The United States and Russia are both running out of options in Syria, and their joint initiative to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control and destroy them is only a potential and unlikely solution to one part of the Syrian crisis. The plan pushed by Russian president Vladimir Putin will probably not solve the chemical weapons problem and could very well exacerbate it and the real challenge of the Syrian crisis—the jihadist threat.
President Barack Obama and his administration missed the moment two years when it was possible to support a moderate opposition in overthrowing the brutal regime of Bashar Assad. The Obama administration then compounded matters. It rushed to judgment about the world's obligation to punish Assad for allegedly crossing a poorly thought out 'red line' by using chemical weapons without providing any concrete evidence to allies and potential partners that Assad had done the attack. According to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in a September 15 interview, the Obama and Putin administrations had been discussing the danger of Assad's chemical weapons falling into jihadi hands since the June 2012 G-20 summit in Los Cabos, and the Obama administration had even contacted people around Assad on the issue. Thus, Secretary of State John Kerry's seemingly spontaneous musings about a fictional agreement under which Assad would turn over those weapons that was picked up on by Putin functioned as a 'dog whistle,' if unintended.
Until Putin jumped on that signal and intervened with his proposal to bring Assad into talks, the administration was confronted with following through on its pledge to punish the Alawite regime in the face of almost universal, including Russian, resistance to such action. The U.S. administration's failure to get its ducks in a row before declaring its military strike policy by lobbying properly for international support exposed allies like British prime minister David Cameron and offended competitors and occasional partners like Putin, transforming them into neutral observers or interested opportunists, respectively.
Meanwhile, evidence emerged from German intelligence sources showing that Assad may not have ordered the chemical strike, suggesting that local commanders acted on their own in exceeding previous controlled chemical strikes in recent months. This comes on top of a UN official's remarks that the rebels were behind a similar but more limited attack in March and the still nagging sense that not everything about the August attack is known, a sense reinforced by the Obama administration's to make its evidence public, past U.S. intelligence failures on issues such as Saddam Hussein's WMDs, and recent falsehoods issued by President and other administration officials with regard to the NSA's spying programs. Given the Obama administration's mishandling and ensuing isolation on the issue, the Putin plan has gotten Obama and the world off the hook, but only temporarily.
Why Did Putin Act?
Putin's motives for intervening in the Syrian crisis and for giving President Obama what amounts to a 'mulligan' in his handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis have been subjected to all manner of suspicions and attributed to all kinds of ulterior motives, from trying to embarrass the United States, revive Russian influence in the Middle East, support its Syrian 'ally', and the like. The fact is that the main reason is that the United States, Russia, and their respective allies in the region have the most to lose in Syria and have a common interest in removing chemical weapons from the Syrian equation.
In addition, Putin is trying to address two Russian national security problems currently presented by U.S. policies in general and in the region specifically: Western-dictated 'humanitarian intervention' and 'responsibility to protect' doctrines and the possible strengthening of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin as a result of the growing jihadi threat not just in Syria but across the Muslim world. These issues are especially relevant now, given the recent and unfolding history wherein the United States has intervened and then withdrawn, leaving states in the region in the lurch to deal with the jihadi threat by themselves—as is occurring in South and Central Asia and the Persian Gulf region with the imminent U.S. and Western military intervention and withdrawal from Afghanistan and the past intervention and withdrawal from Iraq.
The first problem is well known and has been much discussed. Specifically, Russia (and China and other states) has no interest in legitimizing a Western-defined 'humanitarian intervention' and 'right to protect' doctrines, given the way these have been used against Russian allies in Yugoslavia and Serbia in the past and the way they could be applied to potential similar separatist crises in Russia and/or along its borders.
Less known here—even in the wake of the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks—is Russia's jihadist threat. Putin has no need for a rise of jihadism near his southern border in general, but especially in the run-up to the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Russia's North Caucasus resort city of Sochi. Russia is faced with a global Sunni jihadist insurgent and terrorist group on its own territory in the North Caucasus and the likely rise of growing jihadism emanating from across its southern periphery from Central and South Asia in the southeast to Syria and Iraq in the southwest; the former being intensified by the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the latter by Sunni and Saudi efforts against the Shia in Iraq.
