hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 27 February 2020


“They have created a kill box in Idlib, and no-one cares about that!
Unnamed diplomat, February 2020

27 February, 2020

Situation Report

Some 250 kilometres from the EU’s eastern border people are dying in large numbers. Under the pretext of destroying Salafist Jihadi extremists the Damascus regime and its Moscow overlord are seeking to crush one of the last major city redoubts of the patchwork of loosely-affiliated opposition forces. 

The strategic significance of Idlib cannot be over-stated.  A city some 30 km/20 miles south-west of the Syrian-Turkish border, prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 Idlib had a population of some 165,000 people comprised mainly of Sunni Muslims, together with a significant Christian minority. The population grew markedly during the civil war, particularly after Moscow’s September 2015 intervention pushed opposition forces ever further away from Damascus. A Russo-Syrian attack on Idlib was inevitable following the fall of Aleppo in late 2016.

The humanitarian situation is grave. According to the United Nations there are between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people caught up in the fighting, with the UN estimating that some 692,000 people have fled towns south of Idlib in recent weeks. The UN also estimates that some 390,000 people are seeking to enter Turkey, which already shelters some 4 million Syrian refugees.

The military offensive also threatens conflict between NATO member Turkey and Russia. During the night of 2-3 February Ankara sent a Turkish military convoy into Idlib. This led to a firefight between the Turkish and Syrian Armies that saw 5 Turks and at least 13 Syrians killed.  President Erdogan of Turkey has warned his erstwhile partner, Russia’s President Putin, that if Moscow fails to control Damascus Ankara will act.  In fact, the evidence suggests Russia is leading the offensive using its air power to blast a path forward for the Syrian Army on the ground. To suggest the situation is dangerous is a marked understatement, made even more dangerous by Russia’s blocking of any United Nations Security Council sanctioned ceasefire.


Moscow and Damascus stand on the verge of crushing the non-Salafist opposition in Syria.  Such a victory would bring Russian forces into contact with the Turkish border, and also create a new potential flash-point with NATO. In the wake of the 2019 Russo-Syrian offensive in Northeast Syria there was also a marked increase in the presence of Daesh and other such groupings.  There is no reason to believe a similar resurgence would not take place in Northwest Syria, irrespective of the relatively small number of US and Allied Special Forces still operating in the region. 

Furthermore, there seems little or no relationship between what Western powers claim as their objective and the extent and scope of their collective effort in Syria.  A decisive Russo-Syrian victory will make it far harder for the Global Coalition Against Daesh, certainly in Syria. Indeed, whilst the wider efforts of the Coalition to counter Daesh will continue, the loss of Syria would represent a major setback.  Moreover, in spite of efforts to de-conflict US and Russian military operations there would be a greater chance of a renewed clash in Syria between Russian ‘mercenary’ forces of The Wagner Group, and possibly FSB and GRU forces, and US Special Forces as Damascus deems all non-regime forces as ‘extremists’.  Kurdish forces and the Kurdish people would be trapped between Russian, Syrian and Turkish forces facing at best a very uncertain future and with a profound sense of having been betrayed by the US and its European partners.

The humanitarian situation would be even direr than it is today. Whilst an end to the offensive might in the short-term ease the immediate suffering of the population.  Past experience suggests the Assad regime would seek to exact revenge on peoples and groups it deemed as disloyal.  Efforts by the UN and the NGO community to afford people relief could well be blocked, with the regime seeking to expel large numbers and force them into Turkey.


At the geopolitical level a Russo-Syrian victory would mark the effective end of the Syrian civil war with a decisive victory for Moscow, and afford Russia a major strategic prize. Not only would the West (such as there is a ‘West’ in Syria) be humiliated, but Russia’s military air base at Latakia, some 55km from Idlib, will be secure, together with its naval base at Tartus.  The two bases would enable Russian forces to exert strategic influence far out into the Mediterranean. 

