This post was originally published on July 21, 2016, on Lindley French’s Blog Blast: Speaking Truth Unto Power:
Alphen, Netherlands. 3 August.
August always fills me with geopolitical foreboding. With the democracies on vacation it is this month that is traditionally the moment for dirty geopolitics. This August is doubly concerning because it coincides with the Brazil Olympics. True to form our old friend Vladimir Putin is using both to ruthlessly pursue his strategic ends in Syria. Remember the Beijing Olympics back in 2008 when he invaded Georgia? This August he is applying the same tactics against Aleppo that he used against Grozny during the two Chechen Wars. The shooting down of a Russian Air Force helicopter some 8 km from where a barrel bomb had just been dropped is eerily reminiscent of the destruction of Grozny. As is the offer to ‘assist’ with humanitarian efforts, but only so long as such efforts are under the complete control of both Damascus and Moscow.
What is the West doing about it? Next to nothing. Limited coalition raids are being mounted against ISIS targets, but nothing to resolve the situation in Syria. There was an interesting piece in the British digital newspaper The Independent last week by Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders. Sad to say it was all too typical of the ‘something must be done, but not too much, and not by me’ nonsense beloved of Europe’s handwringing, strategically-inept political elite.
Entitled Aleppo must not become synonymous with global inaction the title was carefully worded, particularly the use of the phrase, ‘global inaction’. Of course, Koenders should really have said ‘Western inaction’ or to be more precise ‘European inaction’. Why? Because as a foreign minister he knows all too well that without UN Security Council agreement ‘global’ action is a non-starter. Yes, the piece likens Aleppo to Srebrenica and the dark chapter in UN and Dutch peacekeeping when Dutchbat permitted the Bosnian Serbs to murder thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Yes, Koenders makes the valid point that most Syrians want to live neither under the murderous Caliphate nor under the equally murderous Assad regime, and their cynical Russian and Iranian backers who see the Syrian people as no more than very small pawns in a great geopolitical game.
What he suggests as a solution is both clever and disingenuous. Koenders calls for a stepped up campaign against ISIS and a much greater humanitarian effort. However, what he wilfully fails to point out in the piece is that in Syria humanitarian action cannot be effective without strategic action. In other words, any alleviation of suffering and/or defeat of ISIS is not possible without either confronting Russia and removing Assad, or accommodating Russia and talking to Assad. It is a stark choice that has been obvious for some time but which Koenders and his fellow leaders have pretended they need not make.
Confronting Russia and Assad at this stage would require the West to threaten a major military land, sea intervention, involving both Western and Arab forces. That is not going to happen. Turkey is now close to being a failed state and no longer a sound base from which to launch such an assault. President Obama is a lame duck president who can at best order a few air strikes against ISIS in Libya. Europe has become strategic prey and abandoned all pretence of engaging danger at distance and simply waits these days for danger to come to Europe, mitigate the effects, and/or pretend no danger exists.
Thus, there is only the alternative? If the West/Europe is not prepared to act against Assad and Putin it must talk to Assad and Putin if there is to be any chance of an alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people. There are many factors that have led Syria to this point but Western, in particular European, weakness is a major factor. Sadly, it is weakness typified by a European political elite of which Koenders is a part.
So, as America blusters the summer away in what is perhaps the worst US general election in American history, and Europe slumbers on what is now a permanent strategic vacation Assad and Putin will continue to act with impunity. No amount of hand-wringing articles by impotent foreign ministers from small European states who have decimated their own ability to influence big, dangerous events will matter a jot.
Let me be clear; Syria is the new Chechnya and Aleppo is the new Grozny. In the two Chechen wars Putin believed that the only way to break the secessionist movement was to destroy Grozny. Assad, with Russian backing, is now determined to wipe Aleppo out. And, like Chechnya, both Assad and Putin will give the West just enough excuse to turn away and do nothing.
The consequences? Many thousands more will die and in October at the latest President Erdogan of Turkey will abrogate the March 2016 deal with the EU and open the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking to escape to Europe. Then, Europe will again see the folly of being too weak to stop what is happening in Syria.
Still, there is always the Olympics to watch.
Julian Lindley-French is an internationally-recognised strategic analyst, advisor and author, Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association, CGAI Fellow, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, Director of Europa Analytica & Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC