The Russian military intervention in Syria on behalf of the beleaguered Assad regime has altered, for the time being at least, the military dynamics in that tortured land, It has has made Russia more indispensable than before for any outcome to Syria’s war and dealt the Obama administration another humiliating setback. Once again, the U.S. president was caught off guard by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brazen move, coming less than two days after their cold and failed encounter at the United Nations. That was the apogee of Putin’s contemptuous treatment of the American President. It was a week of jarring contrasts, between the two leaders, their views of each other and the world, their leadership styles and how they see history and by extension their place in it.
The lack of political resolve and clarity in Washington regarding the desired political outcome in Syria and Iraq, and the absence of a serious and sustainable program to train and equip the non-Jihadi extremist opposition groups in Syria, have created the vacuum that Putin is trying to fill, in part to break out of his international isolation, to divert Western attention from Ukraine, to the supposedly urgent threat that ISIS represents to Europe, along with the refugee crisis. Putin is presenting himself as the man to go to, to fight ISIS, stabilize Syria and staunch the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe. In an ominous and gratuitous move, the Russian Orthodox Church has blessed Putin’s military offensive calling it a ‘holy war’ against terrorism. Photos of priests blessing the Russian fighter jets are likely to become the new infamous tools in the hands of the extremist Islamists who will likely accuse the Russian Orthodox Church of waging a new Crusade against them to complement Western Islamophobia.
History is over…
In his speech at the U.N. President Obama obliquely criticized Russia when he said ‘we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law’. He then bemoaned the erosion of democratic principles and restrictions on civil society. ‘We are told that such retrenchment is required to beat back disorder; that it’s the only way to stamp out terrorism…In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse’. Then the president went back to his comfort zone of expressing platitudes and noble sentiments. ‘But I stand before you today believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards. We live in an integrated world, one in which we all have a stake in each other’s success…And if we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences.’ President Obama spoke of a rational world as if we are at the cusp of the end of history, reflecting but not quoting Francis Fukuyama’s famous words in his 1992 book ‘The End of History, and the Last Man’ that we are at the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.
No, not yet
President Putin however, spoke as a man still grounded in history and very conscious of its vicissitudes. He reminded President Obama of the painful history of the United States with Iraq and Libya, blaming the rise of the ‘Islamic State’ ISIS, on the invasion of Iraq and the military intervention in Libya. Putin, the man who has a history of violating international law, was lecturing the world about respecting the legitimacy of a murderous regime like Assad’s, claiming that it is an ‘enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face’.
The reliance of both ISIS and the Assad regime on the ‘Management of Savagery’ to remain in power means that the destruction of ISIS and the dismantlement of the Assad regime should be pursued simultaneouslyHisham Melhem
By claiming that only Assad’s armed forces and the Kurdish militias are fighting ISIS, Putin cavalierly dismissed the air campaign of the international coalition that the U.S. organized and has been leading for more than a year against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. The Syrian intervention, particularly the deceptive propaganda that preceded it was similar to the pattern Putin used in the occupation of Crimea and the intervention in Eastern Ukraine. The real objectives of the military buildup are denied initially; the annexation of Crimea, and the denial of the presence of Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine, and in the case of Syria denying that the buildup is to conduct military operations, and when the operations began against Islamist and non-Islamist opposition groups fighting both the Assad regime and ISIS, came the claim that they are against ISIS and not to save the Assad regime.
Putin fights, Obama dithers
In Syria as in the Ukraine, Putin took Obama’s measure and was sure that the American President will not directly challenge him, or even provide serious support to Putin’s victims, as we have seen in his refusal to arm the Ukrainians to defend their country. In the last few weeks and days President Obama and his secretary of state found themselves in dealing with Russia, Syria and Iran reduced to pleading, beseeching or urging them to cooperate in search of a political resolution, and offering military coordination with Russia against ISIS. At other times, Obama and Kerry expressed their ‘grave concerns’ about the machinations of Russia and Iran or vented their frustration through condemnation and indignation. American officials, including President Obama have refused to say whether the U.S. will protect the rebel groups that they have trained and armed after it became clear that the Russians have bombed their areas.
When Putin met Obama last Monday he spoke in the name of a new ‘gang of four’ axis; Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Unlike the international coalition the U.S. is leading against ISIS, which is based on air power, the new axis can deploy ground troops. Iran’s influence in a dysfunctional Iraqi governing structure is so deep that Iraq is now hosting a center to coordinate intelligence data about ISIS with Russia, Iran and Syria.
