Turkey’s Syria Spillover Problem

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

I wrote the following piece for Foreign Affairs, arguing that the true threat to Turkey from ISIS is not a military one, but is rather the spillover effects that are going to impact Turkish domestic stability as a result of ISIS’ rise.

To listen to officials from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and read Turkey’s pro-government press is to dive into a happy place in which Turkey has never been better. It is a democratic beacon shining its light on the rest of the Middle East, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is leading the charge to consolidate Turkish democracy and create a new regional order, the Turkish economy is humming along despite villainous credit rating agencies’ efforts to destroy it, and Turks of all stripes are united behind their government’s various initiatives. The official view from Ankara is sunny indeed — yet the clouds massing on the country’s border presage a hurricane.

AKP rule has brought a measure of stability previously unknown to Turkey. Here, a growing economy and concerted efforts to address Kurdish grievances have contributed. On a more disturbing note, so have the gradual reining in of the free press and open dissent. For better or worse, the country has become safely predictable and the AKP has been able to govern without seriously being challenged. Even those not in the AKP camp acknowledge that today’s Turkey seems eons removed from the days of terrorism and assassinations in the streets, military coups, and runaway inflation.

But the chaos on Turkey’s border with Syria threatens to upend all of this. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has threatened Turkey’s internal balance in a number of ways. But the danger does not come from ISIS itself. Although the group has proved its military bona fides during its rampage through Iraq and Syria, it does not present a serious territorial challenge to Turkey, which has a large NATO-backed army, a modern air force, and the resources to hit back at ISIS should it choose. Rather, it is the follow-on effects of ISIS’ march through the region that may herald a return to the bad old days.

To read the rest, including my analysis of Turkey’s economic problems, burgeoning issues with the Kurds, and the rise of nationalism, please head over here to Foreign Affairs.

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The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.

Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.

The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.

The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.

ISIS and Ideology

September 11, 2014 § 6 Comments

I am no expert on ISIS and I won’t pretend to be. I don’t know what their true capabilities are, whether they are a function of U.S. troops invading Iraq or a function of U.S. troops leaving Iraq, or whether they would exist if we had armed less extreme Syrian opposition groups at the outset of the Syrian civil war. I do know, however, that President Obama’s statement last night that we will “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS can only partially be true. The U.S. can certainly degrade ISIS’s capabilities based on the military plan Obama laid out, and perhaps it can even defeat the group itself by some metric of victory. But ISIS is not a prime mover; it is a symptom. At its core, ISIS is an ideology, and even if the group comprised of jihadi fighters is defeated, it will simply be reincarnated with a different name because ideologies – with very rare exception – do not die on the battlefield. They die when their utility is proven worthless or when they lose out to a superior idea. Unfortunately for the U.S., airstrikes and logistical support for Iraqi and Kurdish troops is not going to translate into a defeat for the ideology that is motivating ISIS.

One of my newest pet peeves is referring to ISIS as nihilistic. ISIS is actually the very opposite of nihilistic; it does not believe that life has no meaning or purpose, but in fact has a very concrete belief in what the purpose and meaning of life might be. Its wanton disregard for human life is not the same thing as nihilism, and it absolutely believes in something. The fact that it believes in its purpose and mission so vehemently is why any military victory over it will be hollow. Political ideologies offer a criticism of existing society contrasted with a vision of a “good” society and propose the means by which attainment of a “good” society will be achieved. Just because ISIS’s vision of a “good” society does not resemble anything we would recognize as good does not make it nihilistic. Ideologies are ideal types that involve some programatic element, which in ISIS’s case is establishing a caliphate over a large section of the Middle East, so while it is a bloodthirsty and brutal movement, nihilistic it is not. It is rather highly ideologically motivated, to a point that harkens back to an age when political and religious ideologies were far more paramount in global politics.

