Turkey and the Kurds.

Turkey’s stance on the Syrian civil war has grown complicated.[1]  There are Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, and in Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism has threatened the territorial integrity of all three countries.[2]  If the Kurds can establish a Kurdish state in Syria and/or Iraq, then they will have a base for supporting rebellion by Kurds in Turkey.[3]  The civil war in Syria caused a collapse of authority by the Assad regime in many parts of the country.  Since 2012, in the northern part of the country, along the border with Turkey, Syrian Kurds established their power in a number of enclaves.  The first Kurdish troops joined up, at least in part, to oppose ISIS on its own demerits.

Then, in 2015, ISIS reared its ugly head as a threat to Iraq.  The army of Iraq collapsed.  Shi’ite militias, armed by Iran and led by Iranian generals, rose up to resist ISIS.  The United States sought to counter two enemies—ISIS and Iran, which were themselves enemies—by mobilizing Kurdish troops against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.  The Americans tried to put a veneer of we’re-not-only-Kurds on this by recruiting some Arab fighters for what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces.  This hasn’t fooled anyone.

By mid-2016, Kurdish forces seemed intent on linking-up several of their enclaves along the border with Turkey.  In August 2016, the Turks launched a major attack on ISIS forces across the border to pre-empt a Kurdish conquest.  As the ISIS caliphate began to crumble, it became a matter of time until the Turks, Kurds, and Americans would have to decide on next steps.  In late January 2018, Turkey—an American ally in NATO—attacked Kurdish troops—American allies in Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkish-American relations have continued to sour.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey since 2003.  In July 2016, opponents of Erdogan tried to overthrow him in a coup.  They missed their punch.  Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for organizing the coup.  Gulen lives in the United States and the U.S. refuses to extradite him to Turkey.  In 2016, Erdogan began building links to Iran and Russia.

Sometimes, there aren’t good solutions to problems.  If you wanted someone to fight ISIS and if you didn’t want it to be only Iran and its Iraqi clients, then either the Kurds or the Turks were going to have to do it.  The Turks showed no interest in a major intervention.  That left the Kurds, with all the baggage that choice would carry.  Similarly, should the United States now choose Turkey or the Kurds?  Erdogan seems bound away from a Western orientation.  The Kurds have proved themselves valuable allies at a time when the Syrian civil war continues down an uncertain path.  Perhaps there is a way to compose the differences between Turkey and the Kurds, at least over the longer term.  Or perhaps not.  Won’t know until we try.

[1] Sewell Chan, “What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on American-Allied Kurds in Syria,” NYT, 23 January 2018.

[2] The Assad family allowed one Turkish Kurdish leader to operate from Syria for a long time.

[3] This is the same reason that Israel will never accept the creation of a Palestinian state.  Doesn’t matter what commitments they may have made in earlier and different times.  For that matter, this is the same reason that there isn’t a Confederate States of America.  Before we start preaching to others.

Syrian End-Game.

Adolf Hitler’s aggression created an alliance of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union that brought down the Third Reich in flames.  However, that “Grand Alliance” consisted of countries with very different aims united only by the German danger.  As soon as victory came in sight, the allies began to fall out with one another.  Their competition produced the Cold War.

Now the same thing is happening as the ISIS caliphate begins to crumble.[1]  The current wars in the Middle East (the ISIS war, the Syrian civil war) have become proxy wars.  Turkey has become the chief supporter of the various Sunni Arab rebel groups, like the Free Syrian Army; the Russkies and the Iranians are the supporters of the Assad regime; and the Americans are the chief supporters of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria.   Now, these disparate allies-of-convenience are beginning to pursue their interests.  Their proxies are likely to pay the price.

The central dynamic in the next phase is likely to be Kurdish nationalism.  The Turks hate the Kurds, and the Kurds hate the Turks.  Turkey is a NATO member (if not exactly an ally), but the Americans have supplied the Kurds with a lot of support.  So, at some point, the Americans are going to have to make a choice or broker a deal.  Now the Kurds have begun to doubt American support.  The Syrian Kurds, at least, have had some contact with the Russians.

