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Posts tagged ‘Syria’

Russia’s Carrier Is Unlikely to Make a Difference in the Syrian War

By Taylor Marvin

The Admiral Kuznetsov in 1966. US DoD photo, via Wikimedia.

The Admiral Kuznetsov in 1996. US DoD photo, via Wikimedia.

Today rumors surfaced that the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, would be sent to Syria to support the Russian forces assisting Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime (via Mark Mackinnon). A spokesperson for Russia’s Northern Fleet appeared to quickly deny the rumor, according to a report in the admittedly unreliable Russian Sputnik propaganda outlet. Though the Kuznetsov is probably not heading to Syria, it is possible that one day it will. Vladimir Putin seems to see Russia’s intervention in Syria as not only an operation prevent the fall of the Assad regime but also as an opportunity to flaunt Russia’s ability to conduct military operations beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Deploying the Kuznetsov to Syria could be a highly visible status symbol, and potentially a tempting one. Imagine the howls from American journalists and politicians!

Even if the Kuznetsov is ever deployed to Syria, the ship is unlikely to significantly impact the war. First, the Admiral Kuznetsov faces significant reliability concerns that would complicate a combat mission off Syria. As David Axe reported in 2013, throughout its life the Kuznetsov has suffered from a string of accidents and mishaps. As of 2013, the Kuznetsov’s reliability was so poor that ocean-going tugboats accompanied the carrier on each of its short, sporadic deployments. An intended major refit scheduled from 2012 to 2017 never happened. If a mission to Syria is partially motivated by a desire to showcase Russian military capabilities, the Kuznetsov’s well-known reliability problems would be a particularly convincing reason to keep the ship home – especially after Western commentators gleefully mocked the recent failure of Russian Syria-bound cruise missiles.

Secondly, the Admiral Kuznetsov has never conducted combat operations. Carrier operations, particularly high-tempo strike missions, are an extremely complex logistical and operational dance, with lethal consequences for mistakes. Since the USSR and Russia has had little opportunity to build these skills, and none to test them in combat, any strike missions from the Kuznetsov would be limited and mostly for show.

Finally, the Kuznetsov itself was not designed for Syria-style power projection. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union did not enthusiastically embrace aircraft carriers and their mission of projecting airpower from the sea. Since a major confrontation between NATO and Warsaw Pact would most likely take place in Europe, during the later Cold War Soviet planners focused on protecting the heavily defended “bastions” shielding their ballistic missile submarines* and not seaborne power projection. Accordingly, the Soviet Navy prioritized fielding formidable submarines, not multi-role surface ships and aircraft carriers. While the USSR became more interested in the ability to project naval power in the 1970s, Soviet surface ships remained optimized for destroying their NATO counterparts rather sea control.

Unsurprisingly, despite this logic Soviet admirals dreamed of fielding their own aircraft carriers to rival America’s, but the funding was never quite there. As Robin J. Lee documents, the USSR’s path towards fixed-wing carrier-borne naval aviation was a halting one with many half steps. Over decades the Soviet Union built a series of aircraft-carrying ships more and more dedicated to the naval aviation mission, culminating with the Admiral Kuznetsov and its uncompleted sister ship (which became China’s first aircraft carrier). More ambitious supercarriers to rival the US fleet were never built.

The Kuznetsov was deemed an “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” rather than an aircraft carrier, both to sidestep a treaty that forbids carriers from transiting from the Black Sea to Mediterranean and because its intended mission differed from that of American carriers. “According to Soviet doctrine,” Lee writes, “aviation cruisers were intended not to serve as the centerpiece of naval strike capability (as the USN regards its own carriers), but as a supporting element for other naval operations.” (Notably and unlike US carriers, the earlier Kiev and Admiral Kuznetsov classes sported a number of large anti-ship missiles, offensive armament that rivaled their air wings.) Also unlike American carriers, the Kuznetsov was not equipped with a powerful steam catapult; instead, aircraft take off with the aid of an inclined “ski-jump” ramp, which severely limits their takeoff weight. As Axe notes, the ship’s Sukhoi Su-33 fighters can only takeoff with a minimal weapons (mostly light air-to-air missiles) and fuel loads.

