Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Putin in Syria

by Elliott Abrams
September 2, 2015


Most Americans are aware of the aggressive Russian actions in recent years in Ukraine (seizing Crimea and participating in efforts to destabilize the rest of the country) and Eastern Europe. What is less well known is Putin’s effort in Syria.

A story by Michael Weiss in The Daily Beast tells us what is actually happening, as its title conveys: “Russia Puts Boots on the Ground in Syria.” Not only is Russia arming the Assad regime, but there is now evidence that Russians are on the ground with Assad’s forces actually operating the equipment. Weiss refers to “compelling evidence that Russians have embedded with the Syrian military.” Assad recently told Hezbollah’s TV station that “We have strong confidence in the Russians, as they have proven throughout this crisis, for four years, that they are sincere and transparent in their relationship with us,” and he appears to be right.

Russia’s involvement is growing very fast. Alex Fishman, one of Israel’s best military correspondents, reported this on August 31:

Russian fighter pilots are expected to begin arriving in Syria in the coming days, and will fly their Russian air force fighter jets and attack helicopters against ISIS and rebel-aligned targets within the failing state. According to Western diplomats, a Russian expeditionary force has already arrived in Syria and set up camp in an Assad-controlled airbase. The base is said to be in area surrounding Damascus, and will serve, for all intents and purposes, as a Russian forward operating base.In the coming weeks thousands of Russian military personnel are set to touch down in Syria, including advisors, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division, and the pilots who will operate the aircraft. Past reports have stated that the Russians were in talks to sell the Syrians a package of MiG-29 fighter jets, and Yak-130 trainer jets (which can also serve as attack aircraft.) The current makeup of the expeditionary force is still unknown, but there is no doubt that Russian pilots flying combat missions in Syrian skies will definitely change the existing dynamics in the Middle East.

This contradicts the happy talk we’ve long had from the Obama administration, suggesting that Russia could be a partner in Syria and part of the solution there. Instead, Putin appears to be doubling down on his support for Assad. Meanwhile, the United States is insisting that rebel groups it works with and arms must not attack the regime, despite its endless war crimes and attacks on civilians; they must attack only ISIS instead. What the administration still refuses to acknowledge is that the Assad regime is a jihadi manufacturing device, whose brutality largely explains the growth of ISIS. As long as Assad is in place ISIS will grow; Assad’s attacks on Syria’s Sunni population mean that he serves as a recruiter for ISIS. Because our central goal is the defeat of ISIS we must work to remove the Assad regime, but its survival still seems to be the central Russian goal– as it is the central Iranian goal.

So American and Russian goals in Syria could not be more at odds. Putin’s actions to expand Russia’s military support for Assad suggest that he understands this. The question is when we will recognize that fact.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by Omerli

    No surprise here, another red line being drawn, this time by the Russians who – unlike some superpowers – are unlikely to nimbly dance around it. Then again, it could be that the Russians and the Iranians and their Shiite mercenaries from Afghanistan and elsewhere are just there for quite diplomacy designed to get Assad to call for UN supervised elections…What a relentlessly unfolding disaster this administration’s Syria policy has been.

  • Posted by cjones1

    The Russians and Iranians could be implementing a plan to eliminate ISIS from Syria and possibly Iraq as well. This would also isolate Turkey while gaining control over the pipelines that provide energy resources that Turkey relies upon. Of course this would increase the threats that Israel would face. Iraq, after being freed from their dictator, will now be rent asunder by neighbors due to U.S. policy failures led by political folly.

