“One very unpalatable but unfortunately clear reality is that the West is already engaged both in a form of cold geopolitical world war and a world-wide confrontation with terrorist entities; it needs the mind-set to face that”.
William Hopkinson and Julian Lindley-French, The New Geopolitics of Terror, 2017
Empty Covenants, Blind Swords
Alphen, Netherlands. 10 April. Syria is the new Belgium, a place where cold geopolitics is conducted with the people little more than expendable chattels in a new, misplaced Kiplingesque Great Game. It is a ‘game’ the West is losing, and which reveals the real transatlantic divide between a Trump White House that has power without a plan, and a Europe that has endless plans without power; a divide that President Putin is only too happy to drive his ‘troika’ (sled) through.
Thomas Hobbes once famously said that “Covenants without the sword are but words and of no use to any man’. Equally, swords without strategy are but blind flailing. Empty covenants and blind swords are all too apparent in the ‘policy’ response of Europe and America to the latest and atrocious use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. However, for all the ghastliness of dead and dying children to emerge from Douma there has been little coverage of the vacuum in Western policy and power that has enabled Syria, Russia and Iran to treat international convention with such impunity. The Trump Administration talks of a “forceful response”, but to what end? With the exception of France Europe is either silent or masking its irresolution and spinelessness behind a façade of fake legalism.
On 3 April outgoing US National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster made a farewell speech at the Atlantic Council to honour last week’s visit to Washington by the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. During that speech, McMaster called for the West to counter Russia’s use of hybrid warfare via reform and better integration of Western power in all its forms. He also called for enhanced cyber defensive and offensive capabilities, as well as the need to enhance investment in security and defence. All well and good. However, McMaster left the critical lacuna to last when he called for the West to show renewed “strategic confidence” to defend “our values and our way of life”.
It is also the West’s collective loss of ‘strategic confidence’ and cohesion that is enabling Russia, an economic pigmy, to act with impunity, as it has done so for some ten years. It is a loss of will which is enabling Assad to treat America’s ‘red lines’ with scorn. It is the loss of both on both sides of the ‘pond’ which is enabling Iran to harbour ambitions of regional-strategic domination with the backing of Moscow. And, it is such weakness that also underpins the lack of any consistent Western policy and thus permits ISIS and Al Qaeda to believe that whatever battles they lose they will eventually win the systemic war which they are fighting.
The Art of Geopolitics
Much has been made of President Trump’s failure to understand the art of geopolitics, his neo-isolationist tendencies, and his seeming belief that international relations can be conducted as a series of one-off negotiated transactions between leaders. Last week’s seemingly off-the-cuff remark that he wants US troops out of Syria as soon as possible would certainly have emboldened Assad, Putin and Tehran. However, Europe’s geopolitical incompetence is equally dangerous: Europeans have to stop talking about everything and finally start doing something about some things.
The central thesis of The New Geopolitics of Terror is that Syria is the epicentre of a series of tectonic struggles that are interlocked and interlocking – the future governance of Syria, global reach Salafist terrorism, a trans-border fight to the death between Turkey and the Kurds, the struggle for regional-strategic dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which also involves Israel and Turkey, and the new cold geopolitics between liberal and illiberal states with Russia leading the charge of the latter.
The book offers four policy options for the West none of which are politically palatable. The first option is pretty much what the West is doing – nothing. Yes, there may be the occasional punitive missile strike on Syria that makes the rubble bounce, but such pin-prick attacks simply reveal Western impotence. The second option would be to organise serious humanitarian intervention and support. Such an effort would require a significant investment of money and skill and would at least keep the serious problems of Syria (and Iraq) in the face of public opinion. However, it would be to all intents and purposes a virtue-signalling Band-Aid on a gaping wound and do little or nothing to ease competing and contending interests. The third option, which President Trump seems to have ruled out and Europeans would rather not think about, would to undertake a serious military intervention to finally defeat ISIS and to end Syria's civil war, even if that means confronting Russian forces (and not just their ‘mercenaries’). Such an intervention doubtless prove expensive in lives, politics, and treasure.
The final option would be for the West to undertake serious military and other interventions to reshape the region, which would be even more expensive than option three. The risks involved would indeed be great and doubtless hasten the coming strategic showdown between elements of the West and Russia (which is now virtually inevitable). Such an intervention would also possibly alienate a China that might, just might still be willing to play a constructive role, in return for Western recognition that Beijing is a global actor.
However, on balance, the worst option would be to do nothing. Therefore, and at the very least, the West together should now formally engage on a thoroughgoing consideration of its options and be seen to do so. Even the impression of a West finally getting serious about a systemic conflict on Europe’s doorstep might help create more space for a negotiated end to the Syrian War. One other option may be to also invite China into the room. Russia? Not at this stage. Moscow would only see such an accommodation as weakness, not dialogue. One thing must be clear to all: no one state can end these struggles, and any number of states will be unable to end them quickly.
This is one of those moments in the strategic affairs of states where leaders must not only demonstrate they understand cold geopolitics, but have the wherewithal and the sheer courage to craft enduring policy and strategy. It will not be easy. As Hopkinson and I wrote, “The greatest obstacle of all, in practice, is likely to be the unwillingness of Western publics and governments to do what is necessary, for the required time and with the appropriate commitment of resources, both human and materiel”.
When we wrote The New Geopolitics of Terror the Syrian War had not yet reached the next level of escalation as we warned it would. It now has. The struggles currently underway in Syria will shape the twenty-first century, in much the same way that the battle in Belgium shaped the twentieth century. Western leaders need to understand that.
Therefore, perhaps the best way to finish this blog is to echo the end of the book in which Pericles, the great leader of Athens is quoted. “Freedom”, he said, “…is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it”. That was also the essential message of McMaster’s speech. Is the West up to such a challenge? No, not on current evidence.