Posts Tagged ‘Russia and Syria’

Americans and Russians in deadly clash in Syria

March 2, 2018

Update 3/5/2018:  According to this article in Der Spiegel, Russians didn’t participate in the attack and few of them were killed.   If that’s so, how did the other version of events originate?  Fog of war, or something more sinister?  At this point, I don’t know what to believe. 

During the whole of the Cold War, American and Soviet troops never engaged in direct combat.   But early last month, Russian mercenaries attacked a U.S. position in Syria, and an estimated 100 to 300 Russians were killed.

The Russian troops reportedly were employed by a private company funded by a Russian named Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also funded the company accused of illegally meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

U.S. troops and an allied militia called Syrian Democratic Forces were protecting an oil refinery at Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria.   The SDF position was attacked by Syrian government forces along with by Russian troops employed by the Wagner PMC (private military company).

U.S. forces counter-attacked with artillery, air strikes and drone strikes, smashed the attacking force and didn’t suffer any casualties themselves.

The Russian government said no Russian government troops were involved.  All the Russians in the battle were private individuals who were in Syria for their own reasons, the government said.

The U.S. government also had no official comment, but since then journalists have written a good bit based on off the record comments by U.S. intelligence and Treasury officials.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, known at “Putin’s chef,” got his start as a hot dog vendor, then the owner of a chain of restaurants, a caterer to the Kremlin and then a caterer to the Russian armed forces.   He owns two companies, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering.

Both he and his companies were indicted on charges related to interfering in the 2016 election, and he and his companies are on the U.S. sanctions list.

He reportedly is an investor in Wagner PMC, which was founded by Dmitry Utkin, also on the U.S. sanctions list.  Wagner PMC reportedly employed the “green men,” troops without insignia who engineered the Russian takeover of Crimea and supported Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Prigozhin allegedly owns or controls Evro Polis, a Russian company that has been promised a 25 percent share of oil and gas revenues in territories recaptured by the Syrian government from the Islamic State (ISIS).  Evidently Wagner PMC’s mission is to help secure these territories, and that was the reason for the attack.

I can see why Vladimir Putin might work with a private individual such as Yevgeny Prigozshin.   I don’t think Russians are any more willing than Americans to see their sons drafted to fight wars in distant countries for obscure purposes.  Hiring mercenaries solves this political problem, and also provides a way to deny responsibility if thing go wrong.

But what if it is the other way around?  What if this whole operation is to serve the business strategy of a Russian oligarch?  This is a dangerous situation, because both the Russian and U.S. governments could be sucked in a conflict they didn’t intend or expect.

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Who will fight for the U.S. against ISIS?

December 15, 2015

The Syrian situation reminds me of a remark by Adam Smith in (I think) The Wealth of Nations — about how masterminds who think of themselves as master chess players, using other people like pieces on a chessboard, will find the people they think they are manipulating are actually playing their own game.

image-931841-panoV9free-whwk-931841The aims of the U.S. government in the Middle East are, in no particular order, to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to counter the growing power of Iran and to destroy the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh).

The bitter experience of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions means that the American people will not tolerate a large-scale intervention with ground troops, so American leaders, including the principal Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, look for pawns to carry out U.S. purposes.

Here is a rundown on these pawns and the games they are playing.

  • Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirate governments, all predominantly Sunni Arab nations, fear the rise of Shiite Iran and Shiite power in Iraq much more than they do Sunni Arab ISIS or al Qaeda.   To the extent they fear ISIS and al Qaeda, it is more as an internal threat, and they are happy to see their local rebels go off to fight and maybe die for ISIS.   The Saudi government doesn’t crack down on individuals who contribute to ISIS because they reflect the beliefs of Wahabism (aks Salafism), the harsh version of Sunni Islam that rules Saudi Arabia.
  • The Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq are fighting ISIS effectively, but they are fighting to defend themselves and their goal of an independent Kurdistan, to be carved out of the existing territory of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, not as part of any overall “war on terror”.  They aren’t going to give up that goal just because it is inconvenient to the USA.
  • The Turkish government desires the overthrow of the Assad government in Syria and the suppression of Kurdish nationalism more than suppression of ISIS.  Oil from ISIS-controlled territory enters Turkey, and money and arms go from Turkey to ISIS.  Turkish politicians talk of the glories of the Ottoman Empire and of the unity of ethnic Turks across Asia.
  • The Iraqi government desires to prevent breakaway movements, whether ISIS, other Sunni Arab fighters or Kurds.
  • CQfwkI2WwAALwwnThe Sunni Arab militias and tribal leaders in Iraq blame the United States for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and setting up an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite Arabs, so they’re not willing to be U.S. proxies in a campaign against ISIS.
  • The Shiite Arab militias in Iraq hate ISIS, but their leaders distrust the United States and won’t work with Americans.
  • The “moderate Arab” rebels in Syria primarily desire to get rid of Bashar al-Assad and talk about fighting ISIS primarily to obtain U.S. weapons – many of which wind up in the hands of ISIS, al-Nusra and like groups.
  • The Iranian government desires to support Shiite Muslims against all enemies, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey or ISIS, and to defend Syria and also Hezbollah, which represents the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon.
  • The Syrian government is an enemy of ISIS because ISIS is an existential threat to its existence.  But the Assad regime regards the other Syrian rebels and the Kurdish separatists as equally threatening

This leaves Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Putin justifiably fears the influence of ISIS and other jihadist terrorists on the large Muslim population in the Caucasus and other regions of the Russian Federation.  He also wants to defend Russia’s Syrian ally and keep Russia’s naval station in Syria.  But for him, the war against ISIS is a war of self-defense, not merely a means of extending Russian influence.

If fighting ISIS is the top U.S. priority, then the U.S. government should find a way to cooperate with Russia against ISIS.  If the U.S. government is unwilling to cooperate with Russia against ISIS, then fighting ISIS is not the top U.S. priority.

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U.S. and Russian bases in the Middle East

October 3, 2015
blog_us_bases_middle_east

U.S. bases in the Middle East

Russian bases in the Middle East

Russian bases in the Middle East

Vladimir Putin has sent Russian forces to Syria to prop up the regime of Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad.

He said he is joining in the war against the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh).  The U.S. government said Russia is targeting the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and other “moderate” rebels rather than ISIS itself.

I’m not sure how significant that difference is.  I don’t think it is realistic to think it is possible to overthrow Assad and keep ISIS out of power without sending American forces to occupy Syria—and even then the outcome would be doubtful.

Many countries besides the USA and Russia have conducted air strikes in Syria.   One list includes Australia, Bahrein, France, Israell, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and should have included Canada and Turkey.

I don’t think Russia is in a position to challenge the U.S. military presence in the Middle East directly.  I think Putin’s plan is to enhance the power of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah vs. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, but to minimize actual Russian activity.

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Syria has one million drought refugees

February 3, 2014

syria.drought

If peace ever comes to Syria, and the government of Bashar al-Assad is replaced, that unfortunate country’s troubles will be far from over.  Any future Syrian government will have to cope with 1 million refugees from Iraq, and 1 million of its own citizens displaced from the land by years of drought.

Thomas L.  Friedman of the New York Times recently quoted from an appeal by Abdullah bin Yehia, Syria’s food and agriculture representative to the United Nations, for $20 million in aid for Syria’s drought victims.

Yehia was prophetic. By 2010, roughly one million Syrian farmers, herders and their families were forced off the land into already overpopulated and under-served cities. These climate refugees were crowded together with one million Iraqi war refugees. The Assad regime failed to effectively help any of them, so when the Arab awakenings erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian democrats followed suit and quickly found many willing recruits from all those dislocated by the drought.

Friedman reported that the population of the Middle East has increased four-fold in the past 60 years, more than any other part of the world.  At the same time, according to the International Journal on Climatology, the region has steadily grown warmer, with many more warm nights and fewer cool days.   He went on to say –

And then consider this: Syria’s government couldn’t respond to a prolonged drought when there was a Syrian government. So imagine what could happen if Syria is faced by another drought after much of its infrastructure has been ravaged by civil war.

And, finally, consider this: “In the future, who will help a country like Syria when it gets devastated by its next drought if we are in a world where everyone is dealing with something like a Superstorm Sandy,” which alone cost the U.S. $60 billion to clean up? asks Joe Romm, founder of ClimateProgress.org.

