Small Wars Journal

Putin Rising

Sun, 10/11/2015 - 8:22pm

Putin Rising

G. Murphy Donovan

“Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”

Human history is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about the right men or women at the right place and time. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Washington for instance are examples of what might be called American success synergy. Lincoln, Lee, and Grant were indispensable too in their own way, for victory and reconciliation after America’s most costly war.  And just as surely, a successful conclusion to WWII might have been impossible without Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin.

We remember great men because, as Pericles prophesied, great men do great things and then live on in the hearts of other men. “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it.”

Reputation is immortality in deed.

A great man, alas, is not necessarily good or popular. History is not kind to necessary villains. Stalin might be the best example from the WWII pantheon. Good and necessary are very different virtues. Josef Stalin was nonetheless one of those indispensable men who made victory and Russian national survival possible. Ruthless men make good soldiers.

Vladimir Putin may be such a man. The American president is not.

The European Union today suffers too from a deficit of great men and women. England, France, and Germany may someday be known to history as the timid troika that finally surrendered Europe to Mohamed’s dream. Who knew that Europe could be overrun by rubber flip flops and plastic backpacks fleeing religious and ethnic chaos?

Putin is unique among world leaders today. He alone swims against the receding tide of European, dare we say, Western culture. Europe and America seem to have forgotten what made them great for millennia. Putin, in contrast, plays to the best that is Russian including pride, history, nationalism, patriotism, and Christianity. If we can borrow a tag line, Putin wants to make Russia great again.

He has indeed reversed the fortunes of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, albeit at some cost to democracy as we know it. Yet, if we review the domestic and foreign policy contretemps in the West for the past 50 years, social democracy is something less than a role model for Russians or anyone else for that matter. Indeed, social, fiscal, and multicultural excesses are swamping Europe and America as we speak.   

Putin came to power at the turn of the century when the old Soviet empire was in free fall. You could say he rescued fair Rodina from the clutches of an alcoholic Slavic stereotype, Boris Yeltsin. Call it a revolution without guns. Since then, the former KGB officer has tried to restore almost every institution in which Russians take pride; art venues, historic Czarist properties, churches, monasteries, and even the Moscow Metro.

Small things matter when culture and civility is at risk. Compare public transport in Moscow to New York or Washington, DC. The Russian tube is a preserved work of art. The NYC Subway system is a spray painted eyesore, a safety and health hazard.

True culture is best defined as pride in public institutions.    

Putin seems to be taking the best of what was Czarist and Communist and shaping a new Russian future. Call it managing the dialectics of national history. Unlike Brussels and Washington, the Russian president has, for good or ill, that leader’s “vision” of which Pericles spoke so fondly.

Recently, we see the Russian president meeting with Netanyahu, raising his profile in Syria, and at the UN lecturing Obama about the abuse of American power in the third world. More than one observer has suggested that Putin is more relevant than the American president today.

Putin is now drawing a bright red line in Syria, challenging America’s spastic and disastrous regime change policies. The Russians are creating an alternative fighting coalition in the Levant, partnering with Syria and Iran - and putting boots on the ground too.

The Russian plan has several advantages that contrast with team Obama’s now chronic bumbling.

The Russian presence is legal. They were invited. The Putin plan has domestic support in Russia too. The Federation Council has approved military operations. And most important, Putin’s army has a relationship with Assad’s Army which should make any air/ground support effective.

The American “coalition” against ISIS, in contrast, is a global joke. Presently, over ninety nations send recruits to Baghdadi while a two or three Arab “allies” provide a few airstrikes to the ISIS fight. Indeed, the richest Sunni Arabs, those with the most to lose, do not fight the Islamic State on the ground nor do they accept civilian refugees from the fight. Such are America’s Arab allies, a cabal of mostly corrupt, selfish cowards.

Team Obama is now isolated in the Levant for good reason too. America cannot be trusted! With Pentagon approval, Turkey now flies F-16 airstrikes against the Kurds, heretofore one of the few reliable US allies in the area. When national integrity is exchanged for base rights in places like Turkey, American foreign/military policies become lonely whores. Say what you will about Putin and the Kremlin, unlike Obama and the Pentagon, Russia has been a reliable ally for Syria.

The real terrorists in the Middle East are Turks, Saudis, and Emirate Sunnis, all of whom are playing both sides of the street; on the one hand faking an anti-terror coalition and with the other hand providing refuge, arms, and finance to ISIS and other Sunni jihadists.

Oil rich Arabia and the Sunni Ummah have the best American and European allies that money can buy.  

The military vacuity on team America is underlined also by the recent resignation of General John Allen, USMC. Allen was supposed to be training those elusive Arab “moderates” in Iraq, a half billion dollar tactical boondoggle. You might best remember Allen as General Petraeus’ bimbo-phone-tag colleague whilst both were stationed at CENTCOM in Tampa, Florida.

