Tag Archives: Syria

France in Syria: Still Not Here to Save the World

Folks have been really excited about France getting into war-mode on Syria after the Paris attacks. People were even momentarily excited about Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian plane the other day. Now Paris and Moscow are maybe working together on hitting ISIS? While the Washington is doing the same thing?!?

Man, its like a giant peace party!

Wait… um… what? No. War is not the same thing as peace. Let’s be careful to remember that. Let’s also be careful to remember that “peace”, taken without any qualifications, is a meaningless, impossible, and downright harmful goal.

Some folks are very hopeful that France’s involvement in the Syrian conflict signals a Great Change in The Way Things Work. They hope that Paris will somehow “bring Moscow into the fold” because “now Paris understands terrorism”. Other even hope that now Paris will bring NATO together under a single purpose (other than simply being an anti-Russian alliance). Lovely hopes, but not really the way things are going to work out.

I don’t mean that Paris doesn’t understand terrorism, they totally understand it — to the point that Paris is expert at both resisting it and employing it where it makes sense. They understand it so well that they know that uniting NATO “against terrorism” would make about as much sense as uniting NATO against Middle Eastern kidnapping.

I’m not saying the French are evil, mind you, I am saying they are savvy. They get the way the game works. They have been on the ball, racking up a string of strategic victories in Africa over the last decade. They’ve re-established their “middle empire” (the “middle” being between Washington and Moscow) while Washington has been too preoccupied with chasing brown guys to notice. This indicates that while they know how to play terrorism for votes in domestic politics (they are too smart to care much about what outsiders think of them) they also know that making “terrorism” the target of a major military operation is totally ridiculous.

Terrorism is a tactic not an identity. You can’t target terrorism any more than you can target long-hand division or yoga. Terrorism is the “civil disruption” phase that a political movement goes through whenever a legitimate political course of action is not available. Consider the evolution of the PLO or Hezbollah. Unless you are over 40, you likely won’t even remember that those are the groups that were arch-terrorists before. Now they are political parties. Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s Dr. Evil himself, received a Nobel Peace Prize (not that the Peace Prize means anything). Hezbollah is a fantastically profitable global franchise operation now, only partially focused (by some measures) on imposing a political outcome in Lebanon (their purpose for existing is the subject of eternally flexible rhetoric — which means the real purpose for Hezbollah’s existence is simply the survival of Hezbollah at this point).

But what about this cooperation thing? France getting into Syria must require some coordination with Russia and the US, right? And NATO? Turkey is in NATO, the US is in NATO, France is (again, that is) in NATO… so what gives?

Coordination will be necessary to prevent more “friendly” (?) fire incidents, but its more the kind of coordination that seeks to prevent midair collisions as polits jockey for superior position against one other while they run their sorties against ground targets. Remember, Turkey just shot down a Russian plane — anyone in the sky above Syria right now is considering everything else in the sky and absolutely everyone on the ground to be a threat. Sounds weird? Well, it is. But that’s reality for you. You couldn’t make up a plot for a book more convoluted than the way the real world works.

France’s goals are still France’s goals. They are not American goals. Sure, a lot of Americans and French and non-French Europeans see things the same way for the moment — but that’s a common view held of mutually held anger at a third party than anything else. The immigration wave and xenophobia that is going to increasingly fuel will continue to drive a common view over the short term (not in the least because the nightmares fueled by fear of rampant Middle Eastern and African immigration are not without foundation, particularly when coupled with domestic population decline).

France’s goal is to maintain its middle empire and use it to force Berlin into a subordinate relationship with Paris. This goal has held steady since the creation of the Euro, and France has demonstrated an amazing amount of fortitude and clarity of direction in the realization of that goal — even more amazing considering the contentious nature of their electoral politics since the Soviet collapse. Germany being in NATO with France, being home to the ECB, being “friends” with France, etc. doesn’t really matter — the reason France and Germany have been enemies so long is still based on geography, and that still forces France and Germany to regard one another in terms of capacity instead of intent. France has the upper hand in military terms, and will the economy likely to crash the only lever Germany has (dependent entirely on imported energy) is likely to disappear, or fall under the indirect control of Paris anyway if France can create an energy alternative for Germany that isn’t Russian gas (which is why France worked to isolate Germany even more from practical alternatives by destroying Libya and demonstrating their practical ability to dominate North Africa (ENI’s gas fields) and the Mediterranean).