Turkish support for the Sunni Arab rebels actually puts them on the side of the major losers in this struggle.  Both the American-backed Kurds and the Russian-backed Assad regime have greater assets on the battle field.  Contacts have opened between the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds.  The short-term goal of such talks might be co-operation against ISIS, but the long-term goal might be a meeting of minds about Turkey.  Naturally, Turkish president Erdogan would rather cut a deal with the Assad regime he has been trying to overthrow in order to forestall an Assad-Kurd alliance.  Assad’s chief aim seems to be to get control of the key western parts of Syria, where the Sunni rebels are his chief opponents.[2]  The Sunni rebels—commonly called the “moderates” by President Obama—are going to pay a heavy price if this happens.

For its part, Russia is allied with Iran to support the Assad regime.  Now the Iranian-controlled militias fighting in Syria have ignored Russian-sponsored local truces.  Both the Russians and the Assad regime are going to have to choose whether to cut ties with Iran.

Their immediate problem is that they want to know what the Americans are going to do.  In so far as Syria is concerned, the Trump administration, like the Obama administration, sees things almost entirely in military terms.[3]  They want ISIS destroyed.  This has produced a pause in American participation in Syrian peace talks now underway in Geneva.  At the same time, the American face a dilemma: the Trump administration wants to improve relations with Russia, the Russians are allied—for the moment—with Iran, and the Trump administration is hostile to Iran (as are several of America’s regional allies).[4]  The U.S. and Russia recently joined to block an attack by Turkish Sunni clients toward the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa because it would have cut across a movement by Kurds and Assad forces.  Does this have any longer-term meaning?

So, who will get eastern Syria once ISIS is destroyed?  The Kurds?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Battle for Raqqa Set to Shape Mideast,” WSJ, 10 March 2017; Yaroslav Trofimov, “ U.S. Disengagement Creates Hurdles for Syria Peace Talks,” WSJ, 3 March 2017.

[2] That is, Syria may be headed toward “de facto” partition.

[3] An American tradition.  Look at Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945: The Decision to Halt at the Elbe. (1967).

[4] To make matters worse, the out-of-power Democrats want to preserve the deal with Iran brokered by John Kerry while also attacking Russia as a way of impugning President Trump.


Can Bashar al-Assad win the Syrian Civil War?  The answer depends on definitions.  What does “win” mean?  What does “Syria” mean?

Aleppo and Palmyra are two ancient cities in Syria.[1]  One of them is today a major population center and the other is a mere tourist trap.  If Syria were at peace, the distinction wouldn’t matter.  Both would be income-streams.  However, Syria is at war and the distinction does matter.   The Syrian government of dictator Bashar  al-Assad has concentrated its military forces and received important foreign assistance —Russian air-power and Iranian fighters—to capture the rebel-held eastern sections of Aleppo, the population center.  In the meantime, he has yielded territory to ISIS forces around Palmyra, the tourist trap.  Probably to be able to claim that the regime was fighting ISIS, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra in March 2016.  However, they didn’t put in the resources to hold it.  In mid-December 2016, while the Syrians and their allies concentrated on the capture of Eastern Aleppo, ISIS forces managed to retake the city.

How should we interpret this mixed outcome?  The main point to take away is that Aleppo matters to the Assad regime, but Palmyra—and most other ISIS-held territory–doesn’t matter to the Assad regime.  The regime has been most threatened by the rebellion in the much more heavily-populated western parts of the country.  Rebels there have received support from Sunni Arab countries.  In contrast, ISIS holds vast swathes of the less densely populated—and less important –eastern parts of the country.   Moreover, ever since its invasion of western Iraq, ISIS has been targeted by the Americans, the Kurds, and the Iraqis.  The Syrian Army has been at war for a very long time.  Both its current manpower and its ability to recruit new soldiers are close to exhaustion.  Russian aircraft and Iranian troops abruptly have dragged the regime out of a dire situation.  Why would the hard-pressed Assad regime devote scarce resources to the lesser enemy when other countries are willing to do the work?

