Great states hate to admit error, so when they have to change course they generally try to disguise the fact. That’s why you may not have heard much about the way that the United States has changed course in Syria in the past three months.
You will recall how Washington insisted for years that it was determined to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and was at the same time working to destroy his mortal enemy, Islamic State – without, of course, committing any US ground troops to Syria. You may also recall how the US government regularly and vehemently condemned Russia’s military intervention in Syria last year.
Well, that’s all over now. Two weeks ago (16 July), US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow and agreed to take “concrete steps” together in Syria. These included coordinating air strikes against both Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the two Islamist offspring of al-Qaeda that dominate the rebel forces in Syria.
Russia is the Assad regime’s main ally in the Syrian civil war. By agreeing to these coordinated “concrete steps” against Assad’s main domestic enemies, Washington is effectively conceding that it now wants him to survive. Assad, it has finally recognised, is the lesser evil compared to a take-over of all of Syria by the Islamist fanatics.
It has taken five years to get here. The United States bombs Islamic State forces every day, but when IS troops advanced to seize Palmyra last year, no American bombs fell on the vehicles that took the IS fighters across the desert to the historic city. That would have been “helping Assad” – and so the US let Palmyra be captured and trashed by the fanatics. (Assad’s troops took Palmyra back last March – with Russian air support.)
The Obama administration fell into this now obviously hopeless strategy back in the days of the “Arab Spring” in 2010-11. Like most people, Obama was convinced that the Assad regime would fall quickly, and that the government that replaced him would be better both for American interests and for the Syrian people. It was, after all, a brutal and corrupt regime. It still is.
As the opposition fell increasingly into the hands of Islamist extremists in 2012-13, the prospect of a peaceful, democratic successor regime vanished. But rather than biting the bullet and switching its support to Assad, the lesser evil, Washington embarked on a forlorn attempt to build a “third force” that would defeat both Assad and the Islamists. It spent billions on the project, but never produced a credible fighting force that could accomplish that miracle.
Governments do not easily admit error, so right down to late last year Washington clung to the illusion that somehow or other it could avoid having to choose between Assad and the Islamists. Now it has accepted that necessity, and the deal with Lavrov clearly signals that the United States now wants Assad to survive.
It still won’t say that, of course, but bombing both Islamic State and the Nusra Front means that it will effectively be bombing the great majority of the Syrian rebels. There are still some non-Islamist rebels fighting Assad in the “Free Syrian Army”, but most elements of the FSA have been coerced into joining the Nusra Front in an unequal alliance called the “Army of Islam”.
The Nusra Front created this alliance specifically to ward off American bombs by wrapping non-Islamist groups around itself. It worked for a while, although Russia was never fooled and has bombed them all without discrimination since it intervened militarily last September. Now the US has signed up to bomb them too.
The Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohamed al-Julani, responded last week by breaking his organisation’s formal ties with al-Qaeda and changing its name, but that will not stop the bombs. The Nusra Front does not indulge in the spectacular acts of cruelty that are Islamic State’s trademark, but they both come out of al-Qaeda and in terms of ideology and goals they are practically identical. Washington is not fooled.
The Obama administration has at least learned from its mistakes, and this de facto US-Russian alliance may actually have the power to weaken the Islamist forces drastically and impose a real ceasefire on everybody else. Syria will not be reunited under Assad or anybody else, but at least most of the killing would stop.
Unfortunately, if this approach does not deliver results in the next five months it is likely to be abandoned. Hillary Clinton seems committed to going back to the old, discredited “third force” strategy if she wins the presidency in November, which would mean years more of killing. And If Trump wins….
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The Nusra…fooled”)
Turkey’s democracy is dead. It was dying anyway, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan took over media outlets, arrested political opponents and journalists, and even re-started a war with the Kurds last autumn in order to win an election. But once part of the army launched a coup attempt on Friday night, it was dead no matter which way the crisis ended.
It wasn’t a very competent coup attempt. The first rule of coup-making is: arrest or kill the person you are trying to overthrow. The coup leaders should have been able to grab Erdogan, who was on holiday at the seaside resort of Marmaris, but they didn’t.
They didn’t shut down the internet and social media either, so Erdogan was able to use his cellphone to get a message out on FaceTime, calling on his supporters to defy the soldiers on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. They didn’t even shut down the broadcast media that sent Erdogan’s call out to the public.
It was three hours before they occupied the offices of TRT, the state broadcaster, and they were chased out again by Erdogan less than an hour later. They didn’t ever try to shut down the private television networks, which have a much bigger audience.
The second rule of coup-making is: act as if you mean it. This usually means that you have to be willing to kill people – but the colonels behind the coup (the generals were all vetted by Erdogan’s people) were reluctant to use large amounts of lethal force.
This is laudable, in human terms, but if you are trying to overthrow the rule of a ruthless man who aspires to absolute control, it is a very bad mistake. They took control of Istanbul airport, but they were chased out again by Erdogan’s supporters because they were not willing to shoot them – and Erdogan flew back into the city.
