Revenge is a dish best served cold
by PAUL IDDON
Russian air and sea power is now actively giving cover to an ongoing Syrian military offensive. Four Russian naval vessels in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles at targets in Syria while Russian warplanes continue to strike anti-government rebel groups.
The strategy bears a striking — but flipped — resemblance to the so-called “lead from behind” strategy employed during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya in early 2011. Then a U.S.-led coalition carried out an air campaign in support of rebel militias on the ground.
Remember that the United States and NATO initially established a no-fly zone over Benghazi as dictator Muammar Gaddafi prepared to violently crush a popular rebellion in the city. The intervention escalated into regime change.
Obviously, there is one conspicuous difference. Unlike in Libya, Russia is supporting the regime against ragtag armed groups, instead of the other way around. But fundamentally, Russia has intervened with its sophisticated military in direct support of one side in a civil war.
Before NATO became involved in Libya, the U.N. Security Council granted the alliance the right to protect Benghazi from Gaddafi’s forces. Russia voted in favor of one resolution (which condemned Gaddafi’s actions and mandated the implementation of sanctions against his regime) and abstained during the second resolution, which allowed for a no-fly zone and forcible implementation of a ceasefire.
Given Russia’s ability to veto such resolutions as a permanent member of the Security Council, its decision not to vote for or against the second resolution was at least tacit approval of it.
But in the Kremlin’s view, the coalition went too far. NATO shifted from enforcing a no-fly zone to actively sponsoring regime change in Tripoli. The swift destruction of Gaddafi’s forces through air power and missiles strikes was a welcome change — it seemed — in light of costly ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the wake of Libya’s collapse, Russia lost a friendly regime and the country descended into bitter infighting between rival militias. Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin was outraged. “Full disintegration, no state at all,” Putin told 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose. “Even the diplomatic service of the U.S. have felt losses.”
By early 2012, Syrians took to the streets to demand change and an end to the Assad family’s autocratic, 44-year-long rule. Bashar Al Assad sent the army to slaughter them.
Again, the U.N. Security Council moved to issue resolutions condemning Assad’s actions. But Russia, along with China, used their veto powers to ensure no such resolutions passed, clearly fearing that Western powers would use them a precedent to topple a friendly government in the Levant.
One exception — in September 2013, after a Western coalition threatened to bomb Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons, Russia agreed to a U.N. resolution which demanded Syria surrender its stockpile to international inspectors.
Islamists and totalitarian Salafist groups have grown to dominate the Syrian opposition. Putin has strongly insisted that the U.S.-led coalition should work with Assad. Of course, the coalition has not done that. Now Russia has directly joined the fray.
The build-up has seen a small detachment of Russian soldiers deployed to Syria’s coastal province of Latakia along with advanced aircraft. The recent firing of cruise missiles from the Caspian also demonstrated that the Russian navy can project power into Syria from 1,000 miles away.
Further, the Kremlin’s direct support of a new Syrian ground offensive is indicative of the fact that, as with NATO in Libya four years ago, the Russians are leading from behind.
Helping forces under Assad’s command retake vitally important strategic provinces such as Hama — and perhaps nearby Idlib — will in the long run make or break his chances of enduring this war while retaining hold over substantial chunks of the Syrian state. To get an idea of just how close Hama is to territory still held by Assad, the Russians have reportedly fired 9A52–2 Smerch rockets from their base in Latakia at anti-Assad fighters in the city of Hama.
These are all indications that we have come full circle since 2011. Putin has got his revenge for what he saw as an injustice in Libya. First, by using Russia’s veto power in the United Nations, and second by adopting a reverse military strategy in support of his embattled ally in Damascus.
However, like in Libya, it will be much harder to stitch an imploded country back together.
“We can argue all day about which side we’d rather see lose, but we’re heading toward the worst-case scenario, where Assad and ISIS both win,” journalist Michael Totten wrote. “The nation once known as Syria is already de-facto divided in half. Iran and Hezbollah may keep their rump state on the Mediterranean now that Russia is backing Assad, while ISIS remains secure out in the desert.