The Very Centrality of Syria

Weekly Comment, 16-21 Oct 2015

(This comment was published in a shorter format on WorldPost / Huffington Post: Why Russia Perceives Syria as Its Front Line, Alastair Crooke, 28 Oct 2015)

It is virtually the norm in Europe and America to view Syria through one particular paradigmatic lens. That is to say, one in which prosperity, order, security, and absence of conflict are held to be a direct function of the spread of ‘democracy’ – the latter being essentially drawn as an economic concept: ‘democracy’ as a global, (neo) liberal, secular, consumerist, middle-class creating, ‘financialised’ system of order, rather than, say, in the eighteenth century meaning of “we the people”. 

The antithesis to this zeitgeist – which is one of insisting on the authenticity and merit of non-Western national values, and the concomitant right for nations to live in their own way of being; and which particularly rejects very the supra-sovereign hegemony insisted upon for the ‘liberal order’ - is seen in the West as a threat to peace, to order, to the very values to which many in the West feel the world should conform. The Syrian government, of course, has been deliberately cast as the embodiment of everything wrong with the ‘non-West’ idea.

This is one way of looking at Syria – the prevalent way for much of Europe. And looked at this way, Syria, as it were, becomes an extension of the Cold War: just another round in the civilizational conflict, in which Russia is seen to be espousing a security-threatening, unsavoury, illiberal, system (the perfect antithesis to the liberal order paradigm).  And by killing claimed Syrian ‘moderates’, rather than ISIS (as the West alleges), Russia is, in the ‘liberal order’ narrative, not furthering the prospect of a democratic, liberal order, ‘future’ for Syria – but destroying it.

This is one way of seeing things. It is, however, a way that on its own terms simply glides past the completely contrasting (and completely illiberal) motives of its allies such as Saudi, Turkey and Qatar in destroying the Syrian state.  They may be the West's allies, but they wholly disdain the liberal order formulation.  It is also ‘a way’ that gives a clear impulse for those westerners raised in the premise of their Cold War ‘victory’ over Soviet ‘illiberalism’, to rail again at Russia.  There is here a real risk of this impulse coming to dominate American and European thinking about Syria - and therefore of missing the wood for the trees: the centrality of Syria.

In short, this liberal/illiberal binary paradigm simply obscures the very centrality of Syria to the future of the world of geo-politics (since ‘order’ is not really the right word here -- it being in flux).  Another way of seeing Russia’s intervention in Syria, would be in terms of ‘unfinished business’ – of old psychological ‘knots’ that have never been addressed and untied.  In short, we may perceive Syria in terms of the liberal order clash with illiberalism, but Russia may perceive it in a different way. The problem with the binary mindset is that it precisely closes out the centrality of what is the meaning of Syria – in the perception of Russia and its allies, and in so doing sets up a much bigger, future risk.

In ‘unfinished business’, we refer to the inherited pains and buried trauma that remain from the two Great Wars. Germany traumatically lost a generation of men killed in the slaughter at Stalingrad (Russia lost even more).  The battle of Stalingrad is often regarded as the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare.  There (Stalingrad), Germany essentially was defeated (and later suffered further defeat in Normandy).  Afterwards, Germany deliberately sought psychological healing by binding itself with France (an act which would become the cornerstone to the EU); but the hurt from Stalingrad - in the east - could not be addressed neither psychologically, nor politically, by Germany. It remains buried in both nation’s collective memory as a continuing wound.

Russia, in particular, having experienced this piercing loss of countless lives, found no acknowledgement of its incurred pain. Rather, it was ostracised by its former allies, and became the object of a long Cold War isolation and attrition.  When Russia agreed, still conscious to the unhealed ‘knots’ emanating from Stalingrad, to let the Berlin Wall fall, there was no consequential embrace from Europe; rather Russia felt it was being cornered as NATO pursued its expansion eastwards, right up to Russia’s borders.  Similarly, when the Soviet Union sought to de-escalate the Cold War, thinking that it would be treated as a peer, it found it had been sorely mistaken.  Instead, its gesture was denigrated and its former foes strutted the stage, claiming they had won a civilizational victory.

This may not at all be the western perception of history, but perhaps this is their (Russia's) story -- their perception. This not about argument and counter argument – it is about psyche. And then comes Ukraine. It becomes plain to Russian leaders that at any time – out of the blue – an extraneous issue can be flared up to the point at which it might be pulled into war. (There is ample evidence that these fears concerning the outcome of Ukraine were real amongst Russians).

So, what has this to do with Syria?  It is that Russia senses that it must break out from this ‘box’ of ever-inward collapsing walls, and of NATO chipping away at Russian strengths.  It has to force the issue; insist on being acknowledged as a credible partner in the international order, or reconcile itself to the likelihood that events (perhaps again out of the blue) will lead ultimately to some sort of confrontation with the US and perhaps with Europe too.

It is not that Russia has no interests in Syria. It believes that it sees the situation of the Middle East very plainly: Putin sees nation-states across the region weakening and eroding: Iraq fractured, Syria in conflict, Lebanon without a state, Yemen in anarchy, Libya in chaos, north Africa vulnerable, and Saudi Arabia seized by multiple crises.  Unless ISIS and its Wahhabi allies are stopped, and stopped decisively - the region is vulnerable to a descent into even deeper chaos. Syria is Russia’s veritable frontline. Russia recalls how, after the Afghan war, radical Wahhabi-style Islam, spread out from Afghanistan, reaching up into Central Asia, and recalls too, how the CIA and Saudi Arabia inflamed and used the Chechen insurgency to weaken Russia.

