Tuesday, September 2, 2014
20

Stopping Russia Starts in Syria

WASHINGTON, DC – The solution to the crisis in Ukraine lies in part in Syria. It is time for US President Barack Obama to demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations. The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow, not to mention Beijing and Tokyo.

Many argue that Obama’s climb-down from his threatened missile strikes against Syria last August emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea. But it is more likely that Putin acted for domestic reasons – to distract Russians’ attention from their country’s failing economy and to salve the humiliation of watching pro-European demonstrators oust the Ukrainian government he backed.

Regardless of Putin’s initial motivations, he is now operating in an environment in which he is quite certain of the parameters of play. He is weighing the value of further dismemberment of Ukraine, with some pieces either joining Russia or becoming Russian vassal states, against the pain of much stronger and more comprehensive economic sanctions. Western use of force, other than to send arms to a fairly hapless Ukrainian army, is not part of the equation.

That is a problem. In the case of Syria, the US, the world’s largest and most flexible military power, has chosen to negotiate with its hands tied behind its back for more than three years. This is no less of a mistake in the case of Russia, with a leader like Putin who measures himself and his fellow leaders in terms of crude machismo.

It is time to change Putin’s calculations, and Syria is the place to do it. Through a combination of mortars that shatter entire city quarters, starvation, hypothermia, and now barrel bombs that spray nails and shrapnel indiscriminately, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have seized the advantage. Slowly but surely, the government is reclaiming rebel-held territory.

“Realist” foreign policy analysts openly describe Assad as the lesser evil compared to the Al Qaeda-affiliated members of the opposition; others see an advantage in letting all sides fight it out, tying one another down for years. Moreover, the Syrian government does appear to be slowly giving up its chemical weapons, as it agreed last September to do.

The problem is that if Assad continues to believe that he can do anything to his people except kill them with chemicals, he will exterminate his opponents, slaughtering everyone he captures and punishing entire communities, just as his father, Hafez al-Assad, massacred the residents of Hama in 1982. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he is cut from the same ruthless cloth.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Assad has fanned fears of what Sunni opposition forces might do to the Alawites, Druze, Christians and other minorities if they won. But we need not speculate about Assad’s behavior. We have seen enough.

A US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic. It would either force the regime back to the negotiating table with a genuine intention of reaching a settlement, or at least make it clear that Assad will not have a free hand in re-establishing his rule.

It is impossible to strike Syria legally so long as Russia sits on the United Nations Security Council, given its ability to veto any resolution authorizing the use of force. But even Russia agreed in February to Resolution 2139, designed to compel the Syrian government to increase flows of humanitarian aid to starving and wounded civilians. Among other things, Resolution 2139 requires that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs….”

The US, together with as many countries as will cooperate, could use force to eliminate Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft as a first step toward enforcing Resolution 2139. “Aerial bombardment” would still likely continue via helicopter, but such a strike would announce immediately that the game has changed. After the strike, the US, France, and Britain should ask for the Security Council’s approval of the action taken, as they did after NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

Equally important, shots fired by the US in Syria will echo loudly in Russia. The great irony is that Putin is now seeking to do in Ukraine exactly what Assad has done so successfully: portray a legitimate political opposition as a gang of thugs and terrorists, while relying on provocations and lies to turn non-violent protest into violent attacks that then justify an armed response.

Recall that the Syrian opposition marched peacefully under fire for six months before the first units of the Free Syrian Army tentatively began to form. In Ukraine, Putin would be happy to turn a peaceful opposition’s ouster of a corrupt government into a civil war.

Putin may believe, as Western powers have repeatedly told their own citizens, that NATO forces will never risk the possibility of nuclear war by deploying in Ukraine. Perhaps not. But the Russian forces destabilizing eastern Ukraine wear no insignia. Mystery soldiers can fight on both sides.

Putting force on the table in resolving the Ukraine crisis, even force used in Syria, is particularly important because economic pressure on Russia, as critical as it is in the Western portfolio of responses, can create a perverse incentive for Putin. As the Russian ruble falls and foreign investment dries up, the Russian population will become restive, giving him even more reason to distract them with patriotic spectacles welcoming still more “Russians” back to the motherland.

Obama took office with the aim of ending wars, not starting them. But if the US meets bullets with words, tyrants will draw their own conclusions. So will allies; Japan, for example, is now wondering how the US will respond should China manufacture a crisis over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

To lead effectively, in both the national and the global interest, the US must demonstrate its readiness to shoulder the full responsibilities of power. Striking Syria might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.

