To respond to Russia’s military campaign in Syria, first, we have to be realistic about the facts on the ground. Iraq and Syria, for all practical purposes, are failed states.
There is no chance that either Iraq or Syria will ever be reconstituted as mandated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which basically divided up control or influence over the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between France and England.
Since the combined remaining military forces of Hezbollah, the Iranian Quds Force and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have not been sufficient to assure Assad’s survival, Russia’s deployment of its air and marine ground forces to an airbase at Latakia, Syria should have come as no surprise. The preparations for this deployment clearly have gone on for some time. Our intelligence community certainly must have detected these preparations as well as the pre-deployment of surface-to-air missile batteries to the Latakia airbase about two months ago.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives are very clear. Notwithstanding his statements that his main objective is to defeat the Islamic State, he intends to support the retention of Syrian President Assad in power at all costs. In that sense, he will confront all the Sunni militias, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, as well as ISIS, which threaten the Assad regime. The announcement by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Iraq intends to share intelligence with Syria and Russia, plus his statement that he would welcome Russian air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, clearly adds a new dimension to Russia’s involvement. Should Putin expand Russian involvement into Iraq, it would certainly provide some balance to the theory of an emerging Damascus-Baghdad-Beirut-
The survival of both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes are key elements in the “unwritten plan” for Iranian regional hegemony. However, President Obama’s apparent complicity with the Russian deployment of military forces and suggestion that they could be even a stabilizing factor fits right in with his “leading from behind” strategy. Our enemies clearly view this strategy as weakness and will continue to exploit the power vacuum created by our lack of leadership. It will provide further substance to a Tehran-Baghdad-Beirut-
Such a strategy certainly will not be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, UAE, Jordan, or for that matter, our ally Israel. Clearly, Sunni opposition to Shiite domination will ensure that a chaotic situation will remain for the foreseeable future. Other complicating factors will be how long Israel decides to wait before launching a strike to destroy Iran’s key nuclear infrastructure, and how long it will be before Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies obtain their own nuclear weapons capability.
In the current complicated and dangerous situation, what is the most sensible course for the U.S. to follow to protect our interests and regional allies, given our lack of leadership, which is clearly evident? We have nothing to gain by further involving U.S. forces in what should be recognized as failed states – Syria and Iraq. In this sense, our principal objectives remain the prevention of Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability and the removal of the corrupt jihadist Iranian theocracy. Let’s not forget, the removal of Bashar al-Assad from Syria is a principal objective pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Leaders in the Middle East will follow the “strong horse.” With President Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy, Putin has become the strong horse!
There have been recent calls for the establishment of a “no-fly zone” over so-called moderate rebel areas. The window for such action was closed once Russia completed its military force deployment and commenced air strikes. It makes no sense to create a situation that elevates this classic Sunni-Shiite conflict into a potential direct U.S.-Russian conflict. With our current weak and inept leadership, the current chaotic situation needs to be kept at the lowest possible conflict level. Therefore, steps that the United Stated could take that would require no further commitment of U.S forces, but would complicate Russia’s and Iran’s ability to achieve their objectives, would be the following:
- To counter recent Russian and Chinese naval deployments off Syria, we should deploy a Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean. This would send a very positive signal to our NATO allies as well as to Egypt and Israel.
- We should establish a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Kurdistan by redistribution of in-theater air resources to include F-16’s, A-10’s, C-130 gunships and AH-1 attack helicopters.
- Provide direct military equipment to Kurdistan’s Peshmerga military forces. With Baghdad clearly aligned with Tehran, Damascus and Moscow, it makes no sense to continue sending military equipment for the Peshmerga through Baghdad, from which it is never passed on.
- Support the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan. They have been a loyal, reliable ally along with Israel. Such action would clearly complicate the situation for Iran, but also for Turkey, which should be manageable.
- We should be providing direct defensive military equipment to Ukraine to counter Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. We should also provide more direct support in terms of NATO forces to the Baltic States to preempt potential Russian aggressive moves.
The above actions are what we should be doing to protect our interests in the region, as well as those of our allies. Such action would complicate and make it more costly for Russia and Iran to achieve their objectives and possibly prevent a nuclear arms race in this most unstable region.
James A. Lyons, U.S. Navy retired Admiral, has served as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior
U.S. military representative to the United Nations.