And why Syria?  Is it because of Russia’s interests there?  No, it is because Syria has an effective leadership and an army that is already engaged in the war against Wahhabism.  In effect, Syria is the pivot around which this ‘war’ will turn.

But equally, President Putin shares the perception of many in the region that America (and its allies) are not serious about defeating ISIS.  And sensing that the West finally was about to be lured by Turkey toward a no-fly zone, which would only end in Syria, as it did in Libya, in chaos, Putin played his surprise hand: he entered the war on ‘terrorism’, blocked Turkey’s project (see here, our last weekly comment) – and challenged the West to join with him in the venture.

In so doing, he has very evidently kept the door open to the US – inviting them repeatedly to join him, though perhaps expecting that the US initially would have to back off (by reason of America’s ties to the Gulf).

Putin's strategy for Syria essentially is that a political settlement would not be forthcoming by simply herding sworn enemies into a room together in Geneva.  The earlier US preconditioning of talks by insisting that Assad’s ouster was mandatory gave zero incentive for the opposition to seriously negotiate any sharing of power with the state: rather they simply had to wait upon the US and its allies to hand them a vacated state on a silver plate.

Putin has calculated rather, that a political settlement can only be effected by force of arms: the dominant, noxious influence of the jihadists has to be excised, before ‘reconcilables’ (in Rumsfeldian terminology) will have the confidence to offer themselves for participation.  In short, whereas the West sees Russian force of arms as somehow inimical to a political settlement, Putin (and Assad) say that the jihadist dominance (in which the West has contrived) actually precludes the possibility of a political outcome. The recent invitation of President Assad to Moscow seems to have been designed to underline to the West two things: that President Assad is indeed committed to political reform, and to debunk any thought that Russia might see President Assad as a somehow a discretionary, discardable, component to a political solution.

It seems for now that the US Administration will leave the heavy-lifting in Syria to Russia. It will wait and watch; whilst corralling an international coalition to pressure Russia to respect its interests in any political outcome. What seems, at present, to be inadequately appreciated in some western quarters, is how credible and effective use of airpower, combined with the large, combat-experienced ground force that presently is being amassed, will alter facts on the ground. These facts, in their turn will dramatically alter the political equation too. Quietly, the US will probably expand its co-operation with Russia. It seems probable that President Putin expects no more than this at this stage.  But if Syria is a success, he may hope that a western partnership will subsequently flower  – when it comes in due turn to Iraq.

But the risk in all this is that the West will turn against Putin -- that perceptions will become locked in terms of the binary ‘liberal/illiberal’ Cold War meme.

Then the meaning of Putin’s Syria initiative will be lost, and escalated hostilities will ensue. Putin is not just forcing the issue of the western policy toward Syria. He is trying to force the issue of the place of Russia itself in the world today: to burst free from the paradigm of post-war thinking in which Russia has found itself trapped.  It is a gamble, because the gesture itself – if successful – will shape the Middle East and global geo-politics much more widely.

If it fails, the prevalent American domestic dynamics are that of a US inevitably heading toward confrontation with Russia (and with China).  Too much homework has been invested in this China-Russia rapprochement by the latter, for it to be easily unpicked by reverting to the old Kissinger triangulation doctrine of keeping Russia and China at odds with each other.

In Syria, Putin is forcing the issue, but he is also offering America the way out from inevitable escalation with both Russia and China, in the wake of a new US president being elected on a ‘strongman’ ticket.

And his initiative has given a profound shock to the western the military establishment. Russia had been presumed to lag behind the West in terms of conventional weaponry and its air platforms; that its military was somehow ‘second class’.  But what also has become apparent in Putin’s Syria ‘gesture’ is the revolution that he has wrought in terms of reorganising the armed forces and upgrading weapons since the war in Georgia in 2008. 

As Pepe Escobar has noted:

“The New Great Game in Eurasia advanced in leaps and bounds last week after Russia fired 26 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea against 11 ISIS/ISIL/Daesh targets across Syria, destroying all of them. These naval strikes were the first known operational use of state-of-the-art SSN-30A Kalibr cruise missiles.

“All it took for the Pentagon was a backward look over the shoulder at the flight path of those Kalibr missiles [flying across Iran and Iraq at less than 100 meters altitude] – capable of striking targets 1,500 km away. Talk about a crisp, clear, succinct message from Moscow to the Pentagon and NATO. Wanna mess with us, boy? With your big, bulging aircraft carriers, maybe? … The Pentagon is apoplectic because this display of Russian technology revealed the end of the American monopoly over long-range cruise missiles. Pentagon analysts were still working under the assumption their range was around 300 kilometers.”

Just be clear, Russia has shown that it has not just caught up, but has possibly overtaken the US in terms of missile technology, and that it has the ability to jam NATO command and control and guidance systems (again on display in Syria). If the 4+1 coalition persists beyond Syria (with China hovering supportively behind), all those US military bases and aircraft carriers surrounding Iran and planned for Eurasia become not only redundant – they become vulnerable hostages.  NATO can no longer even count on automatic air superiority.  No wonder the US has withdrawn its carrier from the Persian Gulf.

Putin’s Syria ‘message’ therefore holds a centrality that goes well beyond the issue of whether some Syrian moderates were, or were not killed, whilst co-operating with An-Nusra (al-Qaida), and the details of any transitional government in Syria.  These are, as it were, the initiative’s microcosm.  The macrocosm is Putin’s repeated invitation to de-conflict with the West – an offer underlined by surprising NATO with Russia showing its sizeable new big stick. This is the ‘wood’ obscured in much of the West by seeing and focusing on only individual ‘trees’ and other details of the Syria situation.  The outcome in Syria will shape many, many things.