Revenge of the Bear: Russia Strikes Back in Syria (Cole @ Truthdig)

My column is out at Truthdig, looking at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s muscular new role in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria:


“Even as Damascus pushes back against the rebels militarily, Putin has swung into action on the international and regional stages. The Russian government persuaded U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to support an international conference aimed at a negotiated settlement. Putin upbraided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his country’s air attacks on Damascus. Moscow is sending sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries, anti-submarine missiles and other munitions to beleaguered Assad, and has just announced that 12 Russian warships will patrol the Mediterranean. The Russian actions have raised alarums in Tel Aviv and Washington, even as they have been praised in Damascus and Tehran. . .

When sources in the Pentagon leaked the information that explosions in Damascus on May 5 were an Israeli airstrike, Putin appears to have been livid. He tracked down Netanyahu on the prime minister’s visit to Shanghai and harangued him on the phone. The two met last week in Moscow, where Putin is alleged to have read Netanyahu the riot act. Subsequently, the Likud government leaked to The New York Times that its aim in the airstrike had been only to prevent Syrian munitions from being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon, not to help in overthrowing the Baath government. The Israelis were clearly attempting to avoid further provoking Moscow’s ire, and wanted to send a signal to Damascus that they would remain neutral on Syria but not on further arming of Hezbollah.

Putin, not visibly mollified by Netanyahu’s clarification, responded by announcing forcefully that he had sent to Syria Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles and was planning to dispatch sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft batteries. Both U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Israeli military analysts protested the Russian shipments.”

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13 Responses

  1. Israel has reached the limits of their military and does not know what to do.

    Anyone that has read Sun Tzu’s definitive 3000 year old document on power, could have told Israel that they were going down a dead end that would cause them to have a dreadful future.

    Because Israel has relied on extreme belligerence for over 60 years, they have no way to easily change direction and use diplomacy. Their political culture has locked them into constant war, but as Tom Friedman has correctly pointed out, the world is FLAT when it comes to technology and information, meaning Israel no longer has any edge when it comes to warfare (no matter what they think), since all weapons system are based on technology – Technology that everyone on earth has.

    Today, it is incredibly easy for any country to build thousands of inexpensive, reasonably accurate missiles or buy them on the open market. Thousands of inexpensive missiles make extremely expensive, manned aircraft functionally obsolete, while IEDs that can be made from stuff purchased on the web or at Walmart have made armored vehicles obsolete.

    As Israel’s neighborhood changes, their future is becoming more and more questionable, especially since the US has lost all power to influence the rest of the world (more beacuae of GWB, not Obama, although Obama has done his share).

    • “Israel has reached the limits of their military and does not know what to do.”

      The Israeli populace has shown that they will not tolerate any military conflict in which their forces face significant casualties.

      In the Second Lebanon War, the opinion polls in Israel could be seen to drop preciptously as IDF casualties mounted. Two significant incidents in that war showed abrupt declines in those opinion polls. One was an incident in which 10 IDF soldiers had been instantly killed in a Katyusha missile strike and two more fatally wounded. It had been noted that the unit that suffered these casualties had ignored air attack sirens and many were not wearing helmets or flak jackets. The second incident occurred when the IDF’s elite Golani and Givati infantry brigade units were ambushed as they entered the border city of Bint Jebayl by Hezbollah militiamen and sustained 30 dead and wounded within the first hour of battle.

      “..Israel no longer has any edge when it comes to warfare.”

      The acquisition of sophisticated weaponry by Hezbollah turned the tide against Israel and prevented future military incursions against south Lebanon. Ehud Barak expressly recognized that Israel had no longer any “deterrent” effect on Hezbollah. The acquisition of radar-guided Chinese Silkworm missiles and Russian-designed anti-tank rockets by Hezbollah did much to level the playing field and the expected heavier casualties sustained by Israel caused opposition within Israel to that IDF incursion and consideration for future border crossings into that area.

      The Fajr missile strikes from Gaza into greater Tel Aviv, although largely repelled by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, were a major psychological turning point for Israel as Tel Aviv residents had to take cover in the first missile strike it sustained since 1991. The key to Gazan deterrence to future IDF intervention will be to continue to acquire and deploy more sophisticated weaponry.

