see an end to the conflict in Syria with all its cross-border sectarian viciousness in Iraq. Russia is probably better positioned than any other world player to exert influence over Assad.

The U.S. should be able to comfortably live even with a Russian-dominated Syria if it can bring an end to the conflict, especially when Washington meanwhile is allied with virtually every one of Syria’s neighbors. (How long Assad himself stays would be subject to negotiation; his personal presence is not essential to ‘Alawi power in Syria.)

What can Russia do to the West from its long-term dominant position in Syria? Take Syria’s (virtually non-existent) oil? Draw on the wealth of this impoverished country? Increase arms sales to the region (no match for U.S. arms sales)? Threaten Israel? Russia already has close ties with Israel and probably up to a quarter of Israel’s population are Russian Jews.

Bottom line: Washington does not have the luxury of playing dog in the manger in “managing” the Middle East, especially after two decades or more of massive and destructive policy failure on virtually all fronts.

It is essential that the U.S. not extend its new Cold War with Russia into the Middle East where shared interests are fairly broad, unless one rejects that very supposition on ideological grounds. The same goes for Iran. We have to start someplace.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle). [This story originally appeared at www.grahamefuller.com]

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8 comments for “How Russia Can Help in Syria

  1. September 19, 2015 at 10:08 am

    About the one hour mark lies about Homes Syria and Syrian events in American media. http://truthfrequencyradio.com/the-covert-report-w-susan-lindauer-57615/
    Listen and KNOW ”

    SYRIA TRAVELS & MOTHER AGNES W/ John Meslercovertreport | Sep 12, 2015 More Episodes
    Today’s guest, anti-war activist John Mesler delivers a fascinating travel log from inside war-torn Syria. At a time when Europe’s Refugee crisis engulfs the air waves, and foreign fighters have flooded Syria from 85 countries paid by Saudi Arabia & Qatar, it’s never been more important to separate facts from propaganda and straight out fiction. John’s a warm hearted guest, who spent several weeks moving among Syrian people, without government handlers. It was a courageous action, and he shows a Syria & vigorous support for President Bashar Al Assad that will surprise most listeners. Mesler traces the roots of Syria’s war to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey— and the Good Ole U.S.A! In doing so, he shows us the solution which Washington must be persuaded to accept: cutting off funds for Syrian jihadists.

    website: http://www.warisacrime.org

  2. September 16, 2015 at 7:26 am

    It is easier to write a comment in response to an article than to formulate an article with a logical and easily understandable structure. It is often easier to document, analyze, and conclude from an outside observation post. Mr. Fullers CIA years have seemingly shaped his thinking and despite a honest intention to present a rational and fact based view he seems to be trapped by deep-rooted presumptions. Presumptions which are unfounded but deeply engraved in the brain by lifelong indoctrination.

    Most of us suffer from such presumptions, which cloud our judgement and hinder us to find appropriate answers to the many challenges of life.

    The article mentions: “…the rollback of sectarianism as a driving force in the region…”

    Western intelligence agencies have supported Islamic radicals since Nasser’s days. Said Ramadan was likely a CIA agent. Huma Abedin, Arif Alikhan, Mohammed Elibiary, Rashad Hussain and other members of the US administration were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. What about Charlie Wilson’s war? Turkeys AKP is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. What about the funding of a broad range of Islamic terror groups by Saudi Arabia and Qatar via Kuwaiti banks? What about the support of IS by Turkeys MIT, the support of Jabhat al-Nusra by Israel and Turkey, the unhindered transfer of fighters and equipment through Turkey and the sale of looted industrial machinery, antiquities, and oil from Syria via Turkey?

    Most Iraqis believe that IS basically = US, and there are countless indications for that beyond the farcical bombing campaign of the so called “coalition,” which stirs up a lot of desert dust but achieves nothing except an obfuscation of the fact that IS is a creation of the West.

    Sectarianism was latent in the Middle East but it was rekindled by the neocolonial powers and it blossomed due to constant funding from Gulf potentates (US allies) and Western agencies.

    No rollback of sectarianism is necessary, just stopping funding and stopping arms sales to the region would do the trick.

    The article mentions: “…freeing up of energy/pipeline options across Asia.”

    Is that desirable, when the menace of global warming would dictate a reduction of fossil fuel use?