Apparently, no one in Baghdad bothered to inform the United States, of the new arrangement. In a move that reflected America’s changing fortunes in Iraq, The Russians sent a General to the American embassy in Baghdad to inform the Americans that the air raids will commence within an hour and asking the U.S. to remove its air force from Syria’s crowded skies. Russia’s military intervention in Syria can only prolong the conflict and probably enlarge it. Not since the Spanish Civil War had many countries dispatched troops or volunteers to fight in someone else’s civil war. But since the conflict in Syria has become more than just a rebellion against a despotic regime, the regional and international warring parties are waging attacks against multiple targets, driven by conflicting priorities. The Russians are bombing the opposition groups that are threatening the Assad regime in areas such as Idlib and Homs, while the United States and its allies are bombing ISIS targets, though ISIS does not represent an immediate threat to the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Turkey is using its air force to bomb Kurdish forces, and Israel regularly sends its air force to bomb arms convoys in Syria to prevent their delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A state of denial
Even in the face of the new facts on the ground that Russia has been creating in Syria and Iraq, President Obama and his senior advisors continue to live in denial and to reject the notion that Putin has outwitted them, calling his decision to use military force in Syria a sign of weakness and not strength, and telling Putin and anyone else willing to listen that Russia will find itself in a quagmire, and that its Syria offensive will inflame Muslim, particularly Sunni rage, against Russia. Clearly, Putin would like his forces to meet the Russian Islamists, particularly the Chechens and others from the Caucasus region on the battlefields of Syria rather than on Russian soil. But the Obama administration believes that Islamist violence will haunt Russia. ‘Ultimately, it’s the Russians who will pay the highest price’ said white House press secretary Josh Earnest. Defense secretary Ashton Carter said that Putin’s strategy is ‘doomed to failure’.
The President and his advisors went out of their way to say that Putin is not such a good strategist and that he miscalculated in Syria. Strikingly similar views were expressed after Putin’s annexation of Crimea. At his press conference on Friday President Obama shifted from being defensive to dismissive to even downright flippant during a very long and convoluted answer about his options in Syria. ‘Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling.’ But if Assad was truly crumbling, then why didn’t the President help hasten his total collapse?
The Obama returned to his stock description of the Syrian crisis as hugely, difficult and complex to justify his dithering. Then the President turned his ire against his critics, belittling their criticism and their propositions. ‘And when I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions, or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation -- what I’d like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do, and how would you fund it, and how would you sustain it? And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.’ If Putin decides to use ground troops, Russia may find itself in a quagmire, and regardless of how long the Russians remain is Syria and under what conditions they will withdraw, the fact remains that their military involvement, will result in more agony, and more Syrian victims.
‘Managed transition’ vs. ‘Management of savagery’
Before the Russian offensive, President Obama and Secretary Kerry were contemplating reviving the negotiations for a ‘managed Transition’ with the participation of Assad for a period of time that will be determined in negotiations. The process was predicated on the collaboration of Moscow to ease out Assad at the end of the ‘managed’ transition. General John Allen, the outgoing Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said in August that the Russians told Secretary Kerry that they are ‘tired’ of Assad. But, clearly that was not meant to be, and now Russia and Iran, which has dispatched hundreds of soldiers to Syria for potential ground offensives, are doubling down to maintain the Assad regime in power, effectively closing down any political window in the foreseeable future. It is not surprising that the initial press reports and eye witness accounts confirmed that the Russian jets were not using guided missiles or ‘smart’ ordnance, which meant that the bombs were killing people indiscriminately, precisely, the modus operandi of the Syrian air force.
The ultraviolence perpetrated and celebrated in ritualistic fashion by ISIS has its roots in the al-Qaeda franchise established in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was killed in 2006. In 2004, this violence was given an ‘intellectual’ veneer when a certain J-jihadist using the pseudonym Abu Bakr al Naji posted on line a tract titled ‘The Management of Savagery’ أدارة التوحش which might be considered the Catechism of ISIS’s concept of absolute violence. The tract was translated to English by the American scholar William McCants. Al Naji stressed the centrality of violence in all its ‘crudeness and coarseness’ to intimidate the enemies and keep the followers of the Islamic State in line. He calls for the establishment of ‘regions of savagery’ under the control of the Jihadists where the ‘administration of savagery’ will be meted out.
Only through ‘violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening others and massacre’ ISIS, then the Caliphate can be established. Watching the way the Assad regime has been conducting its savage war against the Syria people, one cannot but conclude that it is also being guided by the dictum of the ‘Management of Savagery’; the massacres, torture, and indiscriminate bombings, and the countless number of emaciated people who died in Assad’s prisons. The savagery of ISIS is only exceeded by the savagery of the Assad regime, which is now being propped up by Russian air power and more Iranian muscle, and ending any possibility of ‘managed transition’ any time soon.
The reliance of both ISIS and the Assad regime on the ‘Management of Savagery’ to remain in power means that the destruction of ISIS and the dismantlement of the Assad regime should be pursued simultaneously.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem