President Obama is cornered: He faces a decision that, whatever course he opts to pursue, he is pretty sure to anger someone (maybe everyone). But he cannot – with any justice – just blame Russia (or President Putin).
He, and his advisers, have made the mistake of underestimating a rival – when, as little time ago as as early October 2015, the President himself stated: “An attempt by Russia to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire; and it won’t work.” And simultaneously the Pentagon pronounced the Russian strategy of airstrikes in support of a coalition of ground forces was “doomed to fail”.
But Obama put himself in this corner. When the Russian air campaign was about to begin, ‘the line’ from Washington was that the US would not accept to co-operate with Russia; but rather, the US would withdraw to the sidelines, fold its arms, and await Russia’s fall, flat on its face. It would not take long, US officials foresaw, before the Russians would be back, pleading for American help. Later, the narrative became that the Syrian Army, in spite of having Russian air support, was proving ineffective on the ground; and then very recently, the meme switched to the (unsubstantiated) claims that Russia was bombing schools, hospitals and civilians (as well as western supported “moderates”), and took on a distinctly R2P tone. (We suspect that this switching on of this ‘information operation’ was mainly to put pressure on Russia to agree to a ceasefire, i.e. to have a pause that would mitigate the impact of the 4+1 successes on the ground.)
About two weeks ago, it finally dawned on western leaders that Damascus and its allies were far from being in a quagmire; rather, they were close to achieving a strategic military outcome, (hence the US Administration’s rush to push the ‘pause button’ with a ‘cessation of hostilities’). The realisation came as a shock. The US (and at least some European) intelligence assessments had got it wrong from the outset: their underestimation of the 4 + 1 potential for military achievement, unquestionably represents a major cognitive failure.
Why did they get it so wrong? Michael Kofman has suggested that “since Washington had judged [for itself] that force could not be used to achieve political ends in Syria, [US analysts] assumed the same would be true for Russia. Indeed, why would [Russia] be successful where a super power had decided to stay out, after a careful analysis of the facts”. Yes, that may be so; but the US came to its judgement in respect to America’s use of force from the angle of using force to overthrow the state (a course in which plainly, the US has a less than successful history); whereas Russia was proposing to supplement through military force, an existing state, and its substantive and intact military arms.
The cognitive shortcoming though, perhaps is more than just a projection of US experience, as Kofman implies: It owes more to other deeper conceptualisations that ‘hover’ behind the ‘pre-ordained to failure’ label slapped on the Russian initiative, even as it began. One is the lingering prejudice that was present in western circles, that Russian military technology was ‘old’, and its armed forces still somewhat unable to operate in an integrated way. Syria has demonstrated just how wrong NATO was on that score: NATO officials have been shocked, and the Pentagon now is scrambling – in association with Silicon Valley – to uprate its technology capabilities, fearing that Russia has taken several steps ahead of NATO. In any event, Russia has displayed a notable military effectiveness in Syria, using relatively few resources.
Another conceptual blinker has been the binary understanding of Islam which Americans and Europeans have absorbed (mainly from their Gulf state allies, with their anti-Iranian agenda), that if the Shi’a are, in any way, involved in military action in the region, their partners in arms (i.e. Russia), will immediately be treated as pariahs and enemies by all Sunnis everywhere. This binary optic, however, ignores the fact that Wahhabism is a very recent blow-in to the Levant (circa 1947). Being Sunni, per se, does not (and never did) at all equate to being sympathetic to the various orientations of Wahhabism – rather the contrary: Levantine Sunnism is poles apart from this intolerant, narrow, Gulf import. This is why the Sunni inhabitants of northern Syrian villages (and of course the Christians, Druze, Kurds, etc.,) liberated from An Nusra and ISIS, on occasion by Iranian and Hizbullah led forces, have been as rapturous in their welcome for their Shi’i liberators (as they would had it been the mainly Sunni Syrian Army that had expelled the jihadists). The US and some of its allies never ‘got’ this understanding, whereas Russia with its Orthodox background, which has always been more close to traditional Islam (than Latin Christianity), did.