    The article mentions: “Assad obviously is far more likely to listen to tested allies than heed the plans of enemies dedicated to his overthrow.”

    Syria’s President Assad will listen to any well meant advise, but he is perfectly capable of leading the country by his own judgement. He managed the precarious situation caused by the various invasions and incursion from Turkey, Jordan, and Israel (via the Golan Heights) remarkably well and he always had and probably still has the support of the majority of Syria’s population.

    His one big mistake was the introduction of Western inspired economic reforms at the start of his tenure, thereby increasing inequality and hardship for the rural population (especially in drought-stricken Daraa). His vision of a “free-market economy” has long since been abandoned by the necessity to establish a war-economy.

    The article mentions: “U.S. and Turkey stepped up support to nominally moderate and secular armed opposition.”

    Was there ever a moderate opposition? The FSA brigades were right from the start either ruthless criminal gangs, marauding mercenaries, or fanatic Islamists.

    The article mentions: “As ruthless as Assad had been in crushing domestic opposition…”

    Wow! How does Mr. Fuller know? Was he there? Or did he just read Western propaganda and accept it as truth?

    Did he consider the high death toll of Syrian police in the early days of the riots? (much higher that the casualties of the demonstrators). Does he know that Syrian policemen didn’t wear weapons and when they finally were equipped with weapons as the unrest progressed they had to account for every bullet they fired?

    The remaining parts of the article are less controversial but there is no mentioning of the following important factors:

    Global warming, droughts, scarcity of water, desertification in most of the Middle East and northern Africa.

    Overpopulation, weakening of traditional social structures (tribe, clan, family).

    Cultural incompatibilities, brought to the fore by globalization and tourism.

    Which all means: Even without Western-instigated wars there will be tension, volatility, social strife. There will be unrest (bread protests), mass migration, revolutions.

    Don’t the rich countries have a responsibility to help and share their wealth which they gathered by exploiting the resources of the world? Advise alone — even well meant — will not be welcomed as long as the USA consumes twice as much energy and resources per capita as Europe and eight times as much as the rest of the world.

    What about leading by example?

    Including such considerations in the article (or at least mentioning them) would certainly have enhanced it.

    The article concludes: “Washington does not have the luxury of playing dog in the manger in “managing” the Middle East, especially after two decades or more of massive and destructive policy failure on virtually all fronts.”

    This formulation implies “good faith,” fairness, altruism as factors of US politics, it somehow smells of US superiority (exceptionalism), and The White Man’s Burden. Maybe I’m biased and overcritical and it wasn’t meant this way. Maybe it wasn’t suggested that the US tried hard to benefit humanity but failed for whatever reason.

    US politics didn’t fail for the weapons producers (MIC) and for big oil.

    I cant go into details in the short form of a comment but main assumptions in this article cannot be left unchallenged and I’m ready to discuss open questions.

  3. Joseph Altham
    September 16, 2015 at 2:37 am

    Thank you, Mr Fuller, for being a voice of sanity. I would like to add just one point to your excellent piece. Many informed people do not believe it will be possible for Britain, France and the United States to defeat the Islamic State using air power alone. The air strikes look like a prelude to a land war, which means we will have to prepare ourselves for more dead and injured soldiers. So why is the Obama administration making so little effort to explore the possibilities for diplomacy? How many of our own soldiers’ lives might be spared if we could only find a way to cooperate with Russia? I am English and I think that British public opinion needs to be assured that we have really exhausted the diplomatic possibilities before we send men into combat.

