There has been plenty of discussion as to why the Russians might not want to follow through with the threat. There is one reason in the plus column, comparatively weak but worth noting nevertheless. Modern air warfare has an informational component, of data acquired by activating the weapons systems of the enemy, and recording the signals and behaviors that result. There is strong incentive for the U.S. not to exhibit advanced technology, and the corresponding Russian desire to force the exhibition. By such means, valuable engineering data is acquired by each side. More advantage accrues to the side with less advanced technology, in this case, the Russians.
This means that the U.S. does not want advanced warplanes “painted”, that is, illuminated, by Russian radar. The Russian threat gives a plausible explanation as to why they would paint U.S. planes any time a U.S. plane operates west of the Euphrates. The recorded radar echoes of U.S. planes would be used to improve Russian weapons.
Now, the important stuff. It seems beyond prediction how the Syria conflict will turn out. Possibly providing a rare glimpse of intentions, the Russians have drawn a line in the sand, the Euphrates River. The line has some sense. It conforms to previous Russian intimations that they don’t care who runs eastern Syria. It could be taken as a definition of the region. Historically, rivers have served as natural barriers to conflict.
We can’t ignore the line, though neither should we over read. Russian intentions and goals have not remained constant over time. Hints of this were discussed in Defacto Partition in Syria?, which quickly became irrelevant with Russian targeting of all anti-Assad forces without discrimination. Whether the Euphrates as a line becomes significant depends upon Assad’s capability to control territory, at what point he would become overextended. His grasp is enhanced by removal of pressure from ISIS, and weakened by Coalition support for the SDF.
The east side of the Euphrates does not have enough carrying capacity for all the Syrians who would want to live free of Assad. In terms of immediately arable land, the carrying capacity would be doubled by the west bank. This is one obvious conflict, if the river-as-a-line were to be taken seriously.
In Replacing Assad, Part 3, I wrote,
This is a balance-of-power solution to the statecraft problem. In isolation, it has an immoral sense about it. But in implementation, it would be just a piece of a solution. It corresponds to a geographic partition constrained by economic and defensive viability. There might be little to distinguish from more conventional solutions that partition, except for one thing. Each of the new states must be a client to one of the traditional patrons, the U.S. and Russia. And contrary to the former middle east rivalry, those patrons must work for the mutual benefit of the clients, rather than use them as proxies for their own conflict.
The above comes about with a sandwich arrangement. From the Mediterranean to some line in the Syrian Desert, perhaps the Euphrates, the Alawites rule. East of the line, and continuing without interruption into western Iraq, a Sunni heartland, hostile to Iran’s advances. Further east, an Iraq co-opted by Iran. The sandwich is perhaps viewed by the Russians as a durable fracture of the Middle East, politically cohesive yet impotent of national aggression, dependent on three patrons for their uncertain existence. A practitioner of European balance of power politics could not hope for more.
If we take the Russian mention of the Euphrates as a hint of their strategy, it shines more light on the chronic disability of Coalition Strategy in Syria: uncertainty of goals. No political entity in Syria evokes much sympathy. In the last administration, military support to the opposition was gauged to a level as ineffective as our sympathies. The new goal, “defeat ISIS”, has at least the clarity required to motivate effective military support.
Let’s make a wargame, the kind that Avalon Hill is so good at, called “Conflict in Syria”. The game must have “conditions of victory”, different for each side. By convention, the U.S./SDF is “Blue”, and Russia/Assad is “Red.” In this Blue-versus-Red conflict the conditions of victory could be:
- Blue: Defeat ISIS, and establish conditions for negotiations between the SDF and Red.
- Red: Destroy or force the removal of all Blue forces to east of the Euphrates River.
Even if you have never played a wargame, the asymmetry of the conditions is obvious. When Red has expunged all the blue “counters”, the little cardboard gamepieces, from the area west of the Euphrates, they’ve won. The conditions for Blue are indecipherable, undecidable, and unenforceable. The game would not sell well. Unfortunately, we bought it and we have to play it.
What are the actual Blue conditions of victory in Syria/Iraq? General H.R. McMaster is currently the primary Blue strategist, but is subject to the political will. McMaster has extensively studied and written on a previous trap, the Vietnam War. In the case of Vietnam, U.S. extrication involved eventual acceptance (1975), of defeat on all levels.
It appears that one declared goal, the defeat of ISIS, will be achieved. But in the above, Blue’s conditions are tied to a political process that is probably impossible.
It has been observed that Red’s forces are much weaker than those of Blue. But the game is evened up by some geography — a line in the sand, the Euphrates River.