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Putin, Trump and the Endgame for Syria

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A  couple of years back I stopped writing about Syria. It wasn’t a deliberate decision. It just seemed to happen.

The routine nature of the horrific atrocities committed with relative abandon by both sides, with advantage seeming to swing first one way and then the other and then the other and then the other yet again seemed endless and wearisome. Everything that could be said seemed to have been said…and yet still it went on. Meanwhile, the Crimea, the Ukraine, the Scottish independence referendum, the Peshawar Massacre, Charlie Hebdo and other UnIsamic State atrocities, Jeremy Corbyn, the Brexit referendum, Jeremy Corbyn (again!), Donald Trump…. So many other things have happened in those 2-3 years and so many of them ‘closer to home’…and, as the apocryphal ‘McClurg’s Law’ postulates: the more something is closer to you (racially, nationalistically, culturally), the more newsworthy it is (Stephen Moore, Steve Chapman & Dave Aiken, 2009). Thus, it is understandable (in some senses, at least) that Syria went ‘off the radar’ at times not only for myself but for many other ‘thinkers’ and much of the Western media.

Now, though, as what seems to be the final, heartbreaking agonies of Aleppo are so grim and apparently so decisive, they actually break through the news barrier and Syria becomes major news again.

What, one wonders, is the ‘moderate rebels’ point in carrying on? As the IHS/BBC map below shows, the rebels at 31 October held pockets of land – the largest in and around Aleppo. However, they are losing territory regularly and consistently. Not just in Aleppo – where they have lost well over half their space in a week – but in all areas they control.

iraq-syria-control

The rebels are beaten in Aleppo and they are being beaten across Syria. Even alliance with the Islamic extremists is futile as the Iraqis take Mosul step by bloody step and the Kurds test the defences of Raqqa.

Continued resistance in Aleppo – putting at least an estimated 250,000 civilians in harms’ way (BBC News, 2016g) – seems an act to invite annihilation by the enemy. Rather than pragmatism – which would predicate surrender or withdrawal – it is more the kind of RED/BLUE zealotry that has cost thousands of Palestinian lives in an unequal war with Israel – see Israeli Stupidity in Gaza! and Israeli Stupidity in Gaza! #2. Principle is more important than people.  Zakaria Malahifji, political head of the rebel Fastaqim faction, is reported by Reuters’ Tom Perry, Isla Binnie & Vladimir Soldatkin to have said: “The military commanders in Aleppo said ‘we will not leave the city. There is no problem with corridors for civilians to leave, but we will not leave the city’.”

The reality is that, thanks to Russia and Iran, Bashir al-Assad will win. The West, of course, will continue to supply arms to the ‘moderate rebels’ via Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – an ongoing nasty war is good for arms manufacturers driven by dysfunctional ORANGE. But no Western countries are going to intervene militarily in Syria. As Robert Fisk wrote for The Independent this Summer, drawing a contrast with NATO intervention in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s: ‘Aleppo is not the new Srebrenica – the West won’t go to war over Syria’.

The rebels are effectively finished but they appear so caught up in the zealotry of their own groupthink that they don’t – can’t? – recognise it. George Sabra, chief negotiator for the rebel High Negotiations Committee, is reported to have told the BBC World Service that the loss of Aleppo would “not be the end of the revolution.  Aleppo is an important place for the revolution but it’s not the last place. Right now, we have so many places under the power of (the) Free Syrian Army.” (BBC News, 2016h)

Get real, man! How many more Syrian lives are you going to throw away for a lost cause?

Sadly,  European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogheriniam is reported by Perry, Binnie & Soldatkin to be convinced  the rebels are determined to fight on, saying: “the fall of Aleppo will not end the war. We will have other military escalations.”

What does Putin want?
It is, of course, Russian intervention that has made all the difference. When the Russian airstrikes first commenced in September 2015 – supposedly just on hardline ‘terrorists’ like UnIslamic State – many commentators, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus notes, thought the Assad regime was on the verge of collapse. 14 months later, with Russian  airstrikes now very openly in support of Assad’s forces (trained and re-equipped by the Russians), with ground support from the Hezbollah militias, and Russian and Iranian intelligence guiding them, it is a very different picture. The ‘moderate rebels’ and the UnIslamic State and other ‘terrorist’ hardline groups are all being beaten. Sometimes quickly, mostly slowly…but overall losing land and men on a scale that makes defeat all but inevitable.

Vladimir Putin has played his hand well, perhaps superbly. In comparison Barack Obama has been a plodder, outwitted by Putin at every turn. (I once speculated whether Obama was a 2nd Tier thinker and concluded that he almost certainly wasn’t; I did the same for Putin and reckoned he probably did think that way at times. Going down this route, though, strongly suggests 2nd Tier thinking might not always be beneficent and the ‘Integralists’ may have to rethink their Buddhist-influenced understandings of 2nd Tier.) From rescuing Obama from his own red line trap over the use of chemical weapons to going through the motions of agreeing with the Americans to set up ceasefires in Syria while rearming and training Assad’s forces during the all-too brief cessations of hostilities, Putin has been way ahead of Obama every time. To all intents and purposes, he has played him for a fool.

