Friday, December 11, 2015

Putin Keeps Initiative and Drives Progress with Diplomacy and Deception

Who is Putin even bombing in Syria?

The US claims it's "moderate" Syrian rebels in an effort to crush them for Assad.

Turkey claims it's bombing ethnic Turks as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Russia claims it's bombing ISIS and other radical Islamist groups.

Is everyone right? Kinda, depending on how you define these things. 

The US has a pretty shady definition of "moderate" with respect to rebels--it includes some hardcore Islamists that have allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and are part of the official "opposition" meeting in Riyadh. Some ethnic Turks are part of the "rebel" alliance and are probably getting bombed.

The whole Syria thing is so messy that one can essentially make any claim one wants to unless one really limits one's targets to ISIS and only ISIS (which the US is doing). From the above image, we can see that Russia has sortof an "all of the above" strategy.

Here's where Putin becomes pretty brilliant: in response to these accusations, he has asked France to provide a map of the specific anti-ISIS rebels so that he can avoid bombing them.

There are a few clever things going on here:

  1. It forces the West to actually plant a flag in the ground on each of the dozens of Syrian rebel groups. Were Assad to fall, which ones would fight ISIS and which ones would align with them? The West really only talks about 3 groups: Assad, "Rebels," and ISIS. Asking for this map forces the West to decide whether it really wants to declare al-Nusra Front (et al) to be friends.
  2. It forces the West to acknowledge how inter-mingled these groups are. One often sees al-Nusra and the FSA fighting side-by-side, although each with an eye on the other. 
Putin won't--and shouldn't--commit to only attacking ISIS, as it would be the same strategic folly as the US has been perpetuating for a while. But without a doubt he is targeting ISIS, including oil wells and pipelines that have been funding these guys for years (leaving me to wonder why the US never got around to that).

But it looks like Putin is positioning himself to be the leader of a grand coalition by offering a path forward for the opposition that the US has not been wise or clever enough to do for Assad.

He's "taking the feedback (from the West) in stride," if you will, and is now declaring that he won't attack FSA targets and will, in fact, provide air support for them--if they're attacking ISIS. It's in fact a great way to twist the arms of an opposition group and potentially turn them into an ally: if the FSA allied with the Syrian Army against ISIS, the ground game would change. 

Well, doesn't that sound bloody reasonable? He said he'll even coordinate with the US on fighting ISIS, as well. 

And Putin is largely responsible for the upcoming Vienna talks that will seek a ceasefire between (as many) opposition groups (as possible) and the Syrian Army. Coordinating with the FSA is likely a first step at trying to wedge them away from the Islamist groups they fight alongside. Given that the US ultimately supports the FSA as the "valid" representatives of Syria, it would be an incredible coup--the Islamist portions of the rebellion would be left out in the cold.

Putin's calling for an election that would represent "all the ethnic and religious groups" of Syria--which means Shiites and Alawites as well as Sunni Arabs--which is something that our Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning President probably couldn't openly object to. Vienna may lead to that if Putin is able to manipulate the FSA in the US in the right way--and he seems to be making progress by a combination of exerting pressure, evading blame, and offering a positive relationship as a "carrot."

Putin's realpolitik is likely to do a lot more than talk of hope-and-change to promote peace in Syria. Perhaps the Nobel committee should be reconsidering who gets that chunk of gold next time. 
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