      • It may be that the “limits of the military”, any military, is that its very prowess, its enshrinement as being better than democracy in general, causes the citizens to become unable to accept losses in real wars. Let’s look at some distant analogies to that problem:

        1. Battleships getting too valuable to use. You know this story from WWI, where the UK and German fleets only clashed once because they represented so much of each nation’s resources and prestige that losing them in a decisive battle was unbearable. Many critics say America’s aircraft carriers are in the same category today, such that military exercises are rigged so they cannot be reported “sunk”.

        2. Sparta. Not being a democracy, that country’s military cult simply raised the standards of military service and elitism to a point where there just weren’t enough Spartans to man the army. It only took one disastrous war against an experienced opponent to wipe it out. Perhaps this is analogous to the growing “hero” military cult that Andrew Bacevich so eloquently condemns. The US and Israel definitely have the same neurosis about casualties, leading to their growing reliance on half-blind killer robots.

    • One little caveat: some 3 or 400 nuclear weapons.

      Under the “control” of people who, as you point out, may at some point have read Sun Tzu, but obviously learned nothing from that ancient and well-proven wisdom, or have one hell of a death wish that unfortunately would embrace many of the rest of us. Or figure they can do their corrupt thing, do like Arafat and store up “redirected” treasures in some island heaven half a world away, and run off and hide in comfort, beating their breasts in mock sorrow, when things go cockeyed.

      • @ JTMcPhee – The reality is nukes are almost worthless.

        Israel actually has no one they can nuke that will not cause a response that will end the state of Israel. In effect if Israel uses any of their nukes, they will be committing suicide.

        – If Israel nukes Lebanon, they will contaminate their own food supplies and citizens. There is also a probability that other, more powerful nations may take revenge on Israel on behalf of the Lebanese.

        – If Israel nukes Syria, they will contaminate their own food supplies and citizens. There is also a probability that other, more powerful nations may take revenge on Israel on behalf of the Syrians.

        – If Israel nukes Jordan, they will contaminate their own food supplies and citizens. There is also a probability that other, more powerful nations may take revenge on Israel on behalf of the Jordanians.

        – If Israel nukes Egypt, they will contaminate their own food supplies and citizens. There is also a probability that other, more powerful nations may take revenge on Israel on behalf of the Egyptians.

        – If Israel nukes Gaza or the West Bank, they will be directly committing suicide, although it is doubtful that any other, more powerful nations will take revenge on Israel, because no one on earth cares about the Palestinians (for example the Saudis could fix this problem overnight by forcing the US and Europe to whack Israel).

        – Israel might be able to nuke Iran or Iraq without immediate contamination, but down-wind of both countries are three nuclear powers that will probably be really upset with Israel after having their citizens and food supplies contaminated. Note that after a week or so that same contamination would hit the US west coast agriculture – I wonder how Americans will like that?

        – If Israel nuked Saudi Arabia, it would be all over for every Jew on earth as almost 2 billion Muslims would be looking for every Jew to get their revenge, even though over half the Jews on earth do not live in Israel nor are responsible for any foolishness that Israel does.

        – If Israel nuked anywhere in Europe, it would get nuked in return. Same goes for nuking Russia or China.

        – past this point the list get ridiculous.

        In reality, nukes are pretty much only good for one thing – committing suicide.

        • Unfortunately the plutocrats seem ready to go down that road. If we can’t continue inheritance and private ownership of everything then lets just end it all seems to be what they are saying.

        • Re: the utility of nukular weapons, as only being good for suicide: Exactly, of course. Anyone who followed the “Cold War” Strangelovian logic and the effects of nukular detonations had to come to the same conclusion, on a bigger scale. The risk is still there, as simplified here:

          link to

        • That’s why they call it “The Samson Option”, isn’t it?

          Of course, just calling it that implies that one is bluffing, just as when Nixon called it “The Madman Doctrine”. You only invoke Biblical destruction when you’re putting on a show, because God doesn’t clean up the consequences of our actions in the real world.

