Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The West "Doubles Down": British Foreign Secretary Praises the Downing of Russian Charter Jet

We are in the "double down" phase in Syria as far as the Great Powers are concerned. "Double down," a gambling reference which means to double one's bet and hence one's risk, seems to be the quote du jour for the last few days. First, today, in an interesting story by David Sanger and Helene Cooper, "Obama Turns to Diplomacy and Military in Syria, and Is Met With Doubts":
At White House meetings, administration officials say, Mr. Kerry has argued that without applying both military and diplomatic pressure, the Russian intervention that began in late September would shore up Mr. Assad “and actually wind up destroying Syria.” [Rich, isn't it?]
But the question is whether the military element of the strategy — which reversed Mr. Obama’s previous determination to keep American combat troops out of the country — will be enough to make a difference.
“What he is doing will not work,” Fareed Zakaria, a journalist whom Mr. Obama frequently speaks with, wrote in a column in The Washington Post last week. “In a few months,” he predicted, the United States “will face the challenge again — back down or double down. So far, President Obama has responded each time with increased intervention.” 
Reflecting a willingness to do more, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Sunday that additional troops could be sent to Syria if the United States could find more local forces to work with.
The White House is hoping that the Syrian, Arab and Kurdish coalition, aided by American pilots and special operators on the ground, can seize and hold territory. The United States also plans to step up airstrikes. Mr. Obama deployed 12 A-10 warplanes and is sending additional F-15 fighter jets to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.
The theory is that over time the combination will increase the pressure on Mr. Assad to step down. The immediate focus is not on Mr. Assad’s strongholds, though; it is on territory seized by the Islamic State, including its capital, Raqqa.
But there is a far more immediate problem: identifying friends and enemies on the ground in Syria. Several rebel groups aided by the United States have been bombed by the Russians in recent weeks. American officials say they believe that Russia is trying to wipe out Mr. Assad’s opponents while claiming that it is going after the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Eventually, American and Russian officials will have to share lists about the groups that they support and that could be credible interlocutors for a cease-fire and political solution. But the United States has declined to do so, for fear that the Russians or Mr. Assad would immediately target the groups for attacks.
Then would come the practical problem of engineering a cease-fire and a referendum to replace Mr. Assad.
It is this supplying of a list of "credible interlocutors" that is going to be a huge problem for the Obama administration; it was the subject of yesterday's report by Somini Sengupta, "Invitation List Looms as Test for Syria Talks." It is in Sengupta's story that we encounter the use of "double down" again, this time from the lips of British foreign secretary Philip Hammond. Hammond amazingly lays claim to Islamic State Sinai Province's destruction of the Russian charter jet as an effective tactic to bring Russia closer to the West's negotiating position:
The diplomatic standoff over who is a terrorist and who counts as a legitimate opposition group comes on top of the significant differences that remain on the future of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Russia and Iran want to leave open the possibility that Mr. Assad can stand for election once more. The United States, Britain and their Persian Gulf allies resolutely oppose that idea. 
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, during a visit to Armenia on Monday, said that the talks should concern themselves with who should represent the Syrian opposition and who should be considered extremists, instead of whether to replace Mr. Assad, The Associated Press reported. As for which opposition group is legitimate, Mr. Assad has dismissed all his armed rivals as terrorists, and Russia, his most powerful backer, has largely supported his assertion. Indeed, over the last five weeks, Russian airstrikes have repeatedly attacked positions of several Western-backed groups. 
Mr. Hammond also said that his government suspected that the Islamic State or operatives “inspired” by the organization were behind the destruction of a Russian airliner in Egypt on Oct. 31. He added that he hoped that would persuade President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to take a more flexible posture in the Syria talks.

“We’ll see whether the Russians now double down or whether they decide that they never wanted to be too deeply engaged anyway in Syria and that this is a warning shot to them and we’ll sense a greater willingness to engage in the talks in Vienna this coming Saturday,” he said. [!]
While Mr. Hammond declined to offer any details on which groups could eventually take part in political negotiations, his comments suggested that the West might be prepared to back Sunni Islamist groups with close ties to allies, including Saudi Arabia. “What we mean by a secular constitution, and what people in the Muslim world will understand by secular will be two different things,” Mr. Hammond said.
Sort of takes one's breath away, doesn't it? Here you have the West basically coming right out and acknowledging an overlap -- if not explicit collaboration -- between it and the terrorist jihadists it is purportedly locked in a death match with.

Another mainstream illumination of this manifest interlocking between the West -- in this instance, NATO-member Turkey -- and Islamic State is Roger Cohen's "Turkey’s Troubling ISIS Game," which appeared in the Sunday NYT. Read it and you come away with an understanding how Islamic State is used to further objectives of the Turkish government. The advantage to the United States, Turkey, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), UK, et al., is that Islamic State can be disavowed. Better yet, the exact opposite can be claimed, that U.S., KSA, Turkey, UK are "at war" with ISIS.

The problem for the U.S. is that while it "doubles down" its "double game" is increasingly exposed and ultimately untenable as a strategy. If the U.S. provides a list of "credible interlocutors," that list will either include the groups of Jaish al-Fateh ("Army of Conquest"), members of which are Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, or fictitious, U.S.-created ghost armies. There are also indications that the Army of Conquest is beginning to fray.

So the U.S. is in a pickle. If it wants to double its bet yet again by placing more troops in northern Syria, eventually Congress will demand to vote on authorizing the move, a vote I don't think the administration can win.


  1. The US coalition has other problems. Turkey's attacks on Kurdish forces has only pushed Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq towards the Russian camp. The question is whether the Shia government of Iraq and Alawite government of Syria would be more comfortable with an independent Kurdish entity than with Turkey (and the House of Saud) poking their bayonets into their business. If they concede power and territory for peace with the Kurds Turkey will be the loser.

    I have no secret information about the state of Saudi politics, but the conquest of Yemen hasn't gone to plan, the bankruptcy of Russia hasn't occurred, and the collapse in oil prices worldwide hurts the House of Saud and its little minions along the Persian Gulf the most in the long term. Having a senile King doesn't help either. The overreach of Turkey and Saudi Arabia into Syria, considering domestic difficulties for the respective regimes, does not bode well for the future.

  2. Bob, I think the Baathists are okay with Rojava rising in northern Syria. I read in today's paper the Ben Hubbard dispatch from territory that the Kurdish People's Protection Units have wrested from Islamic State, and while he is clearly biased against the kind of communal anarchism practiced by the PKK, what stands out is a) the Kurds have a tacit understanding with the Syrian government (for instance, the YPG has left the airport in Rojava under the control of Damascus), and b) the YPG are radically non-sexist and egalitarian -- high school girls fight and die as warriors right along side their male peers. That kind of social dynamism will beat the brain-dead jihadis even if al-Saud is footing the bill. Just give it a little time.