These constraints make the Kuznetsov much less versatile than an American supercarrier. It is difficult to see any prospective deployment to Syria as anything more than a risky stunt, as Dan Trombly noted on Twitter:

All this doesn’t mean that Putin won’t order the Kuznetsov to Syria; after all, there appears to have been no pressing need for Russia’s recent cruise missile strikes launched from the Caspian. It is possible that the Russian leadership will judge the prestige and experience upside from a successful deployment to be worth the cost and risk of embarrassing failure. But given the ship’s limitations, if the Kuznetsov goes to war it is unlikely to make a major difference in the course of the Syrian conflict.

*Update (11/18/2015): I altered this sentence to more accurately show that later Soviet naval strategy focused on defending ballistic missile submarine bastions rather than interdicting convoys and the US Navy in the Atlantic, which Robert Farley recently highlighted.

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Demonstrating Resolve, the Roundabout Way

By Taylor Marvin

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

How can the United States and its European allies show Vladimir Putin that their warnings against further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine are serious? New America Foundation president, Princeton professor, and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that President Obama must “demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations” by striking the regime of murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow,” Slaughter writes, by demonstrating American resolve and causing Putin to reconsider the credibility of American threats. Limited strikes in Syria — she specifically suggests destroying the Syrian government’s fixed-wing aircraft — “might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”

Daniel Larison rejects Slaughter’s logic, writing that “it makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better.” In fact, Larison and the National Interest’s Robert Golan-Vilella note, Slaughter’s argument has already been tested: the Obama administration already used forced to punish an authoritarian ruler massacring his own people, in Libya. Admittedly Syria is a Russian client in a way that Gaddafi’s Libya was not, but the point stands: if using force in Libya did not send a strong message about US resolve, would additional military intervention in Syria marginally strengthen the cumulative evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to use force to the point that Putin would have never annexed Crimea, or — if the strikes were carried out now, as Slaughter proposes — suddenly stand down?

Of course not. The lesson the world drew from the war in Libya is not that the United States and its allies would use force in all circumstances, but instead that the United States and its allies would use force in very specific ones. In Libya organized rebel forces were ready to be the ground army airpower would support, Libya did not have an Iranian ally that could match intervention with asymmetric retaliation, and there was little risk of downed aircraft and dead pilots. In Syria, none of these conditions hold, and similar benchmarks certainly don’t hold in Ukraine.

Larison further writes that “nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country.” This is also true. Arguments that failing to punish Russia will usher in a future of frequent great power aggression are often met with the counterargument of, well, this future is just the recent past, and Americans only notice and object to sovereignty violations when it’s not them doing the violating. While sovereignty and non-interference concerns are not in and of themselves a reason to dismiss hitting the Assad regime, advocates of intervention in Syria should acknowledge that it would strength Putin’s diplomatic position as well as weaken it. While global opinion has been generally against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, this opposition has not been as strident as the US and Europeans would have hoped. If strikes in Syria allowed a ‘well, both sides do it’ thought to take root, many leaders would find themselves with a convenient excuse to avoid the diplomatic and political risk of meaningfully punishing Russian aggression.

But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody — knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia. The only coercion that is on the table is diplomatic efforts, which striking the Assad regime has at best a negative relation to. It’s akin to punching the skinny guy next to the hulking bar-fighter you’re trying to intimidate, just to show you’re serious.

I don’t think it is, as Danny Hirschel-Burns said on Twitter, surprising that a former “senior US policymaker would have such a simplistic view of credibility” because this really isn’t an argument about Ukraine at all. Anne-Marie Slaughter has favored military intervention in Syria for years, endorsing in January 2012 intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine should conditions be favorable and calling for unilateral limited military efforts to establish safe-zones in February 2012. Maybe, given the enormous human suffering in Syria over the last two years, the world should have followed Slaughter’s advice — reading 2012 Syria op-eds in 2014 is deeply sorrowful — but in any case it is obvious now that this military intervention is not coming. Citing strikes in Syria as a useful part of the Western toolkit in Ukraine is just, in my mind, a way of keeping the possibility of intervention in the public eye. The crisis in Ukraine is simply an excuse to keep that conversation going.

