Syria: The Strategic Site

Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, 11-18 Sept 2015:

What is striking about the Middle East today is the apparent compression of time.  Not long ago, crises arrived sequentially, like cargo arriving at its destination at discrete intervals.  Today, one has the impression rather, of crises arriving in the mode of ‘all together; all at once’.  Often historically, this timeline shift to ‘all together, all at once’ heralds transformative change, rather than some piecemeal re-shaping of the existing structure.

Look around the region: nation-states, institutional structures, the fabric of human security are disintegrating ‘all at once; all together’.  States are fractured in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon (where there is no state) – and in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria the state is hardly secure. Turkey is on the verge of civil war, and Saudi Arabia is increasingly internally conflicted (Arabic). It is not just Syrian refugees that are heading to Europe: the airports are bulging with the middle classes (with their second passports), as well as the destitute who stand on the beaches. It seems that the idea of migrating to Germany (if one can) has seized the imagination of families and the young, everywhere in the region, ‘all at once; all together’.  Of course, Iran stands out as the exception – an island of stability, and effectiveness in its foreign statecraft; but paradoxically this seems only to heighten and throw into sharper relief, the despair of others.

It is not so surprising: As states fracture, as society tears apart, as violence, lawlessness and extortion explode, to whom can these civilians turn?  Of course, there are interests at play in facilitating this exodus:  ISIS is cleansing its territories of those who it sees will never assimilate into the IS.  Turkey and its protégés have long believed that only by creating a heart-rending, humanitarian crisis, will the West finally be spurred into taking (military) action in Syria to remove President Assad.  But somehow this present ‘exodus’ transcends these particular triggers.  More fundamentally, people see no end to crisis, no end to a widening cycle of violence, against which they feel unprotected, no end to worsening economic circumstances – except, as many believe, in a major regional war. There is ‘an end of time’ sentiment, widely felt.

Of course, Syria has been touched by this collective migratory impulse; but the widespread notion circulating amongst think-tanks earlier this summer, to the effect that Syria was on the cusp of collapse, to which the region’s general pessimism, seemed to lend some weight, again has been disproved by events. Syria remains intact, with 75–80 % of the population under its control as opposed to the figure of 17%-25% of territory (as claimed by leading western security think-tanks), is not very meaningful as a metric, as it includes swathes of desert.

This general despair for the future of the region is neither exclusive to Syria, nor confined to one segment of its population (as has been ‘channelled’ by many commentators).  After five years, people are tired of war. Some of the insurgents – especially those based in southern Syria– too, are evidencing a similar fatigue and ennui. Even re-branded proxy forces show no vision for the future of Syria beyond the overthrow of President Assad. Similarly, the Gulf-dominated OIC echoed the call for regime change last Sunday, blaming Assad for the refugee crisis. This failure to go beyond ideology reinforces the basic line of division underlying the conflict. The stories reaching Damascus from families who have escaped Raqa’a – and been forced to watch the mutilations and crucifixions of their fellow townsmen – do not lend to any sense that compromise with these jihadi forces is conceivable.

Moscow clearly sees that the cycle of disintegration, the sense of general despairing hopelessness, of no-solution- in-sight, as a wide malaise, which, set against a strengthening ISIS and al-Qae’da, makes for an existential crisis for the Middle East, and for Russia and Europe.  Moscow worries that somewhere in the region, the ground will give, and ISIS will prevail. And with such an occurrence, ISIS would ride a vortex of forward momentum that would topple the shaky remains of foundering nation-states.  And this would threaten not just the Middle East, but Central Asia and Russia itself. It is too facile to ignore this Russian understanding of the situation, andto attribute it as simply some ploy to engage with Obama and to end Russia’s supposed ‘isolation’.