At Ashton Carter’s Pentagon, you do not need to be honest, win wars, or even battles, to achieve flag rank. You do, however, need to be politically correct about the Kremlin, cult religion, race quotas, feminist demands, and sex preference recruiting. Indeed, “cultural” sensitivities on the E-Ring are now expanded to protect homosexual pedophiles among Muslim “partners” in places like Afghanistan and Arabia.

Child abuse is now another artifact of Muslim culture protected by DOD policy.

Withal, it’s not difficult to understand why team Obama obsesses endlessly about Assad’s chemicals and barrel bombs and ignores a host of other moral, military, and morale failures like Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Yemen.

Putin, in contrast, lives in the real world. Syria without a chap like Assad is likely to be ravished by Islamic theocracy. Baghdadi is not just the only alternative to Assad on the Sunni horizon; the new Islamic Caliph is knocking on the door at Baghdad and Damascus. A lesser of two evils, like Assad, is often the best of choices in a world swirling again towards the sewer of religious imperialism.

Few polemicists in America, Left or Right, seem to get what is happening in the Ummah, America, or Russia. The great turning point of recent history was not the fall of the Soviet Union. The theocratic revolution in Persia was much more consequential, the starting gun for modern religious irredentism, the ongoing global jihad.  

Both Shia and Sunni now travel on parallel sanguinary roads towards the same religious illusion of monoculture.

A fourth of the world’s population may be racing backward towards theocracy or caliphate. America is frozen by inertia, apathy, or incompetence. And Russia, like China, is pressing on with visions of political sugar plums and a new world order.

Putin is a lot of things; a foot in the old Soviet Union and a foot in the new Russia. Whatever he is today, there are several things he is not. He is not Stalin, Hitler, a new Czar, Count Dracula, or, unlike many politicians in the West, anybody's fool either.

In his own words, “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”

The Kremlin has legitimate concerns for the millions of Russian speaking Soviet citizens that were stranded in no-man’s land outside of Russia by the Soviet collapse. It hasn't helped that NATO encourages anti-Russian, if not neo-Nazi thugs, in former Warsaw Pact states all along the new Russian border. NATO expansion is both a breach of the Reagan trust and a poke in Moscow's eye.

Like America, the European Union doesn’t have a clue about what to do with a very real Islamist threat, thus a Russian straw man is now required to justify larger military budgets and a larger military alliance.

Ironically, any European strategy that might address the metastasizing Islamist threat is already hamstrung by Turkey, Erdogan’s fifth column in NATO.

Withal, Putin is not some third world crackpot. Push back, or prudent border humanitarian/security concerns, does not equate to some new Russian imperialism.

Playing nuclear chicken with Russian nationalism is a fool’s game too, especially as Washington and Brussels are led by milquetoast militants.

Russia could be very helpful on any number problems; hot spots like Afghanistan and Syria, and issues such as terrorism, theocratic imperialism, energy, WMD proliferation, and space science.

Indeed, given the economic pinch of Crimea sanctions, it’s a wonder Moscow hasn’t cut the American Afghan supply line, turned off the heat in Europe, and told America to levitate for the next Space Station mission.

A fool makes unnecessary enemies while the prudent man cultivates helpful allies. Russia makes a better friend than foe.

Unfortunately, political panderers in the West, Right and Left, have taken to Russophobia with a vengeance. Kremlin bashing is already a staple of the 2016 US presidential election.

Vladimir Putin argues for sanity at the UN whilst Hillary Clinton postures with an anti-Putin “Pussy Rioters’ at feminist forums.

There are today, nonetheless, a few faint political, diplomatic, and academic voices that argue for sanity. 

Among these we should mention Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Ambassador Jack Matlock, and Professor Steven Cohen. Rohrabacher has bucked the Republican Party and Foggy Bottom on Russophobia. Former ambassador Jack Matlock has consistently argued for a pragmatic approach to Moscow since the new Cold War began. And Stephen Cohen has put his academic career at risk for challenging the self-serving bias of Radio Liberty and the American political science community.

Beltway bandits like the RAND Corporation and American academia may be reading the funding tea leaves too, anticipating an American neo-conservative sweep in 2016. When it comes to grant, study, and research funding; it pays for “science” to be on the right side of domestic and foreign politics. Russophobia is the once and future cash cow.

Since WWII, America’s foreign policy has been defined by small wars, indeed a series of often calamitous proxy wars in places like Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine, and now Syria. Throughout, the enemy morphed from the Communist menace, to the Warsaw Pact, to Russia, and now to personalities like bin Laden, Baghdadi, or Putin.

Small wonder then that Kremlin might believe that the true objective of today’s proxy shenanigans is regime change in Moscow too. Ironically, since the Soviet Union collapsed, it seems like the West can’t take yes for an answer. As for emergent personalities like Vladimir Putin, Henry Kissinger put it best, “demonization is not policy.”