  2. Became livid? Harangued? Read the riot act? Can’t possibly be Obama.

    Obama and the US are simply reaping what they’ve sowed. Obama as supposedly even-keeled negotiator in fact gave away positions before the political battle was joined, then was always somewhere else when words flew. Anything “unwinnable” or “won’t play” he abandoned in a flash, along with the voters who voted for him to hold or, dare I say it, expand those positions. Obama wasted his gift of oratory by not using it when presented with the tallest bully pulpit in the land. Obama would not have been a figure of significance in the time of George Washington.

    The US has been pissing away its political and military vigor with little change through Obama from George II. The first of two outcomes of more than a decade of military/economic expansion/settling in (why don’t we call military bases ‘settlements’?) is a pile of debt so horrendous it must be hidden from public view and protected from revelation by persecution of those brave enough to try. The second is of the growing but intentionally ignored numbers of people of many nations who now fear the US more than any other nation. Add to those people many others whose patience with US has run dry, replaced by hate because their kids, family, village, area, nation, or resource was either a target or an oops of US blunder or economic pillage, and like good boy and girl soldiers everywhere, figure the sacrifice of their life in the protection of their own would be a life well spent.

    It didn’t have to be this way. We did this to ourselves, or our leaders did it to us while waving the flag to plaster over any real discussion of whether it would be a good thing. The US could have made international friends by the boatloads and actually be a friend of the world if it had spent a mere tithing amount of the dollars that it has blown militarily not to mention environmentally. What would have happened to US prestige if in 2003 the US had announced that it was going to invest just some of the six trillion dollars with a ‘t’ that we will end up having spent on the Cheney/Bush/Wolfy Iraq board game into flagging world economies, world trade, and sustainable energy production for all humanity? For one thing Iraq would not be the debris field and breeding ground it is today. What if instead of elaborately kitted, sunglassed, armed, and exceptionalist trained quick-triggers who could not speak the native tongue and keeled over in their kit in 120 degree weather the US had instead sent teachers, suits, international exchange students, public health experts, business propositions, financing, and bales of dollars?

    Come to think of it, that is what China has been doing. Investing its national profit into home business, international outreach, international student exchange, business deals, financing, and a reputation as a low cost manufacturing giant in solar, thin film, integrated circuits. Ok, so public health isn’t any Chinese government priority, but neither is it for American Republicans who never or miss an opportunity to try to cut funding for human (but not corporate) health, and consider a dollar spent on education as subversive.

    China has largely avoided the limelight in this outward, non-military push, which is the same sort of frog-in-water method used on America voters to increase overall American non-functionality. While Americans can be occasionally stand being reminded that the water is heating up all around them, it is something they prefer not to keep in mind—too depressing. The fact that there are other cooks with other perspectives in the kitchen, equipped with spices and the intention for a tasty meal when the frogs are medium rare is beyond them, and far beyond the US military whose culinary judgment gives the biggest, shiniest, most impressive blue ribbon to the latest high tech field rations.

    Dr. Cole, you have written that Obama has done some good things—is not all bad. That is true, but we have gotten where we are also because Obama was not as good as he could have been, or needed to be in these times, or that he endlessly hinted while campaigning that he could be if given a chance. I’m reminded of Bush II proclaiming that his crushing few-percent election victory had gifted him with political capital, and that by George he was going to use it. The hope for Obama’s second term was supposed to be that he could have no further re-election agenda and so could act freely. What happened to that? Headlines by other cooks.

    Putin (and Russia and China) in ascendancy is only a measure of Obama (and the US) in descent. Putin can label Anti-Assad forces as terrorists because of US enthusiasm for applying that label, and in doing cripple any US rejoinder by means of America’s own actions.

    • Excellent post. But I assumed that the US hegemony was gonna collapse back in 1991 when the first Bush blew it. We’ve been propped up by powerful forces behind the scenes who fear the loss of our empire more than the alternative. If we were wise, we’d explore who those forces are and what role they have in mind for us as we slide down the slope.

  3. Regarding the “Riot Act”.

    This is a formal act of the British Parliament in 1714.

    It should be capitalized.


    • Check the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms.
      Putin read Netanyahu the riot act. He did not read him the Riot Act.

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