Read more from "Cold War II?"

Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (20)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedWim Roffel

    No, Ms Slaughter, I do not recall that the Syrian opposition marched peacefully under fire for six months. I recall that on their very first day in Daraa they set several building on fire. I recall that they were not interested in dialogue but only in grabbing power.

  2. CommentedDonald Francoeur

    Do you honestly think that the US and its followers can stand up to Russia and China, not to mention Iran and most of Latin America? The US hasn't won a war since Vietnam. And it is a bankrupt country, printing increasingly funny money. Putin saw them coming in Crimea and outsmarted all of them. You should travel more. You might actually learn something about the world!

  3. CommentedMichael O'Neill

    I cannot believe that an educated woman, a professor, can talk to casually about killing people. I think its a disgrace the way she talks. Obama has shown *some* restraint, but his government have funded and armed the Al Nusra front and Al Qaeda - Al Qaeda!!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE!!! You claim they took out 3,000 on 9-11 and now they are your ALLIES??!! You Neocon hawks need your heads examined!!!

      CommentedKarthik Tadepalli

      The Obama administration didn't fund AQ (which, by the way, is not in Syria anymore. Their main Syrian agent was ISIL, and they disavowed ISIL, leaving them with almost no branches in Syria.) or Nusra, they funded the Free Syrian Army, which morphed into a coalition of revolutionary forces (ranging from moderate to extremist) called the Islamic Front. And then here is where the picture gets a little blurry. The Islamic Front has had a strange relationship with ISIL and Nusra, alternately working with them and condemning them and attacking them. But one credit to the administration at least is their reluctance (because of this bizarre relationship) to give manpads and other heavy weaponry to the rebels. Obama's policies in Syria are half-assed to say the least, but they certainly aren't willingly working with AQ.

  4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ms Anne-Marie Slaughter is trying to stir up a hornet's nest with her hawkish idea of ordering an "offensive use of force" in Syria. She believes it would "change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow, not to mention Beijing and Tokyo".
    Ms Slaughter lives in a binary world of yes or no, right or wrong and black and white. "Obama’s climb-down from his threatened missile strikes against Syria last August" may have "emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea". Then Putin has the international community to answer for his invasion of Crimea and he will be judged by history. Obama refrained from launching military strikes unilaterally without global support. Take a look at George W. Bush and Tony Blair, the two architects of the Iraq war in 2001, they are stewing in their own juice after having been severely punished by the world opinion.
    What makes Ms Slaughter think that in order "to change Putin’s calculations, Syria is the place to do it"? Does she think that a "US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic. It would force the regime back to the negotiating table"?
    Assad's list of war crimes is long and he belongs in the dock, if he survives the civil war unscathed. Yet Syria is not Libya and Assad is not "the lesser evil compared to the Al Qaeda-affiliated members of the opposition". The problem is that Syria had always been in history a melting pot of ethnic and religious communities. The social fabric is so torn apart that it is beyond repair.
    It's true that Putin sees the leaders in Kiev as "fascists", after they had ousted his crony, Viktor Yanukovich. Assad sees the opposition rebels as "terrorists". Ukrainians aim at pivoting to Europe, while the Syrian opposition wants a regime change. Both Putin and Assad are determined to assert power over their adversaries. The former disrupts the international order by invading a foreign country, the latter is fighting for regaining control over lost territories. So any "US Strike" on Syria would definitely not change Putin's behaviour.

  5. CommentedKen Carr

    "Mystery soldiers can fight on both sides"-really? Obama should send US soldiers with no insignias and presumably ski masks to help stabilize Ukraine? Very strange indeed. Better to give strong support to the elements of the Free Syrian Army that favor democracy and are not jihadis and treat Ukraine as the separate case it is. But no mystery soldiers please.

  6. CommentedRon Chandler

    American hawks make much of Putin's supposed use of Russian soldiers in Crimea as evidence he's game-playing: the only game-players are US.
    Crimeans knew who the fascists in Kiev were: Americans did not. So Putin, who by treaty had 18,000 of the permitted 35,000 military in Crimea, only had to use muscle once: against Pravy Sektor thugs who turned up to occupy a ministry and were vigorously ejected.
    The Crimeans want to be russian - did your controlled press not tell you? 97.6% was for real: election observers from 4 European states said so.