Keeping Up Appearances in Damascus

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

By Taylor Marvin

The Syrian government today announced plans to create a national space agency, supposedly aimed at scientific research. The announcement was met with disbelief among many commentators. Why would the Assad government, which is locked a deadly war that threatens the regime’s survival, devote resources to a space program? Perhaps more importantly, how could a government busily engaged in slaughtering its own citizens have any concern for space research at all?

It’s possible that the vague Syrian “space program” is a cover for rocket and missile research, as the inherent dual-use nature of civil rocket development programs make them useful for concealing military research. However, given the severe resource constraints facing the embattled Assad regime, I’d guess that this program will never return much actual research, military or otherwise. Instead, it appears to be another entry in the series of bizarrely banal announcements by the regime, following Bashar al-Assad’s praise for South African leader Nelson Mandela last December and the regime’s 2012 pledge to restrict genetically-modified foods to protect public health.

Like these previous announcements, grand proposals for a Syrian national space agency are unsurprising. To win the war the Assad regime needs to project strength, whether this strength is illusionary or otherwise. For the Assad regime to defeat the rebel insurgency it must convince both rebels and fence-sitting Syrians that the government’s eventual victory is assured, and there’s no point in resisting if the regime is going to win anyway — the “minds” side of the famous phrase. High-profile shows of strength also serve to discourage foreign donors from costly support for the rebels, whether in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or the West. Just as a farcical commitment to diplomacy means benefiting from the implicit international acknowledgement of the Assad government’s sovereign role, high-profile shows of normalcy and stability are a valuable strategy.

The problem is that relevant shows of strength — like defeating rebel forces or capturing cities — are militarily difficult to achieve. So the Assad regime strives to project an illusion of normalcy that signals to both Syrians and the outside world that it is secure and confident. Countries that are locked in stalemated civil wars do not announce space programs. The Assad regime wants to show the outside world that it is confident of its prosperous future — a future that requires winning the war — so it does the opposite. As long as a space program doesn’t consume resources that could be better, from the regime’s perspective, devoted to the military, press announcements and disbelief among outside commentators is a small price to pay for keeping up appearances.

Talks, and the Killing That Won’t Stop

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The killing in Syria appears to be intensifying. Late last year Bashar al-Assad’s military forces stepped up an arial bombing campaign that included an intense assault on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Following regime forces’ gains in the city, in early February rebels announced a new offensive, which was in turn was followed by further regime bombardment. The Syrian military’s preferred aircraft weapons appear to be barrel bombs, unguided improvised explosives that indiscriminately kill civilians and were recently termed ‘barbarous’ by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The death toll from the regime’s offensive has been severe. In recent remarks, UN Ambassador Samantha Power noted that despite the ongoing UN-backed peace talks in Switzerland, the current rate of killing is unprecedented. “Reportedly, nearly 5000 people have been killed just since the Geneva II talks began,” Power stated. “That is the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict – that’s just in the last three weeks – so it is not enough for us to stand here and say there has been no progress, which there hasn’t, we must recognize and state very forcefully that the situation has gotten worst, and is getting worst.”

In a recent post at Political Violence at a GlanceAllison Beth Hodgkins makes the interesting argument that these two events — the deadlocked Geneva II conference and the Assad regime’s destructive bombing campaign — may not be a coincidence. By indiscriminately bombing Syrian cities at the same time it is obstinately ready to negotiate, the Assad regime is sending a clear message to rebels that foreign military intervention is not forthcoming while also emphasizing that it, not the disunited insurgency, remains the sovereign voice of Syria.

It is entirely possible that Assad’s bombing campaign is intended to send a message to both the rebels and the international community. But at the very least it demonstrates that Assad does not see the negotiations as any constraint on its military strategy. Assad seeks to demonstrate to both uncommitted Syrians and the outside world that his forces cannot be militarily defeated, that the rebellion will not be able to dislodge the regime from its western heartland, and that it is only a matter of time before he takes back the entire country. By carrying out an indiscriminately destructive, resolve-demonstrating military strategy the regime emphasizes that the eventual outcome of the conflict will be on its, not the opposition’s, terms, and that a prospective settlement that does not included Bashar al-Assad’s continued presence at the head of Syria’s government is a non-starter — “please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” in the words of Syria’s deputy foreign minister.

Assad can afford this brutality because he knows that western countries no longer have any leverage over him. The very public opposition to the Obama, Cameron, and Hollande governments’ favored airstrikes proposed in the wake of the 2013 chemical weapons attacks revealed just how unpopular and politically painful even a limited military intervention in Syria would be. The Assad regime obviously crossed the red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, and the US and France ultimately settled for a toothless, Russian-brokered deal that appears unlikely to actually result in the destruction of most of the regime’s chemical weapons, and is anyway irrelevant to the wider war. While limited strikes were unlikely to have meaningfully alter the course of the Syrian war — and Obama’s red line was always an unwise policy, given the administration’s unwillingness to bind itself to serious intervention in the conflict should the red line be violated — if the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use did not bring serious consequences, bombarding cities and starving civilians will not either. Assad knows this, and the international community does as well.

Assad and the Illusion of Normalcy

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

At the Washington Post’s “Worldviews” blog, Loveday Morris flags a statement by Bashar al-Assad praising the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. “His history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world,” Assad stated, “in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.”

Morris notes that the praise was unsurprisingly “greeted with derision from opposition activists and commentators,” angered by the hypocrisy of Assad’s apparent admiration for the icon of nonviolent resistance. The National Interest’s Ashley Frohwein questions whether “Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke.”

But there’s nothing particularly surprising about Assad’s praise for Mandela. The Assad regime’s potential path to victory in the Syrian civil war requires it to constantly show confidence that it will win. In addition to vowing that it will never surrender, by dismissing the country’s massive armed rebellion as simply “terrorists” and preserving an illusion of normalcy Assad reassures his domestic supporters and fence-sitters that he is winning, discouraging defection. To Syrians inclined to label the opposition terrorists, there really isn’t even any glaring cognitive dissonance in Assad’s praise for the South African leader.

Of course, this signal is not particularly convincing because it is not costly — that is, Assad can feign normalcy whether he is winning or not — but this non-costly nature means there’s no reason not to engage in this particular strategy either.

This is not the first instance of the Assad government pursuing incongruously-banal behavior. In October 2012 it passed a law regulating genetically modified agricultural products; I noted the law’s possible signaling role at the time. The Syrian government-owned SANA news agency’s homepage is filled with, in addition to references to “Wahhabi terrorism”, commonplace human interest stories seemingly out of place in a country wracked by civil war.

A normal government would mark Nelson Mandela’s death by praising the famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Assad wishes his regime to be perceived by both domestic and international audiences as a normal government, so he praises Mandela as well.

Sometimes, Intentions Don’t Matter

By Taylor Marvin

To what degree does the Obama administration seek to end  the war in Syria? Obviously, on some level it wants the killing to stop — the administration is not staffed by monsters, after all — but it is similarly clear that very few policymakers within the US government are willing to commit the military resources needed to actually end the war. Even when the administration’s stated prohibition on chemical weapons use appeared to bind it to a limited intervention, the military options actually under consideration were so limited that no one even pretended that they would have any real chance of damaging the Assad regime enough to halt the killing.

The Obama administration has, of course, contributed limited rhetorical, financial, training, and diplomatic support to the opposition over the now nearly-three year civil war. Some have argued that this support is part of a wider administration policy designed to lure Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and al Qaeda, associated with some of the more extremist factions of the anti-Assad insurgency, into a costly struggle that saps both sides’ strengths. This plan, so the argument goes, explains the Obama administrations middling actions over the course of the war. From the start of the conflict Obama has publicly supported the Syrian opposition but refused to provide them with the heavy weaponry or direct US military support that would allow anti-Assad forces to definitively win the war, ensuring that the conflict dragged on long enough to prompt the direct involvement of both Iranian-affiliated and Islamist groups. When Obama’s own rhetorical “red line” apparently bound him to directly striking Assad after the regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons usage, the administration instead pursued a diplomatic agreement with the regime and its Russian allies that again avoided direct intervention, a win-win-win for Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Assad that gave the regime further “time to kill more people with conventional weapons,” according to one opposition activist. The Obama administration’s limited support for the opposition, again so the argument goes, is encouraging a long fight between two US enemies at the costs of over a hundred thousand Syrian lives.