In this respect, Moscow has a clear vision: Syria is not so much the weakest link, but rather the most strategic site (i.e. the front line of conflict) in which ISIS can (and must) be delivered a psyche-searing military defeat.  Russia’s frustration, carefully articulated by Lavrov is that whilst America and Europe say they ‘get it’ (the strategic nature of the threat from ISIS), their actions do not reflect any cognizance of this risk: In fact, as the always careful Lavrov noted:

“Some of our counterparts – members of the [anti-ISIS] Coalition – say they sometimes have information about where, at which positions certain IS groups are [located]; but the Coalition’s commander (in the US) won’t agree to deliver a strike… Analysis of the coalition’s aviation causes [us, Russia] weird impressions: The suspicions are, besides the declared goal of fighting the Islamic State, there is something else in that Coalition’s goals.  I do not want to make any conclusions – it is not clear what impressions, information of higher ideas the commander may have – but signals of the kind are coming.”

Like Iran, then, Russia does not believe that the US is serious about defeating ISIS; and has decided to act in a decisive way that will strengthen the Syrian forces fighting ISIS. As Lavrov clarified: “the Syrian president is the commander-in-chief of probably the most capable ground force fighting terrorism, to give up such an opportunity, ignore the capabilities of the Syrian army as a partner and ally in the fight against the Islamic State means to sacrifice the entire region’s security to some geopolitical moods and calculations”. There should be no doubting however, that President Putin is serious. It is clear too, that Russia’s actions have been calibrated (and limited) so as to allow the West subsequently to join with Russia in this initiative – were Europe and America to opt for it seriously.

Kerry has said that Moscow has suggested holding talks between the United States and Russian militaries on Syria and on the continuing buildup of Russian forces there. Kerry said the administration was considering the offer, adding that Lavrov had presented the talks as a way to coordinate with the Pentagon to avoid “unintended incidents.”

But can the West truly engage in war that will indirectly benefit the Syrian Army and state?  Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN summed up the prevailing ambivalence this way : [the US government] “doesn’t want the Assad government to fall. They want to fight ISIS in a way that won’t harm the Syrian government. On the other hand, they don’t want the Syrian government to take advantage of their campaign against ISIS.”

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report on Syria, is one example of the deep-seated predeliction amongst certain circles in Washington to see President Assad kept weak: It argues firstly, that the situation in Syria now, is dangerously stuck in a cycle of disintegration and expanding radicalism from which neither the regime, nor a much diminished moderate opposition, can benefit; but then, secondly proposes the introduction of yet more layers of conflict – armed “escalation” led by America – as the solution: “The US is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement” [emphasis added].  This ambiguity precisely encapsulates Russia’s doubts about whether the US is serious about defeating ISIS.

It would appear, at least superficially, that something of this ICG approach is shared by President Obama, who, in a speech on 11 September at Fort Meade, said “It appears now that Assad is worried enough that he is inviting Russian advisers in and Russian equipment in” [implying that this weakening of the Syrian government was a beneficial in that it hastened the prospect of a political solution]. Obama then warned Russia that backing Syrian President Bashar Assad against the rebels, is a doomed policy; [which] could ultimately derail any prospects for a peace settlement in the country”.  “We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can’t continue to double down on a strategy that is doomed to fail,” said Obama. “If they are willing to work with us and a 60-nation coalition we put together, there’s the possibility of a political settlement in which Assad would be transitioned out and a new coalition of moderate, secular and inclusive forces could come together to restore order in the country.”

Yet, it is clear that there was indeed some prior co-ordination between the White House and President Putin in respect to Russia’s initiative.  The White House was probably far less surprised than it pretended to have been by the leaks about the Russia’s new strategy.

It is possible then, to read the two excerpts quoted above – from Obama’s Fort Meade speech – as composed for, and directed to, the Beltway think-tank constituency, of which the ICG is a part (all are vocal interventionists).  This Administration knows that there is no such thing as a ‘coalition of moderate, secular and inclusive forces’ that would somehow takeover in Syria, were the Syrian government to collapse:  ISIS and al-Qaae’da would occupy the terrain where Syria once stood; and this huge event would electrify and energise jihadists across the globe.

