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.