Contemporary views of Russia and the Kremlin may be driven by domestic American politics. Neither American political party knows what to do about Islamo-fascism, a true global threat. Consequently, in order to avoid tough choices, both Republicans and Democrats have resurrected a Cold War with Russia. In America today, Putin is every Press and political nitwit’s favorite whipping boy. The NY Times, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton take bows here.

Small wonder then that Russia’s top gun just picked up the leadership mantel in the Levant. If Putin wants to ride point in the Middle East, he will. For openers, the Russian coalition, unlike the American fakir coalition, is already in the fight.

If leadership matters, Putin is no dithering Obama. The Russian chief might just be ruthless enough to win. Vladimir’s track record with the so-called Caucuses caliphate is exemplary. While it took ten years for America to find and kill bin Laden, it took Putin a year to kill Shamil Baseyev along with any Islamist delusions in Russia. We don’t hear much about “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, the Chechen jihad, or in a Caucuses caliphate these days.

Leadership matters.

If real threats are to be neutralized abroad, then cold warrior poseurs must give way to effective hot warriors. Vladimir Putin might be such a man. Obama, Cameron, Hollande, and Merkel, in contrast, are timid - indecisive orators who have permitted compassion and tolerance to be weaponized.

The West now has three choices: continue the “moderate” coalition charade, cooperate with the Russians, or withdraw and yield to a new initiative – and a decisive leader.

Those who cannot or will not lead in the Middle East need to step aside. The Islamic State and the Muslim jihad at home and abroad will not be defeated with words – or indulgence.

About the Author(s)



Thu, 10/29/2015 - 3:42am

In reply to by G. Murphy Donovan

Mr. Donovan:

Russian leaders have publicly claimed over and over again that their enemy is Islamism in general, and the Islamic State in particular.

But we know that their actions tell another story...

If Arab/Islamic civilization is truly torn between secular authoritarianism and religious extremism, then it takes courage to navigate another course.

Yet Putin has enabled both dictators (Assad, Al-Sissi, Qaddafi, Kadyrov) and Islamists (Iran and again Kadyrov) where it suits his purposes.

Despite internal strife and infiltration by Islamists, the Free Syrian Army largely represents the majority of Syrians, and is fighting both the Islamic State and the Shia forces. They are the best hope for a Syria that is neither in thrall to another dictator, nor a failed state, nor a terrorist state. And these are the people that Russian commanders are bombing. For the most part, the Russians are content to leave the Islamic State, and its Chechen and Dagestani volunteers alone unless they present a direct threat to Assad's Lattakia enclave.

The US has fought against Islamism since 2001, and has been careful to differentiate between Islamists and Muslims. Russia's adventures in Chechnya were more related to separatism than Islamism per se, and I don't see these Russian commanders stirring the pot with Russian Muslims.

Again, I am not sure exactly what decisive leadership you are looking for from the US. To embroil itself even more in a religious civil war? To occupy and disarm Syria?

Putin has been "crystal clear" about one thing: making the world pay attention to Russia. It has worked, but it has come at great cost.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 10/28/2015 - 4:32pm

In reply to by G. Murphy Donovan

Interesting that while Putin and his FM "claim" they are threatened by a massive jihadi threat--is it not the same Russia that 1) has over 2400 Russian jihadi's leaving Russia and yet the mighty FSB seems to be unable to stop them and 2) it is the same Russian military via Putin that rolled into Syria claiming to want to defeat IS then actively supports IS with air strikes against the FSA which is actually fighting IS.

We are talking about the same Russia as indicated in the article...right?

G. Murphy Donovan

Wed, 10/28/2015 - 10:39am

Interesting discussion!

Indeed, echoes of the E-Ring and Clapper/Brennan through the Obama years. Withal, I would add two observations. First, if you are listening to the Russian commanders in the field these days you will hear a crystal clear recognition of the threat today - Islamism. By their definition and experience, a global threat. We here, in contrast are still led to believe that Muslim terror is a local criminal phenomena with local motives. Mike Flynn (DIA) was probably one of the few threat dissenters and he was put out to pasture. So much for analytical integrity on the E-Ring today.

Which leads to a second observation about military leadership, or better still, the lack of it. Beyond a few tactical episodes with little operational or strategic significance, victory or any reasonable facsimile has all but disappeared from the American martial vocabulary. Flags now take their clues from politicians and couch all possible futures in terms like "stability" or an entire vocabulary which could be reduced to "kick the can" metaphors.

We have confused promotion with achievement, a little like confusing election with good governance. The Director of NSA was promoted to four star after 9/11, the worst warning disaster since Pearl harbor. The desks have indeed been weaponized.

With no operational or strategic measures of military effectiveness, the expenditure of resources and lives on small wars is a waste. If it is possible to die from a thousand cuts, we might be our own worst enemy.


Fri, 10/16/2015 - 11:54am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Elena wrote her own biography, and it appears that her credentials consist of being likely a daughter of the current nomenklatura.

Moreover, she is too young for the First Chechen War, and has no background in geopolitics - other than being quoted by Russia Insider... This is the new HuffPost?

Outlaw 09

Fri, 10/16/2015 - 5:59am

There are others that sit in positions of "narrative influence" that are part and parcel of the Russian information warfare campaign.

REALLY, really, really read what she is stating--especially the comment on chemical weapons WHICH were to have been totally removed by Russia????

THEN ask the simple question--why this article at this time in the US media Huffington Post----notice not a single word about the genocide of 250K Syrians and the chemical attack killing 1400 men, women and children by Assad.

Ms. Ulansky is at present a Managing Director at Platinum Partners, a sizable hedge fund, located in New York City. Her background includes several business development activities, raising capital, originating deals for PE firms & cross border M&A. She is part of a unique "think tank" organized by a famous hedge fund owner and participates regularly in the assessment of geo political situations and their global impact.
She graduated with a Master's degree in Economics, with distinction, from Moscow State University. She has a diploma in Art & Sculpture.
Her Scandinavian descent combined with upbringing in US and Russia, gives her an ability to relate to different cultures and issues. She is fluent in English & Russian and can navigate in French, Spanish & Italian.
She is passionate about spirituality & practices Yoga. She continues to expand her activities for the various causes as a "brand ambassador". Other interests include ballet, tennis & skiing.

Syria vs Chechnya - West Has to Learn From Putin

Posted: 10/15/2015 2:05 pm EDT

President Obama and other Western leaders are critical of President Putin's support of Syrian President Assad. The West is upset about Russia's use of missiles and aircraft to attack anti-Assad rebels in Syria. While there is no debate about the value of Russian attacks on ISIS; there is a deep concern over his support of Assad and the long-term consequence for the middle east of the effect of Russia, Iran and Iraq working together.

Putin on the other hand has complained of the lack of co-operation by the United States with the Russian military plan in Syria. Putin described this failure as a result of the West having "mush for brains".
To understand Putin's support of the Assad regime, one has to understand when Putin sees Syria he sees many of the same issues he has been dealing with in Chechnya. For Putin Syria is Chechnya. Chechnya has gone through wars with Russia and is now firmly aligned with Moscow.

Syria is too reminiscent of Chechnya for Putin. In both conflicts, the State fought rebels who had ISIS type terrorist actions (blowing up theatre in Moscow). Kadyrov has rebuilt Grozny (with significant financing from Moscow) and created his own version of the peaceful Islamist Republic of Chechnya. The last two years, Putin hoped that Assad would be able to do what he himself did in Chechnya.

After two decades of Sunni separatist fighting, Chechnya is now headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who switched to pro-Russia side. Putin established a stable government in Chechnya and is able to sustain it regardless of numerous factors that make this region of Russia by far one of the most volatile in the world.

This is true despite Chechnya's population being primarily Sunni followers of Islam. There have been many reports of ISIS in Iraqi freeing Sunni's and executing Shiites. To Sunni ISIS fighters, Shiites are apostates and must die. The one result of the Syria war Putin cannot allow to have happen, is the Sunni ISIS fighters spreading to Chechnya.

Currently Chechnya is a part of Russia. As a part of a republic, Chechnya is obliged to follow the Federal law of Russian Federation. But Putin has allowed exceptions to federal law in an attempt to promote peace in Chechnya. For example is monogamy. In keeping with Islam, it is legal to have multiple wives. This "flexibility" is just one example of Putin's flexibility in his control of Chechnya. Of course Chechnya is still very far from being a self-sustained and balanced country. Russian subsidies of Chechnya's economy could be considered astronomical; but if one compares it to the "price" of war Russia would have to pay otherwise, they make perfect sense.

Vladimir Putin believes that if Assad is permitted to be overthrown and ISIS survives the Middle East will be more of a mess than it is today. While the West is seeking a "transition" to a democratic government and rejecting Assad, it's "track- record" of nation building in the Middle East is dismal. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, clearly, are not a desirable model for a future Syria. Putin fears of what maybhappen in the Middle East if Syria is left without Assad's strong leadership and no clear understanding of who will replace him. The current situation reminds him of what has been happening in Chechnya years before his leadership, and how successful he views his strong military response and control of Chechnya.

However unsuccessful Assad has been in fighting ISIS, Putin has a point asking the West some basic questions: who will be responsible for Syria after the removal of Assad? Who will contain Sunni extremists? Who will help Russia if ISIS extremists return home to cause terror in the North Caucasus and other Russian regions with significant Sunni Islamic population? And finally, who will guarantee the safety of chemical weapons in Syria?

Bottom line - Putin has done something close to impossible by "taming" the Chechen nation, and keeping them peaceful for more than a decade. Perhaps it makes sense to listen to his position on Syria.

Bill C.

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 6:37pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

One's legacy is, indeed, enhanced if one is/has been both realistic and smart:

In this regard, consider the following re: a strategy and foreign policy suggested by "retrenchment:"

"Retrenchment is probable and pragmatic. Great powers may not be prudent, but they tend to become so when their power ebbs. Regardless of regime type, declining states routinely renounce risky commitments, redistribute alliance burdens, pare back military outlays, and avoid ensnarement in and escalation of costly conflicts."

