Sunday, July 28, 2013

Does Syria matter? It matters to Israel… It matters to Russia… It matters to Iran

General Martin Dempsey
Syria was in the news again last week.  You may not have noticed.  What, with  more important news like a royal baby.  In case you missed it, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff presented the Senate Armed Services Committee with a three-page letter outlining America’s military options vis-à-vis Syria. 

Aren’t we all a little war-weary?  We still have troops in Afghanistan (105 casualties this year).  We have spent over $1Trillion on two wars and have yet to come to grips with either the social or financial impact of thousands of wounded warriors coming home.

So, why is the Obama administration wringing its hands over Syria?  Is it conceivable that we would add it to the list of countries where we have intervened militarily?

Syria, a former Soviet ally, serves as the western anchor for a potentially powerful Iranian coalition. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab running a Shia nation from a minority position, was an obstacle to the formation of that coalition.  Now Iran, whose paranoia was fed by having thousands of U.S. troops amassed in nations bordering them to the east and the west, has an opportunity. 

Stir Russia into the mix.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s sphere of influence contracted.  Russia now seeks to extend its influence to the Middle East and Southern Asia without using its military.  They have taken advantage of a financially weakened Europe by both making it dependent upon them for energy and by acquiring assets throughout the continent.  It is not in their interest for energy sources outside its control to be available to Europe.

International diplomacy is a game of maintaining a balance of power among competing strategic players.  The smarter of them will take advantage of world events to tip the balance in their favor.  Russia sees opportunity in an alliance with Iran by supporting the Assad regime in Syria.

The U.S. is typically an unsophisticated player on this stage.  Our geographic isolation and domestic concerns place international affairs way down the list on the matters that concern most voters.  Following a major military engagement, we hear the same old aphorisms.  “America can’t be the world’s policeman.”  “Someone else should step up.”  “We have problems here at home.”

The result is inconsistency and the risk is that potential allies do not see us as reliable partners.

Diplomacy – like nature – abhors a vacuum.  We have seen what happens when we don’t become involved.  Yugoslavia and Rwanda come to mind. 

And, it may be that our adversaries in the region see us as creating a vacuum by virtue of our inability to form a cohesive, consistent, successful foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The rush to fill the void may heighten the risk of war.

It’s in America’s interest to limit both Iranian and Russian power.  And, it must do so without considering its military power as its first option.  The U.S. can only afford to support those countries that take responsibility for their national security interests themselves.  We cannot be the first source of that security.  We need to develop a low-risk strategy that doesn’t rely upon knee-jerk military responses.

The entire world knows that the U.S. has neither the political will nor the resources to occupy and govern an Asian nation.  However, we can provide support through arms, training, air and sea power.  Coupled with trade, a sustainable alliance of this nature allows our allies to be secure in the idea that we will not abandon them.

So, what are our diplomatic options?  How do we create an alliance that will serve our interests and tip the balance of power in our favor?

The Caucasus region is where both the Russian and Persian empires converge with Turkey (the empire that collapsed as the Soviet empire emerged).  The nation at the nexus of that convergence is Azerbaijan.  A hundred years ago, half the world’s oil was produced in Azerbaijan. 
But, even when the royal baby isn’t in the headlines, we don’t hear about Azerbaijan, a tiny nation that has become a centerpiece of Israeli foreign policy.  Its government has longstanding grievances with Iran – over control of bordering territory primarily.  A secular Muslim nation (hard to come by), it accuses Iran of supporting Islamist, anti-government factions within its borders.

So, Azerbaijan has formed a substantial trading relationship with Israel, selling it oil and acquiring weapons and military materiel in exchange.  The U.S. should leverage this relationship for its benefit. Israel has “stepped up” as we have stood down.  It is imperative that we continue to support their efforts. 

Now that the royal baby has been named, maybe we can start paying attention to something that matters.



  1. Alex Burke • Thank you. This is actually a subject I am interested in, falling as it does under the wider subject of great power diplomacy, which is a zero-sum game most of the time. However, my interest pales in comparison to my fascination with the royal baby.

    Nonetheless, I have two questions for you.

