Proverbs 24:5-6

A wise man is mightier than a strong man,
and a man of knowledge than he who has strength;
for by wise guidance you can wage your war,
and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Syria: There Is No Substitute For Realism

The Trump administration is not yet 3 months old and it has already engaged in its first overt military actions. On 06 April 2017, on President Trump's orders, the US Navy launched strikes on Syria's Shayrat airbase after a chemical weapons attack by Syria's Assad regime. As yet, President Trump has said that he is not intervening in Syria. There are conflicting reports about the various options being proposed to President Trump. As always, there remains the concern that, from confusion and a sentiment that "something must be done", a new Western war in Syria may yet result.

Accordingly, and given the range of security challenges already facing the US-led Western alliance, this is a good time to examine, coldly and realistically, today's already grave threats and explain why adding a new war in Syria to them would be a most unwise diversion of scarce military and intelligence resources.

The West's Security Challenges

Long before Donald Trump sought the US Presidency, these were among the more prominent problems in Western security and they persist today:

(1) apart from the UK, France, Canada and Poland, there is no NATO ally of the US that can contribute combat forces to any 'out of area' mission, let alone a sustained mission, and, sometimes, even within the European theatre. Notwithstanding every post-cold war President since Bush 41 pleading with Europeans to pull their weight as security partners, the response, even despite a supposedly ominous Russian threat, has been pathetic;

(2) China is building an ever more powerful military and constituting new bases in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, areas of direct military interest to not just the US but to Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan. China has busily realised its "string of pearls" as the West's security position declined in the region, a consequence of maddening obsessions in fighting well intended but futile wars in the Islamic world. In fighting protracted war on land - a costly means of ruining oneself as Sun Tzu warned - West and especially the US has allowed the Chinese to focus on geopolitical realities and the opportunity to challenge both American seapower and the global economic order. The Chinese state is now directly challenging the decades-long hegemony of the United States as the world's greatest sea power. Additionally, China's former client state of North Korea, a nuclear-armed communist dictatorship, continued to issue bellicose statements and to test its increasingly capable missile arsenal. The greatest win for China has been the focus of the American political classes on Russian perfidies when China is consolidating its strategic position in Asia and potentially the South China Sea. It is hard to overstate the influence that China will have once its growing navy also has new Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea bases, in seas that were formerly the "American lake". The last three US administrations' focus on the insoluble problems of the Middle East and the post-Ottoman Islamic world have come at a tremendous cost to the security of the Asia-Pacific, based as it is on a US maritime hegemony;

(3) Iran remains a threat on any number of fronts. Most ominously, Iran continued to cooperate, to varying degrees, with North Korea on missile technology. Iran also continues to threaten to close the Persian Gulf and thereby deny the easy movement of oil from Saudi and Gulf suppliers. Iran also remains the principal state sponsor of terrorism, arming and financing Hezbollah in Lebanon, and supplying terrorists of not only Shia origin but, also, when in Iran's quasi-imperial interests, Sunni salafist groups like Al Qaeda. Iran also threatens to encircle (via its Shia crescent allies and proxies) the West's allies on the Arabian Peninsula. Finally, Iran has not renounced its intent to destroy Israel, albeit the military balance weighs still in Israel's favour and the Israeli arsenal should only be strengthened by the Trump administration;

(4) Russia has conquered (or in the Russian mind, "regained") Crimea, without much of a shot, while Russia still wages a hybrid war campaign to destabilise the new government of Ukraine and threatens the Baltic states. Russia's disinformation and electronic warfare campaigns have only intensified, often uncontradicted by any compelling Western narrative and counter-measures. Russia, also, continues to solicit new relationships in the Middle East, for the first time in 50 years, both as markets for its weaponry as well as its channels for Russian influence and destabilisation. To be fair, though, there is no US or Western policy that can stop Russia influencing its periphery or "near abroad". Russia is approximately 150m people, spanning 11 Eurasian timezones from NATO's fringes to Japan's maritime approaches. Russia is a real country, with a profound sense of itself as an Orthodox Christian, great power in perennial danger of encirclement and invasion, as has been its fate throughout its history. Russia, too, has a long term domestic jihadi problem, which it confronts with an admirable degree of kinetic zeal, and Moscow sees Western policy in Syria as both a threat to its long term Syrian ally and bases, as well as delusionary with regard to, if not tacitly supportive of, Sunni salafist extremism. The Russians can be countered in some areas and cooperated with in others of shared interests. Moreover, the West has more to fear from what former US President Nixon called a "Weimar Russia" than a Russia that asserts itself esp on its southern and eastern flanks. (Anyone familiar with basic Russian, especially Tsarist, military and foreign policies would be unsurprised by patterns of Russian assertiveness, but in this age of historical illiteracy, those so familiar are, sadly, small in number); and

(5) after almost 16 years of war, the Sunni salafist jihadi terrorist threat had not receded but, rather, was as dangerous and more widely distributed than before 11 September 2001. The past 18 months has seen deadly terrorist attacks in Europe and the US, as well as foiled plots in many major cities. As ISIL has become the more prominent jihadist group, now in Afghanistan as well as inspiring "lone wolf" attacks, Al Qaeda has been, for some time, expanding its operations and fundraising, into Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

West's all too protracted wars

Given these five key challenges, it is important to note that Iraq and Afghanistan remain theatres of war for Western military forces, now in their 16th year of the post-9/11 wars. Iraq's west and north remain in a state of war, as the Iraqis (with substantial Western and Iranian help) seek to retake their country from ISIL. These Sunni-majority areas of Iraq were, not coincidentally, identical theatres of war, a decade earlier, as the US-led coalition in Iraq sought to eject Al-Qaeda from western Iraq.

In Afghanistan, the Western-backed government in Kabul controls less of the country than it did one year ago. Various efforts by Western forces to help raise, train and sustain the Afghan military and security forces have been failures. Afghan territory won at considerable cost by Western troops have been surrendered by the Kabul regime to the Taliban with nary a shot fired. The Russians, meanwhile, are reported to be increasingly engaged with the Taliban, less likely as a means of hurting the West than of Moscow now seeking influence with the party that looks, inevitably, to again the Afghan government. Whether Iran, which was a reliable supporter of the Northern Alliance's insurgency against the Taliban before 11 September 2001, would accept the Taliban's resumption of power is an open question. Whether Russia and Iran both see a Taliban-run Afghanistan as preferable to a potentially ISIL-aligned one is another matter.

Meanwhile, the various Western allies that participated and still continue in the Iraq, Afghan and now Syrian wars have incurred thousands of war dead, tens of thousands wounded and maimed (who suffer today from neglect and bureaucratic obfuscation), and war costs in the trillions, from these wars in the Islamic world. It is hard to find any parallel in post-Westphalian military history for wars of such long duration, horrific cost in blood and treasure, and so pronounced a lack of any kind of success, as the West's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If, as the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote, "There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited", one wonders what possible rationale there is for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to have been so fitfully and poorly prosecuted.

Notwithstanding these realities, in the West generally and in the United States in particular, there are new calls for a new Western war to be commenced in Syria, to combat, inter alia, Iran, Hezbollah, ISIL, Al Qaeda and...Russia. Thus it is time to calmly examine the Syria question and to, especially, repel the blitzkrieg of strategic stupidity presented by proponents of Western military intervention in Syria, especially that aimed at "regime change".

The case for masterly Western inactivity in Syria

For reasons that are difficult for any prudent observer to comprehend, Syria has now become the latest focus of apparent Western concern and renewed calls for intervention. To be sure, Syria has had a brutal civil war, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the outflow of refugees. Syria, also, has been a warzone between various odious armed groups, each of which pose security challenges to individual Western powers.

Given the Western security challenges identified above, however, and especially the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the gathering storms in North Asia and the South China Sea, Syria is not the place for increasingly scarce military and intelligence resources to be spent, at least not to any significant degree.

