Russia Offers to Help Syrian Rebels; U.S. Policy; Towards a Syrian Peace

Russia has made the astonishing offer of air support to the Free Syrian Army. A Yahoo link is intriguing, if accurate: “Russia said Saturday it was ready to provide air support for Western-backed moderate rebels battling both jihadists and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad [italics mine] as Moscow presses on with its diplomatic offensive over the conflict.

Since their first bombing runs were directed at the FSA units pressuring the Damascus-Aleppo road, one could reasonably doubt Russian sincerity. And their “candidness reservoir” was utterly exhausted by the monotonous opacity of their Ukraine representations. In diplomacy, one can lie fifty percent of the time. Any more gets obnoxious. So there is almost every reason to dismiss the Russian overture as a chance to pick up targeting coordinates for the rest of the Free Syrian Army.

Let’s generate an excuse for those strikes related to securing the Damascus-Aleppo road. The Russians realized that if the road were cut, the Assad regime would become little more than the city government of Damascus.  Aleppo would be gone, and Latakia, the historic redoubt of the Alawites, would fall soon thereafter. And with that consequence, the rebel inclination to negotiate would vanish, replaced by a starve-them-out resolve. In the current mindset of U.S. diplomacy, weighted down by the moral guilt of decades of expediencies, the Russian bombing has one interpretation, as moral offense to U.S. policy. Russians don’t think that way. They conceive of a Greater Good, formulated from the Russian point of view, and apply whatever expediencies are required by the current exigencies. (The letter “e” is a very helpful vowel.)

But now that the Russians have been on the ground in Syria for a while, it seems they are rediscovering the observation of someone who interviewed Bashar al-Assad early in the conflict [citation missing.] Even at that early stage, Assad felt trapped between his own people and the rebellion, remarking, in fact, that his own people might kill him. This is entirely believable, because unlike the regime of Saddam Hussein, Assad’s government is composed of a close-knit group of Latakian Alawites. Community consensus  could move quite powerfully against Assad, if there were a preferable alternative. Assad’s hard line gives them no need to seek one.

Assad has to deal with community attitudes, which according to sociobiology have ranges in every attitude as a consequence of gene pool diversity. Regardless of how dire the Alawite situation becomes, a certain number, among whom Assad’s assassins have latent existence, adhere to the hardest, most aggressive line. From this group also come the most effective fighters.

When Syria was a whole, coherently functioning police state with a repressive mukhābarāt, the street myth about Assad was that he was actually a “good guy”, with progressive attitudes blocked by bad elements. There has never been any hard evidence that Assad is or was actually a “good guy.” It is interesting to note, however, that in the early stages of the uprising, Assad took a number of steps, interpreted as token, toward reform. This weakly supports the idea that the basic source of Russian frustration is grassroots Alawite sentiment, based upon justifiable fear of slaughter.

The statement (Reuters) by Sergei Lavrov that the Kremlin wanted “Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections“ is diplomatic boilerplate, the kind that tires the eyes and requires the open source hound’s immediate note, “find some meaning.” To calibrate, we need look no further than Iraq. During his presidency of Iraq between 1979 and 2003, Saddam enforced a secular state, of Sunni bias, with brutality of epic proportions. When by design of American neoconservatives, the social order was destroyed and replaced by a representational democracy, an insurgency developed that resulted ten years later in collapse of the state. And the ethnicity of insurgency was not  the formerly oppressed. It came from the former ruling Sunnis, incapable of grasping that they were a minority in Iraq, to reclaim a glory that mere facts could not disabuse. This counter-intuitive example is paled by Syrian malice.

In Syria, the killing is all too recent and personal for the success of an elected government. As diplomatic boilerplate, the concept is  useful, because it covers a hole you can drive a truck through. Lavrov cannot possibly believe in elections. His most believable recent statement, if true, is the muttered “fucking morons” about the Saudis. Sergei, thank you for your candor. For once, you weren’t talking like the lawyer joke (see #7).

