To the uninitiated, the conflict in Syria, and what can be done about it, is very confusing. In recent days, a member of the Washington Institute made a statement to the US Senate, which you can read here. The eight page document is a succinct and cogent description of the internal and external actors, and policy options for the US. These options are founded in strategy—what are the US’s vital interests in the context of the way, and how can these be achieved. Well worth the read.
This blog has long been concerned about the trajectory of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. A substantial post in October 2014 provides background. In short, Turkey is a key member of the Sunni Islamist continuum. In 2011 and 2012, it saw what it thought (and, admittedly, what this author thought) was the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc, to compete with the Status Quo Bloc and Resistance Bloc (background here). However, with only one principality (i.e. Turkey) run by a member of the nascent bloc, Turkey has been left dangling, strategically.
But that hadn’t stopped Turkish President Erdogan’s ongoing policy of increasing autocracy. His rise to being a president with unprecedented powers over the executive and judiciary while sidelining, oppressing and arresting opponents is at once a masterclass in politics and a valuable lesson, (which we didn’t learn in Russia and Hungary), and given the populist politics in much of the West.
Two recent articles describe his rise, though neither mention his purposeful undermining of a ceasefire with Kurds in 2015, so as to earn populist support among ethnic Turks and, with it, a clear election victory.
The US missile strike on Syria offers a simple lesson on realist philosophy, including deterrence, threats, testing limits and the anarchic nature of international affairs. This article is well worth the read, particularly for undergraduate international relations students.
On the radio this morning, Fran Kelly and Sabra Lane spoke, in their respective programmes, at length about the US strike on Syria. In this post, I want to discuss the Russian involvement in Syria, the purpose of the US attack and the supposed change in US policy vis-à-vis ‘regime change’ in Syria.
First, Fran Kelly asked a guest what would change Russia’s mind in regards to its backing of Syria. The guest said, correctly, that stepping away from Syria would be embarrassing and a significant back down vis-à-vis Russian–US relations. That’s true (and it reminds one of the Obama Administration walking away from its backing of Egypt in 2011), but the guest was wrong to leave it at that.
Russia has a strategic relationship with Syria, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for it to walk away from Assad. In the past, I likened the respective Russian and Iranian involvement / commitment to Syria as the comparison between a breakfast of bacon and eggs.
Russia is primarily motivated by its national interests. (So is the West, but sometimes the liberal elite forget that.) The Russian relationship with Syria has long served Russian interests, and only if the West can convince Russia that its interests lie in another policy will Russia change. The Russian interests are: a warm water port at Latakia; significant arms sales; an opportunity to show the lengths of unconditional Russian support in comparison to the West (especially during the Obama Administration, when US support for its traditional friends was purposefully diluted, but also generally, as the West likes to link its support to protection of human and civil rights, which Russia does not); and a Russian intolerance to internal or externally-driven overthrows of regimes.
This last point is important because Russia has plenty of restive areas that might dream of breaking away from Russia; Russia does not want them to think such actions will be successful or go unpunished. A successful Western Syria policy must involve Russia, and so must appreciate Russian interests. Russia cannot be handed a strategic defeat on this front; it must be co-opted.
Second, a reader pointed out that 59 missiles fired at an airbase won’t make much of a difference to the Assad regime. That’s true, but the missile strike wasn’t about making a difference, it was about sending a message. The message was to all countries around the world; before you do something, you have to consider the American reaction. Because America, under Obama, had essentially left the field, countries began to have a much freer hand in the Middle East. Russia and Iran became much more important players. And the Gulf states funded Islamist militias because no one on their side was doing anything. In Asia, China became more bullish as well. And so it goes.
Which leads me to my third point, there is now talk about ‘regime change’ in Syria. I honestly do not think that the Trump Administration is contemplating direct military action to bring down Assad (though it might increase support to militias that are trying to do that). But it has come to the conclusion that the end game in Syria, whenever it is realised, should not involve Assad. That’s hardly a novel policy, but it is in direct conflict with what Russia wants, and so the statements are significant, given the friendly Russian-Trump relations until now.
But those that want Assad gone, using whatever means, risk losing sight of the fact that getting rid of him is a tactic, not a strategy. The Middle East requires a strategic view. This blog has put forward one such view, from the very first post and repeated ad nauseum since, that there are three groups of interest in the Middle East, and two are inimical to Western interests. They should be fought using diplomatic, financial and military means (the last, where necessary, and preferably through proxies).
Actions to achieve ends that do not align with a strategic objective (or, worse, in the absence of a strategic objective) will only end in further disasters.
Jordan is an increasingly important part of the pro-West Status Quo Bloc. It doesn’t have much money, but it has a king (but, sadly, not a population) that is willing to go out on a limb to support Western interests, including recognition of Israel, an anti-violence Islamic message, outspoken concern about Iran, and boots on the ground in Syria (well, bombers in the air) to back up its rhetoric.
With few natural resources and massive Iraqi and Syrian refugee populations, Jordan has been struggling economically. Add to that its Palestinian population, there since 1948 and largely naturalised (though not really integrated), Jordan could have easily stayed on a populist Islamist, anti-Israel, anti-West path. But it didn’t, and so deserves as much financial and diplomatic support the West can muster. Australia could have a role by directing development aid to the country. Too often in the Middle East, bad behaviour is rewarded and good behaviour is ignored. This should be reversed, and Jordan is a country where it should happen.
Syria has allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians once again. When Obama was president, he foolishly said that such use would be a ‘red line’. When chemical weapons were subsequently used, Obama’s bluff was called, and he effectively did nothing. The episode substantially weakened the US in the Middle East, and helped Russia ease its way back in, a proc ss that continued for the remainder of Obama’s term.
Trump hasn’t said anything quite as specific about chemical weapons, but he has talked tough, and he has sought to differentiate himself from Obama. If he does nothing in the face of th s outraged, it will be perceived as weakness. I expect he will order a strike on some Syrian government or military facility to send a message.
PS – the photo is from the 2013 attack