First, the West has, as James Baker said in 1992 of the factions fighting in the former Yugoslavia, "no dog in this fight" and, if anything, Western security, the reduction of refugee flows, and Syria's religious and ethnic minorities, need Assad to survive (to be followed by some form of reconciliation process). While anguished liberal media commentary - and what is left of the neoconservative rump that boarded the Hillary Titanic in 2016 - urges "something must be done", there is very little that can be practically done by the Western powers beyond continuing to augment the war already waged by Assad, Russian and Iranian forces against the salafist jihadist threat. While there is touting by the media of the "moderate Syrian rebels", these groups are allied with Islamists or have aims indistinguishable from jihadis. Meanwhile, Western kvetching over Russian bombing of various Syrian targets, especially Aleppo and Idlib, avoids the obvious reality that the Russians take a much broader – and, frankly, more realistic – view of what is a legitimate jihadi target. The refreshingly kinetic Russian way of war, as well as its decades of dealing with its own deadly internal jihadi threat, has inured Moscow to Western criticism. Russia remains the only (quasi) Western-ish country that has successfully defeated an insurgency, jihadist or otherwise – and the Russians do so using a ferocious mixture of firepower, speed and overwhelming force that every serious Western military leader of yesteryear would have understood, even if anathema to current (and hopeless) Western approaches based on "cultural awareness" and "counterinsurgency". It is no accident that the last wars that Western forces unmistakably won were the Second World War and the 1990-1991 Gulf War, where allied political and military leaders accepted that victory required clearly defined objectives, deliberate planning, proper resourcing, coalition building, and the speedy use of overwhelming force-and where Allied forces could avail themselves of seapower and had access to resupply by seaports. Instead, the West's various militaries have had 16 years of protracted wars of 'lions led by donkeys', planned and executed poorly, and of unmeritorious political and media concerns corrupting military operations. At a certain level, the West should be grateful that it is the Russian Bear and his brutal if effective mission focus that is driving the Syrian war's strategy - and not some sensitive, new age, David Petraeus-figure, eager for a 'pat on the head' from the media and whose command is doomed to almost certain defeat.

Secondly, there is no Western solution, of any kind, to Syria's problems. Syria is c.23m people, majority Sunni Muslim (most of the 'gin and tonic' kind) but also with powerful Alawite and Christian minorities. Syria is the reverse of Saddam's Iraq, which was majority Shia but run by a mostly Sunni regime. Syria is the last bastion of Baathism and its sort of pan-Arab, secularist, ideology that had once been a conventional wisdom across the Middle East, which manifested itself in secular and rather brutal regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Such religiously diverse polities and their mismatch between demography and regime cannot ever be truly stable and yet also cannot ever be neatly reformed...certainly not during year 6 of a brutal civil and now sectarian civil war. Therefore, what precisely is the political outcome that any Western intervention would seek? Because once the West were to intervene in Syria to change the regime, it would 'own' whatever polity resulted from it, noting, also, that the anti-Assad forces are patronised by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, hardly known for their adherence to constitutionalism and the rule of non-Sharia law.

Thirdly, as a matter of simple realpolitik, the Russians and the Iranians have large stakes in the survival of Assad's Syria, for which Moscow and Tehran will fight against any Western intervention that seeks to topple or destabilise the regime. The Syrian regimes of Assad (senior and junior) have been reliable Russian and Iranian clients for over 40 years: Russia has substantial bases in Syria at Tartus and Latakia, and from the Iran-Iraq war onwards, Syria has been a loyal facilitator of Iran's regional ambitions, including its arming and training of Hezbollah in adjoining Lebanon. Neither Russia or Iran will want to be seen as fair-weather allies – quite the reverse. Russia and Iran are sending a message to current allies and potential allies that they are true friends and will defend with enormous violence a truly terrible regime like Assad, cf the West's abandonments during the Arab Spring.

Fourthly, any Western military intervention in Syria that is opposed by Russia and Iran (and thus Hezbollah) is guaranteed to incur substantial Western dead and wounded. The Russians, Iranians and their proxies have been operating in Syria for many years now and know this area of operations intimately. Further, in the case of Hezbollah, it has been fighting Israel for decades and, as well, provided lethal aid and support to militias and jihadis that fought Western troops in Iraq. It is difficult to overstate how much of an advantage the Assad forces and their Iranian and Russian patrons have in opposing any future Western military intervention in Syria.

History always casts the deciding vote

Since well before the fall of Constantinople, what is now the greater Middle East was traumatised over centuries by conquerors and invaders, by the clash of Christian and Islamic worlds, and by the desire to control silk roads and seaways. In particular, the long brutalisation of the region by the Ottomans and, also, by great power conflicts among the Ottomans, the Iranians, various Western powers and by Russian intrigue and "The Great Game", cannot be overstated. Only in the post-everything West is history considered optional and the brutal realities of a war something to be put to one side.

Unfortunately the history of these most bloody of the world's crossroads means one struggles to comprehend what, precisely, is the Western interest in seeing the Syrian status quo – the Assad regime – replaced by what would inevitably become a Sunni Islamist regime. An Assad supported by Russia and Iran, which has been the status quo for more than forty years, would be succeeded by, to borrow from Usama bin Laden, the "strong horse" of an Islamic state, if not a jihadistan. Why is this, in any way, desirable?

Moreover, most of the pundits and advocates for "something must be done" in Syria were proposing similarly grandiose solutions to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, and these latter day 'Lawrences of Amnesia' were completely discredited by events - and by a repeated unwillingness to recognise the unique problems that emerge in this region.