Now Eastern Aleppo has fallen to the regime.  What further action will the regime take after this costly victory?  Wishful thinking abounds.  One conspiracy theory holds that the Assad regime sand-bagged the defense of Palmyra so that ISIS jihadis would appear in the news to distract the ADHD-prone Western media from the brutal final assault on Aleppo.  One Egyptian diplomat speculated that “unless the regime opens up negotiations with the opposition in finding a proper reconciliation, the guerrilla warfare will spread all over the place.”  The U.S. government urged the Syrians and Russians to divert their energies from pursuing final victory over the rebels in Aleppo to resisting ISIS in an inconsequential place.

More practically, the Assad regime may concentrate on consolidating its victory in western Syria.  It seems wise to anticipate a further flood of refugees into Turkey and—soon thereafter—into Greece.  Then, the regime, and the Russians and Iranians, will contemplate what further action to take.  Will they really want to embark on a costly new offensive to retake desert wastelands?  Will they want to imperial their existing substantial gains in order to fight ISIS?  Will they leave ISIS to the Americans and their allies?  Will they decide to wipe out the remnants of resistance in western Syria, then turn to dealing with the Syrian Kurds?  Given the alliance between the Russians and the Shi’ites of Iran and Iraq, all parties may be willing to sit and wait for a time before deciding the fate of ISIS.

So, “Syria” may mean western Syria and “win” may mean a localized victory followed by a period of watchful waiting.  Then, a new round in the unraveling of Sykes-Picot Agreement.  First one thing, then another thing.  Sequence.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Assad’s Choice: Fight Rebels but Cede to Islamic State,” WSJ, 16 December 2016.

Peace Negotiations.

Except for a lot of killing, the civil war in western Syria is over.[1]  Backed by Russia, the Assad regime has defeated the rebel forces in the western part of the country.[2]  The siege of the eastern third of the city of Aleppo will grind on.  Horror stories will continue to turn the stomachs of readers of the New York Times.  Still, the die is cast.  Some of the states which have used Syria as a battlefield in larger struggles have now turned to settling the peace terms in this conflict while preparing for the next conflict.

Religion-based alliances have been the common basis of coalitions in the Middle East for a long time now.  During the Syrian civil war, Iran, the majority Shi’a government of Iraq, the minority Alawite government of Syria, and Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon all joined forces to fight the Sunni insurgency.  Conversely, Sunni Turkey and Sunni Saudi Arabia long co-operated against the Assad regime.  Russia gained influence in the region by choosing the Shi’ite side.  The United States may have lost some influence by its unwillingness to choose sides.

However, it appears that identities other than religion offer the basis for alignment.  The Saudis seem to have taken Turkish support as a given in the continuing struggle against Iran.  Iran and Turkey have been backing opposing sides in the civil war, so they should be at daggers drawn for years to come.  In practice, this is not so.  Iran and Turkey both are non-Arab states.  During the 20th Century, both did a better job at fending off direct Western domination than did any of the Arab states.  Beyond this “usable past” (if they care to invoke it for practical reasons of state) the two countries have a problem with the Kurds.

Iran and Turkey (and the soon-to-be-victorious Assad regime) all fear the next problem on the horizon, Kurdish nationalism.   First came the protected zone for Iraqi Kurds created by the US after the First Gulf War.  Then came the near-autonomous region created after the 2003 invasion which gave birth to a proto-Kurdistan in northern Iraq.  Over the last several years, Kurdish militias from Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS.  Along the way, Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism is burning in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia fears its neighbor across the Persian Gulf, but Turkey feels no real danger from Iran.  Erdogan’s allegations of U.S. involvement in the recent attempt to overthrow him might be taken as window-dressing meant to justify his shift toward reconciliation with Iran.