The offer of air support to the FSA [paraphrased] “if we knew where they are”,  indicates Russian intelligence limitations. Russian SIGINT (signal intelligence) is capable against unencrypted radio. But aerial reconaissance has apparently been unable to determine the locations of the twelve TOW anti-tank missile launchers positioned just east of the Damascus-Aleppo road.  As a less effective measure, the Russians bombed the headquarters of the group responsible for most TOW attacks. American intelligence, based on advanced physical device technology, is much more capable.

What would the Russians do with FSA coordinates if they had them? The lack of candor since the 2007-08 turn away from the West means the Russian offer to the FSA can be only a suggestion of possible meaning. Such suggestions have been used, most recently, to manipulate E.U. response to the Ukraine crisis. But the offer cannot simply be ignored. It is so pregnant with possibility that if nothing else, it could inspire U.S. diplomacy towards a common goal, not yet formulated by either Russia or the U.S. Perhaps it’s best thought of as a diplomatic “chum pot”, the cage of bait towed behind a game boat to attract fish.

In this highly speculative fashion, with potential for future reality, the Russian request for coordinates could be a request for territorial declaration, the basis for future land swaps, leading to partition. If this seems to good to be true, the Russians may consider the following as facts:

  • Russian intervention cannot stabilize the military situation beyond the near term.
  • The idea of elections, “diplomatic boilerplate”, is a farce, except within domains already established by partition.
  • With expanded interface to the Alawite hardcore edge, the Russians now realize it cannot be tempered by merely losing a war. Territorial declaration, facts on the ground, could do this. Assad himself has his back against the wall. And without tempering, the Russians cannot save the Alawites from themselves.
  • The FSA, as odious as David Stockman says they are, have the potential to be one of the territory-fillers, so desperately needed in the region, to eliminate the vacuum in which ISIS thrives.

What would be the consequence of a fundamental change in the ground situation, so that destroying or degrading the FSA made Assad’s Syria again viable? The Russians would then bomb the FSA. This is a consequence of raison d’etat as the cornerstone of Russian foreign policy. But fact of ISIS as the the most urgent danger makes this currently impossible. It deprives the Russians of most manipulations.

The above is a hypothesis about Russian thinking. It is not factually supported by recent Russian actions in Syria, or by the  style of Russian diplomatic communication. The lives of the FSA do not belong to the U.S., and the disclosure of their positions to the Russians is not morally ours to make. But back-channel diplomacy, going beyond Ash Carter’s statement, is opportune. Perhaps limited tactical cooperation, formulated in tandem with mutually agreed territorial declarations, would be a good start towards a Syrian peace.

The NY Times Jonathan Mahler Bin Laden Article

Johnathan Mahler has infected the New York Times Magazine with a conspiracy-driven article about the death of Osama bin Laden, modeled along the lines of Seymour Hersh’s book. It is almost inconceivable to find myself on the side of CNN, in opposition to the New York Times. Like Peter Bergen, I revere the reputation of the NYT. But reputation is not the same as the current state. Ominous signs of decay have preceded this, in the forms of

  • Shallow focus
  • Lack of attention to detail
  • Assignment of articles to unqualified authors
  • Failing editorial oversight

But all these pale in comparison to the abandonment of Occam’s Razor  to embrace the terrible trap of imagined conspiracy.  We expect that second rate minds are vulnerable to the trap. We expect the NYT to enfold a concentrate of the first-rate. But times have changed. The paper is under financial pressure.  Perhaps the major stockholders demand sleaze. Perhaps the  decay is an attempt to adapt to an audience of third-rate minds. But it is the death of presumptive confidence that a Times publication is probably correct.

Now more than ever, the intelligent reader is forced to compare multiple news sources of poor reliability/responsibility/ethic in order to arrive at an estimation of the truth.  Now open-source analysis is required of every reader.

One of the purposes of this blog is to make open source analysis a transferable skill. If it is not immediately obvious that the Johnathan Mahler/Seymour Hersh scheme of things is a fraud on the truth,  you should dig into the back articles of this blog for detailed discussions of technique.