So to Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are funding the proxy war in Syria between Sunnis and Shiites/Alawites, all I can say is that you’re fighting for control of a potential human/ecological disaster zone.  You need to be working together to rebuild Syria’s resiliency, and its commons, not destroying it. I know that in saying this I am shouting into a dust storm.  But there is nothing else worth saying.

Responsibility doesn’t just lie with the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia.  It lies with Vladimir Putin’s Russia to an even greater degree.  Syria is Russia’s main remaining ally in the Middle East, and Putin is committed to propping up the Syrian regime.  For Russia to provide effective aid to Syria’s drought victims would do as much to stabilize Syria as sending its government more weapons to put down rebellion.

LINKS

Click on Wikileaks, Drought and Syria for the full article by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times.  Hat tip to Joshua Chacon for the link.

Were the U.S. and Russia at the brink of war?

October 31, 2013
Naval standoff in September, 2013.  Source: Zero Hedge

Naval standoff as of Sept. 9, 2013. Source: Zero Hedge

An independent journalist named Israel Shamir claims that, just as in the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and Russia were eyeball-to-eyeball over Syria.  But this time it was the United States that blinked.

The most dramatic event of September 2013 was the high-noon stand-off near the Levantine shore, with five US destroyers pointing their Tomahawks towards Damascus and facing them – the Russian flotilla of eleven ships led by the carrier-killer Missile Cruiser Moskva and supported by Chinese warships.  Apparently, two missiles were launched towards the Syrian coast, and both failed to reach their destination.

It was claimed by a Lebanese newspaper quoting diplomatic sources that the missiles were launched from a NATO air base in Spain and they were shot down by the Russian ship-based sea-to-air defense system.  Another explanation proposed by the Asia Times says the Russians employed their cheap and powerful GPS jammers to render the expensive Tomahawks helpless, by disorienting them and causing them to fail.  Yet another version attributed the launch to the Israelis, whether they were trying to jump-start the shoot-out or just observed the clouds, as they claim.

Whatever the reason, after this strange incident, the pending shoot-out did not commence, as President Obama stood down and holstered his guns.

via Israel Shamir: American Hegemony is Over

Exactly what happened is highly uncertain.  Shamir’s account rests on highly circumstantial evidence, which could be wrong.  But what is known is that Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian fleet to the Mediterranean and there also were Chinese ships there.  The downing of the Tomahawk missiles has been reported by two different sources.

There was a very real danger of armed conflict between Russian and U.S. forces, and Russia’s nuclear arms make it the only country in the world that could be an actual threat to the United States.  I give President Obama credit for having enough realism to not push things to the brink.

There was a period, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the United States was so dominant that our leaders did not have to take the views of other nations’ leaders into consideration.  Not only is that era coming to an end, but the consequences of U.S. government actions during that time are starting to catch up with us.

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The best article I’ve read on the Syrian crisis

September 17, 2013

syria-ethnic-map-400x300

If you’re at all interested in the Syrian situation, you should read the article Syria: What Now? by William R. Polk, which is reproduced on James Fallows‘ web log in The Atlantic.

Here are the highlights of what I got out of the article.

  • Sarin has been only a minor factor in Syria’s civil war, accounting for 1 percent or less of casualties.  The reason Syria is stockpiling poison gas is to deter attack from other nations, especially Israel.  The government of Israel not only possesses nuclear weapons, but is believed to have a “robust” program of chemical and biological warfare manufacturing and training.
  • President Assad would never agree to dismantling of poison gas weapons without a Russian guarantee of protection against attack.  Any dismantling would have be under the supervision of Russian experts.  This would benefit the Syrian government because it would be a deterrent to attack by the United States.
  • Overthrow of the Assad government would lead to the balkanization of Syria into its various ethnic and religious groups and likely result in massacres of Syrian Christians and Alawite Muslims.  Such conflicts could spread to Lebanon and other neighboring countries.
  • The stability of Syria is a vital national interest to Russia, and not just for reasons of prestige.  One in six citizens of the Russian Federation is Muslim, and the Russian government has been fighting for years against rebels in the majority-Muslim province of Chechnya.  Overthrow of Assad could create a base for supplying the Chechen fighters.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing.