Russia Versus The United States In Syria – OpEd


The villainous Vladimir Putin is pretending to hit ISIS targets in Syria, but instead has his aircraft striking other opposition groups in that country, including what U.S.-supported “moderate” rebels still exist, according to the Obama administration. Apparently, the administration is aghast that Russia would act in its own interests in Syria, even though U.S. interests diverge from those of Russia, although they shouldn’t necessarily.

For the Russians, saving the sinking Assad regime in Syria, a long-time Soviet/Russian client in the Middle East and Russia’s last foothold there, is their top priority. Because ISIS is one of the groups opposed to Assad’s government, the Russians, always leery of radical Islam that can be a threat even within Russia, are opposed to the group, but killing it is only their secondary priority. In contrast, killing ISIS appears to be the first priority of the United States, even over its contradictory goal of getting rid of Assad. If anything, the U.S. goals of getting rid of both ISIS and Assad, two nasty opponents of each other, are at cross-purposes and too grandiose, since both now look unlikely.

In the Russian mind, the United States and its coalition are attacking ISIS by air, so Russia, to save Assad, should attack other opposition groups—two other radical Islamist groups, including al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate, and U.S.-trained “moderate” rebels. Instead, the United States wants to get rid of the thuggish, but secular, Assad and continues to hold the fantasy that replacing him will miraculously lead to the rise of moderates in Syria or a settlement in which all the radical Islamic opposition groups just give up their efforts to institute Islamic law there and accept a post-Assad coalition government.

Unbelievably, Obama has learned nothing from the recent disastrous overthrow of secular dictators in Iraq (during the George W. Bush administration) and Libya (its own foible). Also, war is an evolutionary hothouse in which the most ruthless people usually prevail, so the much-beleaguered moderate opposition in Syria is most likely to be eventually exterminated by the more militarily effective militant Islamists. For example, the first very small group of U.S.-trained moderates was wiped out by al Nusra and the second small group abandoned its advance weapons to the radicals and ran.

Although Assad is a thuggish autocrat and only controls a part of Syria (the 20-25% figure often heard is misleading because much of Syria is desert), he is better than the radical Islamists of all stripes. What is needed to effectively fight such radicalism—and which is in dire shortage—is secular (not moderate or democratic) local ground forces; the Kurds and the remnants of Assad’s Syrian army are the only game in town. Therefore, in order to have any prayer at all in combating ISIS, Obama should abandon his goal of getting rid of Assad and quietly accept him. This would bring U.S. and Russian goals closer together. Despite Obama’s idealized vision, it essentially comes down to Assad versus radical Islamists of all stripes—which both Russia and the United States oppose. (However, it would still not prevent the two powers from jockeying for position in the last bastion of Russian influence in the Middle East.)

However, ISIS will not be defeated in Syria by either U.S. or Russian air power alone. In my book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency, I note that if a great power is fighting guerrillas with air power in lieu of substantial and knowledgeable local forces on the ground, it is likely to fail. Fighting such radical groups from the air usually inadvertently or carelessly kills civilians, thus inflaming hostility and creating more terrorists. For example, in Syria, since the U.S. bombing started, ISIS has grown from 15,000 to 30,000 fighters and this is likely why.

If the United States, as the global cop, insists on using the Syrian civil war to challenge Russia’s attempt to shore up its long-time and eroding client government in Syria, perhaps it should think twice. Russia’s provision of air power to back up the Assad regime only increases the chances that it will be enmeshed in the Syrian tar pit, as it was when it invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 1980s. In this conflict, Russia is putting its prestige on the line by committing air power. Nevertheless, if Assad’s fortunes keep declining, that hit to the Russian pride may require a deeper involvement in the conflict.

Unfortunately, Obama’s strategy in Syria is not as sophisticated as Jimmy Carter’s and Ronald Reagan’s when they lured Russia into a quagmire in Afghanistan years ago. Obama committed U.S. prestige to fighting ISIS—mainly a threat only to the Middle East region—even before Russia did. Obama should have stayed out of Syria and let three bitter U.S. foes annihilate each other—the Assad government, ISIS, and al Nusra. As noted before, Obama’s effort from the air has failed. Predictably, he is now funneling more weapons to the Kurds and other selected Syrian opposition groups on the ground—even though that strategy has failed previously in fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

What’s next? To preserve U.S. prestige, will Obama or his successor commit U.S. ground forces to Syria (and increase those countering ISIS in Iraq)? Russian air power will likely also fail. For the same reason, the Russians may also be faced with a decision to either let Assad fall or insert Russian ground forces to prevent that from happening. Enmeshing the Russians in a quagmire might ordinarily be a good U.S. policy, but this time, they may just join a United States already in the bog.