In that context President Trump’s January 2020 Middle Eastern Peace Plan looks like little more than an attempt to deflect criticism for the lack of US leadership in and over Syria.  His call for NATO to do more in the Middle East looks little more than an effort to highlight Europe’s almost complete lack of influence over a conflict on its own strategic doorstep.  The Russians would thus reveal the deep schism that exists between Americans and Europeans and not just over Syria, with possibly profound implications for Europe’s security and defence. 

The implications for European cohesion are also profound.  Whilst President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany have called for a Four Power meeting with Presidents Erdogan and Putin to be held on 5 March, the role and effectiveness of European in the Syrian fiasco has been lamentable.  There is simply no unity of effort or purpose. Britain, one of the major European powers that signed the now defunct nuclear deal with Iran, is completely absent from the Franco-German demarche, although this has more to do with London than either Berlin or Paris. Throughout the war London has been obsessed with giving the political impression that it was doing far more than has been the case.  This is reflective of a deep strategic malaise at the very highest levels of government in London and one of the many reasons for Europe’s failure in Syria.  The EU? Too often European leaders talk up values with little idea how to defend them. It is a failure for which Europeans will pay a high price, particularly if France and Germany are only engaged in strategic face-saving.

With millions of refugees likely barred from returning home to Syria expect many more to seek sanctuary in Europe.  If Daesh is indeed emboldened (and possibly instrumentalised by hostile regimes) Europeans will become even more vulnerable to acts of terrorism. Finally, with US and European policy towards the Middle East and North Africa in disarray partners across the region and beyond will no doubt make greater efforts to seek an accommodation with Moscow.  Tehran will also be emboldened, making it more likely it will again miscalculate.

Courses of action

The loss of Idlib makes a wider Middle Eastern war even more likely than it was prior to the Russo-Syrian attack. It is probably too late to countenance sustained Western military pressure, even if that were an option, which it is not. The immediate focus must be on the alleviation of humanitarian suffering. Over the medium to longer term it is in the interests of both Americans and Europeans to work together to mitigate the strategic and political damage done by this defeat, or that is what it is, to their influence in the region, to NATO, and to European security. For that to happen politics on both sides of the Atlantic will have to become far more closely aligned with strategy.

For Europeans what is happening in Idlib is also symptomatic of a strategic withdrawal from world events.  In the space of a century Europeans have moved from being colonial over-interference in the Middle East and North Africa, which proved disastrous for the people therein, to partial or pretend engagement in a region vital to Europe’s own security, and which could prove disastrous for Europe.  

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 17 February 2020

Dresden 75: Is Europe Making America Weak?

“There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked…There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five


Alphen, Netherlands. 17 February. Seventy-five years ago, on the night of 13-14th February, 1945, seven hundred and sixty-nine Royal Air Force (RAF) Lancaster bombers of 5 Group, Bomber Command attacked the ancient German city of Dresden, escorted by some three hundred and fifty P-51 Mustang fighters. Codenamed ‘Plate Rack’ the main bomber force was led into the attack by nine Mosquito ‘Pathfinder’ aircraft who ‘painted’ the historic centre of the city with marker flares. The next day, five hundred and twenty-seven B-17 bombers of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) continued the attack, escorted by some four hundred P-51s.  Dresden was devastated with estimates of those killed ranging from between 22,700 to 25,000, the massive majority of whom were civilians.  The RAF lost six Lancaster bombers, whilst one US B-17 was destroyed. Dresden was the culmination of the Allied strategic bombing campaign and was controversial even in 1945.  The origins of ‘Dresden’ were manifold, not least the need to send a message to the Soviets about the firepower of Allied air power as war’s end approached.  However, Dresden was also the culmination of a descent into calamity that began with the rise to power of Hitler in the early 1930s, and the irresolute response of Allied democracies to the threat Nazism posed to European peace.

