Russia’s Syrian intervention raises a storm of questions

Friday 09/10/2015

Russia’s unexpected military intervention intended to bail out Syrian President Bashar Assad will have far-reaching conse­quences and raises a slew of questions for which there are no immediate answers.
One of the important questions that will certainly be asked of the intelligence community — the CIA, the National Security Agency and the 15 other services in the United States alone as well as agencies in other countries — is why it failed to predict such an important devel­opment.
What use is it to spend billions of dollars every year on intelligence gathering when the community fails to even suspect something of this magnitude?
The Obama administration’s budget request for the fiscal year 2016 included $53.9 billion for the National Intelligence Program. The US Department of Defense requested $17.9 billion for the Military Intelligence Program.
How that money is spent remains a closely guarded secret, along with most of the work carried out by these programmes. Unlike other US government departments and agencies, the budget details dedicated to intelligence gathering are not published and are known only to a select few.
But then again we don’t know that they didn’t know. In keeping with the tradition of operating in the shadows, the CIA may well have had intelligence on Russia’s intentions but chose to keep it away from public consumption.
Russia’s Syrian adventure indeed raises far more questions in other circles of government.
Though it may not be immedi­ately apparent, sending Russian troops to the Levant will change the course of history and very possibly redraw some of the region’s geography.
Among this slew of questions that are likely to be asked in the days and weeks ahead is why Russia decided to commit itself militarily in a region of the world where the victories of outside forces can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Add to that the still-fresh memory of the great Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan and you begin to wonder why Russia, whose economy is stretched rather thin and has taken a big hit with the falling price of oil, commits to help a failing government, one that most world leaders want to see replaced.
One indication that something important may have been afoot and quite possibly missed by not only the intelligence community but by the media in general has been the constant flow of world leaders to Moscow over the past few months.
For the United States, if indeed it did miss the boat on this one, it means that the close relationship once enjoyed by succeeding US administrations with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates is no longer. For the United States, that should be something worth worrying about.
Russia’s motivation could have stemmed from a number of issues, not least the general lack of direction in foreign policy emanat­ing from the White House. The generally accepted reasons include the need for the Russian Mediter­ranean fleet to have access to warm-water ports and the Assad regime has been a guarantee of Russian continued use of Tartus and Latakia.
Another reason cited for Russia’s actions is that there is a long history between Moscow and Damascus and Russian President Vladimir Putin is simply being faithful to an old ally. That ration­ale is not likely to have enough pull, although one can see why the Russians would want to push that angle over the others. It makes for great PR.
Still, Russia’s involvement in the Middle East comes with very high-risk returns. It raises the level of extending the conflict in the region, making the possibility of escalation quite real. It also increases the danger of introducing new weapons into the conflict.
And if history is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time before today’s allies become tomorrow’s enemies.