Now add in the Syrian situation. A robust U.S. air assault on Syria resulting in the demise of the Assad regime in Syria could significantly undermine stability in Russia's North Caucasus, strengthening and provoking concerted action by the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin to carry out attacks before or during the Games in Sochi and/or elsewhere in Russia afterwards, including attacks with chemical weapons acquired as a result of jihadi advances in the Syrian civil war. The CE mujahedin, or at least elements among them, have been promising to attack the Games since 2010, and this summer CE amir Doku 'Abu Usman' Umarov called on the mujahedin to attack Sochi in order to prevent the Games from being held and to attack the Games if they begin.
Moreover, as many as several hundred fighters from Russia are fighting in Syria under the Al-Qa'ida-tied Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN) in a subunit of some 1,000 foreign fighters, called the Jeish Mujahirin va Ansar (The Army of the Émigré Jihadists and Helpers) or JMA. The JMA's amir is an ethnic Chechen from Chechnya calling himself Abu Umar al-Shishani. His top 'naib,' or deputy, is also a Chechen. Moreover, he is the commander of the ISIL's northern front, making him and his Caucasus mujahedin major players among the Syrian jihadi rebels. In other words, the CE and associated Russian-speaking jihadists from the North Caucasus, the rest of Russia, the South Caucasus (in particular Azerbaijan), and Central Asia are playing the leading role among the foreign mujahedin, who hail from across the world, and a prominent role in the jihadi wing of the anti-Assad forces in Syria, now the central front in the global jihadi revolutionary movement. The Syrian failing state is thus incubating a new jihadi force centered around the CE that is bound to turn on Russia and the rest of Eurasia should the Syrian outcome resolve on terms favorable to them, yielding them weapons of various sorts, stronger combat readiness, and greater ties to jihadists from across the globe.
Initially, CE amir Umarov was ambivalent about the Caucasus mujahedin fighting in Syria since they were draining the CE's capacity back home, especially so this summer, the seasonal peak of CE operations typically in any one year. However, he blessed their role this summer and even appointed a CE representative to work among them. Soon the Caucasus mujahedin there began to openly declare their CE origins. Apparently, Umarov came to understand that while in the short- to mid-term the drain of fighters from the Caucasus into Syria would damage his jihadi front in the Caucasus. In the long-term, the CE could benefit greatly in terms of: more battle-hardened cadres; new recruits, ties, and cache; new supply channels; and perhaps the acquisition of chemical or biological weapons with which he can attack Sochi or other targets in Russia proper.
Thus, the jihadi threat emanating from Syria—with the worst-case scenario being a pro-AQ jihadist regime in Damascus—makes stirring up the hornets' nest in Syria even further an extremely dangerous proposition for Russia. Unfortunately, President Putin has not been able to articulate so specifically this threat to Russia connected with the situation in Syria because such a statement by him would be an uncharacteristic acknowledgement of vulnerability for a Russian leader and also would probably tell on the success of the Games by raising fears among potential attendees.
The Risky (at Best) 'Putin Plan'
But Putin's plan is fraught with technical difficulties and even catastrophe. The former include the difficulties of finding all the weapons currently being dispersed across the country, cataloguing the weapons quickly and accurately, destroying them, and of transporting them quickly enough so that they are all out of Assad's hands before an existential threat to his regime from the rebel forces prompts him to deploy them in a last bid effort to save his regime and Alawites from extinction.
Worse yet, Assad or rebel forces could use the plan to carry out their own agenda. In order to buy time or allow it deploy chemical weapons again, Assad's forces could take hostage the international inspectors or other representatives arriving in Syria to implement the plan. Jihadi forces could attack Assad's chemical weapons stores or the convoys moving the chemical weapons out of Syria in an attempt to seize them before they have moved out of reach. Assad could allow that to happen in order to turn the international community's ire against the mujahedin. The diplomatic quagmire that is likely to ensue as the Putin plan's implementation bogs down could not only seriously damage Russia's relations with the United States and the West but also allow the jihadi challenge posed by the Syrian crisis to intensify.