The first problem with this explanation for the administration’s Syria policy is that it is not guaranteed to actually weaken Islamists fighters and Iran. Al Qaeda and wider Islamist militancy are a decentralized movement — there’s no reason to think that encouraging al Qaeda-affiliated groups to fight in Syria will weaken them in, say, the Sahel or Pakistan. While there is some validity to the argument that the conflict in Syria is soaking up funds from Islamist donors that would otherwise go to violent groups targeting the US and its allies, there is again no reason to think that this funding is fixed at a constant level and that Syrian rebels’ financial gains come at the cost of other Islamist militants. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that combat necessarily weakens armed groups. One of the reasons that Syria’s Islamist rebels have outcompeted their secular or moderate peers — in addition to their established fundraising networks and the natural tendency for extremist groups to attract the most popular support in an increasingly-violent and sectarian conflict — is their ability to leverage the combat experience similar groups gained in the Iraq war. Militant organizations in combat can gain experience and attract recruits, publicity, and funding that those not fighting do not. It is not unreasonable to expect that no matter who “wins” the war in Syria (whether victory for either side is still a possible outcome is another question) the conflict will produce a cadre of experienced, radicalized fighters who will appear in subsequent Middle Eastern conflicts.

This same logic applies to the Assad regime’s Iranian backers. Even before the recent warming in US-Iranian relations, hopes of drawing the Islamic Republic into a costly proxy war in Syria was an uncertain policy, because involvement such a conflict would politically empower the typically hardline actors responsible for implementing the Iranian involvement in the war. Additionally, while Iran’s support for the Assad regime has made it unpopular in much of the Arab world and reportedly drawn Saudi backing for Iranian Salafist insurgents, the ultimate cost of its involvement in Syria is small compared to its rivalry with the Gulf States and the international sanctions it currently endures. While Iran is directly involved in the Syrian war, this involvement’s marginal gains for the United States are not necessarily worth the admittedly-unclear marginal political empowerment it implies for Iranian hardliners.

Secondly, it is important to remember that to an external observer an Obama administration seeking to deliberately prolong the Syrian civil war is indistinguishable from an administration horrified at the Assad regime’s brutality and desperate to see the dictator deposed, but deeply wary of the fractured and radicalized opposition, fearful of a post-Assad power vacuum, and aware of just how unpopular direct US military involvement in Syria would be. While a long war in Syria may not necessarily weaken Iran and militant Islam, it is also true that at this point the Obama administration has no real interest in Assad’s fall beyond its apparently-genuine disgust with the humanitarian cost of the war. The open-ended nature of the Syrian war is bad for everyone — it encourages radicalization among its participants, is establishing networks that will endure beyond the end of the conflict, and increases the likelihood that Syria will no longer be a viable state at the war’s closure. But the consequences of the Assad regime’s fall are terrible as well, and are growing worse as the conflict drags on; the United States is understandably reluctant to play a role in a rebel victory that would more likely than not culminate in mass atrocities against the regime’s Alawite power base.

Given these conflicting goals, whether or not a grand plan to bleed al Qaeda and Iran in Syria is necessary to explain the administration’s Syria policy is irrelevant. As Daniel Drezner, who has previously argued in favor of this realpolitik theory, noted last month citing reporting by the New York Times, many of Obama’s advisors have articulated “a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing.” But even if Obama finds this argument convincing, what further action would it lead him to do? The President is obviously extremely reluctant to directly intervene in Syria. After the regime’s chemical weapons use and as more extreme rebel groups gained influence and territory at the expense of moderates, the Obama administration diplomatically avoided the strikes many believed that it had bound itself to in a diplomatic accord that arguably strengthens the regime — a policy that can be read as the actions of either administration types.

The two casual logics of a reluctant or realpolitikal administration “complement rather than contradict each other”, Drezner writes. Does this extend the war? Yes. But it extends it no more than any other low commitment action the US would be realistically willing to consider.

The US has very little influence over the Syrian war. Obama clearly feels morally bound to condemn the Assad regime and at least nominally support the more moderate opposition factions. But policies aimed at ending the war but hampered by the United States’ unwillingness to commit itself are not very different from policies designed to lengthen the war.

Banksy, Art, and Syria’s War

By Taylor Marvin

The famous British street artist Banksy has released a short video satirizing the Syrian civil war. The video, a minute and a half long, depicts two rebel fighters firing at an arial target with a MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-air missile system. Shouting Allahu Akbar, the rebels down an aircraft and run towards the crash site. The ‘aircraft’ is then revealed to be an animated depiction of the Disney character Dumbo the flying elephant, dying in pain. A child, dismayed at Dumbo’s death, kicks the fighter who fired the MANPADS, who falls clutching his shin in pain.

Washington Post writer Max Fisher has a thought-provoking post examining the video, which has been criticized by many. Fisher attributes the video’s odd tone to liberal internationalists’ conflicted relationship with a war where no armed faction seems worthy of support, and any intervention is perceived to carry imperialist overtones. “There’s been a real hesitancy among leftists like Banksy to embrace the Syrian opposition, which is reflected a bit in his choice to skewer the rebels, portraying them as murdering beloved children’s cartoon characters,” Fisher writes. But the murderous Assad regime is if anything even more unworthy of leftist’s support. “There’s no good guy for them; Islamist rebels – especially ones who might receive support from the West – are the closest they can get to a pure bad guy.” As Fisher notes, this bird’s-eye view of the Syrian war makes taking any stance beyond simply decrying the loss of life difficult; the only firm position taken by the international leftists Fisher associates with Banksy has been opposition to US or NATO entry into the war. Of course, this opposition is similarly fraught; while the efficacy of proposed airstrikes is unclear, opposing Western intervention in Syria means at best admitting that the killing will continue, as will Russian and Iranian aid to the Assad regime. It is perhaps this confused position that explains leftist’s adoption of the “endless war for empire” rhetoric better suited to their narrative of the lead-up to the Iraq war than the Obama administration’s real dilemma in Syria.

Fisher attributes Banksy’s muddled message to this awkward balancing act, which leaves caricatures of Islamist fighters as the only channel for satire left:

“Unlike his West Bank work, it’s not really dealing with the conflict or its larger issues, even from a one-sided ideological perspective. It’s not getting to the core issues, but rather sticks on one of the few aspects that European and Arab leftist movements feel comfortable addressing, and ignores all the rest. That doesn’t mean the video is bad or wrong as a piece of political art, of course. But it’s an interesting lens into a larger ideological movement’s struggle to figure out how it feels about a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions.”

I think this is certainly true. Crafting artistic depictions of wartime that do not endorse or denounce any one side is extraordinarily difficult, particularly within the constraints of a 90 second viral video. But I also think Banksy’s narrative choices take his work beyond the “awkward” and into outright unsettling.

Screen shot 2013-10-10 at 5.26.29 PM

Admittedly, I know very little about Banksy’s wider work and believe that the video’s intended reading is a statement on how Syrian adults’ warfare makes childhood impossible, an artistic message emphasized by the closing image of the child kicking the MANPADS-armed fighter. But this simple denunciation of the horrors of warfare is contradicted by other elements of the video’s symbolic toolkit. Importantly, Banksy chose to associate Dumbo, the murdered children’s cartoon character, with airpower, one of the few element of military force that the regimen enjoys a complete monopoly over. Syria’s rebels fight with small arms, rockets, armored fighting vehicles, and potentially even chemical weapons (a common but very unlikely accusation disseminated by the Assad regime’s messaging and global news organizations like RT). But only Assad can operate military aircraft, and regime fighter aircraft bombing rebel forces and civilian neighborhoods in relative safety is one of the defining image of the war. Moreover, denying the Assad regime the use of its monopoly on airpower — either through a No-Fly Zone or airstrikes targeting the regime’s air force — is one of the most-discussed options for a potential Western intervention.

Given this monopoly, Banksy’s choice to incapsulate the Syrian war in a depiction associating regime airpower with a symbol of childhood is striking. I don’t believe that this can be read as even an indirect endorsement of the regime, but it is in my mind a clumsy attempt to satirize the conflict. But Banksy has taken on a difficult challenge. In the midst of a war between a brutal autocratic regime and an increasingly-disunified opposition, Syria is fracturing along ethnic lines with any losing side facing the prospect of brutal retaliation by the winner. Ultimately, the tragedy of the Syrian war breaks any mode of satire, except for complete cynicism.

Who’s Fence-Sitting in Syria?

By Taylor Marvin

Writing at Political Violence @ a Glance, Barbara F. Walter poses an interesting puzzle (note: I contribute to PVG). Citing Eli Berman, Walter outlines a problem facing Syria’s urban Sunni Muslim population living along the country’s western strip that is for the most part controlled by the regime. These Sunnis are understood to be the “swing voters” in Syria’s civil war; while they could benefit from a complete rebel victory bringing a new regime dominated by Sunni Muslims to power, they have also historically benefited from the stability enforced by the Assad family’s Alawite Muslim-dominated government. In Berman’s view these urban Sunnis are waiting to see who appears likely to win the war; when this information is revealed they will then side with the likely victor.

Many Syrians, especially urban Sunnis, are reluctant to choose sides in the Syrian war. In a January New York Times piece Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad related the dilemma of a Damascus Sunni Muslim civil servant quietly pondering “his own private endgame, toying with defecting to the rebels, yet clinging to his post, increasingly sure there are no fighters worth joining.” However, it is worth noting that Berman’s argument that Syrian “swing voters” will decide the war is not universally accepted; an April 2013 Rand report claimed that “the remaining fence-sitters inside Syria are not in a position to tip the military balance” (it is also worth noting that elements of this report have been passed by events since its publication).

However, Walter has a problem with this logic, which presumes that Syria’s urban Sunnis have the option of laying low and emerging from the war in good condition. What if they are instead locked in a “lose-lose” situation? A rebel victory would subject these well-educated urban moderates to a new government dominated by Islamist extremists, an outcome not in their interests. But if Assad should win, these Sunnis could be grouped with their co-sectarians who had rebelled against the government and targeted for reprisals.

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

I think this interaction is more complex. While Syria’s urban Sunnis may face a lose-lose situation now, in 2011 it was plausible to suspect that a rebel victory could lead to a Sunni-dominated but largely secular government; today, as Islamist rebels appear more and more ascendant within the rebel movement, this is much less likely. Not only are today’s rebels more dominated by jihadists, the inability of the rebel movement to coalesce into an operationally-unified force and frequent incidents of rebel infighting in the three-sided civil war make further civil war in the aftermath of an Assad regime defeat a very real possibility. If we accept that Syria’s western urban Sunnis have for the most part so-far declined to definitively chose sides — a key assumption of the “swing voter” theory and one that appears to be true — then the fact that the outcome of a rebel victory appear to be growing less amenable to their interests suggests that they will continue to fence-sit.

The most obvious answer is that Walter’s logic is correct, and there is no puzzle at all: Syria’s urban Sunnis have, for the most part, already made their choice because in the context of the Syrian civil war their fence-sitting for all practical purposes serves the regime. While contested by the rebels, large cities like Damascus, Homs, and Hama all lie within the western strip held by the regime, which is centered on the country’s smaller Alawite-dominated coastal strip that is the Assad regime’s heartland. A large-scale rebellion by this region’s Sunnis would be disastrous for the regime, depriving it of its base, threatening its Alawite backers, and eating up military resources that could otherwise be employed in the hinterland and central Euphrates valley that for the most part is held by the rebels. If the regime loses control of this region its ability to eventually win the war — or, more importantly in the context of a civil war with fence-sitters, ability to appear likely to win the war — would be cast into much greater doubt. Barring situations where western villages are forced to choose, fence-sitting can still be considered valuable for the regime.

France, Syria, and Power Projection

By Taylor Marvin

After the Obama administration’s weekend announcement that it will seek congressional approval before launching airstrikes in Syria, France has too announced that it will wait on the American government’s decision. On Twitter, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf took the opportunity to remark that regardless of its decision to wait, France could punish the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use no matter what the US eventually decides.

But solo French strikes in Syria are so unlikely as to be nearly unthinkable, and power projection capability outside of America’s is much more restricted than Friedersdorf argues.