    Just looking at the civil war in Syria:

    1) What should be our coherent strategy (in 100 words or less) - other than "sustainable security alliances," which is vague.

    2) What's wrong with not being the world's policeman? (100 words or less)

  2. Syria: I don't think I have a good answer. I believe we missed the opportunity to provide weapons support to the rebels due to our fear that the weapons would end up in the hands of an Al Qaeda surrogate. If we started now, that would most certainly be the case. The option of providing a no-fly zone would be quite expensive and may run the risk of direct conflict with Russia. Iran has fought for the Al Assad regime through its proxy, Hezbollah. It may be that our best option is to leverage what is left of our alliance with Turkey by providing them with a commercial incentive. The rebels might view them as a viable proxy for our support as opposed to an Israeli proxy. Sorry that I don't have a better answer. It was more clear 6 months ago.

    We are not the world's policeman. It is better to say that we use our considerable political, commercial and military power to influence world events around the world. The US Navy has been in control of all the world's sea lanes since WW II. We can use the promise of access to our markets as an enticement to cooperate with us. We can be an advocate for human rights, free trade and liberal institutions. Democracies who work with us have the promise of greater prosperity and a stable society.

    If we were to withdraw, the vacuum to which I refer in my post would be filled by one or more of the great empires of the last millennium. Europe, Russia, Persia, Ottoman, Chinese. Take your pick.

    Europe is in a weakened state due to be overextended economically. We have seen what happens when we stand by and watch. The Chinese are already encroaching on the territory of Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Disrupting world trade and flouting international law would disable the system of international law that we worked to create and continue to enhance since WW II.

    A stronger hand at State would work to enable nations in jeopardy to resist these encroachments without fear of being overwhelmed militarily.

    100 words can't do the topic justice.

  3. Jim Bryant • A political deal was made to not interfere, lets see if Russia keeps its part of the bargain. They need the port in Syria and will do anything to keep it. The war is mainly about religion and Russia is only interested in using this conflict to further its own and its allies' interests. Russia has along history of fighting wars using others to fight for them...

  4. Michael Khoury • I disagree with your assertion that the US would do well to support the Israeli actions in the region. Most believe that its peace overtures are not sincere, and a third intifada is becoming more and more likely. It won't be long before Israel is the subject of a South Africa style boycott that will isolate it. The EU just took the first step in that regard, and anything that Israel is in favor of, the rest of the region will oppose. I believe it is time to start forming alliances on what is best for the US and the stability of the world. This may even mean being nice to Iran if they stop meddling and not getting on the soapbox about Islam.

  5. @Michael. I think your point is well argued. And, I think we might agree that there are no really good solutions in the Middle East. In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to make nice with Iran 20 years ago.

    I may not have made my view clear. I advocate a direct alliance with Azerbaijan and support of Israeli efforts to develop a commercial and security relationship with them.

    The other big player in the region is Turkey with whom we have a historic relationship. However, recent events in that country raise concerns about the sustainability of that relationship.

  6. Alex Burke • I view the situation in the Middle East today as analogous to the political situation in the Balkans just prior to World War I - to use a hackneyed expression, "A powder keg ready to explode with just one spark." Well that spark occurred and the world has never been the same. I need not enumerate the details, as they are well known, other than to say they were devastating beyond anyone's imagination.

    All the warring factions in the Middle East are children. The United States must assume the role of the adult, putting aside its self-interest in the interest of snuffing out potential sparks before they ignite. What are the potential sparks? Some are obvious - bombing Iran, a terrorist attack on Israel, an assassination of somebody "important" etc. - but the problem is that the spark may be unforeseeable.The key question then is, "Is this spark inevitable?"

    Throughout history, societies tend to build up tension until they explode. In the 11th century the problem of a disenfrachised and disaffected nobility, with nothing to do, exploded into the Crusades. In the 20th century, the problem of a subjugated Germany exploded into Hitler and WW II.

    I am very pessimistic about what will happen in the Middle East. It just seems like the negative energy there is more intense than it has ever been. If I had to make a cold hearted prediction of what will happen, these countries - Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt - within the next 50 to 100 years or sooner- will destroy themselves.