All this is speculation, not prophecy.  Yet one speculation leads to other speculations.  If the Syrian civil war is winding down and the Kurdish issue is winding up, will all the major players take a moment to concentrate on destroying ISIS?  If the Assad regime and its patrons have won the civil war, then will Turkey close the border to both the inflow of aid to the rebels and any flight by anti-Assad refugees?  If Turkey, Syria, and Iran are about to turn on the Kurds, will Saudi Arabia shift its support to the Kurds as a way of pressuring Iraq, Iran, and Turkey?  If the Kurds see the coalition gathering against them, will they shorten their reach in an effort to hold onto the core of what they have already obtained?  Having been so continually frustrated of late by developments in the Middle East, will American diplomacy profit from the experience and seek new means to achieve American goals?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey, Iran Get Friendly, Despite War,” WSJ, 7 October 2016.

[2] Whether it will now turn to defeating the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country remains an open question.

The Syrian Civil War.

How long do civil wars last?[1]  The Spanish Civil War lasted 2 years, 8 months, 2 weeks and 1 day; the American Civil War lasted 4 years, 3 weeks and 6 days.  However, the average duration for modern civil wars is about ten years.[2]  Lots of these civil wars end in a peace deal because both sides already have shot their bolt.  The Syrian civil war has lasted about half that long.  So far.

Why have modern civil wars dragged on for so long?  Historically, foreign intervention plays a large role in prolonging civil wars.  That is one reason that the Americans welcomed French support in the War for Independence and Abraham Lincoln sought to avoid British or French intervention in the American Civil War. Spain became a battle ground for Fascism (Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) and Communism (the Soviet Union and the International Brigades raised by the Comintern).  Syria has become the battle ground for radical Islam (ISIS and the Al Nusra Front); the Shi’ite side of the larger Muslim civil war (Iran, Iraq, and Syria); the Sunni side of the larger Muslim civil war (Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states); Kurdish nationalists and Turkey (which has its own issues with the Kurds); and Western powers (the USA and Russia).  The multiple powers engaged only complicate a peace settlement.[3]

Why has the Syrian civil war been so gory?  Normally, say the scholars of these things, both sides in a civil war have a strong incentive to win the loyalty of the civilians who provide the “sea” in which the insurgents “swim.”  This puts a check on the atrocities.[4]  It doesn’t prevent them, but it does limit them.  However, the Syrian civil war is different.  First, the Alawite and Christian minorities fear genocide at the hands of the Sunni majority.  If you look at the broader pattern in the Middle East, this isn’t an unreasonable fear.  Outside support/intervention reduces the importance of the local population in the eyes of the fighters.  Thus, ISIS is OK with atrocities committed against Unbelievers, or Insufficient Believers.  The government is backed by a minority of Syrians, so there is little to be gained from humane conduct toward the rebellious Sunni majority.  The foreign Sunni supporters of the rebels only stand to profit from the massacre of Shi’ites.  This intensifies the “normal” atrocities of war.  The popular image of men with guns run amuck may not be accurate.  Syria could be suffering multiple “ethnic cleansings.”  The government is the “Mr. Clean” in this business, but it has competitors.  Thus, many Christians and Alawite Muslims have fled to sanctuary in western Aleppo.

Is the Syrian Civil War un-winnable?  This is unclear, in spite of the prognostication of the New York Times and the Obama administration.

What is the basis of a peace deal?  All sides are coalitions of things that they are against, rather than things they are for.  (This is much like the Russo-British-Americans alliance during the Second World War.( The Russkies want President Assad to get off the stage at some point, but aren’t—yet–willing to force him or kill him.   Neither Turkey nor Iraq wants the Kurds to gain much territory or prestige.  The various parties will try to hold what they have already won.  (Except, perhaps, ISIS.)  ISIS will be defeated, but what will become of the Sunni rebel territories?  Perhaps, the country will have to be partitioned between an Assad-ruled-for-now West and an ISIS-ruled “free fire zone” in the East.  Then what?

[1] Max Fisher, “Why Syria’s War, After 400,000 Deaths, Is Only Getting Worse,” NYT, 27 August 2016.

[2] This may reflect weak governments out against weak insurgencies, with lots of ordinary people caught in the middle.

[3] See: The Thirty Years War; see: The Treaty of Westphalia.

[4] More specifically, it puts a check on the actions of the psychopaths who fill the ranks of opposing armies.


For all those angry with President Obama’s policy, the Islamic State is in retreat.  Iraq’s militias under the guidance of Iranian advisors, various Kurdish militias, and the Russian- supported Assad regime have rolled back ISIS gains.  At the same time, American efforts to focus narrowly on the danger of ISIS cut across the more powerful enmities and affinities in the region.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war in the Muslim world frames many local conflicts.  Russia has chosen alignment with the Shi’ites (Iran, the majority in Iraq, the Alawites of Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon).  The United States is having a harder time making a choice.

After the final American withdrawal from Iraq, the Shi’ite government of Nouri al-Maliki reverted to persecuting Sunni Iraqis.  Alienated, many Sunnis withdrew their support from the government.  Currently, on the principle of “once burned, twice shy,” the Sunnis of Iraq have been sitting-out the Reconquista by the so-called government of so-called Iraq.[1]  However, the occupation of the “liberated” areas by either Shi’ite militias or by Kurds merely shifted the locus of repression for the Sunnis.  The government has resisted pressure from Washington to arm Sunnis willing to fight ISIS because those same arms might later be used to resist the Shi’ites.[2]

Neither Russia nor its client Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad cared to focus on ISIS when they saw the other Sunni rebel groups as a target more dangerous and more near at hand.  Nor did the Sunni rebels against the Assad government see ISIS as the most pressing danger.  They often co-operate with Islamist groups in the fight against Assad.[3]  In the recent fighting around Aleppo, the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front—the Syrian off-shoot of Al Qaeda) has done much of the heavy lifting.  Will Islamist fighters in flight from the embattled ISIS caliphate head West to join the ranks of the Syrian Conquest Front?

If the Syrian Conquest Front, which the US still regards as a version of its old enemy Al Qaeda, becomes the dominant force in the war against the Assad government, Washington will face an ugly choice.  Which does it see as the greater threat?  With which will it align itself?  Will it support the increasingly Islamist-led rebels against the Assad government, even if that means a tacit alliance with the survivors of ISIS and a re-branded Al Qaeda?  Will it support the Assad government, even if that means following the Russian lead into a tacit alliance with the Shi’ites?

Where will future historians locate the root of this disaster?  The most obvious cause lies in the American decision to attack Iraq in 2003.[4]  Anyone who voted for that war has much to answer for.  Even before the occupation had been botched, the Turks had refused to cooperate because they foresaw the effect on Kurdish nationalism.  Then the occupation was botched.  Then came the Obama administration’s too-ready embrace of the “Arab Spring,” its overthrow of the Libyan dictator, and its un-deft handling of the Russians.

Looking farther back, though, can some of the origins be located in the refusal of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to write-off the loans made to Iraq in order for it to fight the long war in the 1980s against the revolutionary Shi’ite regime in Iran, or to support higher oil prices so that Iraq could earn the money to rebuild?  Everything turns out to be complicated, rather than simple.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamic State Slips, But Sunnis Are On the Sidelines,” WSJ, 10 June 2016.

[2] For its part, Washington has limited the flow of aid to the Kurds because the weapons supplied to fight ISIS might well be used against the Turks.  Given the recent hostility of Turkish president Erdogan to the West generally and to the United States in particular, Washington may decide to re-think this position.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Syria’s Alliance Hang on Outcome in Aleppo,” WSJ, 12 August 2016.

[4] In my view on specious grounds.

Arab Spring Board.