This article was also published at and is reprinted with permission.

Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

3 thoughts on “Russia Versus The United States In Syria – OpEd

  • October 9, 2015 at 6:05 am

    I like your analysis, which is very close to the truth on the ground and is devoid of the propaganda machinery from both spectrums. However, given the two, Russia has a more likely chance to win against ISIS than the US does. Putin is a more resolute man, with a more clear vision and much more of the world takes him seriously rather than his American counterpart who is viewed as nothing much more than a bungling gas bag. In fact much of the so-called moderate forces in Syria are nothing but fronts for the more radical elements, but are designed specifically to milk the naïve US. There is no such thing as a moderate Islamist, much like saying that some demons are more amicable than others.

    • October 10, 2015 at 11:36 am

      The analysis is severely flawed. First, the rebel groups are Al Qaeda groups and have similar ideological base as ISIS. Second, bombing the ISIS-held territory would require the bombing of areas well beyond the front lines of Syrian government forces. Until the Syrian forces fight their way past the other rebel groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra Front, they would not be in position to capture and hold ISIS territory. Third, it’s completely laughable to take serious any US attempt to rein in ISIS as they’ve had over a year to take on ISIS. The Russians have launched more sorties in one week than the Americans or their coalition in one year. If the US had really intended to stop ISIS, they would’ve bombed the 66 ISIS training camps, which have remained untouched to this day.

  • October 9, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Dr. Eland’s analysis is pretty good, but it leaves out the D.C. neo-Cons (dual US/Israel citizenship holders embedded in our govt. since the days of the first Cold War and having too much influence on US policy) and it leaves out Israel and the US mil/ind. complex, both of which are gainers from the present mess. One wants to remember that Zionist Israel has ambitions for Yeretz Israel (Greater Israel), which will embrace Israel, Judah, and the West Bank, once Israel has managed to crush or otherwise eliminate the remaining Palestinians). Who was Israel’s great opponent in this effort? Why Syria, of course. So, I would say the present conflict in Syria, and the US determination to eliminate Assad, is in Israel’s playbook.
    The neo-Cons also authored the US coup in Kiev of 2/22/2014 that installed Yatsenyuk (Nuland’s pick) and Poroshenko as US puppets, and CIA Dir. Brennan himself went over there to launch the attack on the Eastern provinces. Nearly all the Western press has been united in blaming “Russian aggression” for the US-created mess in Ukraine, from which US corporations have made a lot of money, esp. Monsanto. Not to mention Hunter Biden getting a seat on the board of Naftogaz, U’s largest nat. gas. co. While the US gen. in charge of NATO, Gen. Breedlove, has been running around Europe yelling nonsense about Russian “expansionism,” the US mil/ind. complex has been selling weapons to everyone in Poland and the Baltic states. The weapons sold into the Middle East, having fallen into ISIS hands, are being used to murder the very civilians the US claims it wants to protect and support. All the Gulf monarchies and Turkey have been feeding weapons and jihadi fighters into Syria/Iraq. CIA trained fighters also went in and promptly hired themselves to the ISIS people. Who gains from all this? I think Zionist Israel and the US mil/ind complex, who support each other anyway. Yeretz Israel will augment itself from the destruction of its long-time adversary, Syria, which will be broken up, as will Iraq–well on its way to being 3 small states (Sunni, Shia, Kurdish) when all this plays out. In Ukraine, Israel’s Aliyeh movement is succeeding in pulling all the Jews out and moving them to “safety” in Israel. So, I would say the big winners here are Israel and the US weapons makers. Making weapons is now the big US industry. In the meantime, the US “pivot to Asia” and its intent to foster the re-militarization of Japan will breed more conflicts into which the mil/ind. complex can feed its weapons. I suppose the only flaw in these arrangements is that the rest of the world is catching on to the fact that the US is dangerous to international peace.


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