Alphen, Netherlands. 5 February. Two events took place yesterday that revealed the tragedy, the hopelessness, and the sheer cynicism that is the war in Syria. In London donors pledged some $10 million of further humanitarian support for the 4m Syrians displaced beyond Syria’s borders. Whether or not wretched Syrians will ever see that money is a moot point. Indeed, previous experience suggests there is every likelihood that having pledged funds many of the states represented in London yesterday will simply not cough up. Indeed, the whole event had the feeling of the League of Nations revisited, a council of despair, a grand side-show to the reality that Western powers simply have no real idea how to bring about a political end to a war that threatens to propel over 2m more asylum seekers and migrants towards Europe.
The second event revealed the sheer cynicism of President Putin’s Moscow and his clear order of strategic priorities. As the London conference met the putative ‘peace’ talks taking place very tentatively at the UN in Geneva had to be ‘suspended’. The suspension took place because even as the delegate were sitting down in the old League of Nations building the Russians and their Syrian allies were launching a punishing attack on Syria’s largest and once most beautiful city, Aleppo. It is now clear that both Putin and Assad had used the preparations for the peace talks as cover to build-up the Syrian Army, and to get the Russian Air Force in position to unleash the latest and continuing barrage on Aleppo.
When the report came out in London last month into the role the Russian state had played in the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko one of the arguments the British Government put forward to justify its pusillanimous response was that Russia was a vital partner in resolving the war in Syria. Surely, finally, hopefully, after yesterday’s events, London and other European capitals must finally have woken up to the stark reality; Russia is not is Syria to partner the West, but to confound it. Sadly, don’t bet on it.
Russia is in Syria to bolster the Assad regime at any cost and to ensure Moscow’s influence and prestige in the region is bolstered as part of a new illiberal axis. Russia is in Syria to preserve both its air and naval base to ensure Moscow can extend its diplomatic and military influence across the Middle East and far across the Mediterranean. Russia is in Syria to humiliate the West and by so doing demonstrate that it is better for states in the region to be a friend of Russia and its satellites than the weak, vacillating, incompetent West. Russia is in Syria to heap more pressure on a Europe that is unable to take even the most basic action to defend its own borders.
Taken together yesterday’s two events reveal the contemporary strategic character of European and Russian leaders. Strangled by their own strategic political correctness, incapable of decisive leadership, with a United States otherwise engaged in its presidential elections, 'Europe' wrings its hands by holding big conferences that do little to move Syria towards peace. Yesterday’s London conference whilst worthy smacked of impotent leaders talking impotently about matters that whilst important simply avoid the real question; what must be done not just to defeat IS but to stop the war in Syria which now threatens to engulf the region?
Meanwhile, utterly cynical and determined to use every event however tragic, and every device however deadly, President Putin’s Russia appears to know no depths to which it will sink in its efforts to divide, distract, destabilise, and damage the West, Europe in particular. Moreover, Russia's actions also suggest a further cynical Moscow gambit; for a time at least Russia is prepared to be in implicit league with Islamic State.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines being ‘in league’, as “an agreement made for mutual protection or assistance or prosecution of common interests, parties (whether states or individuals) to such compact”. Russia is clearly in 'compact' with President Assad against non-Islamist Syrian rebels. However, at least until Moscow has successfully confounded Western plans to remove Assad from power it looks to all intents and purposes that Russia may well also be in a tacit compact with IS. By its actions alone Moscow clearly believes confounding the West, and the forced driving of more desperate people towards Europe, as being of more importance to the Russian national interest than defeating IS.
There was one other event that took place yesterday which should concentrate Western minds. The CIA announced that it now estimates there are some 6500 IS fighters in Libya. Indeed, the growing power of IS in North Africa could well prevent the stabilisation of Libya and thus help propel yet more migrants towards Europe. Clearly, Russia sees such instability on Europe’s southern flank as also being favourable to Moscow’s zero sum view of international politics. Why? Because so long as European leaders are mired in the chaos of mass irregular migration from Europe's southern flank they will be sufficiently distracted to miss and/or ignore Moscow’s real strategy; to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence over Europe’s eastern flank.
It is a tragic irony that the putative Syrian peace talks are taking place in Geneva’s old League of Nations building. It was in that very building that Western powers back in the 1920s and 1930s tried and failed to assuage Tojo’s Japan, Mussolini’s Italy, and of course, Hitler’s Nazis. And we all know what happened next…