For decades since gaining their independence from foreign rule (either Turkish or European), the Arab states have suffered under brutally oppressive, monumentally corrupt, and astonishingly incompetent governments.  For decades it seemed that the “Arab street” would do nothing but seethe.  In Spring 2011, popular uprisings took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.  Optimists began to talk of an “Arab Spring.”  Realists began to recall the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.  Then large, but disparate coalitions of enemies of the old regime toppled their rulers in France, Germany, the Austrian Empire, and in Italy.  Equally quickly, the revolutionary tide ebbed when the victors could not agree what they wanted to put in place of the old regime.  Five years on, it seems to be widely accepted that the realists were right all along.[1]

That said, a great deal of diversity can be found within this universal model.  Tunisia has been struggling on manfully in an attempt to create some kind of non-autocracy and to revive its feeble economy.[2]  Egypt’s “deep state” tossed overboard Hosni Mubarrak, let the Muslim Brotherhood take office (if not power), and then staged a well-prepared coup.  Libya might have restored the old regime, but American intervention put an end to that chance and the country has virtually disintegrated.  Syria, worst of all, collapsed into a civil war that grinds on.

Kenneth Pollack offers a profound-sounding analysis of Worth’s book: “The Middle East [Worth] sketches…is a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.”  In these conditions, the absence of order, “Chaos bred fear, fear bred violence and violence bred revenge and more anger and more violence.”  That explanation seems to work well for Syria, but it hardly explains anywhere else in the Middle East.

Unrest did not occur everywhere to the degree that it occurred in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.  Much more limited unrest took place in some of the Gulf Arab states, in Jordan, in Morocco, and in Algeria.  Virtually nothing troubled the calm in Saudi Arabia.  The troubles in Iraq were both graver than in Egypt and arose from different traumas.  Yet all Arab governments are more or less oppressive and incompetent.  Why did the “Arab Spring” not take place all throughout the Arab world?  Why did the unrest have different outcomes in different places?

Part of the answer may be that the price of oil in 2011 stood at $100 a barrel, while the price of oil today is about $45 a barrel.  In 2011, Saudi Arabia was rolling in dough.  This wealth allowed the Saudi state to buy off any dissent among its subjects.  Having staved-off unrest at home, Saudi Arabia could also deploy its wealth in support of friends in other Arab countries.  On the one hand, when the United States reduced aid to Egypt after the coup against the democratically-elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia whipped out its check-book to more than make good the loss of American aid.  Links between the two Arab countries seem to continue to tighten.  On the other hand, when opponents of Bashar al-Assad in Syria called for aid, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States sent money and weapons.

The simple “they agreed on what they were against, but disagreed on what they were for” analysis of the Arab Spring misses yet another parallel to 1848.  The multi-national Austrian Empire lashed out against all enemies foreign and domestic.  The Czechs, the Italians, and the Hungarians all felt the force of Austrian arms.  The threat of Austrian intervention also contributed to the defeat of German nationalism.  Will the Saudi victories turn to ashes in ten years’ time, just as did those of Austria between 1859 and 1867?

[1] See Kenneth Pollack’s review of Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016), NYT Book Review, 1 May 2016.

[2] Now if Islamists would just stop shooting up the tourist resorts.

The end of Sykes-Picot 1.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement made between France and Britain during the First World War. It laid the foundation for the states of the modern Middle East.[1] The Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire were carved up into British and French spheres of influence. Soon thereafter, these spheres were re-labeled League of Nations “Mandates” out of deference to the self-righteous scold, Woodrow Wilson. Later, the British area got independence as Jordan, Iraq, and Israel; while the French area got independence as Syria and Lebanon. Events triggered by the American invasion of Iraq (2003) have now called into question the survival of some of these states.

First in line for the chopping block is Syria.[2] The Russians intervened to save their client Assad from defeat at the hands of his American-associated enemies. President Obama warned that the Russians were headed into another quagmire like Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way so far. War in eastern Syria might be just such a quagmire. Vladimir Putin might just decide that half a loaf is better than none and also better than trying to get the whole loaf. That half a loaf is likely to include Aleppo. An Assadist state in western Syria seems an increasingly likely outcome.

There doesn’t seem to be any plan yet to settle the fighting in Western Syria so that everyone can turn their guns on ISIS. Also, it’s pretty hard to imagine the former foes in the civil war just deciding to let bygones be bygones. How would they co-operate with one another? It isn’t clear that the Russians have any interest in a longer war in eastern Syria. In any joint struggle against ISIS the Assad government would have the upper hand over the non-ISIS forces provided that the Russians continued to provide air support. Government territorial gains and the accumulation of captured arms would further shift the balance in favor of the government. All sides must be pretty war-weary at this point. Again, half a loaf is better than none.