Russia’s goals are still Russia’s goals. Well, in Russia’s case it is even more clear that Russia’s goals are actually Moscow’s goals. That is also not going to change, and despite a lot of poorly disguised epicaricacy on behalf of Western powers, Russia’s financial problems based on dropping energy prices are actually more likely to make Russia turn into a deliberately confrontational, economically detached player than a compliant ally of the West. Russia is looking out for what its own survival in what it necessarily views a dark and dangerous world. The West world will soon find itself with even fewer levers to control Russia for the forseeable future.

So France “bringing Russia into the fold”? France “getting NATO on the same page” to lead a charge against dastardly terrorist types? Nope. That’s just as naive as hoping that Russia was either sincere about squashing ISIS or helping Assad (either goal would at least speed a non-ISIS resolution to the Syrian conflict — and life under Assad wasn’t nearly as screwed up as life in a civil war…). Syria is, for the moment, a useful problem for France. That doesn’t mean that French politicians won’t accidentally start believing their own rhetoric (the way the Americans did after the invasion of Iraq was over… whoops!), but unlike 2001, the world today is full of threats that are obviously more important than chasing brown guys. In view of the Cold War II / WWIII type issues at stake right now, if the Europeans get serious about “solving” terrorism they are much more likely to resort to historically typical European solutions such as mass deportation at spear-point, mass military impressment, mass concentration, or mass execution than believing that an air campaign is going to make anything change (well, maybe carpet bombing would have some effect…).

France is a lot more likely to play Syria partly to drive a wedge between Russia and NATO (particularly Germany and Turkey), partly to demonstrate to Russia that France is willing to deal (and has something worth dealing), partly to show Washington where the red lines are (without spoiling the relationship with AFRICOM), and partly for the domestic electoral lulz. Killing ISIS guys is always good press and all it costs (right now) is printing more money and a general disregard for collateral damage (which is, ironically, why the Americans are always going to be utterly ineffective — they are absolutely afraid to hurt anyone, and religious bad guys are very good at hiding in plain sight, right behind rows of school children). Aside from this there is a vast array of geopolitical opportunities open in Syria right now, because of how the Syrian play augments the Russian play in Armenia (to pressure Turkey and keep Georgia as an effective vassal). Syria has become an interesting stage upon which Cold War II politics is playing out — this act of it, anyway.

Turkey Responds to Russia: “No”

As I mentioned when Russian airstrikes in Syria began, the airstrikes have nothing to do with Assad and everything to do with keeping Washington distracted, maintaining the status quo in Syria (that is, prolonging the conflict), and pressuring Turkey (as an expansion on the already decades-old play of keeping Armenia at odds with Turkey and Azerbaijan).

The Russians did what militaries so often do when they want to present a pressuring posture and forced the issue by violating a political target’s airspace while in the course of some other operation (consider the US Navy’s recently deliberate disregard of what the Chinese claim are their “territorial waters” in the South China Sea — though the issue there is almost exactly reversed: the Chinese are the aggressors in the sense that they are laying claim to broad swathes of ocean over which Beijing has never had any practical control). Turkey decided to take the opportunity to send a message to both Moscow and Washington by shooting down a Russian jet.

The important message Ankara is sending is that they will not cooperate on any terms with Moscow, that Ankara still considers itself a Western-ally, and — perhaps most interestingly — forcing the public dialog to become, at least temporarily, about the geopolitical game that is going on instead of the incidental and petty distraction of Assad and ISIS that has been filling the news. ISIS has used terror tactics to get in the news lately (Paris made a big splash, after all), and now Turkey has used a similar technique, though not terrorism by any stretch, to change the focus of public reporting for at least a few days.

