Syria: Winners and Losers

55 2019-10-22

In the week since Turkey launched its forces invading Syria in order to establish a buffer or (safe zone), a lot has happened. Contrary to Washington pundits, the Kurds aren’t facing genocide and the Iranians aren’t poised to control the whole Middle East.

Now there appears to be a 5 day “cease fire” or “pause” depending on which side you believe, with plans for a permanent truce and easing of economic sanctions. However, given the history of the area, and the circumstances in which this so called “cease fire “announced, we are very skeptical if it will stand or see implementation.

Here are the winners and losers at this point of time.

Syria

Although there are Turkish soldiers in northern Syria, things are looking up for Syria and President Assad.

Although Syria has been a Russian (and Soviet) client state for over half a century, Russia has always limited its support. It has provided advisors, manned air defense systems, and provided arms. In return, it has established air bases and naval facilities in Syria.

Russia has been careful in its support lest it get involved militarily with one of Syria’s neighbors – namely “Israel”.

That has changed as Russia moved its ground forces to patrol the line between Turkish and Syrian ground forces. Russian presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev said, that Moscow “won’t allow” clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces on the ground.

Clearly president Assad has managed to secure his control of Syria, even though some areas remains outside the control of central government.

Now that president Assad has control of much of Syria and a strong allies in Russia and Iran, he can exercise more freedom in his relation with them and the rest of the world.

Russia

Russia invested a lot militarily and diplomatically to assist president Assad in maintaining his power. It has paid off. They now have air bases and naval facilities in Syria and a role in determining the future of the Middle East. With naval facilities in Tartus, Syria and the reduced US naval presence in the Mediterranean, Russia has once again become a major player in control of the Mediterranean.

On the downside, with Russian and Turkish forces facing each other in Syria, the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia is going to be tested again. Russia and Turkey have been historical enemies and had competing territorial and diplomatic ambitions.

Since Russian arms could end up being used by the Turks against Russia, don’t be surprised if Russia will modify the software of the S-400 air defense system, to make it easier for Russian aircraft to defeat it if the situation calls for it.

NATO

It’s a bit of “good news, bad news” for NATO. The fact that any tension between Russia and Turkey may strengthen the NATO southern flank a bit.

On the other hand, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland are embargoing the sale of arms to Turkey after its invasion of Syria. However, the UK decided not to join the arms embargo, although it did join the rest of the EU countries in condemning the Turkish invasion.

Of course, since the UK is expected to leave the EU in less than two weeks, the final position of the EU and the United Kingdom in regard to Turkey is still in flux.

One concern that has come up this week is the status of about 50 American nuclear weapons in Turkey. Some have called them hostages to Erdogan and claim that the US must avoid annoying Turkey because of the threat to them.

The status of nuclear weapons is a closely held secret, so few are aware of their actual status. They may be in Turkey. However, given the fact that Erdogan became an unreliable NATO ally a few years ago, it is also likely that they have been surreptitiously moved from Turkey by American Special Forces. Since making the movement public doesn’t benefit NATO or America, it will remain secret.

Iran

The view in Washington is that Iran supported president Assad and used Syria to “build” a bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. They also send Revolutionary Guards to Syria and armed pro-Assad forces.

Some experts are trying to minimize the gains achieved by Iran in Syria and the region, they advance the notion that Russia is eager to reduce Iran’s influence in Central Asian nations, therefore, undermining their influence in Syria would help do that.

It’s also important to remember that when it comes to retaining influence in Iraq (which is seeing anti-Iranian demonstration) or Syria, Iran will prefer to spend its efforts in keeping its influence in Iraq. They also have policy priorities on the Saudi Peninsula.

ISIS

ISIS remains the wild card in the region. Although many former ISIS fighters and their families have been able to escape confinement in the Turkish invasion, we don’t know if they are eager to rejoin ISIS. Traditionally, when movements lose, their soldiers are more eager to abandon the cause. Without a territorial base to return to, many of the fighters will try to head home.

It’s also important to remember that others don’t want to see the reformation of ISIS. On Wednesday, during a meeting with Italy’s president, Trump remarked that there are forces in the region that have no love for ISIS.

Trump remarked that Russia and Syria, “hate ISIS more than us…They can take care of themselves.”

Trump and his supporters downplay any negative effect on fighting ISIS by the withdrawal of American forces from the region. To them worse comes to worse, American airstrikes are available.

Kurds

The influence of the Kurdish lobby in America was obvious this week as reports of Turkish atrocities against the Kurds flooded the airwaves. ABC News even used a video of American gun owners at a shooting range as proof that the Turks were massacring Kurds in a village – a move that forced the network to issue an embarrassing apology hours later.

The Turkish invasion and movement of American forces out of the border area forced the Kurds to sit down with Syrian government representatives – something they were loath to do as long as the US was supporting them.

Trump reacted positively. “Syria is protecting the Kurds – That’ good.” Trump also noted that the Syrian Kurds “are no angels, by the way.”

I wish then all a lot of luck,” Trump said of Russia and the Syrians. And, although he has decried the Turkish invasion and instituted economic sanctions, he reiterated it was “not our problem.”

America

The United States remains split on the issue of Syria. While polls show that most American voters approve of pulling US troops out of Syria, those in Washington prefer to keep them there. This was evident when the US House passed a motion condemning the withdrawal from Syria (126 Republicans voted for it, while 60 opposed it). The motion, however, has no force of law.