"Husbanding resources is simply sensible. In the competitive game of power politics, states must unsentimentally realign means with ends or be punished for their profligacy. Attempts to maintain policies advanced when U.S. relative power was greater are outdated, unfounded, and imprudent. Retrenchment policies—greater burden sharing with allies, less military spending, and less involvement in militarized disputes—hold the most promise for arresting and reversing decline."…

Obama's legacy, thus, to be enhanced, and specifically by way of his adopting the smart and realistic strategy and foreign policies related to "retrenchment."

(Putin and his adventurism, seen in the declining power/need for retrenchment light offered above, to simply be showing himself to be dumb? His legacy, re: the annals of history, to ultimately suffer accordingly?)

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 2:41pm

In reply to by Bill C.

It is all about his "legacy" nothing more nothing less----ie what will the history books say--and that does not make for good foreign policy NOR stratey?

Bill C.

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 1:49pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09


The "communications challenge" was created, one might suggest, by the "results challenge."

Herein, the world noting (in stark contrast to the U.S./the West's highly advertised "universal values," etc., ideas) that:

a. Populations (such as those of Iraq and Afghanistan),

b. Liberated from their oppressive regimes,

c. These such liberated populations DID NOT (as was heavily advertised by the West that they would)

d. Quickly, easily and mostly on their own:

1. Throw off their old ideas and allegiances and, in the place of these,

2. Adopt modern western ways.

When this did not happen (not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in Egypt, Libya, Syria etc.) -- and, instead, chaos and instability reigned -- then U.S./western leaders would, indeed, be left with an exceptionally difficult "communications" challenge.

Herein to note (and for the "failure"/"chaos"/"instability" reasons outlined above) what was now considered to be the "right side of history;" this now seemed to be questionable/unknown/ up-for-grabs idea.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 12:44pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C ---Remember my Obama legacy comments---

"I did not realize that the White House would see the problem as essentially a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements. What the United States would do to try to influence Syria’s direction never enjoyed the same policy priority as what the United States would say."

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 12:38pm

In reply to by Bill C.

We have been in Cold War 2 since August 2014 with the Russian invasion of the Ukraine---

Bill C.

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 12:07pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09


1. discredit and damage NATO
2. discredit and damage the EU
3. disconnect the US fully from Europe and the ME

These such efforts being consistent with the concept of a New (albeit reverse) Cold War; one such as I have outlined at my Oct 12 at 6:53 PM comment below.

Old Cold War guys like you and I will recall President's Nixon's successful efforts to (further) disconnect Russia and China from each other during the past Cold War.

Thus, further evidence to support my New/Reverse Cold War thesis?

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 10:48am

Substitute the word Syria with the Ukraine and this revealing article fully explains why Putin has been successful--not anything he has one but rather failures by this administration is helping him to achieve his three geo political goals.

1. discredit and damage NATO
2. discredit and damage the EU
3. disconnect the US fully from Europe and the ME

I Got Syria So Wrong

I spent early 2011 trying to ease tensions between Syria and its neighbors. I never predicted the brutality that would come from inside.

By Frederic Hof

October 14, 2015

Now and then I am asked if I had predicted, way back in March 2011 when violence in Syria began, that within a few years a quarter-million people would be dead, half the population homeless and hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians terrorized, traumatized, tortured and starved. The companion question, more often than not, is if I had forecast the failure of the West to offer any protection at all to Syrian civilians subjected to a systematic campaign of mass homicide. Having first been exposed to Syria as a teenage exchange student, I was expected by questioners to know something about the place. And as a State Department officer, I was assumed to know something about my government.

But no. It took me the better part of eighteen months to comprehend fully the scope of an unfolding humanitarian and political catastrophe. By September 2012, when I resigned my State Department post as adviser on Syrian political transition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I knew that Syria was plunging into an uncharted abyss—a humanitarian abomination of the first order. And I knew that the White House had little appetite for protecting civilians (beyond writing checks for refugee relief) and little interest in even devising a strategy to implement President Barack Obama’s stated desire that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside. But at the beginning, nothing drawn from my many years of involvement in Syria inspired accurate prophesy.

That Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria has shocked the Obama administration is itself no surprise. For nearly two years, Washington had chased Moscow diplomatically in the belief that the Kremlin’s soothing words about supporting political transition in Syria were truthful. That which was obvious to many—Russia’s desire to perpetuate Assad in office—is now jarringly clear to the administration. That training and equipping anti-Assad rebels to fight anyone but Assad has been dropped like a bad habit by an administration warned not to proceed along these lines is hardly a bolt from the blue. But the White House is not alone in failing to accurately forecast the severity of the Syrian disaster.

