Tag Archives: Syria

Syria: Finding the Lost Cause in China

Welcome to America’s Syria Policy, the China round. Having made the public announcement of support to the rebels, only two feasible policy options remain for the United States; these examples arise from two moments in history, existing together on a razor’s edge of success in a smorgasbord of disaster. We either take a page from the Kuomintang-Maoist balance during the invasion by Imperial Japan or from America’s opening of China in the 1970′s.

Option 1: Beyond the Syrian Sub-Plot

To much of the leadership of the Maoists (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), both members of the Second “United Front”, the invasion by Japan was merely a precarious backdrop to the continued struggle for the face of China’s independent future. In the words of their leadership:

The photographer cropped out the knives behind their backs.
The photographer cropped out the knives behind their backs.

“70 percent self-expansion, 20 percent temporization and 10 percent fighting the Japanese.”
-Mao Zedong

“The Japanese are a disease of the skin, the communists are a disease of the heart.”
-Chiang Kai Shek

Even while the battle with Japan raged, Chiang-Kai Shek and Mao’s soldiers exchanged fire behind the lines of control. The conflict was partially a vessel by which the KMT and CCP collected foreign aid and built local influence/human resources for the final battle between the United Front’s membership. The limits of treachery within the Chinese alliance were often what each party felt able to get away with. China’s fate, not the rejection of an interloper, was the main prize.

The Syrian civil war has become such a major sub-plot; the two major parties, the Assad regime and the rebellion, are dominated by equally bad options: an extremist authoritarian backed by Hezbollah and Iran, and extremist Islamists backed by Al-Qaeda. Syria is beyond her “Libya Moment” when moderates and technocrats were still strong enough to out-influence extremist elements in stand-up combat with the regime. Like the KMT or CCP, the United States must now concentrate on the survival of what little faction of sanity exists within the war, as opposed to the war itself.

To concentrate on the “Rebel-Regime” narrative now is a mistake; for the United States, the only real narrative is the survival of moderate freedom fighters.  U.S. policy must concentrate on the perspectives of Mao and Chiang: the survival of the preferred eventual party, not the defeat of the temporal enemy.  Both extremist parties must lose; enclaves of moderates must be armed and pushed to defend themselves from both regime and rebels if need be. If such an operation is feasible, the moderate enclave could be made strong enough to sweep up and put together the pieces after extremist regime and extremist rebel have sufficiently weakened each other. The authoritarian regime is a disease of the skin, extremism is a disease of the heart.


Option 2: Trees for the Forest

America’s sudden opening with China was a calculated move to create a counter-balance to the conventional perception that the world was going the Soviet Union’s way. In that vein, sacrifices had to be made:

“I told the Prime Minister that no American personnel … will give any encouragement or support in any way to the Taiwan Independence Movement. … What we cannot do is use our forces to suppress the movement on Taiwan if it develops without our support.”
Henry Kissinger

Eventually, America went so far as to switch official diplomatic recognition from their Taiwanese allies to the PRC. Some question whether the balancing program started by the Nixon administration’s efforts generated tangible results. Such is the risk of trading policy for intangible influence. However, the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran has given the United States the chance to trade her potential quagmire in Syria for a brighter future for and with Iran.

Up until the recent election, policymakers had called Iran for the conservatives. Now, a moderate (note: moderate does not mean reformer) has been elected on a rather explicit platform:

I thank God that once again rationality and moderation has shone on Iran… This victory is a victory for wisdom, moderation and maturity… over extremism.
President Rouhani

Your government … will follow up national goals … in the path of saving the country’s economy, revive ethics and constructive interaction with the world through moderation.
President Rouhani

Like the PRC, President Rouhani is far from lock-step with western powers, but offers a great chance to shift the internal Iranian power balance to a more palatable place for United States policy. In the China scenario, the opponent was the Soviet Union and the offering was neutrality in the major PRC territorial concern: Taiwan. In this scenario, the Soviet player is the internal conservative element in Iran that prefers antagonism as a path to regional power. Although not a direct regional concern, Syria is nonetheless a part of Iran’s sphere of influence and a key part of Iran’s core interest to be the regional power. Offering to scale our Syrian direct involvement back to containment could give the new Iranian president the necessary trophies to allay conservatives and giving Rouhani the juice to convince the real powers Iran to throttle back on the nation’s own ill-advised plans for further involvement in Syria. No doubt he would like to make room for his original platform of diplomatic reform and internal growth. A trophy from the West in hand, he may gain the legitimacy to further push a more conciliatory approach with the west in regards to even nuclear policy. This would encourage greater region-wide stability through decreased Iranian antagonism. Unlike a direct Syria strategy, this vector suppresses a regional instigator of extremism, rather than attacking one particular instance.

