The Incipient NATO-ifcation of the Syrian Conflict

Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, 4-11 Sept 2015  

Retired Chief of Staff at the State Department, during Colin Powell’s mandate, Lawrence Wilkerson, in his lecture on the The Travails of  Empire, relates how the US effectively became ‘complicit’ with maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East from the time of Roosevelt’s meeting with King Abdul-Azziz (in 1945 on a warship in the Great Bitter Lakes).  The doctrine’s first manifestation was (jointly with the British) to overthrow the Mossadegh government in Iran (“40% of Britain’s hard currency at the time was coming from Anglo-Iran oil” [which Mossadegh was threatening to nationalise]).  The Shah was installed and the ‘balance’ maintained for the next 26 years, Wilkerson notes.

“But Whooaa – did the Iranians get tired of that” exclaimed Wilkinson. So then (post 1979), “we re-established the ‘balance’ by setting the Arabs versus the Persians: Baghdad and Tehran became viscerally opposed [to each other], and so we maintained the balance”.  Here Wilkerson relates that this was where he entered the scene: the prevailing sentiment (to which he subscribed at the time) was that America should let each side kill each other: “We played both ends against the middle [in the Iran-Iraq war]”.  But when it looked as though Iran might win, America decided to take Iraq’s side. But when in the aftermath, we were forced to remove Saddam Hussein, our balance “went to hell”.   And so, he says, “we ultimately were to determine that [for the US] to stay in the region was a danger: It might fuse a lot of disparate elements into a major opposition to us;  we moved ourselves out”.

What has this to do with Syria?  It is that, just as the decision to let the Arab–Persian ‘visceral’ opposition rip — arming both sides against each other — was to end in disaster and chaos, rather than a ‘manageable regional balance’, so now, as so often, the lessons of history seem so quickly forgotten.  The meme of facilitating a ‘balance’ of equally western-disdained belligerents (i.e. Saddam versus Khomeini) – is not so easily laid to rest.

Today, European leaders (particularly in Britain and France) somehow make an ‘equivalence of malevolence’ between a “barrel-bombing” President Assad, and a murderous ISIS, suggesting that neither should be allowed to prevail – rather in the spirit extant in Washington at the time of the Iran-Iraq conflict, which, according to Wilkerson, was that when the last Persian and Iraqi was left standing at the war’s close, “we should offer both a pair of duelling pistols”. 

To be fair, Wilkerson now recants his past embrace of this posture, and in subsequent interviews, attributes it to a relapse into western Orientalism. Nevertheless, neo-Orientalism remains a strong, growing factor in European politics, that is being stoked daily by the massive flow of refugees into Europe.  There are other voices too, calling for a re-think, and it seems possible that these possibly may prevail (viz. the evident recent EU shift towards acceptance that President Assad should remain in place during a putative ‘transition’). 

The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in Britain’s Parliament, Crispin Blunt, is one of those underlining the point that “no approach towards ISIS is complete without a coherent policy towards the regime in Damascus and a Syrian settlement”. Blunt advises that “before we engage in multilateral diplomacy, Britain’s Parliament and Government must find the courage to have a frank conversation about the future of Bashar al-Assad. Demanding Assad’s removal, without recognising the complexities, is not the best way to conduct foreign policy. It is time to acknowledge that among our priorities and values is the protection of human security through a political solution that ends the violence, even if it creates some difficult moral dilemmas”.

Nonetheless, European policy seems delicately poised over this most existential of geo-strategic issues: i.e. Syria (more so, perhaps than in the US).  Affected by the emotional cross-currents washing across Europe rearing up from the images of the refugee influx on the one hand, and of human suffering on the other, European leaders are finding no answer to the refugee crisis, and policy wobbles uncertainly – swinging with the pendulum – according to the latest heart-tugging images of refugees, or to the horror at the bloodletting taking place in Syria and Iraq. 

To illustrate this, compare Blunt’s intervention, with PM Cameron’s statement to Parliament on Wednesday: “Assad has to go, Isil [ISIS] has to go; and some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy, but it will on occasion require hard military force,” the Prime Minister said. Plainly Cameron’s statement does not amount to a coherent strategy, but perhaps Europe has at least begun the move, as opposed to being stuck – as America was in the Iran-Iraq war – in a failing policy of dual containment: then Iran-Iraq, now Assad-ISIS.  The refugees’ influx into Europe has certainly loosened things up (as, perhaps, its instigators intended), but for the better; or the worse? 

Those Turkish officials who seem now to be facilitating the outflow of Syrian refugees from their camps in southern Turkey with its unprecedented (and otherwise unexplained) August spike, no doubt hope that the European pendulum will swing – as Cameron hinted – towards the removal of President Assad (which has been their objective since the beginning of the conflict). But sentiment overall seems (precariously) to be moving in the other way towards the realists who argue that the Syrian government is a necessary ally in any war with militant jihadism.