The Russian leader probably confirmed from the takeover of Crimea in 2014 what he already suspected: that the West, after the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq, had no appetite for military confrontation with a newly-resurgent Russia. Yes, they would apply sanctions that have really hurt the Russian economy but no American or British soldiers are going to die for the smoothly snatched Crimea or the bloody mess of eastern Ukraine. Perhaps emboldened, Putin has put his Syria strategy into play.

Unlike the US and the UK, the Russians have not worried about the legitimacy of their operations – they were after all ‘invited in’ by Assad. Nor have they bothered to distinguish between Free Syrian Army-type groups and the hardline jihadists – they are all seen as ‘terrorists’ and thus suitable for extermination. (The Americans’ agreement and then failure to separate out the 2 types of groups fighting Assad – as if that were ever truly possible!? – has played right into the Russians’ hands. If the Americans can’t distinguish, how can we be expected to?) And the Russians simply deny that theirs and the regime’s strikes are killing hundreds upon hundreds of innocent civilians in Aleppo, no matter what evidence the West presents.

While the West has been largely unclear about what it wants out of the Syrian civil war and is in a complete shambles as to what to actually do – policies being rendered redundant repeatedly before they are half-formed by fast-changing events on the ground – the Russians have been deadly (literally!) clear about what they want. They want to preserve the only remaining ally from the Soviet days that they still have in the region and maintain their naval base at Tartus. Intervention in Syria is also part of Putin’s grand scheme to re-establish Russia as a world power, even to gain parity with the US. Thus, the Russian military have demonstrated to great effect that they are capable of fighting an offensive war thousands of miles from their homeland.

With regard to the American position, Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute told Jonathan Marcus: “Moscow had sought to steadily destroy the moderate Syrian opposition on the battlefield, leaving only jihadist forces in play, and lock the US into a political framework of negotiations that would serve beyond the shelf-life of this administration. In both respects, it has been successful…. Ultimately, the Russian goal is to lock in gains for Syria via ceasefires, while slow-rolling the negotiations to the point that true opposition to the Syrian regime expires on the battlefield, leaving no viable alternatives for the West in this conflict come 2017.”

With the ‘moderate rebels’ gone and Assad’s battered regime no longer challenged by forces Western governments might have sympathy for, the Russians seem to hope the Americans will acknowledge the de facto situation on the ground and join with them in going after the ‘enemy’ just about all governments hate: UnIslamic State and the other violent jihadist groups.

Things Putin doesn’t appear to have under control
There are 3 potential flaws in the Russian strategy:-

  1. There is much evidence to attribute the vast majority of the war crimes committed in Syria to Assad’s forces and, both directly and indirectly, the Russian intervention. Somehow this is going to need squaring. In the post-civil war era, as the journalists and the historians uncover and publish the details of what has gone on in Syria, this is going to make very uncomfortable reading and watching for both Assad and Putin. Putin has pretended Russia was not involved militarily in the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. There is no way he can pretend in the future that Russian airstrikes and the materiel the Russians have supplied to the Syrian military have not been responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians.
    It’s in no one’s interests, post-civil war, for either Assad and  his cronies or Putin and his cronies to be accused of war crimes, branded pariahs and their countries labelled ‘rogue states’. While that might satisfy the BLUE vMEME’s desire for absolutist justice, it does little or nothing for establishing a post-war consensus that most can buy into (hopefully!). ORANGE pragmatism is what’s needed – ie: what serves the interests of the situation for the majority, if not the whole.
  2. Rebuilding Syria is going to require enormous amounts of money and the commitment of both donor nations and transnational corporations (TNCs). While the TNCs will always chase the profit, they can be restrained to some degree by the governments of nations in which they are headquartered and also by international law. A Russia under sanctions and with a depressed economy is very unlikely to have the financial resources to fund the rebuilding of Syria. International cooperation and finance will be needed…so Assad and Putin will need to court some good will.
  3. Donald Trump
    Quite simply the new American president seems to revel in unpredictability. On some of the more outlandish right wing proclamations he made during his campaign, he does indeed seem determined to deliver – eg: deporting millions of illegal immigrants. Yet on others – risibly the “lock her up!” threats he made towards Hilary Clinton, he appears to have backtracked completely. As widely reported – eg: BBC News’ James Landale – on the campaign trail he suggested NATO might be redundant. Since he won the race to the White House, there has not been the slightest mention of undermining NATO in any way. He made no comment on Obama’s farewell trip to Europe on which he reassured leaders NATO was still a core part of American defence policy. He has called  Putin “a hero” and indicated he would like much closer cooperation with the Russian leader; yet Trump has portrayed himself as a’ strong man’ who will not be pushed around.
    During the campaign and in its aftermath, some have portrayed Trump’s selfplex as dominated by out-of-control blustering RED. I don’t see it that way at all. The way he understood and exploited the frustrations and alienation of the American white working class and lower middle class hints at far more complex thinking. Though his ruthlessness and sexual predatorniness indicate he is high in the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism, Trump appears to be a scheming and manipulative games player who delights in throwing his opponents off guard. That would indicate ORANGE being high in his vMEME stack…yet his apparent mastery of understanding values not immediately his own may just indicate some 2nd Tier activity.
    Trump potentially gives Putin a real problem: Obama’s predictable ORANGE and GREEN stances, the Russian leader appears to have mapped almost effortlessly. Trumps’ delight in unpredictability makes him very, very difficult to read. Will he be Putin’s friend so they can allocate and respect each other’s ‘spheres of influence’? Or will Trump be like Ronald Reagan and face the Russians down by talking unrelentingly tough while investing massively and rapidly in superior weaponry?
    No wonder that, in respect of Syria, as reported by Reuters’ Laila Bassam & Ellen Francis, Putin and Assad are determined to secure Aleppo before Trump is inaugurated and thus present him with an irreversible fait accompli.