    - Alex Burke

  7. Phillip Parker • If you were to walk down any given Main Street in America and call out "Everybody who wants to get involved in the Great Sunni - Shia Religious War, raise your hand!", I don't think many hands would go up. This is the ultimate legacy of the artificial nations created when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered after WW I. The current administration's half hearted intervention is worse than nothing and nothing, in this case, is the best choice. The idea of "properly vetted opposition groups" in a part of the world where treachery is the norm and deceit is an art form, is ludicrous.

    As long as they're shooting at each other, they're not shooting at us. Stay out of it.

  8. @Phillip. I wouldn't advocate participating in the holy war with boots on the ground. I am concerned that an Iranian-Russian alliance that includes Syria and Iraq has the potential to attract Turkish support and skew the balance of power.

    Do you have any concerns about such an alliance? Would China try to exert some influence on the region?

    By "stay out of it" do you mean that we should not participate in any diplomatic efforts to restrain the progress of these historical great empires? Or, should we choose our proxies and provide support in some way?

  9. Phillip Parker • @John - Russia, Syria and Iran would be a coalition of weaklings, no stronger together than they are separately. Russian and Turkey are not usually friends.

    China would be a newcomer to the region, probably with an understanding of it not better than ours.

    Diplomacy in the middle east hasn't accomplished anything since WW II. What proxy would we choose? The Sunnis, where Al Qaeda originated? Our good friends in Shia Iran?

  10. Russia's interest is access to the sea and being an obstacle to Mid East energy flowing to Europe. It is in our interest and Europe's to deter their influence in the region.

    China has interest in gaining access to energy supplies as well. Their long term strategy is to challenge U.S. naval power in SE Pacific and Indian Oceans, the better to support their burgeoning commercial relationships with African nations.

    Turkey is complicated (like everyone else in the region) but they are a force to be reckoned with.

    There are no clear solutions, no knock out punches so to speak. There is only a balance of power and we have the wherewithal to influence events. The U.S. has no clearly defined foreign policy for the long term (we haven't had one since the end of the Cold War). We need one so that potential allies understand our interests and know that we are reliable partners.

  11. Phillip Parker • Russia still has influence as a nuclear armed state and a supplier of cheap and generally effective weaponry. They are no longer a super power. They are an autocratic kleptocracy subject to all the foibles of one-man rule. The ruling elite is more interested in lining their pockets than adventures abroad.

    Where is our "wherewithal to influence events"? None of the peace initiatives we sponsored succeeded. Iraq is sliding back into civil war now that we're out. Do you suppose the Iraqis see us as a reliable partner?

    I certainly agree that there are no clear solutions and that being the case, intervention is probably a really bad idea. It's a lot easier to get in than to get out.

  12. @Phillip. It's hard to find fault with your summary of the current facts.

    We have the "wherewithal to influence events". It's just that we don't use it effectively. Our history as a major player in world events is brief (Cold War onward) and our politics tend to focus on domestic rather than foreign affairs.

    If we look at the long term, our goals should be to enable commerce, to promote human rights and to assist the developing world to grow liberal institutions of government. Our interests are hampered when traditional empires (Ottoman, Russian, Chinese, Persian) endeavor to interrupt commerce.

    Just because there are no clear solutions to an unstable Middle East today (or perhaps ever) that doesn't mean we shouldn't use our considerable commercial and military power to influence outcomes.

    Our strategic adversaries are in it for the long haul. We should be too.

  13. Phillip Parker • So, John, under what circumstances might you, as Commander in Chief, order the Navy to attempt to blockade Chinese ports or fire on Chinese ships, considering, of course that:

    1. They have nuclear tipped ICBMS that work.
    2. They are one of our largest trading partners
    3. They hold a lot of our bonds

  14. Chuck Rosselle • We are indeed the strongest naval presence in the world; it’s a mantle we picked up from the British because we’re a major two ocean power. We did it to keep the sea lanes open for free trade, just as they did. In my view, that is a clear demonstration of the “right” kind of power. China wants to dominate Asia economically, not militarily. That’s a clear threat to our existing economic interests. I think we’re doing just the right thing by increasing our physical and economic presence so that any nation feeling pressured understands there’s an option. We will walk a tighter line in Asia than before; we have to be aware of the realities posed by China’s physical presence.