If Washington was waiting for a green light in the region before surprising everyone with a sudden shift from Arab to Persian support, this was it. The best move right now would be for Obama to show up in Tehran tomorrow, and Washington to flip sides overnight, both with regard to Tehran/Riyadh and ISIS/Assad. By getting on the Persian side of things Russia has nowhere to go, loses its lever in Iran, and has to (for the first time in two decades) react to Washington instead of being the initiator. The Israelis and Egyptians will play ball — they have before and they will again (and judging by Bibi’s deft use of hyperbolic rhetoric over the last few years, he’s ready to make a deal that let’s Tel Aviv relax), and Turkey is all but shouting out loud in plain language that its time to pinch the destabilizing issues at their source.

Whether anyone who is allowed to make a decision is paying attention is anyone’s guess — the last several years of American policy make me wonder if anyone is paying any attention at all… which is probably why Ankara is trying its hardest to force a focus on the strategic issues that underlie the future-changing alignment shifts in the region instead of letting the public dialog remain purely about peripheral issues like ISIS and Assad.

A More Likely Calculus Behind Russian Airstrikes in Syria

The media has been abuzz with talk about the Russian airstrikes in Syria. More than a few people have asked me about it. This is a record of my thoughts immediately after hearing the first news.

I haven’t gone to any great trouble to find out the names of places hit or who did what when or whatever. I don’t really need to. I have been expecting Russia to become (more overtly) involved in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict for quite a while now. The news reports I’ve read confirmed the expected: Moscow is not yet picking sides, but is definitely picking targets that will provoke Washington to double-down on its already deep investment in meaningless, expensive actions in the Middle East.

The frustrating part about those “news reports”, however, is they they purport to be news reports but are just pages and pages of unfounded speculation designed to satisfy emotional needs. None attempt to explain how Moscow’s actions may fit into the framework of this or that possible ongoing strategy, evaluate western assumptions about what is going on, determine whether or not Moscow’s activity supports or challenges those assumptions, or highlight any areas where Russian actions require further analysis due to some evident incongruity with whatever was previously assumed to be happening in the world.

Obviously we’ve gotten something wrong or else we would have seen this coming (well, a few of us did, but we aren’t the ones anyone pays attention to). None of that is addressed in the media. But then again neither truth nor analysis nor truthful analysis is the business that media is in. It is in the business of selling advertizing, impressions, user data and click metrics as cheaply as possible, and sensationalism is the best tool at hand for that (other than porn, but that’s already a saturated market).

The explanation the media seems obsessed with is that Putin’s goal is to support his good buddy Assad. The slightly more interesting version goes on to explain that neither Assad nor Putin have attacked ISIS directly, but have instead attacked the smaller factions. Some speculate that this is so that Assad can force any decision about foreign support to be a polar decision between himself or ISIS. By excluding other factions as viable alternatives he can appear to be the only reasonable choice by comparison, the lesser of two evils. At least that is an interesting take on things, and probably not far from the truth. Assad’s truth, anyway. But it doesn’t explain Putin at all; he doesn’t have a horse in that race unless we assume that he just really, really likes Assad.

To believe in this deep and abiding love between those two naughty star-struck dictators we have to answer a few difficult questions: Why is the only support a few airstrikes on minor targets? Why hasn’t Putin leveraged any of his other influence in the region to gain support for Assad? Where is Kadyrov & co. when they are needed? Why hasn’t Tehran been empowered/proded by Moscow to do anything about their (supposed) mutual pal? Where is the old Hezbollah magic when its needed? Why he has waited this long to actually do anything?

I could go on, but suffice to say this isn’t about any Putin-Assad bromance as much as it is about distracting Washington. Its pretty obvious which of those two goals is more important to Russian strategy.

“Hmmm… should our strategy focus on Washington or Damascus… I just can’t make up my mind! Man, this political stuff is really hard! Decisions decisions…”

— What is not going through Putin’s mind

It is silly to concoct an explanation which consists purely of a flimsy, unsupported assertion (“to support Assad”) and then drag a reader through page after page of humanistic moralizations, vague calls for the “international community to act”, regurgitation of random violence statistics, fun factoids about how shitty life in the Middle East might be, or even go off on a long explanation about target selection without addressing why Assad would be Putin’s choice. Even that is premature without addressing the possibility that perhaps Putin has not made a choice. It should absolutely be explained that for Moscow there does not have to be a meaningful distinction of choice. Neither of these guys are amateurs nor is either stuck in the Geopolitics lvl1 Tutorial Playground of this particular game. (Washington, on the other hand…)