The major reason for my lack of foresight: It didn’t have to turn out this way, and I remain mildly surprised that it did. It is not that Syrians were without grievances concerning the way they were being governed. Widespread unemployment, underemployment and opportunity deficits were already prompting those with means among the best and brightest to leave the country. Although the regime’s corruption, incompetence and brutal intolerance of dissent were hardly state secrets, Assad was not universally associated by Syrians with the system’s worst aspects: “If only the president knew” was a phrase one heard often. Some Syria watchers believed that the Arab Spring would visit the country in the form of political cyclone. I did not. I did not think it inevitable that Assad—a computer-savvy individual who knew mass murder could not remain hidden from view in the 21st century—would react to peaceful protest as violently as he did, with no accompanying political outreach. And as Syria began to descend into the hell to which Assad was leading it, I did not realize that the White House would see the problem as essentially a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements. What the United States would do to try to influence Syria’s direction never enjoyed the same policy priority as what the United States would say.

Back in early 2011, it seemed possible not only to avoid violent upheaval in Syria but to alter the country’s strategic orientation in a way that would counter Iran’s penetration of the Arab world and erase Tehran’s land link to its murderous Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Much of my State Department time during the two years preceding Syria’s undoing was thus spent shuttling back and forth between Damascus and Jerusalem, trying to build a foundation for a treaty of peace that would separate Syria from Iran and Hezbollah on the issue of Israel.

There was a degree of idealism in my quest, born in the brain of an American teenager many years before. But there was another personal element as well. Long before Hezbollah murdered Mr. Lebanon—Prime Minister Rafik Hariri—in 2005, it had brutally and pathologically tortured to death a friend of mine serving as an unarmed United Nations observer, Marine Lt. Col. Rich Higgins. Peace between Israel and Syria would require Damascus to cut all military ties to Hezbollah. It would require Syria to stop facilitating Iran’s support to Hezbollah. It would set the stage for a Lebanon-Israel peace that would further marginalize Lebanon’s murder incorporated. Peace for its own sake is good. But the prospect of beating Hezbollah and its Iranian master was inspiring. This prospect, more than anything else, motivated the mediation I undertook as a deputy to Special Envoy George Mitchell in the State Department.

Assad, told me in late February 2011 that he would sever all anti-Israel relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and abstain from all behavior posing threats to the State of Israel, provided all land lost by Syria to Israel in the 1967 war—all of it—was returned. My conversation with him was detailed in terms of the relationships to be broken and the behavior to be changed. He did not equivocate. He said he had told the Iranians that the recovery of lost territory—the Golan Heights and pieces of the Jordan River Valley—was a matter of paramount Syrian national interest. He knew the price that would have to be paid to retrieve the real estate. He implied that Iran was OK with it. He said very directly he would pay the price in return for a treaty recovering everything.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was interested. He was not at all eager to return real estate to Syria, but he found the idea of prying Syria out of Iran’s grip fascinating. And the negative implications for Hezbollah of Lebanon following Syria’s peace accord with Israel were not lost on him in the least. Although there were still details to define about the meaning of “all” in the context of the real estate to be returned, Netanyahu, too, knew the price that would ultimately have to be paid to achieve what he wanted.

But by mid-April 2011 the emerging deal that had looked promising a month earlier was off the table. By firing on peaceful demonstrators protesting police brutality in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, gunmen of the Syrian security services shredded any claim Assad had to governing legitimately. Indeed, Assad himself—as president of the Syrian Arab Republic and commander in chief of the armed forces—was fully responsible for the shoot-to-kill atrocities. Even so, he told Barbara Walters in a December 2011 ABC TV interview, “They are not my forces, they are military forces belong[ing] to the government . . . I don’t own them, I am the president. I don’t own the country, so they are not my forces.”

Before the shooting began the United States and Israel were willing to assume Assad had sufficient standing within Syria to sign a peace treaty and—with American-Israeli safeguards in place—make good on his security commitments before taking title to demilitarized territories. But when he decided to try to shoot his way out of a challenge that he and his first lady could have resolved personally, peacefully and honorably, it was clear he could no longer speak for Syria on matters of war and peace.

Some of my U.S. government colleagues from bygone days tell me we dodged a bullet: that an uprising against the Assad regime’s arrogance, cluelessness and corruption in the middle of treaty implementation would have caused real trouble. Others believe we were too slow: that a treaty signing in early 2011 could have kept the gale force winds of the Arab Spring from unhinging Syria. I don’t know. I don’t know if Assad or Netanyahu would, in the end, have done a deal. What I do know is that I felt good about where things were in mid-March 2011. What I also know is that by mid-April hope of a treaty was gone, probably never to return in my lifetime.

Assad’s decision to apply lethal violence to something that could have been resolved peacefully was the essence of betrayal. He betrayed his country so thoroughly as to destroy it. Four years on, he reigns in Damascus as a satrap of Iran and a dependent of Moscow. In the end, he solidified Israel’s grip on land lost in 1967 by his defense minister father.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 10:22am

US leadership failures do not make a great Russian "strategist".