But in any case, keep Occam’s Razor always within reach.


Russia/Iran Intelligence in Syria/Iraq

On October 7, Russia targeted Syria with 26 cruise missiles launched from the Caspian. Cost figures are not available for Russian systems, but the U.S. Tomahawk is comparable, at  $1.5M per unit. The Russian and American payloads are about 1000 lbs. A strike planner could choose gravity bombs delivered by strike fighter. The hourly incremental cost per mission of F-16 operation is about $10K. A typical payload is four 1000 lb gravity bombs. Each bomb is equipped with a JDAM (joint direct attack munition) guidance kit, which converts a dumb bomb into a precise, precision guided weapon with a range of 15 miles. The JDAM kit costs about $25k. The cost of the bomb itself is negligible. A two hour mission time delivers 4000 lbs of ordinance at about 1/40 the cost of cruise missile delivery. The use of cruise missiles by Russia is not a mere detail. It has implications.

Several legitimate reasons exist for the strike planner to choose cruise missile delivery. The press generally quotes a version of “shock and awe”, and it has a current Russian equivalent. But this is false. It just happens to be a convenient term to feed the press because they know and understand so little. Real reasons for spending all that money are:

  • The enemy has an integrated air defense. By degrading command and control, risk to follow-on manned platforms is reduced. This motivated U.S. expenditure of 220 Tomahawks at the start of the 2011 Libya intervention.
  • Decapitation strike. If hostilities are not expected by the enemy, cruise missiles provide the ultimate in stealth. An obvious requirement is very precise information as to the location of the enemy leadership.

But this is not a valid reason: to scare the hell out of rebels and/or ISIS. The skies of Syria are loud with the racket of jets. Guided gravity bombs have substantial range and excellent accuracy.

With the absolute requirement of intelligence indications of high value targets, the cruise missile strike certainly offered Russia a technology showcase. But that is secondary. It illuminates a question that is known to governments, but not to the press:  What kinds of intelligence do Russia and Iran have in the Syria/Iraq? Apparently, they have something, because a joint Russia/Iran/Iraq intelligence center has been set up in Baghdad. The answer is known to every professional with background in the region. But let’s address it here from the perspective of open-source.

Historical categories of intelligence were:

  • SIGINT – signals intelligence, eavesdropping and breaking the code
  • Aerial reconaissance, with a confusing similarity in name to military reconaissance
  • HUMINT – human intelligence, spying

Britain’s history as an island nation, with an empire that provided both cultural experience and assimilation, resulted in multicultural facility  that has never been equaled elswhere in the West. But with HUMINT, the Soviets stand alone, with the ideological lure, and their brilliant exploitation of human weakness. Even today, a CIA employee is not permitted to have a Russian girlfriend.

The U.S. relies more on technology and analysis. The technology has advanced far beyond the above nomenclature.  Analysis is a large part of the U.S. technique.  But the flood of information is so vast, the brains cannot keep up with it. Here HUMINT has the edge. In opposition to the C.I.A. emphasis on analysis, ex-Soviet spymasters take the view that all actionable information comes from spies, not analysis. This is not true. But HUMINT and technology based intelligence are highly complimentary,  a primary reason why the Russians proposed cooperation with the U.S.

Returning to the didactic purpose, what is the likelyhood that the Russians and Iranians have substantial intelligence presence in the conflict area? A spy impersonates loyalty to a cause. For the U.S. to train a spy to impersonate an Iranian is impossible. In fact, it is not done. The western model of HUMINT is recruitment, not training. Such spies as the U.S. has had in Iran were Iranians dissatisfied with the regime. But the population of the conflict area is divided:

  • Shia of native origin – southern Iraqis, Syrian Alawites who are syncretistic  Shia
  • Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, drawn from Lebanese Shia
  • Sunni of native origin
  • Sunni of external origin, with heavy representation of Chechnya.

In this region, where the traditional model of foreign controller/native spy does not work, HUMINT requires cultural impersonation. If these groups find cultural impersonation of each other to be easy, then HUMINT is easy. If it’s easy and cheap, and hostility prevails, then spying is a matter of course. Without specific expertise, can we know whether, in this region, cultural impersonation is easy? The answer is yes. Suicide bombers require transit to within yards of the target. This is a fact of countless repetition in modern Iraq.  So an actor of any faction can pass with little effort as an actor of an opposing faction.

So spying is a matter of course. Years before the Syria conflict, Hezbollah was noted as possessing a sophisticated intelligence establishment. It also astonishes professionals with sophisticated counterintelligence capability, the significance of which may not be appreciated by the reader. Counter intelligence has always been considered the harder problem.

As Chechnya is part of Russia, Russia has the opportunity to insert sleepers into local jihadist cells. These proceed like drops of dye in the river that flows into the area, joined by a tributary that transits through Turkey. Together, Russia and Iran have a completely separate stream of intelligence that compliments and blends with political influence.

This deep penetration is the source of intelligence that motivated Russian strike planners to expend expensive missiles. The “shock and awe” theme provided to the press has some use to protect sources, at least with an unsophisticated adversary. That no decapitations were reported as a result of the 26 Russian cruise missiles reminds that no intelligence is golden until used successfully.

This is an example of the kind of analysis that can be performed without consideration of politics. It reduces a problem that appears political – why did they shoot those missiles – into one that is mostly technical. But the implication is political. U.S. strategies are challenged, perhaps fatally, by the underground rivers of HUMINT that flow through the region.

Russia in Syria Part V

By the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, Iran ceded all Caucasian territories to Russia. The land was lost in the worst possible way, by military defeat. Historically, this  gives rise to revanchism, the political and popular will to regain lost territory. The revanchist impulse is not presently active in Iranian politics. But as Iran is a society with a central ideological source, the theological establishment of Qom, only willful direction is required to activate the impulse. Fortunately for Russia, Iran’s expansionist impulse is directed westward, to Saudi Arabia, and beyond, accompanied by the intent that Israel should disappear. But Saudi Arabia is in the way.

The apparent stability of Saudi Arabia, and effectiveness as a bulwark against Iranian expansion, is consequent to:

  • The ruling mandate granted by the clergy to the House of Saud.
  • Vast entitlements to princelings who have multiplied exponentially.
  • Oil.

But mandates have quid-pro-quos. One of them is a “we-are-one” with Wahabism, from whence have sprung the jihadists in all their forms. Until 9/11, jihadists were tolerated, with the quid-pro-quo of no terrorism inside the kingdom. Saudi Arabia was then a political monolith. Since then, self examination by the rulers has been followed by a glacial move towards a society less beholden to the literal interpretations of Wahabism. Glacial it must be, since it involves reforming the clergy that grants the mandate to rule.

But stemming the funding of terrorism by citizens of the kingdom has been slow, and is not complete today. Across the spectrum of religious opinion, some elements still have sympathies with jihadist goals, not necessarily 9/11 attacks, but furthering the propagation of Wahabism by violent means. Some of the sponsors themselves have Western lifestyles, and are major players in the economic life of the kingdom. Their patronage resembles the buying of indulgences, so popular in the Catholic Church up to the Counter Reformation, removing the guilt of a western lifestyle. Perhaps this contradiction makes the Russians more uncomfortable than it does us.

Oil guarantees the good life and political stability. Now there is genuine concern that oil will not bounce back soon enough for stability. In “U.N. Security Council Syria Statement; Redeveloping the Assad Property” , I wrote,

  • An alleged interest in derailing the fracking business in the U.S. Skeptically, the Saudis, with their business experience and intimate knowledge of oil, must have known that fracking is an impossible target for their oil weapon, impossible because the capital needs of fracking are far smaller than the cost of their weapon.

This facilitates the argument that the primary target of the oil weapon is not fracking, but to keep Iran and Russia too poor to efficiently pursue geopolitical goals. As a goal, the destruction of Saudi Arabia, pursuant to establishment of a Shiite caliphate, fits this argument well. The caliphate, the ideal earthly Islamic State, a myth common to all sects, analogizes with the Catholic Church before the advent of the nation-state.