  • Posted by tim

    “As long as Assad is in place ISIS will grow”, – moron, so following your thoughts, author, if Assad will really go, the ISIS forces are not going to flourish like in Libya, but magically disappear

  • Posted by John

    while Assad is a brutal dictator, he never attacked or threatened to attack any western country. His enemies are mostly radicalized muslims who support ISIS or Al Qaeda and want to wipe out the ethnic and religious minorities in the region., Those organizations do threaten the west and seek to expand their rule. The only thing that is going to end this war is if Assad wins and then institutes reforms. Russia is going to make sure that Assad wins and then the world needs to ensure reforms happen

  • Posted by Aristide Caratzas

    This fatuous article illustrates why US policy in Iraq and Syria in fact underlie regional destabilization. The argument for toppling Assad was about as valid as that for Ghaddafi: in both instances the results testify to confusion and contradiction of some stated goals, such a maintaining regional stability and containing militant Muslim activities.
    In point of fact Henry Kissinger warns of destabilization and Vladimir Putin in fact lines up with that view. Whether or not Putin is putting troops on the ground is certainly not clear, with all due respect to Alex Fishman his assertions are based on hearsay, in the best case.
    As for Mr. Abrams’ linking the continuation of the Assad regime with the growth of ISIS, his is a transparent effort to justify hostility to the Syrian leader — and it raises suspicions about indirect support by US allies for this beastly Muslim terrorists in order to topple Assad.
    The question remains: assuming Mr. Abrams’ wishes come true, does he really think that a nasty Muslim terror-based regime, that will most likely succeed, is to the interest of the US and Israel?

  • Posted by r e m o

    Another amercian [sic] cuckoo in the russian woodpecker nest. That ‘Most Americans’ consider Russia as the ‘aggressor’ in Ukraine can only be result of ‘most media’ in the US congenitally unable to report evidence the Ukraine is just ‘the next’ US coup detat. How difficult is it for editorship of any US publication to be aware of Ass.Sec.State Victoria NULAND’s infamous “Fck the EU” statement while ordering the placement of “Yats” and “Klitch” post coup? Boasting 5 Billion U$AID ! While at the same moment instructing Russia “Not to interfere in the sovereign politics of the Ukraine?” An exponential increase in the definition of Hypocrite. Or John McCain holding rallies with Svoboda fascist leadership? The evidence of right sector snipers popping over 100 ‘of their own’ in the Maidan just to ‘G up’ the slow down in the revolution has not been missed by anyone reading the real reports from Kiev either.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Soon they will be bombing our trained insurgents, as well as al Nusra and ISIS. If Assad attacks the forces we have pledged to defend, then NATO aircraft rising to their defense with come across Russian pilots with opposite instructions.

    I am glad you focused attention on this subject. I have read the same reports coming out of Israel, citing IDF intelligence sources. The White House balked at doing anything to unsettle the Assad regime when the time was ripe. Now Turkey, on the verge of war in Syria, has Russian forces opposing it there. How nice.

    Interestingly, these Israeli new stories report that the White House invited the Russians to move it, by agreeing to remove Patriot Missile batteries that made the Russians nervous, from Turkey. No comment as of yet from Josh Earnest.

    Kind of makes you wonder who we are working for over there. It seems we have a new alliance: Iran, Russia, and the US. Of course, Hezbollah and the Assads come with the package.

  • Posted by wbilct

    “Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose – whether it is in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons, or funding – is both destabilizing and counterproductive,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.
    Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/20150905_Putin__Syria__Assad_ready_for_elections.html#Bwb87oYF1FH0MjOI.99

    When the Great Satan controls it’s client, little Satan, maybe they’ll, Great Satan, will have some “moral standing”. Putin has every right to act on his interests.

  • Posted by Matt

    The coalition is bombing one group ISIS,if you back Assad then you are at war with everyone. There lies the problem for Russia and those who back Assad. So as with Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes you to draw up to draw down. And they will show some metal to force a deal, then fall back to the strong hold. But without integrated logistic, airbases and fire bases, FOB they will not be able to hold the province after Damascus falls. For the USSR they need about 250,000 troops. They have one hulk for a carrier and no foreign airbases like Jordan. We float carriers way off shore out of harms way so our airbases cannot be overrun as they have air support, call in a broken arrow if need be. Russia are blow hards. You never here us threaten to nuke anyone, only all options are on the table. That is why we are the dangerous ones and we mean it. If we say it start to worry, not blown hards.