The reason ideology is so dangerous is because it can be overwhelming and impossible to stamp out. Ideology is a powerful force, and those steeped in an ideology can come to exude a level of commitment that transcends other interests. First order values and beliefs cause an ideology’s followers to act in order for those beliefs to be realized, and a military defeat does not render those values and beliefs invalid in the eyes of the ideology’s adherents. The guardians and enforcers of an ideology, who have built a political order upon an ideological foundation, should not be expected to simply let their ideology, which they have fought to impose and which has guided their decisions, lapse just because they lose to a superior fighting force. Ideology exerts such a powerful influence because it imbues a regime’s actions with spiritual or existential authority in addition to secular authority, and while this is true of secular ideologies, it is all the more true of religious ideologies such as that espoused by ISIS. Leaders and citizens make themselves over in the image of the ideology, creating no space for dissent from ideological norms. The process is designed to penetrate individual consciousness and alter perception so that a situation where the ideology does not reign supreme is unimaginable. If ISIS is beaten by some combination of the U.S. Air Force and the Iraqi army, it doesn’t alter this fundamental dynamic of belief in ideological supremacy. The heirs to ISIS will not concede ideological defeat along with military defeat, which is what makes the fight against radical jihadi groups so difficult.

Furthermore, ISIS’s ideology is a revolutionary one seeking to overturn the status quo and to constantly expand, which makes it particularly susceptible to living on beyond the elimination of its primary advocate. Much like Voldemort’s life force after he attempts to kill Harry Potter as a baby, ISIS’s ideology will not die just because its host body is decimated. It will lurk around until another group seizes upon it and resurrects it, and much like ISIS seems to be even worse than al-Qaida, whatever replaces ISIS is likely to be more radical still. The problem with Obama’s speech yesterday was that it set an expectation that cannot be fulfilled. Yes, ISIS itself may be driven from the scene, but the overall problem is not one that is going to go away following airstrikes or even ground forces.

The stubborn nature of ideological survival is not unique to ISIS, religious ideology, or jihadism. If you want to see the power of ideology in a different, less violent context, look at what is happening in Scotland, where the simple ideas of nationalism and independence have a good chance of subsuming what is in Scotland’s economic and security interests. There seems to be little question that Scotland’s economy will be better off as part of the larger economy of the United Kingdom, and certainly it will be less able to weather financial shocks should it become independent. I also cannot envision a scenario in which Scotland’s national security is made safer by removing itself from the protection of the second largest army in the EU and a nuclear power. Yet, ideas are powerful stuff, and the notion of Scottish independence exerts a hold on many people that falls outside the bounds of economic rationality.

Now, none of this is to suggest in any way that the U.S. is engaged in a clash of civilizations, or that the U.S. cannot be safe until Islamism – whatever that might constitute – is defeated. It is rather a way of pointing out that our expectations need to be recalibrated, and that beating ISIS into submission is not going to be the end of the problem. Groups like ISIS are going to keep emerging until those most susceptible to buying into the idea of jihadism are won over by a more compelling idea. I don’t know what the U.S. can do, if anything, to hasten that process along, but airstrikes aren’t going to be enough.

Turkey’s Iran Quandary

September 3, 2014 § 9 Comments

Taking a step back and looking at the Turkish-Iranian relationship, it strikes me that it is following a similar pattern to the one Turkey had with Syria until 2011. The Turkish relationship with Syria was based largely on economic ties, and Ankara played down any political factors that might cause tension in the name of trade and economic growth. When Bashar al-Assad’s murderous behavior became more pronounced as the Syrian civil war heated up, Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu operated on a mistaken assumption that they could softly manage the problem and convince Assad to change his ways. They presumed that in the same way that they saw economic growth and trade as a factor outweighing everything else, Assad would view things the same way. Assad had far larger and more pressing concerns, however, and after promising to Davutoğlu’s face not to kill civilians, he promptly continued his massacring of Syrians, which led Erdoğan to blow a gasket after feeling personally betrayed and adopt a policy of getting rid of Assad at any cost. This in turn caused the rapid downward spiral of Turkish foreign policy, which has largely collapsed due to the government’s Syria policy – a policy that was neither well thought out or well planned, and one which the Turkish government concocted on the fly. It chose to ignore all sorts of warning signs and then turned on a dime, all to devastating effect.