As the commemoration of this truly epic European tragedy were being solemnly enacted I was also in Germany at a side-event of the Munich Security Conference.  The Loisach Group is a high-level US-German team, co-organised by the George C. Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference.  The aim of the Group is to promote something in which I believe deeply; a close, twenty-first century US-German strategic partnership itself deeply embedded in an adapted and modernised NATO. An Alliance which remains the central, credible pillar of legitimate Allied defence and deterrence.

Munich 2020

To be honest, I thought twice about attending the meeting as I am in the last throes of completing a book, which consumes most of my energy and attention.  There were other reasons.  First, I am tired of attending meetings at which Europeans brilliantly and eloquently describe the challenges of European security, then do very little about them.  Britons and Germans have become particularly effective at this particular skein of defence pretence.  For example, news that the Royal Navy’s new class of frigates will be delayed simply compounds the farce that Britain remains a Tier One military power.  Just look at what the Americans and Chinese are building. Second, it is hard for me to see any real progress in the US-German strategic relationship until the political relationship improves.  With the US facing presidential elections in November, and Berlin engaged in a seemingly endless bout of political navel-gazing, the best that can be said is that the relationship is on hold. Third, I am also tired of listening to pious speeches about shared transatlantic values and Europe’s strategic ambitions from people who have little or no willingness to defend the former and do even less to realise the latter. Finally, I see little evidence that elite Germany is making any effort to understand the American strategic challenge or its implications for the future security and defence of Europe.

Indeed, Germans seem unable or unwilling to recognise America’s changing and deteriorating strategic reality.  It is as though President Trump has become an alibi for the refusal of Germans to face up to their strategic responsibilities as Europe’s leading democratic power.  Even if they agree in private about the nature of emerging threats German leaders too often talk as though German power must remain a secret from the German people for fear the reality of the strategic responsibility such power would bring might prove too brutal an awakening. Worse, every opportunity is taken to criticise the US even though the evidence clearly shows a Washington still willing to commit huge resources to the defence of Europe. Take the European Deterrence Initiative.  There was some mildly hysterical coverage in the German press last week that ‘EDI’ was being cut. As one very senior American pointed out at the meeting as each EDI project reaches fruition the investment naturally reduces.

Time is pressing. This week, IISS published their latest Military Balance report in which they noted global defence expenditure had risen by 4% in 2019. Much of that hike is driven by increases of almost 7% in both the US and Chinese defence budgets, with a particular focus on the development of new technologies for the twenty-first century battlespace.  The US increased its defence budget by $53.4 billion, which is about the same amount as the entire British defence budget.  Part of the US rationale is to offset China’s better military purchasing power by which Beijing gets more firepower per yuan invested than the US per dollar.  It is also an attempt to solve America’s critical strategic dilemma: whilst China can focus its military effort the US has to cover threats the world over. It is a dilemma that is only going to become more acute.  IISS described China’s military modernisation as, “…striking for its scale, speed and ambition”.  Europe?  Europeans did increase defence expenditure by 4.2% in 2019, but that only brought defence investment back to 2008 levels. That begs a further question. Is Europe burden-sharing, or is it just a plain burden on the Americans?

Europe Defender 20

Words and actions? As the Munich meeting got underway the Americans were bringing in an entire armoured division from the US as part of Exercise Europe Defender 20.  Whilst not on the scale of REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercises of the Cold War, Defender 20 is the largest such exercise since its end. Designed to bolster high-end Allied defence and deterrence Defender 20 will see some twenty thousand US troops arrive via five ports in Northwest Europe, as well as thirteen thousand pieces of heavy equipment, to engage across eight separate locations alongside eighteen allies. As an aside, a British battlegroup was also disembarking in Antwerp in support of their allies.  

