Russia in Syria Part II

With respect to Russians in Syria, important linkages figure:

  • Were it not for the existence of ISIS, the Russians would not now be in Syria.
  • ISIS is a transnational phenomenon.
  • The military power of ISIS, compared to the presence of a significant western army, is negligible. The same comparison cannot be assumed with the Russians.
  • Sociology: ISIS has no cultural overlap with any civil societies. It is a breakdown phenomena.

We may find it difficult to accustom ourselves to what resembles a fictional world of supervillains reminiscent of Dr. Evil, with a host of like-minded subalterns, grading into a murderous rabble. Yet this, the almost infinitely evil world of a “shooter” computer game, is a reasonable approximation. The Venn Diagram is a useful visualization tool. Imagine two overlapping circles, drawn on a page. You may color the circles if you wish. Slide (or draw) the two circles so that the overlap represents something common between the two. You might try “shared values” for two different cultures. Interesting comparisons, in degree of overlap, might be seen with:

  • U.S. versus E.U
  • U.S. versus Russia
  • E.U. versus North Korea
  • U.S. versus China
  • U.S. versus Saudi Arabia

Shared values could be replaced by shared interests, with differing results. Even in the case of the U.S. versus North Korea, if the ruling class of North Korea is excepted, there is tremendous overlap, illuminated by the stories of defectors. With ISIS, this is not so. To be mathematically precise, a certain segment of the captive Sunni population prefers ISIS to the status of a minority endangered by the Shiite state. Among that group, there is some small overlap with the civilized world. It is not exploitable as a germinal political force.

In this drama, the Syrians who desire western good for Syria play the part of Bambi in Bambi Meets Godzilla. Hence the direct cause of Russian intervention is ISIS, which has been lensed variously: as radical Islam, or as a religious cult. Perhaps these categories grant it too much. It may be no more than a volcanic eruption of atavism, bursting out of the human urge to kill.

Perhaps, at the end of Part III of “Russia in Syria”, you might take away what appears to be a prescription. But this pot has been boiling for over a hundred years. With that as an excuse, please forgive the apparent digression to Iraq. Your takeaway will be so colored. Iraq and Syria are national fictions, distinguished only by the territorial boundaries of the Western colonial mandates. The French carved Syria, as the British carved Iraq, from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Suppose you are an engineer, assigned the task of making a vacuum bottle, i.e., something with good glass walls and a cork that keeps out the air. But the specification has a curious aspect: one wall is missing. The customer, who has no experience making vacuum bottles, turns out to be rigid on the spec. This is what happens when a  foreign policy of rigid moral definition is joined to a real situation. Syria an Iraq are not separate.

The military power of ISIS is negligible compared to a motivated military force with modern underpinnings. That Iraq does not have such a force has been blamed on Nouri al-Maliki, the first prime minister of Iraq. This presents an interesting challenge to the argument that the Obama Administration’s failure to, or decision not to (you make your choice)  negotiate a residual presence in Iraq is why the situation has regressed. If there had been a residual presence, Iraqi response to ISIS would have been impeded by:

  • Antipathy to U.S. presence.
  • Continued presence of Maliki, with corrupting manipulation of the military.

The replacement of Maliki removed the direct drag of his presence. Haider al-Abadi is or was the hoped-for motivational and unifying leader. But with the fall of Ramadi, it became apparent that something deep and pernicious remained. Even without Maliki, the system behaved pretty much as it had when he was running the show. In Western analysis, there is “rot”, which is to be cured by a motivational leader. With the fall of Ramadi, al-Abadi has “failed”, so there is now grumbling that he is not motivational and unifying. I remarked on this in “Ash Carter says the Iraqis Have “…’no will to fight’ in Ramadi”…Patton’s Response”

This is a theme of U.S. policy, that leaders of quality drive the genesis of nationhood. I can’t think of a successful instance. An example worthy of study, and with excellent documentation, is that of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose successful coup was in large part the baby of Miles Copeland, arranger and trumpet player for Glenn Miller, and – incidentally – C.I.A. officer. One of his several books is “The Game of Nations”. No one could quite figure out why the C.I.A allowed publication. The only explanation that makes sense is that they could not bring themselves to come down on a plank owner.

This digression had a dual purpose. First, to emphasize that Iraq and Syria are not separate. Second, to put you in a Dr. Evil frame of mind. Analysis,  as distinct from action, is necessarily amoral. This is not so different from a kind of mathematics called the calculus of variations, where fictitious degrees of freedom are introduced, worked with, and then removed. John von Neumann’s advice to Richard Feynman was “You don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in.” Afterwards, you can slip back into your moral comfort zone – possibly with less comfort.

To be continued shortly.

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