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The attempt to reduce the level of discourse to trivial matters in this year's presidential campaign continues to divert attention (as intended) away from any in-depth debate over the real challenges facing the United States going forward. This is most notable, and dangerous, on issues of defense and foreign policy. For example, the question of semantics over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin should be called a "leader" or a "dictator" risks overshadowing the question of whether Putin's policies have been more effective in the Middle East than have been the policies of President Barack Obama. The two terms are not mutually exclusive. As the duly elected president, Putin can properly be called the leader of his country, especially as he continues to enjoy very high public approval ratings. He has, however, used his strength to amass more political power, including placing all major media under state control. But the real issue is how he is advancing Russian interests on the world stage in competition with the U.S. and its allies in key hotspots.
It is clear that Putin's direct military intervention has shifted the balance in the Syrian civil war decisively in favor of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who truly can be called a dictator. The key to Russian success in the conflict is not just the use of airpower, but that there is a ground army for air strikes to support; an army that can then move in to take advantage of the "shock and awe" rained down on the anti-Assad rebels. The Assad forces are composed of several elements. There are the remnants of the regular Syrian Army which had been well-equipped with Russian heavy weapons before the civil war started (weapons that were originally acquired to fight Israel). These units would not have been sufficient to keep Assad in office given that the Sunni majority in the country has risen against his Alawite sect which is aligned with the Shia Muslim denomination. The Sunni-Shia rivalry is now the driving dynamic behind Middle East bloodshed. America's alignment is with the Sunnis.
Assad has been kept in office by outside support. The terrorist group Hezbollah, which has graduated into a field army, has sent troops to Syria. It has long fought in Lebanon as the spearhead of the effort to create a Greater Syria by territorial expansion. Hezbollah is primarily armed, trained and financed by Iran, the center of Shia power in the region. Since 2013, Iran has been sending its own troops into Syria to provide combat support and to do some actually fighting. It has been reported that over a thousand members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps have been killed in action. Iranian special operations units are also engaged. Iran has reportedly formed the equivalent of a "foreign legion" of Shiite recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan for use in Syria. It is not clear what the relationship is between these fighters and the "militia" units that have been incorporated into the new Syrian 4th Army Assault Corps, a unit that has been lavishly equipped with heavy artillery by Russia as well as with drones. Artillery is a mainstay of Russian firepower and is used indiscriminately in the bombardment of urban areas.
The U.S. has invested billions in developing precision-guided weapons to avoid collateral damage to non-combatants. A large proportion of American airstrikes against Islamic State are aborted because of fear that civilians might suffer. Russia shows no such concerns. Its bombing campaign in Syria follows the Assad pattern of targeting entire Sunni communities, not just rebel fighters. "Barrel bombs" have caught the media's attention in attacks on Aleppo, but much more sophisticated weapons are doing the real damage; bunker-busters, cluster munitions, incendiaries, and thermobaric explosives delivered by both air and artillery.
Putin has often proclaimed that the fate of Syria should be decided by its people. He has used this line to criticize "outside" support for the rebels; support that has struggled to create a Free Syrian Army capable of holding its own without the heavy arms and air support Russia is providing Assad. But Putin's line is more than propaganda. The Assad coalition is actively working to change who constitute the people of Syria. It is waging a war of genocide against the Sunni population so that the "Syrian people" will only consist of those who support Assad as a satrap of Iran.
The death of 500,000 people out of a population of 22.8 million is bad enough, but 8 million people have been displaced by the fighting. Every Sunni family driven into exile changes the demography of the country in favor of the Assad coalition. The use of terror bombing followed by ground assaults by merciless fanatics has created a stampede of refugees that is causing hardship in the camps set up in neighboring Sunni nations (Jordan, Turkey) and turmoil in Europe as the exodus spreads beyond the Levant. The consequences of brutal Russian-Iranian tactics is even being felt in the United States s the Obama administration opens America's borders to those fleeing the onslaught.
A new record for naïveté was set by Secretary of State John Kerry when he tried to talk the Russians into abandoning the Assad regime in the name of peace. Kerry wanted Putin to accept a cease-fire, lift the blockade of Sunni communities so humanitarian aid could be delivered, and "transition" the government in Damascus into one that included the Sunnis. In short, he was asking Russia to lose the war it was winning.
Official U.S. policy is to remove Assad from power, but Kerry quickly had to compromise and allow Assad to stay in office for some unspecified time during the "transition." Yet, there was still no incentive for Russia to move even one step down the road to a possible power shift in Damascus. Assad's forces paused briefly during the cease-fire to regroup and rearm, then launched a devastating attack on the first humanitarian convoy bound for Aleppo. There were actually people, including Kerry, who were surprised by this! Aleppo is the central battle of the war and aid cannot be allowed to reach the rebels. And Obama has no stomach to escalate the effort to break the siege of the city by force. There may be talk about setting up a safe haven in Syria, but that would take the kind of major military campaign Obama has sought to avoid.
The U.S. air war is focused on Islamic State (ISIS). As a terrorist group calling for attacks in America and Europe, ISIS deserves to be hit; but the group is also an enemy of the Assad regime and has committed much more effort to overthrowing it than to plotting another 9/11. The aim of ISIS is to carve a Sunni homeland (Caliphate) out of Syria and Iraq. It was formed in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq which left the Sunni community vulnerable to a Shiite regime in Baghdad. Washington's promise that the Sunnis would get a fair shake in Iraq could not be kept once all U.S. troops were pulled out in 2011. The locals turned to ISIS as the only force that could fight for their rights.
For Putin, the current situation is perfect. The U.S. is bombing one part of the anti-Assad rebellion while the Russians are bombing the rest. An American "victory" against ISIS will primarily help Iran (in both Syria and Iraq) because the U.S. does not have a reliable force on the ground. But just in case Obama or the Gulf states decide to redirect some airstrikes against pro-Assad forces, Putin has moved advanced air defense missiles into Syria, including both the S-300 and S-400 systems. Russian ground troops are also garrisoning its strategic enclave in Syria's coastal province of Latakia with its Mediterranean port of Tartus.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 20, President Obama claimed "If Russia continues to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, it may be popular at home, it may fuel nationalist fervor for a time, but over time it is also going to diminish its stature and make its borders less secure." This is mere liberal cant, another example of hope over history. Nations and leaders do not lose stature by being successful. But they do lose stature (as well as respect and credibility) when they fail. And it is American policy that is failing in the Middle East.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
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