But now the oil weapon is exhausted. There’s plenty of oil, but not enough cash. The Saudis are borrowing (CNN), which they must do for stability. Based on entitlements and make-work jobs, the fabric of Saudi society is not resilient against the kind of western economic disaster that throws people out onto the streets. Apparently thinking that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, Saudi magnates seem desperate to start manufacturing in-country, even when and where the high cost of labor makes no economic sense.

Iran has been looking west since about 1987. The long-range outlook for the far-sighted minds of Qom looks bright:

  • Southern Iraq looks like a ripe cherry.
  • The Houthi reversals in Yemen are a minor setback that may reverse several more times.
  • Saudi Arabia, the candle that burned so bright so long, flickers and dims.

This is good news to Russia. It will take many years, if ever, for the westward drive of Iran to succeed or dissipate. During the interval, the Russian Caucasus is safe from revanchist notions. The top-down, hierarchical organization of Shi’ism, and rampant corruption in Iran comforts the Russians with similarities. It is tempting for a Russian to think, “They’re just like us.” In making war on Sunni jihadists, Iran behaves like an ideal proxy, even though it is entirely self motivated.

Typically, humans back up complicated reasoning with simplified just-in-cases. The Russian backup is balance of power. A divided Middle East implies weaker neighbors; weaker is better. But does the reasoning precede the goal, with meaningful alternatives,  or merely rationalize it? Instead of dividing the Middle East, an alternative strategy might attempt to maximize Russian influence. But that would require a Sunni ally. What nation-state candidates exist?

  • Egypt has no convenient land bridge to the conflict.
  • Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a strong nationalist core.
  • Jordan is too small.

In Turkey & the New Ottoman Empire, I wrote,

“Perhaps the Turks would like to try their hand. Since Erdoğan has asserted that Assad must go, Syria, with a complete governmental vacuum, would be  most tightly bound to the New Ottoman Empire. Further regions, including Kurdish, could be part of a loose confederation, with the incentive of Turkish transport of Kurdish oil, and Turkish industrialization. The Sunni tribes are at least religiously compatible,  the Sunni region serving as the economically useless borderlands between the the New Ottoman Empire, and Southern Iraq.”

But Turkey has not stepped up, because:

  • It is an ethnocracy, with no desire to incorporate problematic ethnicities. Russians could learn from this.
  • Turkey’s foreign policy slogan, “Zero Problems with our Neighbors“, was designed by and for businessmen.
  • They’re too smart. Americans could learn from this.

In “What Went Wrong with the “Zero Problem with Neighbors Doctrine?”, Mustafa Kibaroğlu explains this as a consequence of Russian and Iranian presence in Syria. But as a reason, it also implies the absence of a U.S. counter. This implies a question: Is the absence of a counter partly an issue of reputation?

If you were a foreign leader, having watched American foreign policy since 2001, would you want to get in on the U.S. program? The results might cause you to think, “Those guys are a bunch of losers”. Responsibility crosses party lines. Past U.S. policy was to attempt creation of civil society from the ground up. Current U.S. foreign policy is to give away the problem. There are no takers.

But perhaps a miniature recreation of the New Ottoman Empire is at hand. The Russian intervention may force involvement that the U.S. has not been able to induce. Russia or Turkey cannot by themselves create a stable situation in Syria. But a partition of Syria into two or three smaller de facto states does have that potential. In “U.N. Security Council Syria Statement; Redeveloping the Assad Property”, with  Russia and Turkey as additions, I wrote,

“The Assad Property is due for redevelopment. The bidders are Iran, through their Hezbollah proxy, and Saudi Group. Both bidders bring unique assets to the table. Hezbollah is a strong builder but short on dough, contrasting with Saudi  Group, who have weak builders but lots of dough.”

Perhaps, in their own time and in their own way, the rump states of Syria would follow the evolution of the Old Swiss Confederacy. Sadly, there is no shortcut to the wisdom of generations.

