The Hill: What Russia is up to in Syria

Although the world has ground to a near-standstill as a result of COVID-19, America’s foreign policy problems have not disappeared. To the contrary, many are becoming much worse, as dictators across the globe forge ahead with their destructive plans.

Russia’s recent machinations in Syria are a case in point. The Kremlin’s 2015 decision to enter the Syrian civil war on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad was informed by the “Putin Doctrine,” which had been laid out by Russia’s president in 2008 and the chief focus of which is blunting American influence globally while increasing Russia’s regional status and ability to project power. The subsequent Russian incursion was a prime example of a marriage of Tsarist imperialism and Soviet expansionism: Although Syria’s Ba’athist state does not border the old Soviet empire, it served as a critical piece to Soviet strategy during the decades of the Cold War — and today, of Russia’s, too.

Russia’s activities there over the past half-decade, in turn, have yielded concrete dividends for the Kremlin. Under the guise of an ongoing struggle against ISIS and other “wahhabists,” Moscow has transformed the country into a laboratory for the testing of weapons, technology, strategy, and tactics. In a reflection of this role, the Russian High Command has termed Syria a model for training and its operations there a “strategy of limited action.”

Today, some 5,000 Russian troops, primarily military advisors, special forces, and air support personnel are estimated to operate in Syria. Russia continues to supply Assad with weapons and gives the Syrian dictator much needed diplomatic backing on the international stage. Russian airstrikes, a critical component of the Assad regime’s continued survival, have been directed primarily against rebel forces fighting Assad rather than against ISIS.

These airstrikes, moreover, have indiscriminately targeted Syrian civilians; according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the total civilian death toll in Syria since March 2011 was 226,247, with at least 6,514 of them killed directly by the Russians. Other estimates put the number closer to 8,400. Further, the United Nations has accused Russia of engaging in war crimes through indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians that have terrorized the population and displaced large numbers of Syrian people.

Moscow has learned from its past military mistakes, however. Unlike the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russia has been very measured in its commitment to the Syrian battlefield. The Russian government has prioritized the use of stand-off tactics (like aerial strikes) and military contractors. The results speak for themselves; as of last Spring, the Kremlin has officially confirmed just 116 Russian fatalities.

At the same time, Russia has put a premium on strengthening its military foothold in the country. It has reinforced its naval presence in the southern port city of Tartus, erected an airbase at Hmeimim, and created military encampments elsewhere in the country. For these facilities, Moscow has managed to secure long-term, open-ended leasing arrangements from the Assad government, which remains weak and is eager to see Russia stay and provide security protection.

Economically, Russia has deftly exploited Syria’s precarious situation. Its energy conglomerate Stroytransgaz (which has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department) dominates the Syrian energy sector, developing gas fields whose revenue feeds Assad’s killing machine. The company has secured contracts for exploiting hydrocarbons in eastern Syria, completing pipelines linking Syria and Jordan, multiple gas processing plants, and is given preferential treatment by the Assad regime. 

These activities, and Russia’s continued presence in Syria, represent a threat to American interests. They help to undermine U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. They have allowed the Kremlin to reemerge as a serious player in regional politics and begin to shape Middle Eastern affairs in its image. And they have helped to strengthen Russia’s long-standing ties to Iran, which is also aiding Syria, and which the Trump administration continues to seek to isolate and contain. As such, Moscow’s machinations should be understood for what they are, a serious national security concern for the United States, and should be treated as such by Washington.

This piece originally ran at The Hill on 4 May, 2020.

The Hill: New security strategy could signal the beginning of a ‘Trump’ doctrine

This week, President Trump formally unveiled his National Security Strategy. Much has been made of the Trump administration’s ability to introduce this document (something required by Congress since the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act) in the first year of its first term, and for good reason. Trump’s predecessors often struggled to articulate a coherent path forward on national security, and none have done so so quickly.

Already, many observers are analyzing specific parts of the Trump NSS and attempting to parse its language. But perhaps the best way to assess the document is to take a long-term view. Successful national security strategies usually transform into doctrine over the course of a given administration. It is still far too early to talk about a “Trump Doctrine.” Those take time to form and are an amalgam of rhetoric, policy, practice, and institutional commitment. But we now have a window into what that might look like.

This is both new and significant. In hindsight, experts claim that each of the past three presidents had a coherent national security and foreign policy doctrine. In practice, however, their actions were often widely at variance with their stated strategic objectives. Thus Clinton’s “holiday from history,” which religiously embraced globalization and “feel-good” multilateralism, was only slightly less shocking than Obama’s “leading from behind,” which was typified by penance, contrition, and a lack of strategic foresight. Only President George W. Bush articulated what could be called a coherent and successful doctrine — one that revolved around the principles of preemption, prevention, primacy and democracy promotion.

It boldly names five specific threats: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and jihadism. And it seeks to reverse the military decline of recent years in order to better counter them. Underpinning these ideas is the understanding that United States cannot afford to allow a foreign existential threat to pose an immediate danger (such as the one posed by ISIS), or a long-term one (like that posed by North Korea), to itself and its partners, and must be confronted head-on.

To a much greater extent than its predecessors, the Trump NSS also embraces the idea that economic security is national security, and that prosperity at home (through positive actions on taxes and regulation, as well as negative actions against intellectual property rights and economic espionage) is a fundamental prerequisite for our standing in the world.

The new NSS also recognizes that the best way to “advance American interests” is to support in others the very values that made America itself great. Although not full of the soaring rhetoric that typified the Bush years, it does not run from the past when it declares: “We support, with our words and actions, those who live under oppressive regimes and who seek freedom, individual dignity, and the rule of law.”

At its core, then, the Trump strategy essentially argues the same conservative internationalist military policy delineated clearly by both presidents Reagan and Bush. This should not come as a surprise; the history of national security doctrine and therefore successful national security strategy has always gone beyond merely realist calculations for the United States. In addition to safeguarding its citizens, land, and way of life, American national security includes the expectation of protecting individual freedoms and national values.

Applying these ideas in the years ahead to American engagement with the world will be the clearest test of the Trump strategy — and will determine whether it does become a true doctrine. But the groundwork for a renewed commitment to a strategy that combines American democratic values with American interests has now been laid by the new administration.

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