Given that what was Saddam's Iraq now resembles - thanks to Shia chauvinism, ISIS' insurgency and Kurdish assertiveness - something between the former Ottoman vilayets and a Mad Max world, some humility to proffering to know how any Western intervention in Syria would end is eminently desirable. Given the catastrophic results of the Western interventions of the past 16 years, the maxim "first, do no harm" should be engraved on the walls of every Western chancery.

Similarly, it is alarming to see how much of Western commentary on Syria is focused not on ISIL and Al Qaeda - but on Iran. To be sure, Iran is a hegemonic power, its population (c75m) dwarfs its Saudi (c27m) rival, and Iran's capacity to efficiently and decisively project power to its east and west, either directly or using its military proxies such as the IRGC and Hezbollah, into areas of Western security interest, is of great concern. However, Iran was a challenge when an ally under the Shah and has long been a challenge under the hostile regime of the Mullahs. There has been no appreciable change in the Iranian security challenge because of its participation in the Syrian war.

Moreover, Iran's size and strategic position make Western attempts to isolate and punish Iran little more than futile. Iran has been an historically important power since Biblical times, and, despite its innate ethnic and religious pluralism, Iran has a national cohesion, self-confidence and consistent grand strategy that its local adversaries, with the exception of Israel, do not. Expecting that any Western policy towards Iran - especially one of direct military confrontation in Syria - will result in Iran eschewing its pursuit of the regional hegemony, that the iron laws of geopolitics have historically granted it, is a foolish proposition. Iran fought Iraq for eight years to a bloody stalemate in circumstances where Iraq was armed by the Soviets and bankrolled by the Sunni Arab world, while Iran had only sub rosa support from North Korea, Syria, and, at times, Israel. The idea that Iran would be deterred by a Western military intervention in Syria – which would see Western forces operating in Tehran's preferred killing ground – is nothing short of insane.

Further, given that Shia Iran has, historically, been a Western ally and tolerant of Jewish and Christian faiths, it would be wiser for the West to seek to engage Iran's burgeoning civil society, as we once did those of the former Soviet empire, to seek to make the Iranian people our ally, and to appreciate the scholarly and artistic qualities of Shi'ism that differentiate Iran from the primitive salafism that afflicts our supposed Sunni 'allies'. What Churchill said of the Soviets applies to Iran's regime: they fear our friendship more than our enmity.

What would MacArthur and Patton do?

In a world of numerous concurrent, serious and draining security challenges, the case for masterly Western inactivity in Syria is overwhelming.

The current Western military effort, focused on combating ISIL and Al Qaeda should certainly be maintained and, where necessary, varied to achieved the desired end of destroying these two jihadi groups' capacities to operate in the Middle East and further afield. Similarly, there is a strong case for the enforcement of international legal norms by military strikes against those using weapons of mass destruction, something I have argued should have been done by President Obama when the Assad regime previously crossed the "red line".

However, the scope of the West's military effort in Syria should not be broadened to include that of seeking regime change or, indeed, some wider war in the Iraq and Syria areas of operations with Iran, Russia or their proxies. The West already has sufficient unfinished wars as it is without adding new fronts fighting protracted wars with the well-armed and combat-experienced forces of major military powers.

President Trump is known to be a disciple of two of America's greatest soldiers, General Douglas MacArthur and General George Patton. Both men were commanders known for achieving victories based on inspired leadership, meticulous planning, a keen appraisal of opposing forces, the relentless use of mass firepower, speed, and the remorseless concentration of forces on the weakest points of the enemy's positions. MacArthur himself has gone into history for the phrase, "In war there is no substitute for victory", uttered after MacArthur's relief as the allied commander during Truman's poorly prosecuted war in Korea.

However, less well known is that General MacArthur, in retirement, counselled presidents, prime ministers and various 'wise men' that wars that cannot be won must never be fought. MacArthur, in particular, advised his former Pacific war subordinate, President John F. Kennedy, to avoid land wars in Asia and, in particular, escalating the Vietnam war, which MacArthur judged as likely only to result in the US and its allies being bogged down in a costly quagmire that placed them at the mercy of their foes.

In the loneliness of the presidency, with all its burdens and responsibilities, and surveying the world on fire that has been bequeathed to him, President Trump could surely do worse than ask what his heroes MacArthur and Patton would make of the prospect of yet another long and unwinnable war in the Middle East? One suspects their advice would be, in every sense, laconic.

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