Russia in Syria, Part IV

The foreign policy of Russia is raison d’état , with a complication. Since the internal power structure of Russia is necessarily based on “friends”, as opposed to institutional altruism, it is natural to extend this habit of thought, as the primary way to relate to other givers and receivers of power, to the international sphere. While this courtesy may be extended somewhat to every tinpot dictator, Syria is a special case. For almost half a century, Syrian men have taken Russian wives, and Russian men, Syrian wives. And as the saying goes, blood is thicker than water, and Alawites are “family”. So even if cold logic were to dictate that abandoning the Alawites to slaughter is the way to go, this fate can’t be allowed for friends. The conundrum has lead Putin’s circle to be creative in devising geopolitical reasons, raisons d’etat, to intervene in Syria.

For the intervention is dangerous. Despite the fact that Russia has some pretty good weapons systems, the Russian armed forces are, by comparison to U.S., deficient in logistics and modern battle doctrine. U.S. military interventions do not come with the question of military success, only the cost of treasure and lives. Russian adventures do come with that question. Between 1979 and 1989, in the Soviet-Afghan War, the  Soviets  attempted to keep Afghanistan as a satellite. With a little help from the C.I.A., the insurgents kicked them out. And the Russians know that if by some eventuality, ISIS were to be replaced by a legitimate opposition to Assad, the guys from The Company could show up again.

The small number of Russians now deployed with the Syrian Army can slow deterioration of the Alawite situation. A larger detachment might accomplish a temporary stalemate, though it is hard to see how the Alawite manpower problem can be reversed. This is why the Russians have made an unprecedented solicitation for western allies. It is all the more remarkable since Russia broke the Peace of Europe in Ukraine, and with rhetoric so aggressive, Germany has felt compelled to buy 100 main battle tanks, with U.S. upgrades to nuclear weapons on German soil. Russia has everybody scared to death, and now they want western help. Are they serious?

It appears they are. We can have a little schadenfreude about this. We’re not the only ones to make mistakes. First Ukraine, and now Syria. Years from now, in textbooks written by other than Putin’s “friends”, students may be introduced to the question, “Why the hell did they do this?” The answer is, they didn’t know anything about the “peace dividend.”

But Syrian intermarriage is just the lubricant of a dubious choice. To prop up a strange minority sect of Islam in a region predominantly Sunni chills relations with the Sunni bloc. The Saudis whispered, “We’re going to get you for this”, and they have, signing low cost oil contracts with China, draining Russia’s natural market. The notion that a purpose of the intervention is to preserve Russian influence in the Middle East is false, because it alienates every Arab country except the minority government of Syria, and Hezbollah.

Remarkably, the intervention has no exit strategy. But besides the saving of “friends”, there is a geopolitical motivation, which by process of elimination, compels the intervention. Besides having indefensible borders, Russia is the only country in the world that encapsulates a quasi-state of dubious loyalty and a large standing army.  Chechnya can be compared to a cancer-in-situ, with the potential to metastasize at any moment. Russian military posturing has a dual purpose. In no other country is a standing army required to anticipate not only external invasion, but also occupation by an enemy force already within the borders of the country. When Boris Nemetsov was assassinated, Putin, not sure of how this happened, but understanding that discretion is the better part of valor, relocated for about ten days to a location north of Moscow, putting Moscow between him and Chechnya. This attests to the latent threat posed by Ramzan Kadyrov and the large army of Chechnya, his personal fief.

The Russians want to project The Bear. But they know a fable called “The Three Little Pigs.” The Russian pig (sorry, Bear) lives in a straw house, with the most straw sticking out in Chechnya. The Russians were particularly offended by the failure of the Libyan Revolution to create a new state because the new locus of terrorism directly threatens their straw house in a way that obtuse or optimistic American diplomacy fails to comprehend. They have reinvented the domino theory so popular back when Indochina was a battleground. And they might be right.

But how does propping up a desperate contingent of Alawites in a sea of Sunnis save Russia’s straw house? To be continued shortly.