  7. CommentedRon Chandler

    Further to Carl And Samuel's queries, the Tomahawks were not fired from US Navy ships but from a NATO base in Spain. The likely perp was General Stavridis, known to be a member of a rogue faction within the Pentagon.
    The blitheringly ignorant Ms S appears unaware Washington initiated the entire Syria nightmare with snipers and death squads infiltrating protests in Deraa in March 2011 as per the Salvadran Option preached by the Ambassador of Death John Negroponte's disciple, Robert S. Ford. Every inch of this crime lies at the feet of Washington criminals, as do the crimes in Ukraine.

  8. CommentedRon Chandler

    Reply to Carl buzawa:
    Reported in Al Safir and Interfax (official Russian information agency)
    and at
    http://aangirfan.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/russia-shot-down-two-us-missiles-fired.html

  9. Commentedtres young

    Now if only we had the financial means to show them who's Boss! What, we can just print money to pay for starting WWIII??? Sweeet, yes, that is such an awesome plan Anne-Marie! I'm just so relieved that we have such intelligent and practical minds to guide us in our time of greatest need. WWWIII is long overdue anyway and it is long past time to start thinking about the next 'Greatest Generation' to be honest. Hopefully that will include my 15 year old son (assuming that he isn't killed in battle of course). I figure that we'll need to reinstate the draft to ensure that we have enough 'boots on the ground' when the war starts to really gear up, but what proud American Dad wouldn't happily sacrifice their only son to fufill the foreign policy aspirations of great visionaries such as yourself?? You are truly heroic and I applaud your willingness to say what no one else will and bravely sacrifice the youth of America when no one else has the guts to do it.

  10. CommentedJerome Von Phifer

    This article is proof of why women like Anne-Marie Slaughter who have no military experience, no realistic view of military tactics or weapon systems, no current information, data or facts about recent events. lert me bring the clueless up-to-date, first of all the U.S. did attempt to start a military intervention in Syria in September of 2013 when 5 U.S. destroyers bristling with Tomahawk missiles faced off against 11 russian warships, including the missile cruiser the Moskva, supported by chinese warships, off the coast of Syria in the mediterranean. two tomahawks missiles were launched towards syria and they both veered wildly off course, after the russians turned on their newly developed inexpensive and powerful GPS jammers, which when turned disrupts the GPS signal which the U.S. and others use to guide not only tomahawks missiles but all of their smart bombs to their targets, the signal only has to be interrupted for 30 seconds and complete control is lost of the weapons. Those 2 tomahawks landed in the sea, imagine the humiliation and embarrasment if they had launched 100 missiles and they came down all over the middle east including Israel and Saudi Arabia and struck cities, towns and villages. At least the pentagon admirals had enough sense to only launch 2 missiles, and also the pentagon generals are also aware of facing top-of-the-line weapon systems in syria and Iran like the highly formidable anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles systems deployed there as well. You can bet after this successful test of these GPS jammers, the russians and the chinese will go over the data and greatly improve the capabilities of these GPS jammers and provide them to all their allies and render all GPS reliant weapon systems deployed by the U.S. and its allies useless, and before you go there designing inertial guidance systems into these weapon systems is unfeasible and cost prohibited, (the cost of 1 tomahawk will go from 1.5 million to 15 million dollars apiece), and the payload will have to be greatly reduced. What we have witnessed is the nullification of the majority of the U.S. and its allies weapon systems to junk status, to fire away and pray they hit something important. This is the end of the shock and awe doctrine. The U.S. has got to stop placing clueless, scatterbrain dingbats in position to speak out on these subjects of military matters. She should be commenting on interior decorating of the dormitory of women in the military.

      CommentedCarl Buzawa

      Please advise to the specific reliable site for this account of a Syrian engagement that I for one had not heard of before

      CommentedSamuel Burke

      Jerome, is that story about the confrontation in the middle east real? where did you find that information, i would like to substantiate it for my own benefit.

  11. CommentedAndrew Horning

    Well, we have to bomb SOMEBODY. That's the key thing.
    We need to show strength; or else we'll seem, you know, weak. And we sure as heck don't want to...
    Or, maybe, just a thought here...perhaps we can just lay off our fear-aggression-syndrome until we get our own house in order? How about we get our monetary system back, whittle down our ungoverned government to a more constitutional size, at least try to scale back the corrupt crony network now running the show, and at least aim for peace, freedom and prosperity under constitutional rule of law?