The Common Threat
Worse yet the Syrian jihadi danger threatens U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East as well, given the large numbers of fighters from those regions among the Jabhat al-Nusrah and other jihadi groups fighting in Syria. The CE threat also will likely reverberate farther afield, since the CE has been involved in several operations beyond the Russia's borders since 2010. CE operatives have planned and participated in three ultimately interdicted terrorist plots abroad in Belgium (2010), the Czech Republic (2011), and Azerbaijan (2012). It has inspired several plots abroad, including not just the successful Boston Marathon bombings that killed three and wounded 120, but also the failed plot to bomb the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that printed a series of caricatures of Mohammed, setting off a series of violent demonstrations and calls for revenge around the Muslim world, and a foiled plot to attack targets in Gibraltar during the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games and later elsewhere in Europe being planned by a group of three terrorists, two of them from the North Caucasus. The leader of the group planning the latter attack was an ethnic Chechen and/or Dagestani, Eldar Magomedov, was said by the Spanish court and police to be Al Qa'ida's (AQ) leading operative in Europe.
In the long-term, Assad and his forces are no more of, and likely less of an overall threat than the Sunni jihadi threat in Syria. The ISIL, JN, JMA, and several other similar groups have been carrying out—and videotaping for their supporters' enjoyment—beheadings of prisoners using kitchen knives, eating the internal organs of corpses, mass executions of as many as fifty prisoners at a time, and mass hostage takings in the hundreds. Should they come to power and gain control over Assad's chemical weapons, there is the very real possibility of deploying them against Israel, Europe, Russia and other accessible 'infidel' states.
All this makes it imperative that the United States, Europe, and Russia work together to fight this grave threat. While Putin may be trying to defeat the principles of 'humanitarian intervention' and 'responsibility to protect' outside of UN auspices and perhaps protect limited Russian interests in Syria (installation at naval bases there), Russia is also saddled by making a bad choice in supporting the outnumbered Shiites (Iran and Syrian Alawites) versus the Sunnis in the Arab/Muslim worlds. Similarly, the U.S. finds itself with a series of bad choices now by having gotten into bed with the Wahhabi Saudis and other Arab oil sheikhdoms. As a consequence of these alignments, U.S. operations or a major war in and around Syria poses the risk of a more broad military confrontation between the United States and/or the broader West, on the one hand, and Iran and Moscow, on the other.
Even the best thought out policy recommendations that propose using force, are problematic. Anthony Cordesman has proposed that the United States should: (1) lobby Britain, France, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE for international support before taking military action; (2) hit not just chemical-weapons targets but key political and military sites such as Assad's palace in Damascus, intelligence and secret police headquarters, Syrian, Al Quds and Assad militia bases and training centers, and air and ground troops' support facilities; (3) set serious redlines and establish a limited 'no fly/no move zone' to deprive Assad of any more missile, air, chemical weapons, or ground artillery strikes on rebel-held areas and threaten a no-fly/no-move zone to protect rebel held areas in response to any violation; (4) openly back and arm moderate rebel factions with advanced light guided air defense weapons like air defense systems, anti-tank guided weapons, mortars, and artillery directly from the United States and/or allow friendly Arab states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) in coordination with the United States; (5) make U.S. support conditional and hold the rebel weapons recipients accountable by demanding videotapes and other evidence the weapons are being properly used and forward deploying a limited CIA and Special Forces presence; (6) significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition through expanded capacity-building efforts with regional partners; (7) openly make clear an openness to negotiations that would include Russia for a UN agreement that would protect the Alawites and Kurds, giving Assad a secure way to leave and/or establishing a ceasefire and perhaps temporary division of Syria; and (8) organize an international humanitarian effort.