Well worth reading------

Where is the line between inaction and complicity? The notion of neutrality, for a country as powerful as the United States, is illusory.

Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the Failure of America’s Do-Nothing Policy in the Middle East----It was nice to think the region’s uprisings weren’t about the United States, or didn't have to be. But in part they were, and they did.

For those that do not believe that Assad is behind the sheer amount of damage inflicted on the Syrian civil society and now inflicted by the RuAF AND the West wonders why are over 4M refugees--the country is basically destroyed.

Putin is using the Syrian conflict to demonstrate the so called power of the Russian military he could not demonstrate in the Ukraine and "show" his superpower status
That does not make him the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Strangely beautiful drone footage from the war in #Syria

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/15/2015 - 10:21am

US leadership failures does not make a great Russian "strategist".

Well worth reading------

Where is the line between inaction and complicity? The notion of neutrality, for a country as powerful as the United States, is illusory.

Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the Failure of America’s Do-Nothing Policy in the Middle East----It was nice to think the region’s uprisings weren’t about the United States, or didn't have to be. But in part they were, and they did.

For those that do not believe that Assad is behind the sheer amount of damage inflicted on the Syrian civil society and now inflicted by the RuAF AND the West wonders why are over 4M refugees--the country is basically destroyed.

Putin is using the Syrian conflict to demonstrate the so called power of the Russian military he could not demonstrate in the Ukraine and "show" his superpower status
That does not make him the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Strangely beautiful drone footage from the war in #Syria

I don't even know where to begin. The latrine is so overflowing that it's time to decamp...

1. I don't know why Lee and Grant are as "indispensable" to Union victory in the Civil War as Lincoln. Lincoln was indispensable to Union victory; Lee delayed it. Grant was simply a tool in the proper application of overwhelming force.

2. Which leads us to Churchill, who as a strategist stood above all others in the Second World War. Again, Stalin was not necessary for Allied victory. In fact, Stalin started the war along with Hitler. German generals had already wargamed Blitzkrieg running out of steam in the Soviet Union, and it was Stalin's purges and incompetence in military affairs and foreign policy that allowed the Germans to reach the outskirts of Moscow. Although Stalin transformed himself into a "Soviet Russian", he nevertheless worked to destroy much of pre-Soviet Russian culture. Russia survived the German onslaught in spite of Stalin, not because of him.

3. So Putin is great only in comparison to Obama? Yes, many Western countries have eschewed their national character in favor of cosmopolitan multiculturalism and political correctness, but that doesn't make Putin a defender of Western civilization. Russia was separated from the West by its attachment to Greek script and Greek Orthodox Christianity, and by the impact of the Mongol-Tatar yoke. Does Russia belong in Europe? Yes, but that doesn't make it exactly Western...

4. The commodity boom reversed the fortunes of Russia, which is now one of the most unequal societies on the planet

5. Well at least hearing "culture" makes Mr. Donovan want to get misty-eyed over public institutions rather than reach for his gun.

6. US foreign policy spasms are directly related to the domestic popular mood and electoral cycle. One wonders that the eternal leaders in the Kremlin haven't figured it out yet.

7. Well, Russia was invited into Afghanistan as well. Good to know that the "Federation Council" still has a say.

8. No Empire has been able to partner with the Arabs without keeping one eye open...the US isn't to blame.

9. Putin had no problem having his FSB friends blow up apartment buildings and restarting the Chechen War in order to get votes and a police state mandate. More Stalin than Hitler.

10. Russian colonists brought in to the non-Russian republics during the Soviet period of Russification had the option to integrate into the once-again independent republics or to return to Russia. They were not "stranded" in the Baltics, Ukraine or Kazakhstan.

11. NATO was receding until Putin started gobbling up his neighbor's territory. The so-called "trust" was with the Bush Sr. Administration, and while Russia has violated the INF and CFE treaties, NATO has not. What about the Budapest Memorandum?

12. Putin is a major supporter of Fascist thugs who have attacked foreigners and homosexuals with abandon on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, with the tacit support of the police.

13. Putin has no viable strategy in the Middle East. Becoming stuck in the Syrian quagmire isn't worth the annoyance to Turkey, the GCC and NATO. Assad isn't an "ally", but a client - now more dependent on Tehran than Moscow. Putin seems to forget that the GCC can set southern Russia on fire if they so choose. Nor are the 100,000 or so reasonably-competent professional soldiers Russia has capable of holding Latakia, Crimea, Donbass and the Caucuses republics.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 10/14/2015 - 10:35am

Another American comes out of the closet to support the Putin "narrative"--the serious question is just how much did he receive for positioning this article??

Will post the link later to a whole series of US individuals and organizations that are on the receiving end of Russian info war funding and have been for a long while.

AND he is from the intel world--should actually understand Russian fascistic imperial driven expansion based on a religious nationalism---or did he miss the "Holy War" declared by the ROC in Syria??

Wow. Someone's been reading way too much RT.