The Pitfalls:

Option 1: Death Spiral

The direct Syria strategy potentially drags the United States into a military quagmire where her legitimacy of policy has been indirectly hung upon forces with which she considers herself at war. It may also force potential political fellow travelers in Iran to abandon their hopes of conciliation with the West as we become further associated with direct attacks on what Iranian strategists consider a sphere of influence supporting their core interests. Further pushing Iranian knee-jerk involvement in Syria, the United States either gets sucked in with her incredibly unpleasant bedfellows or must publicly divest herself of a major policy to great embarrassment. While fighting in China, General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell once said, “We must get arms to the communists, who will fight,” missing the greater oncoming historical narrative. A direct strategy in Syria may accidentally force us into a conflict with no right sides and no exit; no matter the choice, we may foul the over-arching narrative of moderation and humanity in the face of extremism.

Option 2: Three Steps Back

While getting us out of a potential quagmire, we may sacrifice our public support of a legitimately beleaguered people for what may be little to no political advantage. There are no guarantees that trading direct involvement for containment will have any traction in the cloistered government halls of Iran. The U.S. abandonment of the anti-government elements during Desert Storm reverberated painfully. Can the United States afford to create a pattern of supporting and flipping rebels for political convenience if a chance still exists in Syria? While the political and military initiative of the moderate movement in Syria may be gone and the vacuum filled by monsters, the regular people behind that moderation are still there. As said by one of the philosophical forebears of the Republic, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

A Painful Choice:

Posing a series of ideas without taking a stand is the equivalent to cheating. Unfortunately, we arguably lost in both historical scenarios. The KMT was eventually defeated by the CCP and our later sacrifices in opening China may have been unnecessary, as the PRC may have already been girding themselves to take such actions.

Our hesitation has painted us into a corner where, heartbreakingly, we may only make things worse.
As heartbreaking as it is, our hesitation painted us into a corner where we have no real palatable options inside Syria. “Helping” may only arm monsters. Unfortunately, wishes and hindsight cannot change the present. Progress must be found elsewhere.

As much as it pains me to leave behind the besieged people of Syria, that conflict appears to the amateur to be too far gone. The West’s chance to out-influence the extremists was lost last year. When the drowning people of Syria reached out their hand, the only ones to grab ahold were our enemies while we looked on. Our involvement would suck us into a cycle of escalation in a conflict with no side we wish to favor. If Assad and his allied extremists wish to exchange with AQ and their extremists associates, both our enemies lose. No scenario exists, without Western boots on the ground, which does not lead to more mass death.Victory for either side will leave a long and bloody shadow. The better hope lies in the long view that a sustained positive relationship with Iran may serve as a conduit for increased moderation now and internal reform later. As for Syria, we must merely pray that the innocent can escape.

At the time we may have sacrificed too much in our opening to China, but its end result was increased reforms. No one would argue that the China of today is anywhere close to Mao’s terrifying schizophrenic state. Our opportunity with Iran is not as primed as the position potentially under-played by Nixon and Kissinger. Syria is enough of a mess and the Iranian opportunity great enough that a shift is worth the risk. If Iran can be encouraged to give via moderation the West the political space to open sanctions, economics rather than militancy could become the face of Iranian influence in the region. This could lead to greater stability, prosperity, and opportunity for everyone both outside and inside Iran.

(Editor’s Note 30/3/15, MRH – Well, so much for that.)

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Behind the Bluster: The Reality of Russia’s Rhetoric for a Global Navy

By Ian Sundstrom

A slowly expanding shipbuilding program is no evidence of greater interest in the navy by the Russian government, and Russian interest in overseas bases does not mean significant changes in the international environment. If Russia does obtain more overseas bases, it will not result in a sustained global presence in the near future.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Throughout the ongoing Syrian crisis, Russia has stuck by the Assad regime and repeatedly stressed its desire to retain its access to the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia claims the base is needed for training and maintenance for routine counter-piracy patrols.[1] The base also gives Russia a bit claim to the position of global influence the Soviet Union once possessed.[2] Additionally, it may serve as a reminder of Russian influence in the Middle East or provide an added layer of defence for Russia’s Black Sea coast.[3] Just this week, the Russian government announced its renewed intentions to keep Tartus in conjunction with the desire to open new naval facilities in Cuba, Vietnam, and Seychelles.[4] It would appear to demonstrate a new desire by the Russians to project naval power around the world. But does this presage a global focus for the Russian Navy? The answer: not likely.


There are a number of reasons why the Russian Navy could not develop a global posture, even with access to new overseas facilities. The first is cost. Long-distance deployments are costly in fuel and maintenance expenditures. This is particularly problematic given instability in the Russian state budget. The budget is heavily dependent on high oil and gas prices – up to one third of government funds come from hydrocarbon revenues – meaning Russian military activity is beholden to global petroleum prices.[5] This has serious implications for Russia’s military modernisation, a key component of its current national security strategy.[6] In fact, an article in RIA Novosti stated that Economic Development Minister Andrei Belousov recently quashed rumours of a three-year delay in Russian rearmament plans.[7] The article noted that the Finance Ministry has been consistently opposed to high levels of defence expenditure because of the strain they put on state finances. Given intra-governmental disagreement over simply recapitalising and modernising the ailing military it is unlikely that funding will be available for foreign bases. After all, just in 2002 Russia closed its facility at Cam Ranh, Vietnam due to cost.[8] Expensive global cruises, sustained foreign deployments, and overseas bases are not sustainable for Russia.


The second reason is the Russian Navy’s aging equipment. Most of its ships are ex- Soviet vessels, many over thirty years old.[9] At this stage in their careers, these vessels require lengthy periods of maintenance to remain operational. Unfortunately for the navy, Russia lacks adequate maintenance facilities to keep them fully functional.[10] Just in 2008 the pride of the Russian fleet, the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, suffered an electrical fire off Turkey and an oil spill off Ireland, all on the same deployment.[11] If Russia increases the pace and range of its naval deployments, similar incidents will likely occur. Furthermore, the Russian Navy suffers safety issues, demonstrated most spectacularly by the Kursk incident in 2000.[12] These would only be exacerbated by an increased deployment schedule, which would mean reduced training for short-service conscript crews and subsequent attendant issues.[13] With aging equipment, inadequate maintenance facilities and poor safety procedures, it would be difficult for Russia to maintain a global posture without seriously degrading its fleet. This brings us to the final point: the Russian Navy cannot handle increased attrition because it has already been severely reduced in size since 1990.


The Russian Navy is just not large enough as it stands to both maintain a global presence and meet its obligations nearer home. In 1990, the Soviet Navy stood at 2052 vessels. Today its Russian successor stands at 518, of which a maximum of 79 could be considered significant combat assets.[14] It is a shadow of its former Soviet self. On top of this reduction, Russian shipbuilding facilities are woefully inadequate. For example, from 1994 to 2008, only seven ships, all begun during the Soviet era, were completed.[15] RIA Novosti claims that 10 to 15 new ships will be launched this year, but it is likely that at least some of these will be delayed, and none are particularly large or capable ships.[16] Given its reduced size, the Russian Navy has had to focus on its core responsibilities. Russia’s core national interests include ‘ensuring the solidity of the constitutional system, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the Russian Federation’, and the Navy helps achieve these by protecting the Russian coast and defeating terrorists and drug smugglers.[17] Russia has only a handful of major naval assets, barely enough to ensure its most basic national security objectives much less adopt a wider-ranging posture.


If Russia does obtain more overseas bases, and it appears Vietnam will at least allow Russian ships to visit Cam Ranh, the result will not be a sustained global presence in the near future.[18] In the longer term the Russian Navy may shift its focus, and a slowly expanding shipbuilding program does provide evidence of greater interest in the navy by the Putin government.[19] As it stands, Russian interest in overseas bases is a curiosity, but does not mean significant changes in the international environment.



[1] RIA Novosti,‘Russian Navy Holds on to Its Syria Base’, 25 July 2012

[2] BBC,‘How vital is Syria’s Tartus port to Russia?’, 27 June 2012

[3] I argue that Tartus provides Russia strategic depth on its Black Sea flank here. It would appear that Vice-Admiral Chirkov, head of the Russian Navy, supports this argument by referring to Tartus as in the ‘Black Sea Fleet’s strategic operational area’ in RTT News, ‘Russia to Retain Tartus Naval Base in Syria’, 26 July 2012,

[4] RIA Novosti,‘Russian Navy Holds on to Its Syria Base’, 25 July 2012; Reuters,‘Russia wants naval bases abroad-report’, 27 July 2012

[5] Andrei Shleiffer and Daniel Treisman (2011), ‘Why Moscow Says No: A Question of Russian Interests, Not Psychology’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 1, p. 125

[6] Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020, paragraphs 28-32

[7] RIA Novosti,‘Russia’s Rearmament Remains on Schedule – Econ Minister’, 2 July 2012,

[8] International Business Times,‘Russian Navy Looks to Expand Bases Abroad, Goes Hunting in Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean’, 27 July 2012

[9] Dmitry Gorenburg (2008), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 23: ‘Has the Russian Navy Turned a Corner? Recent Trends in Russian Shipbuilding and Naval Deployments’, pp. 22

[10] Ibid., pp. 2-4

[11] Dmitry Gorenburg (2009), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 57: ‘Russian Naval Deployments: A Return to Global Power Projection or a Temporary Blip?’, p. 3