  4. William Jacoby
    September 16, 2015 at 1:06 am

    In 1963 there was a coup in the US, Its leaders did not take responsibility and evaded accountability. The identity and the aims of the coup leaders can be debated, but can be inferred by identifying those issues–war here, war there, war everywhere– which have mostly been decided outside the realm of permitted political debate, since those leaders have effective control over the media. Indeed, their plan to rule from behind the scenes seemed plausible to them only because they not only controlled the media but had strong influence over candidate selection for national offices, and had a strong and secret capability to influence the public mood via psychological operations, nurtured with secret (though now documented) CIA experiments and experience at home and abroad. Calling them “neocons” may or may not be helpful, because their power seems to go beyond that which an ideological faction could muster. It is not mere media influence that causes the Times and the major media to stay clear of reminding the public of the CIA’s role in bringing the crack epidemic to our inner cities, for example. And some central intelligence must be coordinating newspaper self-censorship with the “strategic communications” Mr. Parry writes about. Viewed against this background, it seems almost folly to debate foreign policy, even policies with planet-threatening consequences as those discussed here, without recognizing and taking the measure of the fascist context in which they are incubated, explained, and implemented. The recently leaked 2012 DIA document confirming our government’s willingness to see a Jihadi government installed in Iraq/Syria as a price worth paying for the overthrow of Assad reveals a staggering hypocrisy that would be inconceivable if there were any fear of an outraged public opinion. There is no such fear, because there is a justified confidence that public opinion can continue to be managed effectively. I see no political path forward other than to demand accountability for the murders of 9/11 and to demand and support legal challenges to the CIA enabling legislation, which made a secret foreign policy–and much more– possible…

  5. dahoit
    September 15, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    First,does the USA want the defeat of the alphabet soup?From our and our allies actions,no.
    Russia and Iran are rational nations,interested in the security and welfare of their citizens.They do not,and have not,historically send troops around the world for any of our BS reasons,and we,and our Western European friends,have done it for centuries.
    We on the other hand spend our blood and treasure for corps and Israel,a most stupid and terrible irrationality,and we are insecure and the general welfare is plummeting.
    So pointing fingers at them in any way regarding intra relations and their aims regarding each other,remind one of the British great game propaganda of Russian encroachment which they actually pre-empted,haha.
    And Israel and Russia;Well if the Russians can’t see who is behind the American Russian bashing(Zionists)I’ll eat my shorts,so maybe this(Syria re-enforcement) is a little pushback to those arrogant bastards,the Zionists.

  6. Zachary Smith
    September 15, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Another viewpoint about Russia and Syria can be found here:

    http://www.unz.com/tsaker/so-what-are-the-russians-really-doing-in-syria/

    My take on it is that the Russians are enlarging and strongly fortifying their coastal bases in Syria. They’re also selling Syria some badly needed equipment like radars which detect artillery shells and pinpoint their firing points.

    Russian soldiers may be highly motivated to defend the Motherland, but I doubt if they’d be willing to die in a foreign adventure, and that would go for the relatives back home as well. Specialized mercenaries are of course another story.

    Buying the Syrians more time is a worthy activity all by itself, and no doubt also a profitable one.

  7. Joe Tedesky
    September 15, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    One of the things that bugs the hell out of me, is when writers refer to Bashar al-Assad, as being brutal or ruthless. I recall an America when I was growing up that beat up students during the 1968 Democratic Convention. I think that was when the students started calling the police ‘pigs’. Then who can forget the sixties Watts riots. That was some brutal stuff, wasn’t it? I won’t even get into Kent State. If we Americans were truly wanting to put our hearts in the right place, we would invade Israel over their treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. On the other hand make that invasion a twofer and go after the Saudi’s for their put down of Bahrain’s Arab Spring protesters. Oh, and let’s not even get into Yemen. Lastly, can we find another term other than Muslim when talking about who hates Russia even more. We really should not blame every Muslim for what these radical mercenaries are doing. I make sure I don’t call out every Jew for what the Zionist do, so take it easy on the Muslims.

    • Stefan
      September 15, 2015 at 8:45 pm

      It is part of the script, even for most so called “anti war” activists, they can’t help themselves by calling Assad all the things that the Washington REGIME and its media has dictated that Assad must be called.

      It is becoming ridiculous.
      Even people who could not locate Syria on a map, maybe even have difficulties locating the mideast, that know zero about history and know maybe nothing at all about Assad, have in a matter of weeks, become experts on Syria, on the Mid East and on Assad, even down to details.

      Ofcourse they know nothing.
      Myself, I have spent time in the mideast, I have been in Syria, I am fluent in arabic.
      I have spoken to people that live in the country and in the region, been there myself.

      And all I have heard for 5 years, is a collection of scripts, concocted by the neocons, who have planned to destroy Syria for decades (even admittedly in their own writings and strategies).

      Why? because it is part of the “axis of evil”, meaning, it is an ally to Hezbollah and Iran first and foremost.

      And who hates Hezbollah and Iran like no other?

      That is an easy one.

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