The vote, however, was hypocritical as the Congress has the Constitutional authority to order US forces into Syria. By opting to pass a meaningless motion instead, they avoided the political fallout from voters back home.

Expect congressional moves to slow down as the just announced cease fire takes place.

Although the media has made the decision to pull US troops out of Syria look like a decision made solely by President Trump, it appears that something more subtle may be behind the move.

Although the media didn’t report it, Secretary of State Pompeo met with former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger a few weeks ago. Pompeo’s Twitter account on September 28, said, “Honored to meet again with one of my most esteemed predecessors, Dr. Henry Kissinger. I’m always grateful for our conversations.”

Dr. Kissinger is considered by both Democrats and Republicans to be one of the most influential Secretaries of State in history. His diplomatic maneuvers during the Vietnam War, when US diplomatic influence was at its nadir, are legendary. He opened US relations with China, managed to craft several nuclear deals with the USSR, and by pulling out of Vietnam, helped reignite the historical animosity between China and Vietnam that has allowed Vietnam to become a key American ally in fighting China’s attempt to take over the South China Sea.

While we don’t know what Pompeo and Kissinger talked about, the Syrian situation would have been a logical choice. What’s interesting is that within days of the Kissinger/Pompeo meeting, Trump was announcing that US forces were pulling back from the Syrian-Turkish border.

While this move seemed to be foolish to critics, those who read Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation “A World Restored; Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822” would see the hand of Kissinger in the latest US moves.

The dissertation is about diplomacy in the post Napoleonic world, dealing with revolutionary powers (like France in 1812 and Turkey in 2019), and how two diplomats, British Foreign Minister Castlereagh and Austro-Hungarian Diplomat Metternich helped shape a Europe that saw relative peace until WWI a century later.

According to Kissinger, Castlereagh’s goal was a balance of power on the Continent. He realized that a balance of power didn’t prevent conflict but prevented major wars by ensuring that no one power would dominate Europe. Britain also developed a doctrine of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. This included even being willing to negotiate with Napoleon if the people of France supported him.

Castlereagh also considered that Britain was an island nation and not directly impacted by events on the European continent. That meant that his nation wouldn’t be impacted by minor conflicts, if the balance of power remained.

This is far different from modern American foreign policy, which focuses on interfering in internal affairs of nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc.).

By pulling back in Syria, the US is moving towards a non-interference policy in Syria. At the same time, it is helping create a balance of power in the area. Turkey, which is the local expansionist power (Kissinger called them “Revolutionary Powers” in his dissertation) is countered by Russia – a traditional enemy – to the north and a Russian client state to the south. Turkey finds its traditional enemy Greece to the west and Shiite Iran, who also has ambitions to be the major Middle Eastern nation to the east.

Russia, in turn, is limited by NATO in Europe and Israel in the Middle East.

Although conflict in the region will continue, we are already seeing some overriding stability taking place. The Kurds are finally working with Syria after years of animosity. Turkey is finding itself limited by Russian forces in Syria. There is a promise of an ongoing truce. And, Assad now has a chance to regain the legitimacy that was denied him for the last few years.

Although Trump is still being criticized for his move, in the long run, his pulling back will help his reelection campaign. And, by taking one major power out of the region, the chances for stability have increased.

Turkey

In the world of Kissingerian diplomacy, Turkey is a classic “Revolutionary Power.”

To quote Kissinger’s dissertation, “It is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions,, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion…it tends to erode, if not the legitimacy of the international order, at least the restraint with which such an order operates.”

That clearly defines Erdogan, who is ignoring the international order and is trying to expand his borders. In referring to Revolutionary Powers, Kissinger wrote, “Diplomacy is replaced either by war or an armaments race.”

It appears that Kissinger is right on both accounts.

Since traditional diplomacy doesn’t work with “Revolutionary Powers,” who have unlimited objectives, a balance of power creates a general stability, but not an end of conflict.

While Erdogan still has unlimited objectives like a rebirth of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey as the major player in the region, he has been checked by a balance of power. His desire to rebuild the Ottoman Empire by gaining territory and influence in Syria has been checked by Russia, the Kurds, and a reinvigorated president Assad. He still faces opposition to the west with Greece, and to the East with Iran (who has its own influence in the region). International economic sanctions will only further isolate Erdogan. These limitations may explain why Erdogan has agreed to a truce.

As long as Turkey remains a “Revolutionary Power,” it remains isolated and unable to expand. Although this doesn’t eliminate Erdogan, it limits his ability to create international unrest. And, it gives time for the anti-Erdogan forces that are already winning elections to find a way to push him out of power.

The value of the Kissinger approach is that it means that it shows the way to deal with nations like Turkey.

Given past history, the current truce will not hold as Erdogan wants what Kissinger called “Neutralization of the opponent.” In that case, Kissinger notes, “Diplomacy, the art of restraining the exercise of power cannot function in such an environment… Diplomats can still meet but they cannot persuade, for they have ceased to speak the same language.”

This is where the implied threat of the balance of power creates stability. Russian presidential envoy Lavrentiev’s threat that Moscow “won’t allow” clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces on the ground told Erdogan more than all the diplomats.

Erdogan may want to continue expansion but is faced with containment. While diplomatic initiatives to bring Turkey into an agreement on the status of Syria can continue, in the end, it will be the containment of Erdogan that will bring stability to Syria and hopefully make all sides - except the Israelis- appreciate such outcome.

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