On Monday I wrote about how if President Vladimir Putin wanted Russia to commit another policy own-goal by getting ensnared in the Syrian conflict, by all means let him have at it.
Of course, the Russians have now intervened, and I failed to consider that Putin would do it in the most
obnoxious reckless Russian way possible:
Russian officials vehemently defended the country’s airstrike campaign in Syria Thursday, denying reports of civilian deaths and Western accusations that the country was targeting U.S.-backed rebels instead of the Islamic State….
U.S. officials dispute Moscow’s claim that its aircraft targeted the Islamic State, the brutal extremist group that controls much of Syria and Iraq. Instead, U.S. officials said the strikes appeared to target opponents of Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, a key Russian ally. Those hit include U.S.-backed units that were trained and armed by the CIA, officials said….
U.S. officials were particularly irked that they didn’t get much warning of the strikes, even as they make plans to resume military talks with Russia about Syria as early as next week. Discussions have been halted since last year over Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine.
Earlier Wednesday, a Russian general posted in Baghdad showed up at the U.S. Embassy there, officials said, and told the American defense attache that airstrikes would begin about an hour later.
In descending order of importance, here are the 10 things that should worry Americans about this development:
1. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace. I do not think it is possible to overstate just how angry the Pentagon is over Russia’s latest escalation. An hour simply is not enough time to “deconflict” U.S.-led and Russian-led forces in Syria. From the Post’s Andrew Roth and Daniela Deane:
Accusing Russia of “pouring gasoline on the fire,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter vowed that U.S. pilots would continue their year-long bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, despite Moscow’s warning to keep American planes away from its operations.
“I think what they’re doing is going to backfire and is counterproductive,” Carter said.
It’s never good when a secretary of defense uses the “gasoline on fire” analogy.
This is unfortunately consistent with Putin’s disastrous grand strategy over the past year, which is to:
- Improvise when an opportunity presents itself;
- Escalate in response to criticism;
- Find himself cornered;
- Escalate somewhere else.
It’s because Putin’s strategy is so risky and flawed that Russia is dangerous. Indeed, this should be the one area of agreement between those who want to confront Putin aggressively and those who do not. For example, I doubt that Vox’s Max Fisher and Commentary’s Noah Rothman agree on much. Nonetheless, Fisher was correct to warn over the summer about how Russian weakness could lead to a militarized conflict with the United States. And while Rothman excoriates “Western inaction and feebleness,” he also makes a very trenchant point on Russian overextension:
If the West is going to wait around for Russia to overextend, recognize as much, and unilaterally deescalate the crises it has ignited in Europe and the Middle East, it might as well get comfortable. This could take a while. In the interim, Moscow can do a fair bit of damage to Western interests. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the cold conflict that puts Western military assets in close proximity with their Russian counterparts will not spiral out of control. Provoking an irredentist Russia is certainly dangerous, but a “hurry up and wait” strategy is not without its own set of risks.
So unless military-to-military communication between Russia and the United States improves pretty damn quickly, I do not like the odds of a skirmish over Syrian airspace.
2. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace.
3. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace.
4. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace.
5. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace.
6. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace. Really, I can’t stress this concern enough.
7. The humanitarian disaster in Syria gets worse. As is usual in the Middle East, just when you think things cannot get any worse, they do:
8. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace.
9. A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace.
10. I might have to agree with Donald Trump. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has taken great delight in pointing out the myriad ways in which Donald Trump is dangerous and wrong about most things. That said, there was the kernel of something savvy in one of his comments about Syria. No, not his statements about Syrian refugees, which are repugnant. No, not his statement that he thinks Russia airstrikes are actually targeting the Islamic State, which appears to be flatly false. No, it’s this quote:
“We always give weapons, we give billions of dollars in weapons and then they turn them against us. We have no control. So we don’t know the other people that we’re supposed to be backing,” Trump said of U.S. involvement in the region. “We don’t even know who we are backing.”
There is going to be a push to escalate the U.S. presence in Syria to show Russia we can’t be pushed around and to fix a God-awful situation. But as I said on Monday, “frustration at the status quo is not a good enough reason to pursue a riskier, more interventionist policy. There has to be persuasive evidence that this administration could successfully execute such a policy. And I see zero evidence for that.”