When President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced he was setting up an air base in the middle of Syria to take on the Islamic State and bolster President Bashar al-Assad, more than a few analysts and politicians praised his forceful, game-changing, strategic brilliance, suggesting that Putin was crazy like a fox. Some of us thought he was just crazy.
Well, two months later, let’s do the math: So far, Putin’s Syrian adventure has resulted in a Russian civilian airliner carrying 224 people being blown up, apparently by pro-ISIS militants in Sinai. Turkey shot down a Russian bomber after it strayed into Turkish territory. And then Syrian rebels killed one of the pilots as he parachuted to earth and one of the Russian marines sent to rescue him. Many of the anti-Assad rebels in that area are ethnic Turkmens, with strong cultural ties to Turkey; Turkey was not amused by Putin bombing Turkmen villages inside Syria, because it weakens Turkey’s ability to shape Syria’s future.
Meanwhile, in Crimea, Ukraine, which Putin annexed, pro-Turkish Tatars apparently cut the power lines, plunging Crimea into a near total blackout. And in October dozens of Saudi clerics called for a “holy war” against the governments of Syria, Iran and Russia.
In sum, Putin’s “crafty” Syrian chess move has left him with a lot more dead Russians; newly at odds with Turkey and Iran; weakened in Ukraine; acting as the defence lawyer for Assad—a mass murderer of Sunni Muslims, the same Sunni Muslims as Putin has in Russia; and with no real advances against ISIS. Other than that, it’s been a great success.
Truth be told, I wish Putin had succeeded. It would have saved us all a lot of trouble, because ISIS is not the “J.V. team” President Obama once called it. It’s actually the Jihadist All-Star team. It combines the military efficiency of Iraqi ex-Baathist army officers with the religious zealotry and prison-forged depravity of its “Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”, the Web-savvy of Arab millennials and a thrill-ride appeal to humiliated young Muslim males, who have never held power, a decent job or a girl’s hand.
And the ISIS threat is becoming strategic. The massive outflow of refugees from Syria and Iraq that ISIS has provoked is leading the European Union to start to close internal borders and limit the free flow of people and probably some goods as well—just the opposite of what the bloc was created to do. That will only slow the EU’s economic growth and fuel greater nationalism that could ultimately threaten its unity. The EU is America’s most important partner in managing the global system. If it is weakened, we are weakened.
But to sustainably destroy ISIS, you need to understand three things: 1) It is the product of two civil wars; one was between moderate and extremist Sunnis and the other was between Sunnis and Shiites. And they feed each other. 2) The only way to defeat ISIS is to minimise the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites and strengthen the fighting capacity of moderate Sunnis against extremist ones. And 3) the fight has to be led by Arabs and Muslims but strongly backed by America, the EU and, yes, Russia.
Whereas Putin’s goals are uncertain, and perhaps limited to protecting a truncated Assad regime, Obama really does want to defeat ISIS. Just as important, he wants to do it without being either Putin or George W. Bush, who just dove into the middle.
But it isn’t clear that a middle approach exists, let alone the fantasy options of many Obama critics, as in Donald Trump’s just “bomb the [blank] out of them.” (Gosh, no one thought of that!) Everyone wants to defeat ISIS with the “Immaculate Intervention”: more bombs from the air or somebody else’s troops, boots, risks or political transformation.
Sorry, but to sustainably defeat ISIS you need a mutually reinforcing coalition. You need Saudi Arabia and the leading Sunni religious powers to aggressively delegitimise ISIS’s Islamist narrative. You need Arab, Kurdish and Turkish ground troops—backed by US and NATO air power and special forces, with Russia’s constructive support—to uproot ISIS door to door.
You need Iran to encourage the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to create a semiautonomous “Sunnistan” in the areas held by ISIS, giving moderate Iraqi Sunnis the same devolved powers as Kurds in Kurdistan so they have a political alternative to ISIS. And you need Iran to agree to a political transition in Syria that would eventually replace Assad.
In short, you need either a power-sharing political solution that all the key players accept and will enforce, or an armed force to just crush ISIS and then sit on the region indefinitely, so ISIS doesn’t come back. Obama can’t secure the former, and doesn’t want to do the latter. Nor do the American people—nor Obama’s critics, despite what some of them might suggest.
You can say that when it comes to ISIS and Syria, Obama has done an impossible job badly, and someone else might have done it better. But it is still an impossible job as long as all the key players in that region define their interests as rule or die and as long as most of the real democrats in that region are living abroad.