The Syrian Kurds represent another problem. Fighting ISIS when lots of Sunni Arabs would not has won them the favor and military assistance of the United States. However, Kurdish nationalism, rather than a principled opposition to ISIS, has motivated the Kurdish fight. Both the Sunni Arabs and the Turks recognize this reality. An autonomous or independent Kurdistan poses a serious threat to Turkey. The Turks—rightly—do not accept a distinction between Kurdish groups fighting in Syria or Iraq and Kurdish groups fighting inside Turkey. The recent suicide bombing of a military convoy in Ankara just turned up the heat in this conflict.[3] The United States has been trying to square this circle (just as it tried to reconcile Saudi Arabian and Iranian conflicts in the Iranian nuclear deal). The Russians have no such problem. The Turks shot down a Russian jet on a thin excuse. Putin will be happy to encourage the Kurds. The Syrian Kurds objectively allied themselves with the Russians and the Assad regime in recent attacks on Sunni Arab rebel forces. This may reduce American leverage on the Kurds.

For the moment, this part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement seems headed toward an Assad state in western Syria, a Kurdish state in northern Syria, and the ISIS Caliphate in eastern Syria. That’s unlikely to be the final word on the issue.

Then there is Iraq and Lebanon.

[1] To the extent that a place where ISIS can flourish can be called “modern.” This isn’t a permanent condition. Any culture can go through a bad patch. Mark Mazower called his history of 20th Century Europe The Dark Continent.

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Prospect of Syria’s Partition Looms Despite Cease-Fire,” WSJ, 4 March 2016.

[3] “How they see us: Fighting against Turkey’s interests,”, The Week, 4 March 2016, p. 17.

The Great Game–latest round.

“What do Russians want?”—Sigmund Freud.

One theory holds that the pursuit of foreign policy gains is driven by domestic concerns.[1] Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine are intended to distract Russians from their current economic hard times by reviving Russian parity with the United States. However, even though Russia remains burdened by economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine and constantly assailed by Western leaders, Putin has called for new parliamentary elections in April 2016. That doesn’t look like a worried man. More likely, Putin’s chief concerns are international rather than domestic.

Vladimir Putin habitually gloms together a range of international events as evidence of the malign effects of American interventionism: Iraq (2003), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Libya (2013). Georgia and Ukraine may seem like a bad case of emotional sunburn, but it’s hard to argue with the examples of Iraq and Libya. As Putin made clear to New York Times reporter Peter Baker some years ago, he wants the Americans to stop it.[2] Apparently, Syria is the place where he intends to make his point.

Russia is trying to show that it is a better ally and worse foe than is the United States. In essence, the Russians want Assad to stay in place until they agree that he should go and that he be replaced by a regime friendly to Russia. At the moment, the Russians are willing to fight and the Americans are not, so Putin is likely to get his way.

The Russian intervention in Syria has been modest: 50 aircraft; 6,000 troops to service and protect the planes; and about $3 million a day. With that backing, however, Assad’s forces have expanded their territory at the expense of their foes. The anti-Assad forces approved of by the West often fight cheek-by-jowl with the anti-Assad forces disapproved of by the West (the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front). The Russians don’t seem much inclined to fine distinctions and the most-recent cease-fire agreement allows for attacks on both ISIS and the Nusra Front. The current fear in Washington seems to be that the Russians will continue their attacks on a broad swathe of anti-Assad forces after the cease-fire nominally goes into effect. If past performance is any guide, the US will not do anything more than protest as its nominal clients are killed.

However, now Assad’s troops are close to encircling the rebel city of Aleppo. If they can cut the main supply routes into the city before the cease-fire begins, then the cease-fire will allow a siege to run forward undisturbed. Any attempt by Assad’s opponents to break out of or break in to Aleppo would constitute a violation of the cease fire. Seen in that light, Putin’s insistence that he will honor the cease-fire may be “sincere.” The fall of Aleppo might put the last nail in the coffin of the non-ISIS part of the insurgency.