The variables with Iran are different, but the basic dynamic is similar. Turkey has cultivated a friendly and cordial relationship with Iran despite a host of structural reasons to be wary of its erstwhile regional rival and in the face of a coordinated Western effort to keep Iran isolated until concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are resolved. Turkey has made a concerted effort to improve ties with Iran for economic reasons, and in fact the two countries activated a deal last month to reduce trade tariffs with a stated objective of raising annual bilateral trade to $30 billion by the end of 2015, which would double the trade volume from 2013. I have written in the past about the power imbalance between the two due to Turkey’s over reliance on Iranian oil and gas, which is one of the primary reasons Turkey was such a willing partner in helping Iran evade sanctions by swapping gold for gas. The desire to boost commercial trade with Iran has only grown with the loss of Syria as a trade conduit, and thus Turkey has pressed forward on working to expand economic ties with Iran despite an effort among its NATO partners to isolate Tehran economically.

Like with Syria, the rial signs in Ankara’s eyes have blinded it to some larger geopolitical truths. Turkey and Iran have a shared interest in stamping out the threat from ISIL, and they have each played a big role in keeping Hamas alive and boosting its standing in relation to the Palestinian Authority, but otherwise they are operating at cross-purposes. While Erdoğan has stated his conviction that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is for civilian purposes only, Turkey has a longstanding policy of opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the ledger in the struggle for hegemony in the region, with Iran wanting to limit the influence of a connected Sunni bloc and Turkey teaming with Qatar to boost Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist movements. As a NATO member and EU aspirant, Turkey is ostensibly in the Western camp while Iran is decidedly not. On Syria and Iraq, which have been the two most pressing hot spots in the region, Iran has strongly backed both Assad and Nuri al-Maliki, while Turkey has turned a blind eye for two years to groups like ISIL all in the name of ending Assad’s rule and clashed with Maliki repeatedly and consistently while he was at the helm in Baghdad. In short, you have two populous non-Arab states with the largest militaries in the region who differ on nearly every policy issue of consequence and who have historically each tried to control the Middle East, and yet Turkey has treated Iran with all due deference.

I have no insider insights into the status of the P5+1 talks with Iran, but given the frantic NATO/EU focus on Ukraine and the emergent ISIL problem occupying the White House’s attention, this would be the perfect time for a revisionist state such as Iran to take advantage of the chaos and take a harder line in talks or restart elements of its nuclear program. The spotlight at the moment is elsewhere, and given the previous extension of the deadline following the interim Geneva agreement, Iran would not be out of line in assuming that the U.S.’s priority is to get a deal even if it means letting up on issues such as enrichment. The upshot of this is that with other foreign policy problems eclipsing Iran’s nuclear program and an improved economic situation following the loosening of sanctions, Iran’s position is improving, which should worry Turkey deeply in a wider regional context. There is no question that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu both pine for the days of Ottoman power and would like to restore Turkey to what they see as its rightful role as regional leader, and a stronger Iran is not something that will help this project.

Turkey’s Iran policy up until now has been assume, like it did with Syria, that it can ignore the problems on the horizon and simply manage an ascendant Iran on its own. As with Syria, this has the potential to blow up in Ankara’s face in a big way, particularly once Iran no longer needs Turkey as an escape hatch out of its economic isolation. Whereas Turkey is reliant on Iran for its energy needs because it has no other viable suppliers yet, Iran is only reliant on Turkish capital and investment so long as it is under sanctions. Ankara’s assumption that Iran is always going to be a relatively friendly and cooperative neighbor flies in the face of the way regional powers operate, particularly when there is a power vacuum in the region in question. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu thought that they could manage Assad and that they could ignore ISIL outright, and that both problems would eventually melt away. They were wrong on both counts, and if Turkey keeps on treating Iran with kid gloves rather than realizing the threat that a powerful Iran presents to Turkish interests, it is ultimately going to end up with yet another foreign policy problem that it could have fended off with some foresight earlier in the process.

Guest Post: Zero Problems But Few Common Interests

November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of O&Z favorite and veteran guest poster Dov Friedman, and examines the reasons behind Turkey’s apparent shift back to its Zero Problems With Neighbors policy and why the strategy is unlikely to be too successful the second time around.