A further ‘blinder’ to the American seeing of any possibility that Russia and Iran might have military success in Syria undoubtedly came from the R2P lobby, led by Susan Rice and Samantha Powers. Both of these ladies are close to President Obama – and are staunch liberal intervention ideologues (in their eyes, only the West of course has the moral authority to undertake interventions). In their ‘End of History’ vision of a world converging to a global liberal community, any other outcome is simply regressive, and counter to the grain of history. The global American-led liberal sphere is held to be somehow essentially democratic and peaceful, whereas those who insist to be outside it, ‘threaten’ the peace. In this optic, Russia’s military response in Syria simply goes against this ‘natural’ global ‘order’, and is therefore ‘pre-destined to fail’. Obama spoke very much in this line at his press conference at the ASEAN summit (see here). It is the insistence that the forces of global convergence are so compelling that they are bound, ultimately to prevail. The Israeli-Palestinian ‘negotiations’ were founded on a somewhat similar premise: that Israel ultimately would recognise that demography must prevail. The problem here is that the ‘End of History’ meme is rejected by almost the whole of the ‘non-West’ who would prefer to live by their own cultural values, and regain their sovereignty. But if we are switch back from this R2P utopianism to the realist school of geo-strategic struggle, then of course, military trials of strength precisely do determine political outcomes.
There was indeed cognitive failure in America (and in the UK: see here), and now President Obama must decide whether to let the Syrian conflict come to its political outcome through force of arms, or will he allow a Turkish or Saudi-Turkish escalation to proceed? (Saudi really has no capacity to act militarily other than to ‘accessorize’ a Turkish operation). To allow the Syrian conflict to end with Damascus still in the driving seat will be hard for Washington to swallow: it will stick in the Presidential throat. But to have the Turkish army on the loose in Syria would be worse. It could be catastrophic.
To a limited extent, however, some escalation is already underway: Turkey is shelling the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq, and Turkey has flung open the doorsto its armouries for the insurgents. To be plain though, this is the moment of truth for Turkey. If Aleppo is liberated (which is almost certain), then Turkey’s game to overthrow the Syrian State is over – and so too is Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambition eventually to re-incorporate parts of Idlib and Aleppo as provinces of Turkey. As Semih Idiz, a leading Turkish commentator, has written that a full Turkish military invasion is unlikely. (It was never really viable, given Russia’s control of Syrian airspace – and America’s reluctance to risk an escalation with Russia).
And continued shelling of YPG territory is unlikely to be any military game-changer. Indeed, the Syrian YPG Kurds are continuing to make rapid military progress – despite the shelling. There is, too, probably a limit to how much rope the Turks will be permitted by Washington – even for this action: the YPG are America’s principal partner in the war against ISIS in Syria. The US is – for now – still backing the YPG in closing the Azaz ‘corridor’ (the insurgent supply line to the besieging forces in East Aleppo) – even as, paradoxically, the YPG are now attacking forces that include elements supported by the CIA. Such are the contradictions of war: American supported forces are now fighting other American supplied forces.
As things stand, Erdogan stands to loose heavily politically, but not necessarily to lose everything — at least not yet. To a certain extent, these last days’ heated Turkish rhetoric and sabre-rattling may be more about Turkey and Saudi manoeuvring to preserve with Washington their stake (and that of their protégés) in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq: that is to say, their eye now is more on the creation of a ‘wedge’ Sunni ‘statelet’ along the Euphrates valley. With Mosul as its capital, it could enable Erdogan to reduce his dependency on Russian energy supplies (replaced by the N.E. Iraqi fields), and it would keep Iran severed from the Mediterranean (both politically and as a potential supplier of gas to Europe) – and also partially ‘contained’ (an idea that Erdogan may believe he could sell to Washington).