I saw some rather lengthy articles about the Russian airstrikes, many well over 4 pages. None of them referenced the history of external influence in the region. Not a single mention of the Turks, not a single mention of how WWI impacted the region, not a single mention of the whole King Faisal I thing (no, not that set of Faisals, the Iraqi/Syrian ones), no reference to how the typical “put a minority in power to foster future political dependency on you” play works (ever wonder how the tiny Alawite minority came to be in charge?). Not any of that. The media simply makes it appear as though Putin is desperately in love with his long-time buddy Assad — two great pals against the world, backs against the wall, willing to do anything for each other. Which is ridiculous.

Off the cuff I would say Putin is definitely angling to create space for Assad, but the reason for that is probably to achieve two goals, neither being “to support Assad”:

  1. Tie Washington down in a pointless game (or rather deepen its investment in the ongoing one).
  2. Maintain the status-quo in Syria.

(There are very likely peripheral goals and incidental benefits to any action Putin takes, and some of them may turn out to have interesting long-term repercussions.* These are just the goals that fit this action in this place at this time the most closely.)

The West, and especially the US, has already invented a rhetoric that mandates unlimited political agitation whenever anything unrelated to Europe or the US happens in the Middle East. Lighting a fire larger than a BBQ grill, for example, may cause a 4-hour special on some news channel, or maybe even a Muslim riot in London or Paris (or more likely a cartoon which itself prompts such rioting — strange that lengthy, detailed, deliberate editorials don’t have the same effect). This rhetoric prompts Washington to invest ever more deeply in pointless actions designed to deflect other pointless actions which may or may not come to pass in the Middle East (like countering Russian influence with Assad, for example). The West is a gigantic, over-charged Van de Graaff generator right now, rubbing itself to pieces internally with angst, just waiting for some poor lab student to come too close. This is as easy for Moscow to exploit as unattended lab equipment is for mischievous high schoolers.

By attacking anything that is both not Assad and not ISIS in Syria Putin is subject to the following effects:

Loses

  • Very little money
  • Very little military supply
  • Exactly zero international standing (any faction that matters has already decided their support/neutrality/opposition to Moscow)

Gains

  • Actual pilot experience
  • A live, public, and very well photographed showcase for Russia’s new aircraft and weapons (Hey! Its not 1988 anymore!)
  • Vastly improved domestic political standing (He made a point of being seen sidestepping both the “save face at the UN before doing whatever we were going to do anyway” and “coalition building” games. In fact, he made the “international community” in general and the UN in particular look like troublesome trivialities to Moscow. Russians love this. Incidentally, Americans would too…)

Risks

  • Nothing (the probability that Washington will manage to comprehend what is actually going on and turn it around on Moscow is very close to zero)

Initiates

  • Massive media blather and especially social media buzz in the US (Obama’s kryptonite seems to be social media)
  • Massive white-knighting around the world about how “someone should do something!” where “someone” always really means “Americans” and “do something” always means “blow something/someone up (but without actually offending or hurting anyone or actually blowing anything up… on second thought, just talk convincingly tough about taking action and then censor the media to make it appear that things that don’t affect my life at all but rile me up all the same have actually ceased to occur)”
  • The US to double-down on its “anti-terror” investment in one form or another
  • The US to bleed money it doesn’t have
  • The US to commit resources it can’t afford
  • Prolong ongoing American strategic distractions in politically irrelevant areas
  • Prolong ongoing developmental and structural distractions within the US military (Washington has a strategic need to widen the gap in space tech, turn the Air Force into the Space Force and extend its naval dominance to space, not yet another multi-billion-dollar plan for a truck design that would be great if we get in a time machine and re-occupy Iraq but useless in actual force-on-force infantry operations.)

Distracting Washington is the primary goal, not actually supporting Assad or causing problems for this or that American-aligned faction in Syria. Support for Assad and causing problems for whichever groups happen to be American proxies this week is incidental to the goal of cheaply stirring shit up. He’s trying to suck the Americans in somewhere that is cheap for Moscow but very expensive for Washington (both politically and financially).