The fact that the Americans are having to make such an effort is indicative of the malaise deep in the German heart of European defence. Impressive though the American force is in an emergency it could well be needed elsewhere, most likely in what Washington now calls the Indo-Pacific.  If NATO Europe was truly capable such a force would not be American at all, but European, with a powerful German armoured division at its core.  A German armoured division? One can almost hear history weeping at such a thought.  And yet, that is precisely the kind of high-end, heavy, fast, twenty-first century first responder European/German force that NATO needs if DETERRENCE, the business the Alliance is really collectively in, is to be credibly maintained. And yet, modern, free, democratic Germany seems to be lost in denial about its responsibilities as leader.  What could the Bundeswehr really deliver in the event of another European emergency? Minor additions to the German defence effort do little to solve the essential dysfunctionality of the Bundeswehr which will not be resolved until there is a profound change in Berlin’s strategic posture and mindset.  

European weakness makes America weaker

Forcing over-stretched America to send forces to offset the choice European democracies have made to decouple their own defence efforts from threat and changing reality is not a sign of Allied strength. It is a mark of the dangerous complacency and tendency towards comforting self-delusion to which Germans are particularly prone. There seems to be a strange belief that if threats are talked about long enough by people high enough in the political pecking order that somehow such danger will evaporate. It is nonsense; a wilful European act of weakness that threatens to make America weaker where it matters.

Dresden was the tragic culmination of failed deterrence and the tragic cost of such failure. It was a product of irresolution and the consequent disproportionate proportionality caused by democracies preferring to see the world as they wanted it to be, not as it was.  For the sake of all those who lost their lives in the Dresden firebombing, on all sides of the conflict, let’s not go there again.

Julian Lindley-French  

Friday, 7 February 2020

Leangkollen 2020: Europe’s China Challenge

“I think both sides [China and the United States] should work hard to build a new kind of relationship between big powers. The two sides should co-operate with each other for a win-win result in order to benefit people from the two countries and around the world”.

President Xi Jingping

The view from on high

Leangkollen, Norway. 7 February. Is Europe rising to the China challenge? No. Is the first truly global cold war underway? Not quite yet.  Is an era of cold, contested globalisation underway?  Most definitely.

The Leangkollen Conference is a gem of a security conference. Sitting high above the Oslo Fjord the gathering is perfectly placed to think big about big issues.  This year was no exception. My dear friend, Kate Hansen Bundt, and her outstanding young team at the Norwegian Atlantic Committee (DNAK), once again set the bar high for an as ever distinguished group to consider the challenge of China’s burgeoning power. However, what I heard also concerned me. There seemed to be a blind willingness on the part of some to not just accept the fact of Chinese power, but also the nature of it. There was also a dangerous equivalency expressed at times between the US and China in the mind of some of those Europeans present. Whatever one might think of President Trump there is a vast difference between the nature, the values, and above all the hope implicit in American power compared with that of contemporary China. 

What this dangerous slide towards equivalency also shows is how far Europeans have moved away from the hard years of strategic reality in which hard choices must be made and, at times, even harder choices. Europeans must take sides in what will be the great strategic contest of this age, and it is very clear which side Europeans must be on.  Sadly, too many Europeans leaders and commentators find it hard to accept that China’s rise is actually happening, the scale of the challenge China poses for the liberal world order, or that Beijing is anything but benign.  Indeed, a prevailing theme throughout the conference was that China’s power is over-stated, and that China is, at best, a regional power with bits of global outreach. This view strikes me as complacent in the extreme. The scale of China’s global-reach ambitions are reflected in Beijing’s suggestion that it is a ‘near Arctic’ power.

Furthermore, there are many power levers in Beijing’s growing grand strategic tool-kit. Whilst much of the focus is on China’s growing military might and reach, China’s use of debt and diplomatic coercion is far more effective on a daily basis than any supposed military threat.  And, Beijing has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to apply such coercion to force compliance and acceptance of its increasingly assertive global foreign and security policy. Take Djibouti. China secured a port with a loan to Djibouti it cannot possibly hope to repay.  How long before France and the US who also have facilities therein are asked to leave? Norway has also experience of such coercion. In December 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was scheduled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo. Not only was Xiaobo prevented from attending, Beijing put China-Norwegian relations into the diplomatic deep freeze for six years thereafter.