    I’d like to see us become more “Monroe Doctrinish” in the Western hemisphere. South America is not just a bunch of banana republics. We’re foolishly ceding economic relationships in our back yard that could be enormously useful to us in a few years. Plus it gives China a message about where we draw our economic sphere of interest boundaries (just as they are with us).

    And, we're not Germany. Where issues arise that relate to global stability as opposed to economic interests, we have an obligation to provide leadership. I prefer the “motivate the guys with the strongest interests” as opposed to the “tell everybody else what to do” model, but that’s me. I like the “teach men to fish” parable. Nevertheless, when everybody else is running around aimlessly with their hair on fire you still need the global equivalent of dad.

    We tried to get the Turks to take the lead on Syria, and they couldn’t pull it off. Now we’ll have to step in and structure the solution (as opposed to being the solution). I think we waited longer than we should have. In the best case, we develop a stronger relationship with Turkey and they’ll learn a thing or two about what it takes to truly be a regional power as opposed to “wanting to be” a regional power.

  15. @Chuck. I agree wholeheartedly.

    @Phillip. I don't know that as CIC I would find it in our interest to blockade Chinese ports. China is an example of the success of a long term strategy that has worked for us despite the fact that no one could have foreseen where we would be today.

    Kissinger/Nixon reached out to China 40 years ago, reasoning that strong commercial ties would reduce the risk of military conflict. They knew that the Soviets had a tenuous, if not contentious, relationship with China.

    Today, it may be in our interest to form strategic partnerships with emerging powers like Turkey to enhance our regional influence so we can avoid military showdowns. Our geography, our economic power and our military power allow us to negotiate from a position of strength. It's important to form those relationships when there is little or no tension and to make a clear declaration of our interests.

    We understood the Bush Doctrine in the context of a terrorist threat. What is the Obama doctrine? What is in our long term interests. Who can we rely upon to advance our interests? What are their interests and can we enable them to achieve their goals?

    If we don't work in that direction, we will constantly be reacting rather than leading.

  16. Charles Gallagher: The President is struggling with the best approach in Syria. It seems to me that guns for the good rebels is the way to go. I like supporting Azerbaijan and suggest there are a few other countries in a similar situation. Our continued strong support of Israel is proper. Continued dialogue with China is essential; I have hopes that in the long run they will be a strong factor in maintaining peace. The Russian influence is largely tied to oil; but their production costs are high; as the price for a barrel of oil declines so will the Russian influence. The world could use a policeman but we do not have enough power to go it alone; so any effort we expend to recruit others to the cause would help. We should beaf up the State Department around the world; recruit young people just out of school for a two year tour. The load on the Secretary of State is too much; perhaps add a few special envoys. Our strength also depends on getting our debt under control.