Turkey’s foreign policy activity appears resurgent of late.  In early November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hosted his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for bilateral talks in Ankara.  Zarif, picking up on a cherished Davutoğlu theme, emphasized the countries’ shared ability to promote dialogue in service of regional peace and stability.  Two weeks ago, reciprocating Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s October visit to Ankara, Davutoğlu visited his counterpart in Iraq—where he extolled his own regional policy in vivid, splendid fashion.

Taken together, they at least signal an end to the oppositional forcefulness of Turkey’s Syria policy.  They may also indicate a broader effort by Turkey to reset regional relations.

The problem, Turkey may find, is akin to the one Alvy Singer faces in the lobster scenes in Annie Hall—that of trying to recreate a particular, wildly successful moment from the past.  The efforts to improve relations with Iran and Iraq are transparent and a bit clumsy—a sort of ersatz Zero Problems with Neighbors tactic.

In the years prior to the Arab Uprisings, Zero Problems was at its most effective as an aspect of a wider foreign policy strategy—one that leveraged regional relationships to facilitate, and at times mediate, among powers.  For a brief moment, that foreign policy vision raised the prospect that Turkey might be a vital presence in facilitating international political negotiations—a “central power” of sorts, to borrow Davutoğlu’s own conception.

Whether by fault or circumstance, that moment is gone.  Its evanescence explains Turkey’s efforts to recapture the magic of Zero Problems—and why that effort now appears futile.

Take, to begin, Egypt’s decision over the weekend to send off Turkey’s ambassador and downgrade relations.  The obvious immediate cause—as Steven Cook noted in a strong post yesterday—was Turkey’s ostentatious condemnation of the Egyptian military coup.  Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan foolhardily insisted on continuing to recognize the Mohamed Morsi government as Egypt’s legitimate rulers, and rarely passed up jabs at the military regime.  He did so because he believed vocal support of democratically elected governments bolstered Turkey’s regional influence.  The result is an embarrassing diplomatic fiasco for Turkey.

Yet, the interactions between Turkey and Egypt during Morsi’s year in power should have communicated to AK Party’s leadership the potential limits of Turkey’s regional influence.  After the Freedom and Justice Party’s victory, the AK Party government offered friendly—and wise—advice to its political Islamist brethren on the merits of blending conservative values with a secular constitution.  Morsi’s FJP politely told them to bug off.  Support from Turkey for the Muslim Brotherhood’s cause was one thing; advice on its political program for Egypt was another entirely.

In hindsight, that was the moment for serious Turkish introspection.  Regional actors might welcome Turkey’s support and collaborate to mutual benefit, but they were wholly uninterested in domestic political advice. Turkey’s facilitation- and mediation-focused foreign policy had clear benefits for Turkey’s role in both the international sphere and in relations with the U.S. and Europe, but it purchased little in the way of regional leadership.  At the very least, the FJP’s wakeup should have pushed Turkey to consider its core regional interests and work quietly to implement as many of them as possible.

But Turkey pursued misguided policies in Syria and now faces serious internal problems as a result.  Believing the regional trend would move toward conservative democratic movements—and believing in an opportunity for lasting Turkish influence—Turkey was bullish on the Syrian opposition. To support the protracted fight against Bashar Assad, Turkey tacitly facilitated the Saudi-backed jihadists, enabling free movement through Gaziantep’s airport and on to the Syrian border, while turning a blind eye to Gulf-funded safe houses on the Turkish side of the border—ones it publicly denies exist.

At the same time, Turkey refused for far too long to engage politically with the PYD—the PKK offshoot in northern Syria—, backing Massoud Barzani’s heavy-handed and futile efforts to extend his influence by sending KRG-affiliated peshmerga forces across the border.  This despite the PYD’s demonstrated commitment to fighting both al-Qaeda and Assad regime forces.

The result of these Syria policies?  This terrifying item on jihadi recruitment in Turkey’s southeast from the Guardian‘s excellent Istanbul-based correspondent, Connie Letsch.  It is a problem Turkey may contend with for years to come.

Which returns us to the recent visits with the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers.  As the Syrian civil war grinds on, and as Turkey bears the economic and social costs of 600,000 refugees, the government recalls its momentarily exalted international standing and seeks to diminish problems and mend relations with its neighbors to the east.