However, there is no guarantee that such a strategy will prevent matters from devolving into a collapse of the regime with continued internecine fighting between quasi-Shiite Alawite, Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni jihadist and Kurdish forces in various combinations on various fronts spreading to Iraq, Lebanon and perhaps elsewhere. Cordesman himself admits that the acceptable solutions aimed at in his proposals—a clear victory of moderate rebel elements and successful negotiations—are "extremely limited."
What To Do
Therefore, should the initiative to relieve Assad of his chemical weapons fail (and even if it succeeds), the best options for the United States would be to either refrain from all forms of military action altogether and lead a major defensive effort to protect regional allies or fashion a much more robust military action than the one currently being described by administration officials. The U.S. interest does not lie in revenge for Assad's use of chemical weapons. The attendant moral argument that relies on the victims' suffering does not convince; try choosing between having your head cut off with a rusty kitchen knife (the jihadists' method) and dying in a sarin gas attack (allegedly Assad's method).
Those, like Gary Gambill, who caution the Obama administration that it cannot take out both Assad's regime and its chemical weapons are right. Assad is unlikely to give up his chemicals without a firm guarantee of refuge for him and his Alawites perhaps in a rump of the present Syrian state. Assad will likely respond to any imminent existential threat to his regime with a major chemical attack on rebels and civilians in order to force Iran to enter the war. This will bring in the Sunni Gulf States and force Iran to back its Alawite client more strongly, and all bets will be off from there. Escalation could come with a coordinated Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah series of missile and terrorist attacks on Israel and and/or American or other Western targets in response to the American attack (e.g., strikes on U.S. airbases in Turkey, sleeper cells in U.S. and European embassies and other targets around the world).
There are some qualified common U.S., Russian, regional and global interests here for which a red line tripping military action can be drawn at the borders of Syria rather than within Syria and solely against the Assad regime. The first goal is to prevent any further use of chemical weapons by any party—if impossible within Syria but certainly outside it. Should the jihadists acquire chemical weapons, the jihadists, who now make up about 20 percent of the rebel force, are most likely to deploy them. Also, the majority of the remaining forces who are loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood are more likely to do so than the Assad regime has been. Therefore, both the United States and Russia must stay out of this quagmire militarily (perhaps unless it begins to spill in strength over Syria's borders) and coordinate an international anti-jihadist coalition and comprehensive defensive strategy against any and all of the various bad outcomes likely to come out of the Syrian civil war.
Second prevent the jihadists from establishing a successor state in Syria and thereby posing a revolutionary threat to the entire region and a terrorist threat to the world. In particular, efforts are needed to block any expansion of the war and the movement of any of the involved parties' forces into neighboring countries or others nearby in the larger region, including Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Russia.
Third is to secure continued energy supplies to the West from the region if the situation deteriorates into a generalized Sunni-Shia war across the Middle East. Along with defending choke points in the Gulf and other supply routes, this also might include a shift to greater purchases of Russian oil and gas as part of deal to buy Moscow's partnership.
Many of Cordesman's measures for a more robust military and diplomatic could serve these goals, but arming the few moderate rebels is too risky now. The jihadists could end up with such weapons plus the remnants of the Syrian army's weapons—a jihadi perfect storm. Assuming the moderates can survive until Assad's WMDs are removed from Syria, then it might be possible to undertake such an effort. However, by that time, the jihadi forces are likely to be even stronger than they are at present.
A broad coalition could be cobbled together in order to eliminate both the Assad regime and the jihadists. Coordinated NATO, GCC, and Russian/CSTO operations would do the trick, but this is probably a bridge too far diplomatically at this time. NATO would have to forego its aversion to cooperation with the CSTO, and Russia (and China) would be faced with acquiescing in the demolition of Iran's Alawite ally, driving a wedge perhaps between Russia and its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) co-leader, China, and SCO observer member, Iran. However, in time all sides may be faced with making such difficult strategic choices should the Syrian civil war become the crucible of the first truly Sunni jihadist state; one situated in the heart of the Middle East, on the edge of the Persian Gulf region, bordering NATO-member Turkey, and a few hundred miles from Azerbaijan and Russia's North Caucasus.
Gordon M. Hahn is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior researcher/adjunct professor at MonTREP.