In his announcement that France would wait on the US Congress’ decision, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls explained that despite the French government’s desire to act it ‘needs a coalition’ before striking the Assad regime and could not “go it alone”. This wasn’t a reference to a French desire for international diplomatic support; instead, it is a veiled allusion to the French military’s very real need for cooperation from US force. As Robert Farley noted, despite their relatively high defense spending major NATO allies France and the UK lack the cruise missile assets necessary for striking Syria in any systematic fashion and, in Farley’s words “most of the NATO militaries have, for better or worse, been optimized for coalition ops with the United States.” While the French Navy is perhaps more balanced than today’s air-defense and anti-submarine warfare-optimized Royal Navy, in operations requiring air defense suppression or launching large numbers of cruise missiles — with the latter obviously relevant to the proposed strikes in Syria — both countries depend on working in tandem with more capable US forces.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

Is it any wonder the country of Monet would design the prettiest aircraft in NATO? USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

As Daniel Drezner alluded to on Twitter and I briefly noted earlier this week at Political Violence @ a Glance, the air campaign over Libya definitively illustrated that British and French sustained power projection is depending on US cooperation. During the Libyan campaign non-US NATO member participants benefited from extensive opening-phase US strikes that decimated Libyan air defense networks and quickly ran short of precision-guided munitions, relying on US stockpiles to plug the gap. As I wrote at the time, the lesson here is that the British and French defense budgets are essentially optimized only for power projection alongside the US. Both countries spend far more than would be necessary if they only intended to operate within NATO’s original mission — that is, self-defense. But the gap between the spending required for fielding moderately capable defensive military forces and those capable of sustained power projection is enormous. By keeping their defense spending in the no-mans-land between these two benchmarks the UK and France both field militaries that for practical purposes service maintaining the pretext of global power — in the words of GlobalSecurity.org’s John Pike “maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows” — but incapable of actually fighting sustained campaigns overseas without close US support.

But of course the Libyan campaign isn’t an analog for the proposed strikes in Syria — while in Libya NATO air forces essentially provided direct air support and strategic strikes to rebels forces, airstrikes in Syria would be much more restricted, only involve standoff weapons, and likely aim to only target military forces associated with the regime’s chemical weapons use. France does possess the air assets necessary to conduct very-limited standoff strikes on Syria. Given that the Obama administration is apparently considering only extremely restricted strikes that will only — arguably — symbolically punish the regime for Assad’s chemical weapons use, it’s possible that the US will elect to mostly limit itself to strikes the French in effect would be theoretically capable of on their own. But as Valls said, despite the very limited options on the still-nebulous coalition’s table France is unlikely to go it alone for both practical and political reasons. If Americans want Assad punished, it’s a punishment that the US forces will have to be involved in administering.

The Debate Over Striking Syria

By Taylor Marvin

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Carmichael Yepez

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Carmichael Yepez

At Political Violence @ a Glance, today I collected arguments for and against the apparently-immanent US-led strikes on Syrian regime targets. Unfortunately at 800 words length constraints meant that I was unable to include all the writing and analysis I’ve been reading on the subject, so if you’re interested here’s further links:

At the Monkey Cage Erik Voeten and Erica Chenoweth link to various political scientists thoughts on the matter. Peter Feaver speculates on why Assad would use chemical weapons, a particularly puzzling question given the regime’s apparent recent military momentum at the expense of the rebels. Feaver suggests that the regime possibly doubted the administration’s commitment to punishing chemical attacks or did not realize just how horrific the Ghouta attack would be, the first a mechanism I discussed in May.

The Smoke-Filled Room’s Chris Clary endorses “modest” military force in Syria, subscribing to the argument that US/UK/FR airpower should be used to cancel out the military advantage Assad has apparently gained from CW use.

Daniel Soloman looks at what he terms an “immanent disaster.”

John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession and noted WMD skeptic, argued in FA last April that the Obama administration should walk back from its anti-chemical weapons red line.

Brent Sasley argues at PVG that the Obama administration’s apparent military response to the Ghouta attack isn’t about enforcing the international anti-chemical weapons norm, which isn’t in danger — I subscribe to this theory.

Stephen Walt wants President Obama to publicly admit that striking Syria would have little practical affect and attempt to leverage this admission into pressuring Russia and China into a renewed diplomatic offensive.

Last weekend Fred Kaplan attempted to examine the logic of President Obama’s apparent change of heart on intervention, citing the desire to avoid empty threats, the importance of enforcing the anti-chemical weapons norm, and Obama’s personal commitment to international norms.

Via Karolina Lula, the NTI’s overview of Syrian chemical weapons is a useful resource.

Update: The UK appears to not be joining any potential strikes.