The ‘race’ for the 4+1 is therefore, not just the “race for Raqa’a” – important though that is – but for Raqa’a and Mosul. The leaders of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, banned from taking part in the Anbar operations against ISIS, lately have been in Damascus and are anxious to take part in the liberation of Mosul (with forces friendly to the 4+1 coalition, rather than by the Turks or Americans). There is also considerable support building in Iraq for a policy that excludes Turkey and America from leading any future taking of Mosul.
So, how to define success or defeat in the war in Syria? Round one is Aleppo (and barring a full Turkish invasion), it seems to be in the bag for the 4+1, and will be a major loss for Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But the very final outcome? It would be a two-pronged attack on both Raqa’a and Mosul. Whoever should manage to take both, will either a) decimate ISIS in a two prong assault from north and south (the 4+1 wins, and Syria and Iraq form some sort of confederation); or alternatively, Erdogan ‘wins’ by ‘taking’ Mosul and Raqa’a, leaving Syria like Germany after WW2 – divided for a long time to come – with an eastern ‘Sunnistan’ effectively controlled by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
(But a spoiler alert — for all those who favour a regional balance of power, and who might think that the 4+1 ‘dash’ in Syria should be ‘balanced’ by letting Turkey effectively ‘take’ N.E. Iraq, such an approach will end in a wide Sunni–Shi’a war: Not a religious war, not a proxy war, but a major geo-strategic war).
This last weekend a cessation of hostilities went into operation: But when the military on the ground, that is to say the 4+1 ((Syria, Russia, Iran-led) coalition, has been enjoying an accelerating momentum, and also stands at the cusp of liberating Aleppo from the partially encircling insurgent forces, it is never easy to ask your own forces to take ‘time out’ – and risk losing that hard-won momentum, whilst, at the same time seeing the jihadists use the pause to re-group and re-arm. Nonetheless, this is what the Russian leadership has done: it has ‘paused’ the thrust – and the fact that it has agreed to do this speaks to the huge complexity of the Syrian calculus. It is indeed multi-dimensional chess that is being played: at one level, President Putin needs to leech out the accumulating venom in the US and in some European states (such as the UK) being disseminated by those wishing to use the Syria conflict to revive the Cold War, and as a means ‘to teach Russia a lesson’. At another level, the Russian leadership needs to play the European ‘game’ and attend to those European states which are strongly opposed to any American-led escalation of tensions with Russia (and are pleading for gestures to strengthen their hand). And, finally, Russia cannot ignore the realities of war: that you cannot leave an army dangling in mid-conflict for long — either the ‘opposition’ concedes, and turns to politics, or the conflict resumes.
In reality, there are no obvious gestures (apart from giving up all the advantages that military action has brought about) that will assuage both the western neocon and the ‘humanitarian’ R2P interventionists. This is particularly so, since Washington and certain European powers also see themselves as acting in a the capacity of ‘guardianship’ to Sunni interests – in other words, any gestures by Russia and its allies would be required additionally to satisfy America’s Saudi and Turkish allies, too. This could well take the form of a demand to leave the situation around Aleppo ‘frozen’ – and effectively remain as a part of Turkey’s sphere of interest. And, as such, such a notion might attract European support, and may be the reason for the European impulse to see the conflict paused at this point: it could provide a solution to the European refugee problem — Turkey ‘gets’ Aleppo, and in return, Turkey agrees to stem the flow of refugees to Europe.
None of this would be acceptable to Russia or Iran. There are no obvious ‘gestures’, in short, that are acceptable to both sides, and which could effect the political calculus of all the parties to the conflict. Further, the ‘cessation of hostilities’ contains sufficient potential landmines that may trip up the ‘cessation agreement’ at any moment. The likely outcome, it seems, is that the ‘time-out’ will not be long-lived, and that we will then witness a resumption of the 4+1’s military progress – and a consequent rise in tension between Russia and the US.