How deep can these ties possibly run?  On nearly every issue facing the region today, Turkey and Iran—and Iraq, by extension—are at odds.  Their divergence over Syria is well known.  Meanwhile, Turkey continues to foster close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, with the recent Erdoğan-Barzani meeting in Diyarbakır only the latest indicator.  Despite fears that the Turkey-PKK peace process was on life support, Erdoğan—to his credit—has renewed the push to move it forward.

On each of these issues, Iran’s and Iraq’s interests run counter to Turkey’s.  The KRG-Turkey partnership markedly increases the likelihood of an eventual bid for independence from Iraq.  Turkey is already on record supporting Kurdish oil claims and its constitutional interpretation.  Historically, Iran has fomented the PKK-Turkey conflict, which preoccupied Turkish military forces in the east and diminished the potential for PJAK mischief.  If Turkey truly ends the decades-long conflict with the PKK, Iran may face a more concerted, focused Kurdish opposition.

Despite the glaring reality that Turkey’s and Iran’s interests run at cross-purposes, Turkey petulantly lashed out in its diplomatic feud with Israel by gift-wrapping 10 Mossad agents for the Iranian regime.  At the moment it should have been recalibrating its strategic approach, Turkey simultaneously aided a country with the greatest capacity to upset its regional interests while irrevocably losing the trust of a country whose strengths complement Turkey’s well.

Undoubtedly, Turkey will continue to proclaim, in every way imaginable, a return to normalcy in foreign policy.  But through a mix of well-intentioned miscalculations and ill-advised, rash decisions, Turkey faces some troublingly intractable problems.  If only assuaging conflicts with its eastern neighbors were the solution.  But Erdoğan and Davutoğlu must understand as well as anyone that Zero Problems was effective not as an end in and of itself, but as a platform.  Perhaps they would be better off finding their diplomatic rhythm with those who share even the most basic of common regional interests.

Israel’s Russian Roulette

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.

As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.

The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports  – if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.

There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.

Not All Interventions In Syria Are Created Equal

May 6, 2013 § 7 Comments

Israel’s massive strike on military targets near Damascus early Sunday morning paired with its earlier strike on surface-to-surface missiles at the airport on Friday that were presumably destined for transfer to Hizballah has reopened a furious debate in Washington over U.S. intervention in Syria. Proponents of intervention, such as Senator John McCain, are pointing to the seeming ease with which Israel has been able to hit Syrian targets as an argument that the U.S. should be intervening in Syria and at minimum setting up a no-fly zone. The logic employed is that if Israel can use American-made weapons to penetrate Syrian air defenses seemingly at will, it shows the ineptitude of Syrian air defenses and eliminates the argument that setting up a no-fly zone will be dangerous or stretch U.S. capabilities. I am certainly no expert on the relative efficacy of Syrian military capabilities so I will not deign to wade into the argument over whether or not the Syrian army would present a legitimate military threat to setting up a no-fly zone, although I am as confident as I can be that any Syrian air defenses, no matter how robust, aren’t anything that the U.S. military can’t handle. We are talking about the most formidable fighting force with the best technology in the history of mankind, and as Steven Cook has pointed out, the difference in U.S. military resources vs. Syrian military resources is laughable, so I don’t think anyone serious is making an argument about U.S. military capabilities in warning against setting up a no-fly zone. Rather, the opposition to a no-fly zone that centers on the dangers of maintaining one is concerned with the costs of doing so and not arguing that setting one up is an impossibility. In this vein, I’d like to make a few points on why what Israel has just done over the past few days holds very few lessons for a hypothetical U.S. intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.