Nudging China

The ‘West’ is transforming from regional place into global idea and it is the idea of openness that China is contesting, or rather exploiting because Beijing is perfectly willing to use the West’s openness against it.  At stake is the very nature of globalisation and the kind of world that will emerge. If the West is to successfully ‘nudge’ China towards a more open society and market, Europeans will need to play their collective part.  Are they up to it?  The goal of a more open China would be a worthy one, for such a China would still be immensely powerful and compete with the West, most notably the United States. However, the dark side of China, and it can be very dark, epitomises also the dark, cold side of globalisation implicit in much of China’s contemporary challenge to the West.

If China succeeds in exploiting Europe’s need for money to maintain an illusion of prosperity even as its competitiveness declines dramatically, there is a very distinct danger that Europe would in time become a ‘debt colony’ of Beijing and subject to its bidding.

Make no mistake, Europe is on the front-line of this struggle, with the growing debt dependency of Europeans already distorting the cohesion of both the EU and NATO far more than a capricious President Trump. Worse, it is not just Europe’s smaller and poorer states that are vulnerable to the coercion implicit in China’s strategic outreach and assertive statecraft.  Britain’s decision last week to permit Huawei to construct ‘non-core’ parts of its future 5G network is both nonsensical and dangerous. Given the nature of 5G technology, and the myriad ‘internet of things’ it will power, there is every danger that service denial would cripple Britain’s critical infrastructure at a critical security juncture, whatever ‘safeguards’ are built-in.  China is an authoritarian state driven by the need to control, and at times coerce. Provide such a state with the means to exert control and it will, and at a moment it deems most appropriate to meeting its strategic ends.   

The essential point about power is that unless infused with values it is inherently amoral. It is power. If ever this China was to have a twenty-first century unipolar moment then rest assured China’s statecraft would take on all the aspects of a Chinese state willing to go to great lengths to force compliance.  Such coercion is already being applied across the civil-military spectrum via debt, to espionage and the implied threat of the use of force. A senior British official told me last week that China has more spies in the UK than any other state.

Europe and China

For all the friction there is some hope that China can be nudged towards the role of responsible global citizen. Unlike the Cold War there is nothing irreconcilable about the US-Chinese relationship.  Deals can be done with China, accommodations made. And, Europeans, together with the other democracies that make up the Global West, can act as interested friends to both the Americans and Chinese by helping to mitigate any drift towards ‘irreconcilability’ in the US-China relationship, not least by nudging both back towards multilateralism and the trust it builds. For Europeans to play such a role they will need to collectively convince Beijing that partnership with China does not imply submission to it. For Americans to play their allotted role will require that Washington re-learn the arts of complex coalition leadership.

Is Europe rising to the China challenge? Not yet, but collectively Europeans will need to. Is the first truly global cold war underway? No, but cold, contested, dark globalisation is a new form of a new ‘arms race’ in China’s quest for global dominance. Like it or not, Europeans will need to take part in that race, if for no other reason than it is China that is increasingly making the rules, including the future shape of conflict. 

‘Respect’ should be the mantra Europeans should adopt in dealing with China. Respect for China, respect for its power and, of course, respect for its people and potential.  Equally, Europeans must also ‘respect’ the nature of the Chinese state, the dark sides of its growing influence and power, and the threat it could pose, and develop the resilience needed to resist Chinese coercion, both implied and actual, overt and covert.

Cold globalisation and the bipolar US-China contest for global power is a fact.  The outcome will decide not only the nature of the twenty-first century, but which values and ideas will dominate. In that sense there IS an ideological edge to the challenge China poses to the West, even if it is nothing like the contest that suffused the Cold War. For Europeans, the China challenge will also decide if they have the collective will and power to be strategic partners and, at times, critical friends of China, or simply yet more strategic prey.

In other words, no more China wishful thinking, Europe.  Realism, respect and resiliency.

Julian Lindley-French