[12] Ibid., p. 6

[13] Even a major vessel like Pyotr Veliky has conscript crewmembers. Russian conscripts serve for only one year. Ria Novosti, ‘The battle-cruiser Pyotr Veliky’, 22 April 2010. [14] IISS, The Military Balance 1990, pp. 36-38 ; IISS, The Military Balance 2012, pp. 194-196

[15] Dmitry Gorenburg (2008), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 23: ‘Has the Russian Navy Turned a Corner? Recent Trends in Russian Shipbuilding and Naval Deployments’, p. 2

[16] Bloomberg,‘Russian Navy May Add Up to 15 New Warships This Year, RIA Says’, 27 July 2012

[17] Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020, paragraphs 21 and 41

[18] RIA Novosti, ’Vietnam Ready to Host Russian Maritime Base’, 27 July 2012

[19] IISS, The Military Balance 2012, p. 187; RIA Novosti,‘Russia to Build New Aircraft Carrier After 2020’, 26 July 2012,; RIA Novosti,‘Russian defense minister denies plans to build aircraft carriers’, 2 July 2012; Captain Thomas Fedyszyn, USN (Ret.), ‘Renaissance of the Russian Navy’, Proceedings, March 2012

This article was originally published at the website of our partners, theriskyshift.com and can be found in its original form here.

Crimea River – Will the Syrian Conflict spread into the Black Sea?

Potentially the first time anyone’s been told to stay ON someone’s lawn.

As Russia continues to conduct port visits and provide weapons to Syria amidst the violence, it does so with a preponderance of transits through the Turkish Straits.

The Montreux Convention of 1937 set forth guidelines for warship transit in the Dardanelles Straits, for which, Turkey was established as gatekeeper. Black Sea littoral nations are permitted uncontested warship transit (with a few caveats), yet Turkey is the initial authority in both restricting access to foreign warships and disputing local (riparian) warship transits during times of war.

For thousands of years, both the limits of anti-access and the role of gatekeeper have been contested by the Black Sea littoral nations (primarily Russia and the Ottomans). The authority granted by the Montreux Convetion has, for the most part, gone uncontested as global powers acknowledge the strength in stability that anti-access regulations provide to the region, but the recent conflict in Syria poses a dilemma for regional powers, primarily Turkey. Should Turkey restrict the transit of Russian warships through the Straits that are providing military support and weapons to Syria? With Russia’s only warm-water port based in Syria at Tartus, Russian diplomats would (on the surface) contest any such restriction and claim that any and all transits from the Black Sea to Syria are part of ongoing alliances and in support of established naval facility agreements.

Yet in this situation Turkey has the upper hand thanks to the Montreux Convention, specifically in Article 20:

“In time of war, Turkey being belligerent …the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government.”

With the recent downing of a Turkish warplane and various conflicts on the Syrian border, a “time of war” is a reasonable description for Turkey. Any future Turkish political decisions to employ military operations in Syria should solidify Turkey as a “belligerent.” If these events were to unfold and Turkey enacted Article 20 on the Russian Navy, the question remains as to which, if any, international body would attempt to stop Turkey. Although many might assume that the U.N. is the appropriate governing body for such discussions, it is important to recognize that the Montreux Convention has gone virtually unchallenged since inception and still includes outdated references to things such as the League of Nations. This small loophole may be enough for Turkey to disregard any public or diplomatic outrage from Russia and its allies and deny Mediterranean access to the Russian Black Sea Navy.

A.J. “Squared-Away” is a husband, father, and U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer.He has deployed on patrol boats, destroyers, and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and aboard Iraqi oil terminals. He is currently a student at an advanced military planner course. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

The Sublime Porte Takes the Lead

Goose isn’t available, Syria. Meet Turkey.

In a surprise move, Turkey has aggressively taken the lead in what seemed a stalemate over Syria. While Bashir Al-Assad has announced his country is at war, his observation might be more accurate than he is comfortable with. Following Syria’s encore performance of shooting at Turkish F-4’s, Ankara has decided to remind the world that the “sick man of Europe” has been in the gym for a long LONG time.

With unconfirmed reports of Turkish units moving to the Syrian border, Turkey is poised to take the lead on a NATO mission no one has wanted to touch. Turkey taking the reins shows optimism for future potential on NATO’s heart monitor. NATO is not merely a support structure for US operations abroad, but as indicated by Turkey’s actions, an institution by which any member state can take the lead on security issues no matter how feckless the majority.

Turkey has been sitting on the periphery for a long time. The nation many dismissed as a NATO ornament and an EU impossibility has proven itself an economic powerhouse, a political leader, and now a military spearhead. “Everybody should know that Turkey’s wrath is just as strong and devastating as its friendship is valuable,” said President Erdogan. With the speed and rigor of the Turkish response both politically and militarily, perhaps the long-ago sick man of Europe will become its backbone.