Putin’s Invitation to War
Putin’s unwelcomed invitation to rescue Bashar Al-Assad from collapse was issued on television in the summer of 2015 when the world was told that four years of constant warfare had decimated the ranks of the Syrian National Army. The revelation of a pending disaster was in fact an ultimatum to Putin. The collapse of Al-Assad’s regime would result in Russia’s losing its only foreign port at Tardus and Russia’s remaining regional influence. Putin had no options but was forced into a war that he cannot afford to lose nor afford to fight.
Preserving national dignity and his own political career left Vladimir Putin with no other choice than to join forces with Assad. However, he is faced with the dilemma of how to engage in a war without becoming embroiled in that war. He faced a similar problem in the Ukraine and managed successfully to achieve his limited objectives of neutralizing the Ukraine by blocking it from joining NATO and the EU. This was accomplished by keeping the conflict below a level at which NATO would be forced to be involved.
The tool was those infamous “little green men” who organized local resistance to the Kiev administration. The real Army remained on the Russian side of the frontier as a warning to NATO.
While Russia has to minimize its profile in the Ukraine, it has to maximize it in Syria. Putin is being forced to deploy the military when its modernization is still in its early stages and is handicapped by budget restrictions from collapsing oil prices and sanctions.
Creating from the outset the image of a powerful modern military was an essential part of what was “Surprise and Awe.” Russian air forces arrived in Syria in grand style by reaching their base in Latakia undetected.
Once the bombing was underway, cruise missiles were launched from ships in the Caspian Sea and from the Rostov-on-Don submarine in the Mediterranean. It was an opportunity to impress the world with the quality of its weapons.
High on the list of vital objectives was to interdict the corridor between Turkey and the Islamic State in Syria which the United States has avoided attacking. Convoys of oil tankers were carrying crude oil for sale in Turkey at a third of world prices and supplies as well as fresh recruits were crossing into Syria.
The target is a stretch of land sixty-two miles wide along the Northern border of Syria. It is that territory of 1,550 square miles under the control of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and the FSA that Erdagon of Turkey has been attempting to make a no-fly-zone or safe-zone where refugees from Syria can be held outside of Turkish territory. The presence of thousands of refugees offers the extra benefit of providing a shield against efforts to interdict the vital trade route between the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Turkey.
Recep Tayyip Erdagon has begun a sustained artillery bombardment on Kurdish positions crossing the Euphrates River in order to occupy the territory. If the Turks do move against the Kurds, it will have to be without the backing of NATO or the U.S. The recent acquisition of the Rmeilan airfield in the Kurdish province of Hasakah in Northern Syria by the U.S. is a clear signal to Ankara that Washington is shifting its support to the Kurds. The reversal of the U.S. stand towards the continuation of the Al-Assad administration and the agreement to accept Russian bombing around Aleppo confirms that Washington has accepted Russian-Iranian strategy.
Supported by Arab units of the U.S. sponsored Syrian Democratic Force, the Kurds are moving against the towns of Azaz, al-Bab, Manbaj and Jarabulus. When they gain control of the stretch of land, they will complete the bridge between the two Kurdish enclaves that comprise Western Kurdistan, Rojava.
Erdagon fears that a contiguous Kurdish territory from the Iraq border to the shore of the Mediterranean will be followed by a declaration of independence. He is likely correct that an independent Rojava is on the horizon and will encourage the twenty million Kurds of Turkey to seek their separation from a country that denies them equal standing.
Already, the Kurds in Rojava have formed local administrations in a unique structure that incorporates the various ethnic groups. The infrastructure for an independent state is being put in place and Bashar Al-Assad has granted de facto independence to the Kurds. They have established what is, in effect, a diplomatic office in Moscow with additional offices planned for other capitals.
By aiding the Kurdish aspiration for a single united geographic state, Vladimir Putin can build a Kurdish Wall that is his ultimate weapon against the Islamic State at little cost to Russia. If IS cannot sell its oil and import recruits, the caliphate will slowly wither.
Putin does not need to commit large numbers of Russian troops onto the battlefield. He has thousands of little green men in the form of Kurds, the Syrian National Army, and the Iranian IRG to provide the combat forces. Russia has the fire power from its aircraft, and the newly introduced long range artillery and tanks to force the opposition into a grinding war of attrition.
The Russians can declare that their strategy is proving to be successful, but there is a potential flaw in the plan, namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis along with the Turks are seeing their five yearlong campaign to overthrow the Al-Assad regime facing defeat. Their last hope is to persuade Washington to lead an invasion into Syria, but the United States has no interest in jumping into another minefield. Washington is opting for what is believed to be the better strategy of having the Kurds, Russians and others do the fighting while the United States does the minimum.