  • Posted by Andres Parrondo

    This as it always has, goes under the question on what is more important for the region as well as the people. the US in its attempts to support the rebels in their efforts to triumph over ISIS and the Assad regime is one of Justice, but the problem then would be that once these goals are achieved how will the country restore order. After all this is not the first time that the united States has supported rebel groups that have eventually turned against them. So would it really be a question of justice then? Or simply a goal to destabilise a country in order to start a new Western supportive government?

    On the other Hand, the Russian Federation may be supporting the Assad regime not only to protect its interests in the country but to also maintain order in the region. Despite the atrocities committed by the government, Syria prior to all the calamity now, was kept in order with what we can call “the iron fist” but it was rather peaceful. So the question on this side will be, once Russia achieves its ends with the conflict, what will happen then? Will Assad remain, or will Russia attempt to persuade the government to call for new leadership?

    If order is restored to the country, it should in fact be the case that the country should call for new leadership with UN monitored elections. There should be no belief that Assad has “learned his lesson” from the disaster.

  • Posted by Avi Eisenberg

    The ayatollahs of Iran, Assad, Hezbollah, and now Iraq constitute the front line of the new Eastern Bloc. This group is led and financed by Iran, and Iran is allied with Russia, China, and North Korea. Putin acknowledged that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a seismic geopolitical event, and he is working indefatigably to restore ancient Soviet glories. The sanctions imposed by the U.S. failed to deter him in Ukraine. The Iranians are beginning to flex their muscles now that they are a major power broker in the Middle East, and is still seeking to expand its influence further.
    There is only one counterbalancing force that can be employed to fight back against these ominous developments, and this is a very unpalatable choice, but it will spare the U.S. from getting embroiled into a potential quagmire. ISIS. Russia has a aggrieved minority Sunni presence in the Caucus. China’s Uighurs have been sporadically carrying small scale operations targeting the Chinese and can be a great destabilizing force. The rest of the Turkic people in Central Asia can be mobilized as well to the help of their brethren in China. ISIS, is a radical Sunni group that is gaining world-wide support and has proved to be a formidable and fearsome force. ISIS can be a great force that counterbalance the rise of Iran and it allies in the region, and push back the Soviets and check the Chinese if necessary. The Gulf states will be more than delightful to contribute financially to this campaign. It will be a repeat of the 1980s with the Mujahideen. The current chess game is a little different and more challenging because it involves not just Russia but other regional powers. In international relations, unpalatable measures must be taken for a greater cause. The protection of U.S. dominance and interests necessitates this. Who is to say that ISIS will not cooperate with the US if the US change its moves. The Russians are rising again, and this time they are not alone, they are joined by the Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians and its underdogs in the Middle East.

  • Posted by David Dzidzikashvili

    Putin is smart and cunning and every move he makes is very thoroughly calculated to further his own goals and agenda. It’s no secret that Putin himself is pursuing an aggressive revisionist policy designed to undermine the post WW2 and post–Cold War orders…

    His possible disengagement from Syria can be associated with the following three scenarios: A. Putin miscalculated and saw the raise of Iran and all the victories going to Iran in the region, who is merely borrowing the Russian Air force. Therefore, once Putin realized there were no bigger prizes for him other than the airbase in Latakia, he decided to pull out and let Iran pursue the remainder of strategic war goals. Also, what Putin achieved at a minimum strengthened Assad regime, so he has a bigger negotiating power during the peace talks.

    B. Domestic economic pressures – bombing runs and maintaining effective military power needs serious financial resources. Once Putin had achieved his minimum – strengthened Assad regime, he claimed the credit at home and made another strategic move to pull the bigger force, while maintaining the minimum presence.

    C. This might be just another trick & maneuver in Putin’s handbook and this might not mean any sort of withdrawal on the short-term or long-term, since the Russian air force is still continuing bombing the rebels in Syria after the withdrawal announcement. What did Putin want to accomplish? Time will show us…

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