Qui audet adipiscitur (Who dares, wins)
— motto of the British Army’s Special Air Service
The motto of Britain’s primary special-operations regiment is a good one. It speaks to the necessity of risk in the pursuit of victory. And in Syria, Russian president Vladimir Putin is proving the motto’s truth. Seizing the initiative via calculated risk, Putin has consolidated his ally Bashar Assad, smashed U.S. credibility, and sucked U.S. allies and foes alike into his political influence. Today Putin has no impulse towards compromise in Syria, for he holds all the cards. Yet his final victory is not inevitable. The U.S. has three good options short of conflict with which to regain influence towards a durable peace.
First off: oil. While problems with corruption, infrastructure, and bureaucracy are all responsible for Russia’s economic recession, the two key culprits are Russia’s weak currency and low oil prices globally. And, as with fracking, global oil prices offer the U.S. a key opportunity. Russia is highly dependent on oil exports to fund capital investments and support government spending, so it desperately needs global oil prices to rise. But to get that rise, Russia needs OPEC to agree to a cap on output. With OPEC members now meeting with Russia, that’s where America’s opportunity comes in.
For a start, we should engage with the Sunni monarchies that dominate OPEC and pressure them to block any new caps on output. Saudi Arabia is the key here, because its capital reserves allow the kingdom short- to medium-term insulation from price fluctuations. And while — thanks to the Iran deal and other issues — the Saudis do not trust President Obama, were he to offer Saudi Arabia a commitment for tougher U.S. action in Syria (for example, via the monitored provision of surface-to-air missiles to some moderate rebel formations), the Saudis might be inclined to listen to him; the Saudis despise Assad for his Iranian alliance and his slaughter of Syrian Sunnis. In turn, the Saudis could persuade other Sunni-majority OPEC members — Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar — to join them in opposing output caps (indeed, the Iraqis are already inclined to increase output). But the U.S. has another advantage here. Iran is also highly reluctant to cap its output. Thus the U.S. could achieve a double effect of pressuring the Russian economy and sparking discord between Putin and the Ayatollah.
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Second, the U.S. should get tough with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As I explained earlier this summer, Erdogan has decided to kneel to Putin on Syria-related issues. But the problem with that supplication is that it strengthens Russia’s control over Syrian politics. Most especially, it reinforces Putin’s expectation that Assad be able to retain power. That matters because as long as Assad retains power, Daesh and other extremist Sunni jihadists will find an infinite spring of recruits. To change the dynamic, the U.S. must persuade Erdogan that he cannot have his cake and eat it too: He cannot enjoy the benefits of NATO membership and U.S. friendship, alongside his acceptance of Russian hegemony in Syria.
Here America’s golden ticket is the Kurds — specifically, U.S. armament support to Kurdish militias such as the Syrian-based YPG. At present, the U.S. carefully qualifies its support to the YPG to mollify Turkish. Erdogan fears U.S. support will enable the YPG and other Kurdish forces to destabilize Turkey’s southern frontier. And to some degree he is right. But if Erdogan wants to play us, we should play him. We should send a clear message of realpolitik to Ankara: If you intend to defer to the Russians, we will double down on our support for the Kurds. Such a proposition will attract Erdogan’s immediate attention — and outrage. But he must be made to understand that America is not a flaccid actor. The priority here must be Erdogan’s renewed opposition to the Assad’s regime in diplomatic unity with the West. And with Assad and Russia burying Erdogan’s fellow Sunnis in the rubble of cities like Aleppo, the Turkish leader has domestic reasons to rediscover his concern for that suffering.
Third, the U.S. should take a page out of the George W. Bush textbook and fly humanitarian airlift operations over Aleppo and besieged rebel-held areas of Idlib province. I say the Bush textbook because in 2008, as Russian forces overran Georgia, President Bush ordered the U.S. military to provide humanitarian airlifts to our ally. The Russians had previously denied access to European diplomatic flights and were furious with the U.S. airlift mission. Yet Bush went eye-to-eye with Putin, and Putin backed down. The same should be done in Syria.
By launching aid drops over besieged rebel-held territory in northeastern Syria, the U.S. and its allies — France and the U.K. could be persuaded to support a purely humanitarian mission — would achieve two strategic effects. First, we would consolidate Syrian rebels against the Putin-Assad slaughter-starvation strategy. Second, we would overtly challenge Putin’s assumed dominion over Syria. That second effect would inspire greater cooperation from U.S. allies in Syria and would help ratchet up pressure on Assad’s regime. Of course, there is a complication here: Russian air-defense networks and air-combat capabilities. Facing those threats, the U.S. would have to provide nearby fighter patrols for our humanitarian flights. But if the U.S. does so, the Russians would be reluctant to challenge U.S. aircraft. U.S. Air Force, Marine, and Navy squadrons are far superior to their Russian counterparts. Even Putin knows that.
#related#None of these three efforts would achieve a great U.S. victory in Syria. Instead, the objective would be a reengagement of U.S. leadership in Syria. Establishing that America is unwilling to cede Syria to Russia, and persuading other regional actors that they should cooperate, the U.S. would build momentum towards a serious diplomatic compromise: namely, negotiations that would stabilize the conflict and see Assad step down, in return for Russia’s retention of its Mediterranean Sea access via its bases at Tartus and Latakia.
Put another way, it’s a plan for daring action in pursuit of realistic objectives.