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Afghans get CIAO lessons

Doc Shibuya here, just came across this short little story from Reuters. I think we sometimes forget that cultural understanding goes both ways. (This is silly, I know, and frequently is pointed out in seminar thanks to our international–and often, interagency–fellows). The operational significance, however, is important to remember, as the link points out.

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ADM (ret) Dennis Blair on developing future US strategy

By way of introduction, this is Dr. Eric Shibuya. I am currently on sabbatical for the fall semester, but will return to CSC and (probably) CGs 5/12 in January (unless Dr. Phillips thinks just being course director is too easy or something). I’m very excited about this blog and will hope to make periodic postings while I am away.

To that end, here’s my former boss, ADM Blair, giving a talk at the Australian National University, discussing the obstacles to developing a coherent US strategy for the future.

Syria is the Epicenter of a Regional War

by Dr. Benjamin M. Jensen

The capture of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, an elite Iranian military wing, by the Free Syrian Army alongside a flurry of diplomatic meetings across the region highlights the magnitude of the unfolding struggle. Syria is not just a civil war, it a regional battle for power and influence.

This struggle has two axes. A Sunni-axis comprised of multiple Syrian opposition groups, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar is wrought with rivalries and a fundamental coordination problem.  Reports on the ground indicate as much.  Rebel groups often have trouble getting reinforcements and support from one another.  Supplies disappear en route.  There also appears to be a severe equipment shortage.  Interviewed rebels consistently complain about a lack of enough weapons alongside reports of $3 bullets and $1,500 AK-47s, prohibitively high costs to sustain an insurgency.  Adding to the confusion, foreign fighters are flowing in with reports of Al-Qaeda flags and Libyan rebels growing by the day.

Members of the Sunni-Axis are vying for influence pitting former Syrian Air Force Colonel and Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad against Saudi Arabia’s preferred candidate, former Republican Guard Brigadier General Manaf Tlas.  Qatar, who was one of the earliest backers of the rebels, continues to host conferences with opposition groups to achieve some semblance of unity.

The Kurdish question further complicates unity in the Sunni-axis.  The President of the Iraqi Kurdish Region, Massoud Barzani, is trying to bring together competing Syrian Kurdish factions, some of whom historically supported Assad.  While such a move threatens to shift the balance of forces on the ground, it directly threatens Turkey where political leaders fear a separatist Northern Syria Kurdish enclave driving Istanbul to pressure all Syrian opposition groups to deny the Kurds a semi-autonomous region in a post-Assad Syria.

Assad’s backers are composed of a Shiite-axis including his regional backers Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki as well as an Eastern Camp made up of Russia and China.  While Assad’s patrons have a common unity of effort in ensuring his regime survives, their motives differ.  The Shiite-axis sees the struggle as a zero-sum conflict dating back to the Battle of Siffin and the First Fitna, or Islamic Civil War between 656- and 661 AD.  Through this lens, the Shiites are fighting an existential war of survival against Sunnis.

The Eastern Camp includes the regime’s principle military backer, Russia, and China.  While Russia has more immediate military interests in Syria including its naval base and weapon sales, both Moscow and Beijing are concerned about sovereignty and religious extremism.  Beijing especially consistently stresses a policy of non-interference, a relic of the Communist party’s perception of Western intervention as thwarting the rise of China. Both nations share a deep concern about predominantly Sunni separatists in their respective nations. Russia worries about the radicalization of the Caucasus while Beijing worries about the prospective of future violence in Xinjiang Province.

These competing axes present a dilemma for the West.  Whether proxy support or military strikes any intervention absent unifying the Syrian opposition is a recipe for disaster.  Outreach efforts should focus on building command and control within the rebels and convincing them to fall back and consolidate before seeking a decisive battle against Assad’s regime.  Second, a successful proxy intervention, if there is such a thing, would have to first drive a wedge between Assad’s supporters.   China is unlikely to shift policy amidst a leadership transition while Iran will never sacrifice their ally for sectarian as well as geopolitical reasons. Therefore, diplomatic outreach should focus on Iraq and Russia.  The West can bargain with Putin, but should be mindful of paying a high price for even small concessions.

In deciding whether to deepen Western involvement in Syria, prudence dictates leaders weigh the humanitarian grounds for action against the risks of a broader conflict spiral in the Middle East and beyond.  National interests still matter even if they are weighed on a scale against human lives.

Alawi Split from Syria Would Spell Disaster

Dr. Ben Jensen has been doing some work lately on developments in Syria. You can read his full op-ed in the Financial Times here. (Once you’ve done your library tours, you’ll know how to access texts through the library’s on-line journal finder).

In brief, Jensen addresses the potential for a separatist Alawite enclave to develop as pressure continues to mount on Assad’s regime. Given the historic tensions between the Alawite and Sunni populations in Syria, fracture is both possible and extremely dangerous. According to Jensen:

The resurrection of an Alawi state could be catastrophic. First, it would be a heavily armed rogue regime that would continue to act as a proxy for Iran and guarantee Russia a deepwater Mediterranean naval base in Tartous.

Second, much like other heavily militarised and unrecognised quasi-states (such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia), the area could become a haven for criminals and terrorists.

Third, the new “state” would act as a catalyst to spread the conflict further into northern Lebanon and Turkey, whose population includes approximately half a million Arab Alawites along with perhaps 20m Turkish Alawites, or Alevis.

Fourth, Israel would be confronted with not one but two hostile regimes in the break-up of Syria, both of which might possess chemical weapons and missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

Fifth, an Alawi state would set a dangerous precedent for other separatist groups, such as the Kurds in the region, and reignite Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, where prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is backing Iran and Mr Assad against the Syrian people.

Want to know more? Check out Dr. Jensen’s interview with CTV (It takes a minute to load) or his conversation with Peter Kenyon at NPR.