First, the types of strikes are different. Israel has now conducted three one-off strikes in Syria since the conflict between Assad and the rebels began, and each has been an independent operation aimed at keeping what Israel terms “game changing” conventional weaponry out of Hizballah’s hands. A no-fly zone, in contrast, would consist of constant daily sorties along a predictable schedule and route. Dan Trombly this morning has done a much better job than I could ever hope to do of laying out exactly what a sustained no-fly zone would entail so rather than attempting to get into the specifics of it, just go and read his post instead. That is not to say that the U.S. cannot do so; we maintained a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade. My point is that holding up three Israeli strikes, one of which happened in January and two of which happened two days apart last week, as definitive proof that a Syrian no-fly zone would present absolutely no logistical quandaries seems premature to me.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether Israel even penetrated Syrian airspace. The strike on the airport on Friday apparently took place from Lebanese territory with guided missiles that can skim along the ground for miles after being fired before reaching their intended to target, so the question of whether Syrian air defenses presented a challenge or not is moot. As of this writing, I have not seen any definitive statement as to whether the much larger strike in the wee hours of Sunday morning also came from Lebanese airspace or not. Even if it did not, I would surmise that it took the Syrian regime by surprise given that Israel has not been conducting constant strikes in Syria by any means and that Israel had already struck targets two days before. In any event, assuming that Israeli planes flew over Syria for the second strike, a solitary sortie again does not provide the evidence needed to draw any firm conclusions about Syrian air defenses against a long-term no-fly zone.

Third, even if Israel did launch the second strike from Syria itself, keep in mind that Syria has a long history of not responding to Israeli incursions while not extending the same courtesy to other countries. Israel flew eight planes in and out of Syria to destroy its nuclear reactor and extract its commandos on the ground in September 2007 without a shot being fired. Israel also conducted a strike in Syria through Syrian airspace in January, as noted above, and possibly again this past weekend, all without running into any resistance at all. In contrast, Turkey had its F-4 downed over Syria last summer, and whether it was brought down by Syria or – as has been widely rumored – by a Russian anti-aircraft battery, the fact remains that Syria generally keeps its head down when Israel is involved. In fact, a former Syrian air force major now with the rebels has claimed that Syrian air defenses were actively ordered to stand down during the Israeli raid on the al-Kibbar reactor once the planes were detected and it became clear that it was an Israeli operation. The reason might be that Israel has a carefully cultivated reputation for responding to provocations with overwhelming and even disproportionate force, which smartly deters retaliatory action. If Syria thinks that Israel will bomb it back to the Stone Age if it shoots at Israeli planes, it has every reason to stand down. Indeed, if the reports of the massive explosions in Damascus on Sunday are to be believed, Israel is still making sure to employ its own version of shock and awe. I am not sure that the U.S. reputation in the region is quite the same as Israel’s, and so extrapolating from Syria’s turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions that it will also ignore sustained U.S. incursions is, in my view, a bridge too far.

Finally, and most importantly, Israel has a clearly defined and limited goal in mind when it strikes Syrian targets. As Brent Sasley emphasized today, Israel is engaging in finite operations specifically designed to avoid reprisals by only targeting a specific category of weaponry that is in danger of being transferred to outside parties. The U.S., on the other hand, is dealing with a very different kettle of fish. If the U.S. sets up a no-fly zone, what is the objective? Is it to remove Assad? Even the playing field to give the rebels a better chance? Protect civilians without putting our thumb on the scale on behalf of one side? Israel can more easily carry out its objectives in Syria because they are simple – prevent chemical weapons or new missile technology being given to Hizballah. The U.S.’s objectives will be murkier, particularly since President Obama’s “red line” comment was apparently unplanned. When you don’t have a sense of what exactly you hope to accomplish, nor how long it will actually take to accomplish this hazy objective, taking lessons from a country that has an actually clear red line and knows that it does not have to commit many resources to enforce it may not be the best idea. If we have learned anything from our excursion in Iraq, surely it should be that predictions of a cakewalk should be cast aside in favor of a strategy that hopes for the best and plans for the worst.

Again, none of this is to say that the U.S. is not up to the job, or that the Syrian military is an awesomely fearsome fighting force, or that our capabilities are anything short of allowing us to do pretty much whatever we set out to do. What I am saying is that pointing to what Israel has just done and using that as definitive proof of anything related to a potential U.S. no-fly zone is taking the wrong frame of reference as a lesson.

One last related note: to those who incessantly insist that Israel is of absolutely no strategic worth to American interests and is nothing but an albatross around the neck of the U.S., I’d submit that having the Israeli military around to prevent transfers of Iranian-furnished weapons to Hizballah and to make sure that Assad’s delivery systems for chemical weapons also stay right where they are, all while battlefield-testing American weapons in the process, is pretty useful right about now. Just sayin’…

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