Russia Acts in Syria – A Veteran’s Nightmare, Part 2

By Elmer Ellsworth

In this Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 file pool photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, second left, flanked by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, watches military exercises at Donguz range in Orenburg region, Russia.

So, while we bicker and fight amongst ourselves over things that frankly most Americans do NOT disagree on (or could at least find common ground on if the two Partisan groups would allow us to do so), we are now on the verge of being completely pushed out of the Air (which also means the Ground) in the Middle East by the Russians. And, to make matters worse, it appears our policy at the moment is based on “trusting” the Russians at their word and focused on trying to convince or advise the Russians of the error of their ways.

These developments are very painful and concerning to many Veterans to say the least. Many have fought and sacrificed to try and achieve objectives in Iraq, regardless of whether or not people agree on the importance or “worthiness” of those objectives. Not to mention that some believe real and certain progress (and benefits) of those objectives had been attained before things were left to the politicians. Unfortunately, the world we are leaving for our children is not safer and more secure than the one we inherited. Even if some are correct that it is our endeavors in the region that have caused that problem, by this point there are enough miscues and muddled policies since that initial mistake that there is more than enough blame to cover the full roster of American leaders since the turn of the Century.

To start, let’s be very clear about something – the Russians have no intention of being honest with us nor are their interests aligned with ours. I say that recognizing that as such it is not necessarily “evil” – it’s just a fact. The Russians intend to get us OUT of Syria and Iraq so they can ensure that Syrian forces loyal to Assad can be supported and eventually control the region. Ray Starmann’s article does an excellent job of clearing laying out Russia’s objectives.

My purpose here is not to address those objectives but rather to give some thought to our framework of analysis to apply to these events. Russia’s direct use of force in Syria demonstrates several very important “lessons” that we must take note of as we debate and analyze an appropriate response. After listening to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s press briefing, the following is a list of several initial lessons we need to consider:

  • We should not assume that the Russians will fail just because we were not successful. That logic is not only intellectually faulty, it is inconsistent with reality. The Russians will demonstrate that they do not fight a war with one hand behind their back. They will demonstrate that they do not concern themselves with civilian casualties nor public opinion polls (at least not in the early stages). I am not suggesting that we should follow their leads on those points, but I am simply suggesting we must recognize that those are self-imposed limitations that other Nations do not share.
  • We need to remember that enemies cannot be trusted. While it would be great if we did not have enemies, but in the real world we do. Perhaps you may publicly say that you are trusting an adversary, but it is a basic principal in National Security studies 101 to be prepared for the probability that your enemy is not telling you the truth. While this same mistake has been made with Iran, that is another (but not so separate) issue. I certainly hope that our Administration is not basing our National Security on the good word of our adversaries like Russia.
  • We should not assume that the Russians intend to avoid a direct conflict with US forces. Perhaps they believe that the time is right for them to be able to face us down militarily. After all, we have given every signal possible that we are not interested in getting in a fight. That alone puts us in a position of weakness. The Russians are likely intending to enforce control over the airspace of Syria to help prop up and defend the Syrian forces and to enable them to defeat anti Assad forces. I think it is very safe to say that if they happen to shoot down a US jet or drone and can point to it as a “mistake” they can still rely on the assumption that the present US Administration will NOT escalate the crisis.
  • Many in the US, perhaps even in the Administration, may actually welcome a result which has the US simply retreating from the region. Perhaps there is some logic in that view. Let the Russians slog it out and face the international pressure as civilian casualties mount. However, things clearly become a “crap shoot” at best when considering the long term impact of such a strategy and it certainly puts many of our Allies (assuming they are still our Allies) in a very precarious situation.
  • We must begin to re-build the understanding within our own Nation of the importance of presenting an image of strength with a willingness to use force. Even those who support “progressive” or liberal political views need to respect this important principal that is as true now as it was in the days of Sun Tzu. We must stop presenting the image of the US being weak, unprepared, unwilling or unable to respond militarily. Announcing to the world that our budget crisis is impacting our military readiness in the same press conference that we explain that are trying to “influence” the Russians and educate them on the errors of their ways is NOT a recipe for success.
  • We should NOT assume that Russian aggression in the region will result in their being a target of more Islamic extremism. While this is an interesting philosophy of many liberal minded people – and sometimes elevated to “fact” status, it should not be used to confuse the realities on the ground. Of course force is often met with more force – and certainly one creates enemies with every use of force; however, the Russians understand that the Islamic extremism that we both are fighting is not something that can be beaten by extending the olive branch and avoiding conflict. It is precisely why it may be true that Russia and Assad can be far more effective in defeating and dealing with those forces than we (or our “liberal democratic” allies) can ever be. Assad will deal with those elements with ruthless brutality – the only language that the Islamic fundamentalists truly understand. After all, as soon as you fear acting against an enemy you are one stop closer to being defeated.
  • Clearly, the silence is deafening when it comes to the expected or anticipated response by the US Administration. It reminds me of the lead up to the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1991 – what signal are we sending by our silence? Do we support the pro-US elements on the ground engaged in the fight against the Assad regime? If we do support those allies, what is the extent of that support? What will be our response if the Russian forces extend south into Iraq? Will we respond with force if US assets / forces are targeted?

We are entering some very interesting and concerning times. I have always admired and respected Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. But, there is this very disturbing and obvious factual inconsistency. Carter acknowledged that we have seen the build-up for weeks and that the Russians have been very clear in explaining their intentions to begin military operations. Yet, it appears we have no idea on how to respond – other than “trusting” that discussions regarding military operations de-confliction and coordination will keep us from either slipping into a broadened conflict that only the Russians have prepared for or being swept from the scene.

Perhaps from a Veterans perspective, there is one positive of all of this. Perhaps it will help Americans to begin to come together on some real National Security issues and stop some of the silly bickering. After all, like it or not, President Obama has some real challenges and Americans need to rally behind and support a single, strong response that is presented to the world. The time for excuses and finger pointing is long gone. This Administration needs to recognize the challenges and develop some well thought out strategies to help keep Americans secure and US interests protected.

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