“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep”.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, 30 September, 1938
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 February. War is coming to the Middle East. Russia, Iran and Assad have ‘won’ the Syrian civil war. Islamic State has shot its bolt but remains undefeated in its ungoverned space. The West is strategically and morally bankrupt. The liberal idea of a rules-based international order has failed. Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey are about to make a significant move towards the creation of Kurdistan. That is clearly the conclusion that Turkey’s President Erdogan has arrived at this past week and why Turkish forces are shelling Peshmerga positions inside Syria.
Turkey is not alone in coming to that conclusion. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and a host of Sunni Arab states, alarmed by the growing influence of Shia Iran in Syria, have also reached a similar conclusion. Indeed, both Ankara and Riyadh are threatening to intervene on the ground against the Russian-Iranian-Assad axis. Israel is quietly mobilising its forces too with Premier Netanyahu making it abundantly clear behind closed doors that Tel Aviv will not sit idly by if Syria and Assad re-merge as a direct threat to the Jewish State’s security.
Why did the West ignore the first principle of international relations; always negotiate from strength? The three main Western figures at the Munich talks were US Secretary Kerry, British Foreign Secretary Hammond, and German Foreign Minister Steinmeier. First, good intentions; the road to hell paved and all that. The humanitarian situation is indeed appalling and easing it rightly matters to Western powers. Second, politics is at play. The Obama Administration is in its dying throes and the Administration is focussed on its ‘legacy’; Cameron wants a diplomatic ‘triumph’ the week prior to this week’s EU Brexit retreat, and Steinmeier is desperate to stop another massive wave of asylum seekers from heading to Germany threatening the survival of the Merkel regime.
What are the implications of failure? The ‘agreement to cease hostilities’ reached in Munich last week by the seventeen nation Syrian Contact Group was a tipping point in a war that is now much bigger than Syria. Indeed, the accord revealed just how weak the US and its European allies have become. Indeed, by crafting a politically-convenient but strategically irrelevant piece of paper the West again gave Russia equal superpower billing to the US, thus strengthening in one go the respective positions of both Putin and Assad. Consequently, far from communicating resolve the Americans, British and other Europeans simply confirmed in the minds of Erdogan et al the retreat of the West into strategic denial and self-deception.
Interestingly, Washington was not unaware of this danger and rapidly distanced itself from the accord. Indeed, from the moment the Munich Accord was signed the Americans were putting it about that it was a ‘triumph’ for patient British diplomacy, and the hard behind the scenes work the British had done to seal agreement. The British, desperate as ever to be appear more influential than they actually are were only too keen to let this rumour circulate.
What are the options? Option one is in effect to do nothing. In which case Russia will help Assad carve out an enclave in Western Syria, Russia’s prestige will be enhanced, much of Northern Syria and Iraq will remain in an IS-friendly anarchy, and the chances of major war downstream in the Middle East will be increased.
Option two is to help establish protected refugee camps in neighbouring lands, reinforce states such as Jordan and Lebanon, hold Turkey close to prevent escalation of the conflict between Ankara and the Kurds, and begin to contest the space that the Russia-Assad-Iran axis is carving out by arming some rebel groups and supporting them with Special Forces where needs be to increase the cost of the Putin-Assad strategy.
Option three is for the West to overtly choose sides in the war. The current strategy is failing because the West is on one side but pretending to be all sides accept that of Assad and IS. Russia is on Assad’s side and for the moment in tacit league with Islamic State, but most clearly not on the West’s ‘side’. Such an overt commitment would also mean overtly backing ‘our bastards’ against ‘their bastards’. Specifically, the West would support the Saudi-led, Sunni coalition, with Turkey, to intervene of the ground against Russia-Assad and Shia-Iran. Such a strategy would also mean putting Western boots on the ground in significant numbers and probably turn a lot of the people the West currently supports into enemies.
Every available option involves risk and consequence. However, the most risky course of action would be to do nothing or pretend to not do next to nothing. At some point the Russians and their doctrine of using force to change the political situation on the ground will need to be confronted. Indeed, force Russia to back down and its surrogates and partners will also back down. Indeed, only through a real show of Western strategic, political. and if needs be military resolve is there now any chance that the war in Syria can be de-escalated. It is the absence of such resolve that is threatening to turn a civil war at the eastern end of the Mediterranean into something far, far worse.
The strategic bottom-line is this; the West together will not relieve the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the wider Levant, nor indeed the duress under which Europe now labours, until it has confronted the strategic crisis of which Syria is as much symptom as consequence. Any demarche that is not built on that simple premise will not only fail, but it will make major war in the region more likely.
The Turkey shoot is just the beginning…all we need do now is await the next US president.