“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 27 November. The West’s Syria strategy has a beginning, a muddle, but no end. One hundred years ago this week Albert Einstein gave the world his general theory of relativity. Part of the theory suggests that space and time can become so distorted that light can no longer escape – black holes. Syria has become the political equivalent of a black hole into which rationality pours, but from which no hope emits. It is as though one relatively tiny political space has become so dense, with so many competing and contending hatreds, that Syria threatens not just itself, but much of the political universe beyond. Ethnic, sectarian, regional, inter-regional, and geopolitical forces are being sucked into the Syrian black hole whilst strategically-challenged Western leaders have no idea what lies beyond. Indeed, Syria is beginning to warp of the very fabric of the international system and with it the space-time political continuum. Indeed, it is a struggle that begins to look ever more like Europe’s terrifying Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 than the effects of the small dying red dwarf that is Syria.
Yesterday in London British Prime Minister David Cameron produced a 36 page dossier (ghosts of Tony Blair and Iraq?) in an attempt to convince Parliament to end a nonsense. The RAF can attack IS up to the non-existent Iraqi-Syrian border, but not beyond. In fact, all the debate achieved was to underscore just how fragile Britain and its foreign and security policy has become, and how close the opposition Labour Party is to political oblivion. Far more important to events on the ground and in the air over Syria was the de facto alliance announced yesterday between France and Russia. Rather, the false assumptions in Cameron’s dossier did at least reveal the lack of anything one might conceive of as a comprehensive Western political and military, offensive and defensive strategy to deal with what is fast becoming of one of the most dangerous post-Cold War crises the West, the Middle East and the wider world has faced.
Ethnic tensions: Syrian has been riven by ethnic tensions ever since the minority Alawhite community seized power in Damascus through President Assad’s father and the Ba’ath Party in 1966. What is left of Syria Syria is 90% Arab, with some two million Kurds plus other smaller groups making up the balance of a 22 million population that grew by over 300% prior to the outbreak of the war. It is a demographic shift reflected across much of the Middle East as are many of the ethnic divisions.
Ethnic and Sectarian tensions: Ethnic tensions have also reinforced the sectarian divisions that have in turn helped Islamic State to grow rapidly since its founding in Jordan. Syria is 87% Muslim with Shias making up 13% of the population, as against 74% Sunnis with the rest comprised of small Christian, Druze and other communities. In the past the Ba’athist constitution protected minorities and until those self-same minorities feel secure peace is unlikely to be re-secured.
Ethnic, Sectarian and Regional Tensions #1: There is now a very real danger that ethnic, sectarian and regional tensions will also merge. In Iraq tensions between Sunni and Shia tribes are reinforced by divisions between the Arab and Kurdish peoples. Such divisions continue to threaten a weak Baghdad government. If the Baghdad government falls Iran would likely intervene more deeply in Iraq, which would at the very least alarm the Gulf States, most notably Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Turkey seems unlikely to permit the appearance of a fully-autonomous Kurdish ‘state’ with profound implications for Ankara’s own eastern provinces.
Ethnic, Sectarian and Regional Tensions #2: The Syrian war is first and foremost a threat to what might best be described as the region’s many precarious states in the region. In the wake of the unfortunately-named Arab Spring (perhaps the less catchy but more accurate title would be the emaciation of the Arab state) the precarious states include Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon all of which suffer from a potent mix of contending ethnicities, sectarianism, economic decline, and enduring political tensions between states, rulers and peoples. Moreover, through the spread of both al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, ‘precariousness’ extends to sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa. There is also the very real chance that nuclear-tipped Israel could be dragged in, especially if Jordan is threatened by some form of new Intifada that further exacerbates tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
Ethnic, Sectarian & Inter-Regional Tensions: The Syrian war has profound implications for not just the Middle Eastern region. Indeed, through the mass migration of millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and others, Europe in being dragged into the Middle Eastern conflict. The 13 November terrorist attack on Paris was an extension of the sectarian divisions that have riven Syria and much of the Middle East. Radicalisation of members of the many North African, Sub-Saharan African, and South Asian Diasporas that now live in Europe means that a very small minority of people now pose a very real threat to Europeans of all ethnicities and beliefs.
Ethnic, Sectarian, Regional, Inter-Regional & Geopolitical Tensions: The Syrian war is also generating growing geopolitical tensions. Do not be fooled by Russia’s desire for co-ordinated air strikes. Beyond a rapprochement with France Moscow has no intention of a formal alliance with the West to defeat IS. Rather, Moscow wants a free hand to strike anti-Assad forces under the guise of its own war on ‘terror’, a strategy which is also implicit in the Franco-Russian accord of yesterday. Indeed, this war within a war is also implicit in the hidden stand-off between the West and an unlikely coalition of Russia, Iran & Syria. Russia and Iran seek extended pan-regional and/or inter-regional influence at the expense of the West. Turkey is also a regional and inter-regional player. Tuesday’s downing of a Russian Sukhoi 24 by Turkish F-16s was as much about protecting Turkic tribesman in northern Syria against Russia’s pro-Assad air strikes, as it was about any possible violation of Turkish airspace by Russian forces. Given Turkey is a NATO member that one incident combined ethnic, regional, inter-regional, and geopolitical tensions into one dangerous moment and epitomises the wider threat the Syrian war now poses.
Crafting Comprehensive Strategy: The first task of the statesman is to recognise the Syrian war for what it is; the epicentre of conflicts across the Middle East that are now breaking out of one region and beginning to de-stabilise others. That is why a comprehensive strategy is needed that works to effect equally at the ethnic, sectarian, regional, inter-regional and geopolitical levels. However, such a strategy can only be crafted by big power. Here the main problem is the absence of real American strategic and political leadership (Europe is incapable). Worse, it is hard to see how such leadership will be forthcoming for at least a year from a US distracted by next November’s presidential elections. Hope now is that the big (and regional big) power Vienna Process (Congress of Vienna?) will generate sufficient unity of effort and purpose to craft big, sustained strategy. Do not bet on it! Such a strategy would mean the United States, Russia, the major European powers, together with Iran and the Gulf States agreeing at the very least the war must be contained, IS destroyed, and thereafter a political roadmap crafted for Syria.
In the circumstances and in the absence of true strategic commitment the best to which can be aspired is sustained pragmatism. Any action to degrade IS is to be welcomed. However, clarity of strategic thought would suggest separating the anti-IS strategy from the political future of Syria strategy to ‘de-conflict’ the divers interests of the partners in what is a very loose de facto coalition. Equally, any such ‘strategy’ must be grounded in political and strategic reality. In his speech to Parliament yesterday Cameron claimed the existence of some 70,000 ‘moderate’ non-Islamist, non-regime ‘ground troops’ that the air campaign should support in the fight against IS. This is a very optimistic definition of both ‘moderate’ and ‘ground troops’.
Einstein suggested that the only way to counter the unimaginable gravitational pull of a black hole is with countervailing superior power. If the Syrian black hole is to be closed such power will mean far more than superior kinetic force. In the short-term the need to prevent IS from extending its evil mandate both in the region and beyond is vital. However, until the wider conflict is brought to an end all parallel and subsequent actions will take place in a political vacuum. At the very least, a serious Western strategy would recognise that such is the danger this conflict poses conflict resolution will take a lot of time, immense resources, huge power and loss. And yet I see no Western leader will to admit that. However, Western powers must at the very least seek to regain the strategic and political initiative they have lost to Russia of late by crafting something that would at least approximate to a draft comprehensive Syria strategy.
Syria: dreadful beginning, appalling muddle, but no end in sight.