  12. Commentedmartin wales

    I agree with RJ Horacek and Bill Schreck.

    "[I]t is time for US President Barack Obama to demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations."

    Is Anne-Marie Slaughter insane?

  13. CommentedRJ Horacek

    Just another neo-clown calling for the slaughter of innocent civilians in places most Americans don't care about and that DEFINITELY doesn't threaten this country. I find it amusing that this author's name is Slaughter and that she is calling for just that. I have an idea: let's put a rifle in her hand and that of all you commenters' who agree with military action and see how your tune changes. Cowards! Why do people even listen to war-mongering neo-cons, neo-libs and their cowardly constituents? When are THEY going to put themselves in harms way to stand up for their "faith" or "principles"? I won't hold my breath. No more wars.

  14. CommentedBill Schreck

    Nope not the way to go. As mentioned in recent book "Death Over Life", you do not attack Russia, or engage in the type of stupidity which marked both Bush presidencies.
    USA has no dog in either fight. Syria has the threat of more al-Qaeda style terrorism and the stoppage of oil flows to Europe. However, if the USA was to send in troops, it would galvanize the Islamic extremists and create a long term disaster.
    Putin couldn't care less about the USA wanting to exert military action ... it would be meaningful if the USA stood by and laughed while Europeans mobilized -- that would mean USA military might would be at the ready and come into play the moment Putin fought a NATO nation.
    Putin (Russia) would become the military aggressor and that is a role they never take.
    AS STATED IN "Death Over Life": historically the Russians employ ancient Scythian tactics -- they allow the other side to initiate military action, pull back, let the aggressor expend their resources, and then attack and crush that aggressor.
    You want to stop Russia -- laugh at them.
    Let them become the clear aggressor. But make sure there is something to gain in the battle. Russia has no use for Pale of Settlement nations -- they are an economic drain which the Russians were happy to shed when the Soviet Union collapsed.

  15. CommentedSteve Vinson

    Anne Marie is correct. History is the perfect guide here; when the Russians saw that we meant business by sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam, they didn't dare invade any Eastern European countries. In 1968, Brezhnev was overthrown in a coup by generals who were terrified that his plan to invade Czechoslovakia would start World War III. Johnson -- now, there was a president with cojones, who understood geopolitical strategy, and who demonstrated a brilliant command of the subtle employment of military power.

      CommentedJorge Suarez

      That whooshing sound you hear is Steve Vinson's sarcasm flying full speed over Mark Sanders' head.

      CommentedMark Sanders

      There is nothing in this article that leads me to believe that whatever we do in Syria is going to make Russia back down on Crimea or the Ukraine. If you think so, I have a nice bridge in New York I'd like to sell to you.

      CommentedSteve Vinson

      Gosh, then maybe we shouldn't attack Syria to stop Russian from annexing Crimea after all. Thanks for setting me straight. My bad.

      CommentedMark Sanders

      S. Vinson - I don't know where you learned your history from, but in 1968 Brezhnev went into Czechoslovakia and replaced Dubcek with someone more to his liking. Brezhnev was not overthrown in a coup, he led Russia until his death in 1982. Perhaps you should reconsider your conclusions.

  16. CommentedBen Ben

    So it is your opinion that Putin would not have annexed Crimea if Obama had done a limited airstrike in Syria, against the will of the American people.

    If Russia ever faced losing Crimea they have proven they would go to war to keep it. Bombs dropped on Syria to prolong a conflict or to aid a victor whose forces are comprised of at least 50% Jihadis would not have changed that calculus.

    You know it wouldn't and if you don't than you should not be writing articles on foreign policy.

  17. Commentedhari naidu

    It’s amazing what intuitive intelligence and policy advise we’ve here on Ukraine :

    From Richard Haas & AM Slaughter: Former Director’s of Policy Planning directorate of State Department: There is a “primitive level of slogans and jingoistic ideological inspiration,” as quoted by Skidelsky.

    Personally I’m glad that neither of the two are in *foggy bottom* advising Kerry.

    In Syria, Assad has called a general election and will inevitably return to power – while +90% of chemical weapons have been removed by UN Agency under civil war conditions.

    President Obama has more or less given up on Syria – after his failed demarche.

    And it seems he’s no real or serious strategy to deal with Putin – let alone invite him to WH for a serious political dialogue.

    Bottom line: Merkel must have made it absolutely clear to Obama that military action against Russia (or Putin) is not acceptable and will not resolve the crisis.

Featured