But the danger in this, as Britain and France contemplate air sorties (“against ISIS”) from Iraq (from the south, rather than from the north), that effectively they will be turning most of Syria into a ‘no-fly zone’. Again, Erdogan may be pleased, but President Putin will not.

As we noted last week in respect to the Libyan precedent, a ‘no fly zone’ implemented by NATO under a UN-resolution was hijacked – in the Russians’ view – to support the anti-Gaddafi insurgents and give them close air support for several months, until Libya finally was demolished.

Ever since the start of the conflict in Syria, the Russians have always made clear that they would not tolerate another version of the Libyan precedent. By 2013, Russian officials made numerous statements formally objecting to any ‘no fly zone’ in Syria. A few very strongly worded declarations by President Putin himself didn’t leave any doubt as to the Russians’ willingness to actively oppose such a development. Hence the Russian decision to intervene militarily (to a limited extent in Syria) to pre-empt the West from staging another NATO ‘creep’ in Syria in close support of its preferred insurgents that would end with the Syrian state’s downfall.

Pat Lang (a former US military intelligence official) notes: 

“I am told by my own sources that the dissonance within the Obama Administration’s ranks has resulted in what IMO [in my opinion] is a mindless decision to oppose Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war.

“The amateurs at work in the WH, NSC and State Department continue to be incapable of understanding that the disappearance of the structure of the Syrian state will inevitably lead to the creation of a jihadi dominated state where Syria is now located. Whether or not that state would be ruled by IS or the Nusra front is unclear, but what is clear is that in either case the resulting cancerous situation will be the beginning of the end of any sort of moderation in government within the region. The example provided by the triumph of salafist jihadism would exert such a powerful “pull” on the available human potential for recruitment and subversion that IMO no government would be able to stand against it.

“To prevent that, the Russians seem intent on reinforcing the Syrian government and the US is doing all it can to prevent this. The US has pressured governments seeking a denial of diplomatic overflight clearances for Russian cargo aircraft en route to Syria.  It has also sought some means with which to deny Russian vessels passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. What on earth do we think we are doing?”

This, in the CF view, signals rather that the other ‘balance of power’ meme is coming into play — as Britain, France and Turkey, together with the US become involved using airpower, it will increasingly resemble the NATO process in Libya. Whilst the US President is shyly co-operating with Russia to a limited extent, that other Cold War ‘balance of power’ neuron is being electrically pulsated: NATO versus Putin. Any move by Russia, in Pavlovian reaction, must be countered – irrespective of any prior serious attention paid to western geo-strategic interests.

That it is NATO-driven, rather than being drive by any cool assessment of the Middle Eastern ‘ground’, is evidenced by the case of Bulgaria: at very same time that its government is trying to persuade Russia that the South Stream natural gas pipeline can be resurrected, it is being pressured to deny Russia overflight clearances, thus thwarting its own economic interests. Ditto Greece and Ukraine.

This precisely is the danger of the insipient NATO-ification of the Syria conflict: It will set Russia and America as adversaries, rather than as states – at odds in many ways – but sharing common interests in finding a solution in Syria.  The beneficiaries of any such outcome will be the jihadists – of whatever ilk.

Post Script: In case anyone should imagine that somehow An-Nusra might, after all, somehow be an acceptable ‘middle way’, this analysis from the US Institute for the Study of War report might prove enlightening:

“JN [al-Qae’da] is more subtle and insidious than ISIS, and is therefore more difficult to contain or defeat. While ISIS pursues direct, overt, and top-down control, JN leverages an elite military force to win allies among the Syrian armed opposition and to sponsor locally tailored governance in ungoverned areas of Syria. JN has benefitted from the lack of effective Western intervention in Syria. It has further benefitted from the radicalization of the Syrian opposition after September 2013, when the decision by the U.S. not to intervene in Syria demoralized large segments of the opposition. JN has a flow of foreign fighters and contributes asymmetric “special forces” capabilities to opposition forces, securing prominent victories for rebel campaigns through its contributions to wider military efforts … [this] increased the relative importance of JN’s contribution to the fighting. As such, JN’s military campaign has earned it significant leverage with other rebel groups. At the end of 2014, the rise of ISIS changed the Syrian wartime environment and forced meaningful shifts in JN’s disposition in Syria. These shifts, over time, may begin to impact its network of rebel allies. However, JN’s success in establishing influence within rebel ranks has kept JN from losing popular support in the short-term, despite an increasingly aggressive stance. It is therefore unlikely that JN’s embedded position within rebel ranks will unravel without additional outside pressure.”

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