There are no wheels left on this bus. It bounced down into a ravine a long time ago, and hasn’t emitted even a pathetic puff of smoke for ages. Several years’ worth of cast-off sofas and power tools have landed on top of it by now. Rattlesnakes are making their home in cozy nooks under the seats.
Up in the world at eye level, too many weird things are erupting now to write in-depth about all of them. We’ve got the new deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq to cover (later today, I hope), and Putin firing all the naval commanders in the Baltic Fleet, which has Really Bad Omen written all over it.
But regarding the Obama plan to combine forces with Russia in Syria, here’s the important thing to understand.
The only way to do it is to change America’s strategic objective.
There’s no way to combine Russian and U.S. forces operationally to pursue diverging strategic objectives. Can’t happen.
So the fact that the U.S. and Russia have had diverging strategic objectives from the beginning would be resolved in Russia’s favor — if the Obama proposal for operating our forces jointly came to fruition.
This isn’t some outdated point from the distant past. It was not quite a month ago that the Russians demonstrated they are not after the same thing Obama purportedly is, by attacking a U.S.-backed rebel group on the southeastern border of Syria. The attack was mounted a long way away from the operational center of the current fighting in northern Syria. That — up north — is where Russia had been focusing her efforts.
Then, suddenly, the Russians swooped down south to attack the U.S.-backed rebels at a remote border crossing post — and on the same day, interfered with flight operations on USS Harry S Truman, whose F/A-18 strike-fighters were giving the rebels air support. The Russians revealed a lot that day about what their near-term intentions are, for both Syria and Iraq. They are clearly “in” with Iran on clearing the Euphrates Corridor and linking Raqqa and Baghdad — so that the central Mesopotamian corridor, the lifeblood of the region, is being held by Russian and Iranian arms. It won’t matter what the formal political disposition is called. The Euphrates Corridor will have forces holding it that are under the control of Moscow and Tehran.
The act of Russian harassment in June is enough in itself to make Obama’s genuflecting posture toward Russia disgusting. But you mustn’t miss the larger point. The American people have understood that we are operating in Syria in order to “degrade and defeat ISIS.” We haven’t been giving it a full-fledged effort, by any means, but that’s what Americans think we’re there for.
That’s not what Russia is there for. Russia is there to build and maintain a Russian presence in Syria, flank Turkey and Iran, project power into the Mediterranean, and establish Russia as the power broker for the region.
Repressing ISIS here and there is part of that. But as far as Russia is concerned, there is no such thing as a counter-ISIS political option in Syria involving cooperative Sunni Arabs. Whereas the U.S. strategy has been to back a Sunni coalition — with the explicit help of partners like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and (nominally, at this point) Turkey — as a means of defeating ISIS and creating the conditions for an alternative to the Assad regime in Syria’s future.
Again, that’s not to say Obama has been doing much of a job at this. There is effectively nothing to show, at this point, for years of dithering. But instead of telling the American people that he wants to change his strategy and objectives in Syria, and just go with Russia’s, Obama and his administration are now leaking a proposal about the mechanics of operating with Russia.
Those mechanics, if implemented, would mean American forces are there to do Russia’s bidding. Let’s just cut the crap on that right now. No matter what kind of face senior spokesmen from Operation Inherent Resolve might put on it, if Obama signs us up to operate jointly with Russia in Syria, we’ll be Putin’s butt-boys.
A last significant point or two. If this plan were to bear out, it might or might not result in more thump being put on ISIS in the next six months. Clearing ISIS from the Euphrates Corridor would certainly look meaningful. But we’d be constrained to do things on Russia’s timeline and for Russia’s purposes. Russia doesn’t care what happens to the anti-regime Sunnis in Syria. And Russia doesn’t care how the anti-ISIS fight affects the U.S. or our coalition partners.
That matters not only to our safety from terrorism at home, but to our other interests, like NATO’s growing security concerns about ISIS in Libya, and the spread of ISIS across South Asia, including AfPak. It would have secondary and tertiary effects on our partners’ other interests as well, especially where they clash with Iran’s aggression (as Saudi Arabia’s do). Plus, bonus! — a joint operating agreement with Russia would be a Russian hook in the U.S., one Putin wouldn’t hesitate to use as leverage against all our interests. With Russia, this is something you always have to keep in mind.
If U.S. power in the region represents no alternative to the direction of Russia’s policy drive, our partners like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Jordan will have less and less reason to partner robustly with us — as opposed to simply boarding the Moscow Express for whatever they can get. It would be an act of the greatest bad faith for Obama to leave our fighting men and women in Syria and Iraq, scattered and vulnerable, under such conditions.
We can hope this proposal of Obama’s will come to nothing. But there are no realistic circumstances in which anyone should even have been thinking about it. Merely publicizing it as a formal possibility does tremendous damage to our credibility.