  17. Ahmed Dawood
    Chief Officer at Maridive Group

    I am Egyptian .. Sunni Muslim ... Studied in USNA, class of 1991 and worked for the Egyptian Navy for over 20 years made captain and retired .. Trust me on ac ouple of things :
    1- Even Sunni Muslims in a big country like Egypt do not support the resistance in Syria and hardly any one sees it as a Religious war .. despite the great effort the Sunni groups in and outside Egypt tried to portray it as such .. The Syrian Minister of defense is Sunni !!! Half the Syrians who fled to our country and specially here in Alexandria are Sunnis and are against what some call as "the resistance" ..
    2- Muslim Brotherhood is a huge movement that believes in an all out Islamic Empire .. Their loyalties are to none but the group itself .. they won Tunisia, Libya (still fighting but wining) and had Egypt for a while .. What they call as the Arab Spring was nothing more than the right moment for that group to strike everywhere in the Middle East .. In Syria they were banned, tortured and executed .. They had to fight with weapons ... A small flashback ... All the Jihadist gorups including El Jamaa El Islamya and El Qaeda and their current leader the Egyptian ElZwahry stem up from the Muslim Brotherhood group. So when that group called for Jihad in Syria, they had plenty of volunteers .. that group in Egypt carried the pictures of Bin Laden ... Back to Syria .. In order to gain more support and sympathy they had to portray it as Sunni-Vs- Shiaa .. when in fact it is a mere power struggle from the Brotherhood against the Syrian Regime .. The president of Egypt (before he got sacked) was from the group and rallied to support the Syrian Resistance .. they have covert groups in all of the Gulf and threaten the Monarchs down there .. and a huge risk to the balance of order in the area ..
    3- Their final goal after taking over Tuisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria will be the Gulf itself and then you will face the most organized, rich, armed with huge manpower terrorist organization you have ever seen .. and their main target is Israel and their main enemy is the USA and Western Europe ...
    It is a whole different twist and much much more dangerous than Russia or China .. We are talking about ElQaeda within 500 NM from Europe with a poulation of 200 million people and all the Gulf wealth !!!
    Turkey's Erdogan and his Islamic party (Justice and Development Party)belong to the Muslim Brotherhood as well and that was why he was not accepted in the EU until now and explains his support for the resistance in Syria ..

    I hope I was clear as much as possible .. as to where the US should stand it is not up to me .. But I know my country after getting rid of the Brotherhood will not support the resistance ... IT IS NOT A RELIGIOUS WAR BY ANY MEANS .. And even if it was .. it is not in our best interest to have the Qaeda so close to us .

  18. I have not weighed in on this subject because for some reason LinkedIn has not been sending me updates from my groups, but all of a sudden they are coming in now.

    Nothing like a view from ground level as opposed from 40,000 ft filtered by the MSM and the Obama Administration. Thanks for your insight Mr Ahmed Darwood.

    With that being said, before this last post from Ahmed Dawood, which I really appreciated reading, all the previous posts seem to be wrapped around the supposition that the Obama Administration is working in the interest of our country. From what I can gather from sources other than the MSM and the BS press briefings, Obama et al are dead set on providing support to the Muslim Brotherhood. I used to think that this NWO stuff was conspiracy theory fodder but not any more. Everyday the lies coming from our government increase in their size and scope. The lies are so huge that people are saying that they must be the truth because if they are not then how can that be?

    Well, I ask you to show me one of the so called "Phony Scandals" that have gotten anything in way of a solid and substantial explanation. Benghazi is all about "gun running" or in this case Missile Running. Amb. Stevens from everything I can tell and the CIA were in Benghazi funneling shoulder launched Surface to Air missiles to the Syrian Rebels, aka Muslim Brotherhood backed groups. There is so much BS thrown around about what caused this attack, who attacked and why there was no support given to them from USA assets that were available in the region from the Obama Administration, it has to give me cause for concern just what is the game plan in the ME.

    Worry about China? We should be worrying about Fiji the way our military is being downsized every day and the fact that all the experienced senior military officers with a backbone are being run out of our military. Not to mention that the ruse of Sequestration is decimating the readiness of our Navy and the number of ships that we can deploy. We have already gone down that road with one of our infamous alum, J. Carter who helped run the Navy into the ground and me out of it. If it were not for Pres. Reagan coming in and rebuilding our Navy we would not be having this discussion today as Russia and or China would probably already be a major players in controlling the sea lanes.

    I guess, this all boils down to fact that the current US Government does not seem to have a coherent Foreign Policy other than the demise of our influence in the ME and else were in the world. Remember that Obama is an anti-colonialist just like his father and from the beginning of his first term until now he has sought to diminish the statue and ability of the USA to influence events on the world stage and to stand behind the UN and allow that organization to drive world decisions and apparently now decisions within our own country.

    All that rumbling takes me back to my supposition that we are now on a path that will move us much more rapidly towards a NWO experience. Call me a Conspiracy Theorist if you must, but I would love to be around long enough to see where all this is heading in let's say the next 50 years.

    I will now get down off my soapbox ....... thanks John for a stimulating post as always.

    Non Sibi

    Ken Mayeaux '73