Obama is playing complicated politics:  He is awaiting the conclusion to the Congressional process on the Iran deal; he cannot be seen, for domestic considerations, either to be ‘soft’ vis à vis either Presidents Putin or Assad; and he cannot give the impression that Putin is somehow outsmarting the US.  There are also plausible reports that Petraeus, General Allen and others (e.g. Victoria Nuland rushing to block overflight permissions to Russia) are trying to obstruct the President from co-operating with Russia. Is this what Lavrov had in mind when he said that “I do not want to make any conclusions – it is not clear what impressions, information of higher ideas the [anti-ISIS Coalition] commander may have”:  the US anti-ISIS Coalition’s ‘commander’ is General Allen.

This third exert, from the same speech, was perhaps drafted not so much for the DC think-tank community, but with Lavrov and his colleagues in mind: “The good news”, the President said, “is that Russia shares with us a concern about countering violent extremism and shares the view with us that ISIL is very dangerous. So, despite our conflicts with Russia in areas like Ukraine, this is an area of potentially converging interests.” A hint perhaps for the post Iran-deal approval, era?  So we have two paragraphs written for the domestic constituency – and a third, intended for Lavrov to read tea-leaves.

The reality however, is that it is three key variables which are becoming more important to the future of the Syrian conflict than the shift taking place in the European stance on Syria (with Germany now saying that Europe must ally with President Assad to defeat ISIS, welcome though this will be, in Moscow):

The first is Russia’s intervention.  Limited though it may be, Russia’s intervention is strategic, and its importance should not be under-estimated (already the Syrian Air Force is again flying air operations over Idlib and it has added to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition’s air attacks on ISIS headquarters in Raqa’a).  Russian real-time imagery, MIG 31 interceptors (to impede any no-fly zone), and more sophisticated software and hardware for the Air Force, plus other weaponry, mark a qualitative change – as we have previously noted.

Secondly, Turkey, one of the pillars of the jihadist forces – is entering into real crisis. A low-intensity war has broken out with Turkey’s Kurdish population.  However, even if, as a result of fired-up nationalist sentiment kindled by this internal ‘war’, Erdogan’s AKP were to win a clear majority again in elections scheduled for November, Turkey’s problems are unlikely to abate.  Turkey is fractured, firstly by the conflict with the Kurds (with young Kurds likely refusing to be disempowered); and secondly, by Erdogan’s claim that because he won the Presidency by popular vote, the Turkish constitution has de-facto (but not de jure) been altered to give him plenipotentiary Presidential powers. This has opened a second ‘front’ in his domestic wars, this time against non-Kurdish opponents, but one which will be equally bitterly fought.  The devaluing Lira has opened a third (economic) crisis.  In the coming months, these combined crises are likely to aggravate, it seems.

The third variable is Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is becoming heavily extended financially in the face of the drop in crude prices.  Linked to this, Saudi is over-extended politically: engaged in wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya; and in ensuring the survival of President Sisi’s government. On top of this, the kingdom is being led by a young man, the King’s son, who has crossed every al-Saud family ‘red-line’: by not accommodating other family branches in a ‘balance’ of power; by persuading his father unilaterally to tear-up the succession arrangements; by refusing access to his father, by taking ARAMCO under his control; and above all, by launching and conducting the war in Yemen, without seeking, or obtaining, the family’s support. Reports are openly circulating within the al-Saud family (which are now public), calling for the King, Prince Mohammad and Prince Naif – the two crown princes – to be deposed.

It is impossible to say how these tensions will play out in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for quite different reasons, are incrementally moving toward a state of systemic instability.  It is difficult to see how either can continue along their present path without taking some hard decisions – including that concerning their Syria policy (if only because of their shared pressures from the deteriorating financial situation). Will Saudi maintain its expenditures on its wars, or elect to maintain its subsidized way of life for its people?  It may not be able to do both for much longer.  If either of these two pillars should depart the Syrian theatre of conflict, the question of will, or won’t, the US and Europe finally engage in fighting ISIS, becomes somewhat academic.

Leave a Reply