Russia is virtually bankrupt, largely a consequence of Putin's failure to diversify the economy and give the government a revenue base outside the hydrocarbon industry. With the hydrocarbon glut showing no signs of abating, the economic woes have little prospect of relief and the energy weapon that Russia used to hold over Europe is a wet noodle.

Putin's proxy war in the Ukraine has stalled. His proxy can't win, but having sold the conflict to his nationalist base as a crusade for Mother Russia, he can't let them lose.

He's jumped two-footed into a commitment to sustain a collapsing and inutile dictatorship, uniting the entire Sunni world against him and giving them a golden opportunity to wear him down by funneling assistance to his rivals. How long before arms and money begin flowing to militants in Dagestan and Chechnya, and how long before attacks on Russian soil begin?

If that's "greatness", we can only be happy that it seems confined to Russia. I'm not sure we could survive much of it.

The claim that Putin has been "decisive" in Syria and Obama has not is of course quite baseless. Obama made a decision not to commit the US to engagement in Syria, and has stuck by that decision. Whether or not you like the decision, there nothing indecisive about it. The US is involved, Russia is committed. The difference goes back to the old adage: it's like bacon and eggs... the chicken is involved, the pig is committed. Given what's going on in Syria, does anyone seriously think it's better to be committed?

Below I will suggest a possible better way to see and understand "Putin Rising" (and, indeed, "Islamists Rising" also).

But first, a quote from our article by G. Murphy Donovan here:

"Consequently, in order to avoid tough choices, both Republicans and Democrats have resurrected a Cold War with Russia."

In order to properly understand "Putin Rising," we must first note that the idea of a New Cold War (albeit a reverse one in consideration of the Old Cold War) is entirely appropriate today; this, given the fact that:

a. Today, the U.S./the West is attempting "expansion" (of our way of life, our way of governance, etc.) -- much as the Soviets/the communists attempted "expansion" (of their way of life, etc.) back-in-the-day. And the fact that:

b. Today, such nations as Russia, China and Iran are attempting "containment" -- re: the U.S./the West's such expansionist attempts -- much as the U.S./the West did -- re: the Soviets/the communists such attempts during the Old Cold War.

If one entertains the idea of a New Cold War today (albeit one with "roles reverse" as outlined above), then one can easily understand how the challenges that faced the Soviets/the communists, in the Old Cold War (and re: their expansionist efforts), these have now become our challenges in this New Cold War (and re: our contemporary expansionist attempts).

These such challenges being:

a. Rulers/regimes that resist such "modern" state and societal changes as the expansionist foreign power (the Soviets/the communists then; the U.S./the West now) requires.

b. Certain population groups (especially conservative groups) who, understandably, resist these such alien and profane changes. (Thus, "Islamists Rising" in both the Old Cold War and again today.)

c. Inept populations; that is: populations who, while being willing to change, simply are not able to make such rapid and radical political, economic and social transformations as the foreign power requires. And, last but not least,

d. Rival great nations -- who do "containment" -- so as to prevent their opponent great nation(s) from accomplishing "expansion" and gaining, thereby, greater power, influence and control in various regions of the world.

(Items "a"-"d" above accounting for both the state and non-state actor problems that we face today in our New Cold War; much as they likewise account for the state and non-state actor problems that the Soviets/the communists faced during the Old Cold War?)

Thus, for the U.S./the West to see "Putin Rising" today in much the same light that the Soviets/the communists might have seen "Truman Rising" cir. 1947.

(From the perspective of the formal beginning of a Cold War, a battle joined and a policy of containment formally inaugurated -- by the U.S./the West back then -- and by Russia, et al. today.)

Fascinting article btw. Kinda the last opinion i would have expected on SWJ.

As a system matures the elites, that have a lot of time and resources at hand, learn to mould the system more and more to serve themselves. In the end the system becomes so warped and serves so few people and thus has so few supporters it is helpless and either collapse under its own weight or is conqoured by the barbarians.

Putin did not grab power from Yeltsin. He grabbed power from the oligarchs. In the US and in the west, the oligarchs are still in control. This will inevitably destroy the west. And none can stop this since their control is to subtle to evoke a strong enough counter reaction. So the best thing to do is to get some savings and a cabin in the outbacks and a plot of land and a supply of humility and grit and cynicism and a bag of pop corn. Raise your potatoes and your kids and let the vultures rip it all apart. Maybe there is a tomorrow?

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 10/12/2015 - 12:10am

In President Obama's view, the military led him to believe that a short, sharp escalation would turn the corner in Afghanistan. It didn't work.

Then in Libya, the president was led to believe that the intervention of NATO airpower would ultimately lead to a peaceful, democratic Libya. It didn't work.

Now persons like Mr. Donovan are bad mouthing our president because Obama is skeptical a U.S. larger military commitment in Iraq and Syria will do the trick. That Obama won't get tricked again somehow makes him less than a "great man" in Donavan's mind. So be it.

I think PJ Crowley made a lot more sense during last week's panel discussion at PBS.