War over…but still a game to play
For all that Assad’s forces now very much have the upper hand, the road to securing a stable and lasting victory could still be a long and very bloody one. If the ‘moderate rebels’ do fight to the death for every inch of territory they lose…if the Americans and their allies – especially the Iraqi Kurds – decide to contain UnIslamic State at the Iraqi border, rather than pushing into Syria to pincer them between their own forces and those of Assad and the Russians, then it could be a very long fight indeed. Not only would such a fight extend well into the Trump era – with the wild uncertainties that seems sure to bring – but there would be many more war crimes committed and more damage to the Syrian economy and infrastructure. That would make it that much harder for the Russians and Assad to play down the merciless brutality and atrocities with which they won the war and get international cooperation for the funds needed to rebuild Syria.

Thus, it is in the interests of all the players to conclude a speedy resolution to this barbaric conflict. The ‘moderate rebels’ can’t win now; so further loss of life is pointless. Assad needs his victory with as little further pain as possible for both the government forces and the ‘moderate rebels’. Putin needs a way of disengaging, with Russia’s interests acknowledged and protected but with as little further stigma for the blood on his hands as possible. The Americans, who have made an utter shambles of their Syrian policy for the past 6 years – if not their entire Middle East policy for the past 14! – can recover their dignity and reputation by facilitating the negotiation of a sustainable peace deal.

The last thing the Americans should do is continue backing the ‘moderate rebels’ as advocated by outgoing CIA director  John Brennan (BBC News’ Gordon Corera). That may stiffen the resolve of the ‘moderate rebels’…but to what point? False hope will simply delay the inevitable and cost many more lives. The fact the Russians are reported (Perry, Binnie & Soldatkin) to be holding informal talks with negotiators for the withdrawal of ‘moderate rebels’ indicates the Russians would like to avoid the complete bloodbath that Aleppo is on the verge of becoming and the further allegations of war crimes that will inevitably follow. That gives the Americans and their allies the chance of making a difference by blocking further arms supplies to the rebels and insisting they take part in talks.

For any chance  of success, such talks would need to consider at least the following:-

  • Assad stays in power – certainly as nominal head of state. The Russians have all but won the war for him. If the Russians want him, he stays.
  • The Syrian government needs to start designing and implementing the kind of reforms Assad promised in the years before the 2011 uprising but never delivered (Adam Coutts, 2011). Things can’t go back to how they were. The Syrian people have suffered too much and the ‘moderate rebels’ need to have something – something that they can at least pretend was worth so much sacrifice.
  • There must be an amnesty for the ‘moderate rebels’. Fear of ending up in Assad’s torture prisons will keep many of them fighting because they see no viable alternative. Rebels who wish to should be allowed to apply to join the Syrian army. They will bring valuable experience, techniques and manpower to a relatively depleted force.
  • Patriotic programmes, based on PURPLE and BLUE thinking, should be put in place both to manage the rebuilding of Syria and to destroy UnIslamic State and other extreme jihadist groups. Muzafir Sherif et al’s (1961) Robber’s Cave studies demonstrated that working together for essential mutual benefit helps former enemies reconcile – and there is hardly a greater task than rebuilding your country. Samuel Gaertner et al’s (1993) Common-In-Group Identity Model shows how different factions can be pulled together to fight an existential threat such as UnIslamic State.
  • Something like United Nations supervision will be required – perhaps with UN peacekeepers in some parts? Consideration might even be given to a UN mandate. It will take years and possibly decades for people to get over the civil war and for people to have confidence in the Government again.

Assad is unlikely to agree to such considerations willingly but he is dependent on the Russians so they have significant leverage. If the Americans close down the ‘moderate rebels’ arms routes and make clear the only support they will get is at the negotiating table, then maybe there is a chance a peace can be imposed while the politicians and administrators work out what the new and rebuilt Syria should be. Such a solution will require courage, vision, recognition and accommodation of others’ values and a meta-view of what needs to be done. Essentially a MeshWORK for Syria.

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