This strategy worked very well for him in Afghanistan. It bought him an opening to get its way with Poland (after the demise of almost the entire Polish government in a profoundly well-timed plane crash inside of Russia), invade Georgia, take over Ukraine and demonstrate that American security promises are empty whenever Washington is distracted. These actions have had the side effect of deflating the European economy, prompting France to create an opening for itself to re-establish its West African empire and destroy ENI’s main gas alternative (by blowing up Lybia — and before you ask, no that had nothing at all to do with Ghaddafi, freedom or the “Arab Spring”).

Making your opponent expend massively more effort than you do is a winning strategy. The US actually used to be very good at making this sort of play itself, but has apparently lost the touch ever since it bought into the totally bullshit idea that peace was about to break out all over the world with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Oops.

Interestingly, one of the most outspokenly “pro-peace” sort of nations, France, has recovered its knack for both low-cost/high-yield military operations and empire building all while continuing to make the Americans look like the “real bad guy” most of the time (even if its half tongue-in-cheeck). Paris and Moscow are both riding pretty sizeable winning streaks achieved through some heavy-duty, but subtle, geopolitical maneuvering over the last fifteen years**. Impressive.

The appearance of support for Assad works in Putin’s favor because it makes Washington get even more intense about not being his supporter, and reality be damned because politicians are absolutely going to be tripping over each other to be the first to condemn and then be seen as acting against these “ill intended and dangerous Russian activities”.

The air strikes aren’t designed to actually support Assad winning the civil war, they are designed to create space for him. This delays any conclusion to a conflict which is itself useful to Moscow. This gives Moscow time to decide whether it is worth the trouble to support the Alawites once things are over, and judging by how easy it was to dupe Washington into blowing a decade of prosperity in Afghanistan for absolutely no reason at all, it may just be able to turn this strategy around again in Syria.

The Turks, Sunnis and Kurds are all much more important geopolitically. Being a sponsor of Assad’s Syria would turn out the same way Russia’s “sponsorship” of Iran has turned out (lukewarm on the hottest of days). The Arabs are fundamentally more important to Moscow, so the Persians will only get anything from Moscow when it would hurt Washington to give Tehran anything. Other than that, they are just the red-headed stepchildren Russia doesn’t really have much use for. These are “meh, take-em-or-leave-em” allies. The Alawites in Syria are in very nearly the same situation, as evidenced by several political generations of foreign influence now.

[* This would be true of any of a list of potential Russian military moves right now. Listed above are the two primary short-term goals against which the decision was made to actually order sorties in Syria and at this time. Consider that an incidental outcome of invading Georgia at the the end of August 2008 was crashing the European economy. Once it was demonstrated that the East European side of the Yen carry trade was not a secure way to underwrite Western European securities that carry trade unwound and with it quite a few other things that happened to be very ready to get blown over at the next strong wind. People were very deeply invested, both emotionally and financially, in being blind to this risk. If this were a real risk it meant that the pan-European dream didn’t make sense. It meant that war was not actually “a thing of the past”. It meant that pure egalitarianism was unworkable. The reality that offensive power still matters more than the opinions of intellectuals who spend most of their time trying to not offend one another is downright scary. This emotional barrier gave birth to a worldview which made the bizarre explanations that invoke a mysterious “American economic contagion” from two years prior sound like a reasonable definition of “the problem” — the economy is full of highly technical issues and mysterious pitfalls, after all. It is much more comfortable to think that “the Americans” might be the problem than either “the Russians” or the chance that the European economy itself might be inherently unsustainable. Of course, these explanations miraculously avoided any mention of the unopposed Russian invasion aimed at one of two non-Russian pipelines feeding Europe’s economy the week before the crash. So while Putin’s reasoning behind making the attacks where and when they did focus around the two goals above this is a period in which he stands to gain a lot by making very public demonstrations of political and military strength.]

[ ** What France and Russia have been doing is not evil.  Geopolitics is what it is, and its not going to change for you or me. You can’t start moralizing about it just because your side is on the losing end of some issue, or some particular aspect of history is emotionally significant to you (right now), or because you really, really want the world to be some great centrally-administered perfect Eutopia. That sort of thinking doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Letting your emotions get the better of you in politics — thinking in terms of “what should be” instead of “what is” — only confers blindness.]