That still would leave ISIS. Would the Russians back a Syrian effort to reconquer the eastern part of the country from the Caliphate? If they did, what sorts of questions might that raise for other countries? The United States would have to decide if it would co-operate with such an attack. After having complained that the Russians have not been attacking ISIS, it might be embarrassing to refuse to join an attack on ISIS. If the Syrians did attack eastward, would they navigate around the Syrian territories held by Kurds? Leaving the Kurds in place would pose a problem for Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has been after Assad’s head for years. “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!”[3]

[1] Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Wins Policy Points. Now What?” NYT, 24 February 2016.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.” https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[3] Joel, 3: 14.


There is a certain irony in the conquest of much of Syria by ISIS.[1] After 9/11, the Assad regime declined to join the American “global war on terror” (GWOT) in any serious way. Instead, it harbored Sunni Islamists. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, large numbers of foreign fighters passed through Syria on their way to join Abu Musab al Zarqawi. One Islamist leader explained Assad’s tolerance for these terrorists: “we [are] focusing on the common enemy, America and Israel.”

In 2007, the balance of forces in Iraq suddenly shifted. Zarqawi’s fundamentalism and his savagery had estranged many Sunnis in Iraq. This led to the “Awakening” movement that greatly reduced the need for American forces while offering much intelligence to the American Special Forces man-hunters. The George W. Bush Administration surged in reinforcements that allowed the US to restore order in Iraq and to pursue the Islamists. The situation began to improve. The Americans killed Zarqawi. Soon, his surviving followers took shelter in eastern Syria, beyond the reach of the man-hunters and the bombs. This allowed many American decision-makers to start looking for an eventual escape route. For his part, Assad seems to have started rounding-up Syrian Islamists whose usefulness had now declined.

Then came the “Arab Spring.” Popular uprisings—generally non-violent—began against the tyrants who ruled (and still rule) much of the Middle East. These movements rocked Tunisia, then Egypt, then Syria, and then Libya. The Tunisian regime soon struck its tents, but it took various types of American pressure to bring “reform” to Egypt and Libya. America had no such leverage in Syria.

At first, Bashar al-Assad responded to the popular challenge by force. This might well have done the job if he had stuck to his last. His faced a loose coalition of talkers-more-than-doers who were often at odds with one another. Like the young Egyptians of Tahrir Square, they seem to have had little support among the populace at large.

Instead, however, Assad tried to tar the rebels as Islamists. To this end, he released a lot of experienced Islamists from his jails. As expected, they took up arms against the regime. Assad then cast his government as the only viable barrier against jihad. Meanwhile, the surviving Iraqi Islamists had reconstituted themselves in eastern Syria as ISIS, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their leader. As the civil war dragged on, ISIS took control of much of the eastern part of Syria. Then, in Summer 2014 it attacked into western Iraq, routing Iraq’s army.

The results of Assad’s policies has been appalling. Huge numbers of deaths, hordes of miserable refugees, and a society laid in ruins. Many observers regret that the powers had intervened early on to replace Assad and create some kind of viable successor state. There are reasons to question this view. On the one hand, Assad followed a particularly disastrous version of the same course that is being followed more successfully by Egypt.   There the army turfed the Muslim Brotherhood out of power and has used the struggle against radical Islam as cover for a revived military dictatorship. So far, that approach seems to be working, mowing down young secular opponents of the old regime with as much enthusiasm as Islamists. So, it was not a foregone conclusion that Assad’s policy would fail.

On the other hand, the “coulda-woulda-shoulda” view ignores the reality that the Syrian civil war is a proxy war for Shi’ites and Sunnis. It also ignores the reality that Russian agreement to yet another American intervention-overthrow would have been necessary to get UN approval. That wasn’t likely to happen after the Libyan imbroglio.

[1] Charles R. Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency (OUP, 2015)