We Need to Choose Our Battles, and Syria Isn’t It

The hysteria over Russian actions in Syria continues. The Russians are making token strikes-at most-against Isis, and are focusing their firepower on other anti-regime forces in the west of the country.

Well, of course they are. Putin’s objective is to save Assad’s regime. Its core area in the west. The greatest threat is in the west. So that’s where the bulk of the blows will fall.

Today’s cruise missile attack, launched from the Caspian is partly showing off (especially showing off the fact that Iran and Iraq had to concur), but it also makes military sense as part of a preparatory bombardment supporting a counterattack by regime forces, which is apparently in progress. This demonstrates that the Russian air campaign is part of a coherent military operation which integrates air and ground elements. This presents a stark contrast to the air-only US campaign against Isis, which cannot achieve any decisive result whatsoever. (It remains to be seen whether Russian air support is sufficient to overcome the extreme shakiness of the Syrian army, which wasn’t much to start with and which has been relentlessly ground down by four years of brutal war.)

There is also hysteria about Russian lying about what they are doing.  This is like attacking a cobra for striking. It’s what they do.

Most of the frenzy focuses on the Russians’ targeting of “our” rebels in the Free Syrian Army. Yes, this is quite deliberate, and a strike at the US for having the temerity of supporting the anti-Assad effort. Putin views this as a part of a broader struggle against the US.

So should the US respond to the challenge frontally, in Syria?  No. And it’s not even a close call.

First, what is the strategic objective to be gained? I find it hard to see an important security interest in Syria. And overthrowing Assad because he’s a monster could be justified, except that monsters-and arguably worse monsters than Assad-will take over. An Assad rout would likely result in a bacchanal of sectarian violence which would result in the extirpation of non-Sunni communities in Syria. There has not been one Middle East war that has ended in anything closely resembling peace, and the circumstances in Syria are even less favorable to such an outcome than in Iraq and Libya.

Second, the idea that the there is a serious “moderate” opposition in Syria is not true today, and arguably never was true. The FSA’s day passed years ago, and our track record of identifying moderate, secular forces in this region is appallingly bad.

Those that are pushing this fantasy include John McCain, who is detached from reality on this issue. Others include journalists Michael Weiss and Hasan Hasan, who have been flogging this narrative for four years, and are frantically doing so now: the more implausible the narrative becomes, the more frenzied they become. One should note that they are tightly connected with Qatar, which has been the main supporter of the anti-Assad opposition from the beginning.

(And by the way: I thought the CIA program to arm the opposition was supposed to be covert. Why are we blabbing about it?)

Third, what can be done? The idée du jour supported by left (Hillary Clinton) and right (several GOP candidates, including Rubio, Fiorina, and Christie), is a no fly zone. This is superficially appealing because it relies purely on American airpower, and thus does not require a ground commitment. This virtue is in fact a measure of the non-seriousness of the idea.  It would not have been militarily decisive before the Russians arrived because Assad’s air force played only a marginal role in the conflict. Now it would require a confrontation with the Russians, because it is the Russians that are flying. Why engage in a confrontation that could lead to unpredictable developments elsewhere, and which (per the above) would not result in any material strategic gainer the US?

If you look at the correlation of forces (as the Soviets put it), and the strategic stakes, deeper US involvement in Syria makes no sense. The odds of prevailing are low, and the gains from winning are trivial, and likely non-existent.

Russia’s aggressiveness is indeed a concern, and someone with Putin’s mindset will be emboldened if he believes that he will meet no resistance. But an asymmetric response, an indirect approach, is more advisable. Russia’s vulnerabilities are economic and financial, and its greatest sensitivities are on in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine.

One last thing. The sputtering denunciations of Putin, notably again by McCain and Weiss, are profoundly counterproductive. They only contribute to Putin’s image as some sort of colossus, which only encourages more aggressiveness and more admiration for him. At the other extreme, the administration’s mewling protests that the Syrian intervention is a testament to Putin’s weakness is just plain pathetic, especially since it is not accompanied by any countermoves anywhere.

Unfortunately, this administration is has neither the intestinal fortitude nor the strategic dexterity to respond effectively, or even coherently. We will have to wait another 15 months at least for a reach change. Unfortunately, there’s not much to look forward to on that front, as none of the Republican candidates have impressed in the least. Rubio particularly disappointed with his clueless remark that Syria is a battle for the future of Sunni Islam: (a) this is not our battle, and (b) it it mimics Saudi and Qatar Sunni chauvinism, and their interests are not ours, in the slightest. (How often has our anger at Iran blinded us to the fact that the Saudis are a deeply malign force too? I actually have a grudging respect for the Iranians. At least they are quite open about their hatred for us.)

We need to pick our battles, and Syria isn’t it. The obsession with it is distracting from the true objective, which should be to construct a coherent strategic response to Putin that exploits our comparative advantages, rather than confronting him where he can exploit his.

About Craig Pirrong 230 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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