Maybe the coup-makers were just too short of troops to grab control of everything they needed to make the coup work. Maybe, also, they were afraid to order their troops to carry out a massacre because Turkey’s is a conscript army, and many of its young soldiers – basically civilians in uniform for one year – might simply refuse to kill their fellow citizens in large numbers.
At any rate, they didn’t use massive violence in Istanbul, and so they were soon in retreat. But there can be no happy ending to this episode.
Democracy would obviously have been dead if the rebels had won. Almost exactly half of Turkey’s voters backed Erdogan in the last election, so a military regime would have had to stay in power for a long time. It would not have dared to hold a free election and risk Erdogan returning to power.
It would have been equally dead if the coup had partially succeeded and the army had really split, for that would have meant civil war. Mercifully that possibility has now disappeared, but democracy is dead in Turkey even though the coup has been defeated.
A triumphant Erdogan will seize this opportunity to complete his take-over of all the major state organisations and the media, and become (as his followers often call him) the “Sultan” of Turkey. That is a tragedy, because five or ten years ago Turkey seemed well on the way to being the kind of democracy, with free media and the rule of law, where a coup like this was simply inconceivable.
When Erdogan won his first election in 2002, promising to remove all the restricions
that pious Muslims suffered under the rigidly secular constitution, it seemed a reasonable step foward in the democratisation process. He kept his promises about that, but gradually he went further, trying to Islamise the country against the strong opposition of the half of the population that favours a secular state.
Luckily for Erdogan the Turkish economy was booming, so he went on winning elections – and he worked steadily to concentrate all power in his own office. He removed any officials who were not his avid supporters, attacked the freedom of the media, and committed Turkey to unconditional support for the Islamist rebels in neighbouring Syria.
The rebel army officers may have been trying to stop all that, but it was a terrible mistake for which they will suffer severe punishment. So will anybody who is even suspected of having sypathised with them, and Erdogan will emerge as the all-powerful “Sultan” of a post-democratic Turkey.
The coup leaders made the same mistake as the Egyptian liberals made when they asked the army to overthrow the elected president there in 2013. Egypt had a president whom they feared and hated, but they also had a democracy which provided a peaceful means of ousting him.
Erdogan’s popularity would have dwindled with time. The Turkish economy is stagnant, his Syrian policy is a disaster, and the flagrant corruption of the people around him is getting hard to ignore. Sooner or later he would have lost an election. But like the Egyptian liberals, the officers who led the Turkish coup didn’t trust democracy enough to wait.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 15 and 16. (“It was…audience”; and “The coup…wait”)
Because most people think of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their ilk as being crazies motivated solely by hatred, they are not puzzled by recent terrorist attacks on the West like those in Paris, Brussels and Los Angeles. Like the villains in comic books, the terrorists are simply evil, and no further explanation is needed. But in the real world, being violent and fanatical does not make you stupid.
The small group of Arab Islamists who started fighting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were by 2014 the rulers of a new country of some five million people that they call Islamic State, which suggests that they are clever people who pursue rational strategies. And yet they go on backing terrorist attacks in the West, which no longer seems like a rational strategy.
It was a perfectly sensible strategy once. By the year 2000 the Islamist revolutionaries of the Arab world were close to despair. They had been trying to overthrow the dictators and kings who ruled the Arab countries for a quarter-century, and there was blood all over the walls – around 300,000 Arabs were killed in the struggles between the Islamists and the regimes in 1975-2000 – but they had not managed to overthrow a single regime.
Their main strategy was always terrorism, simply because they lacked the resources for anything more ambitious. In theory their terrorist attacks should have driven the regimes into extreme repression, which (again in theory) should have alienated the population and driven them into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then the people, led by the Islamists and united in their wrath, would rise up and drive the oppressors from power.
The Islamists had a few early successes – the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 – but their strategy did not work. The Arab regimes did indeed become more oppressive, but the revolutionaries did not get mass support. Their doctrines were too weird, and their behaviour too extreme. So by the late 1990s the Islamists were looking for a different strategy.
It was Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, who came up with a new strategy: attack the West. The ultimate goal was still to come to power in the Arab world, but rather than revolution in the streets the Islamists would now win power by leading a successful guerilla resistance movement against an invasion by infidel foreigners.
Bin Laden had hit on this strategy because he had fought in Afghanistan as a volunteer, and that was exactly how the game played out there. The Russians invaded in 1979; Islamist extremists took over the resistance movement; after a long and bloody war the Russians went home in 1989; and the Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) then took power because they were the heroes who had driven the infidel foreigners out.
To relive this triumph required getting some other infidel army to invade a Muslim country, and the obvious choice was the United States. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 gave Americans the necessary motivation, and two US invasions followed in rapid succession, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The mass-casualty terrorist attacks against Western targets continued for a long time (Madrid, Bali, London, etc.), presumably in order to give Western countries a reason to keep their troops in the Middle East. But the attacks gradually diminished as Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq came closer to their goal of creating their own state: that would clearly be easier to do if most of the Western troops had already gone home.
The creation of Islamic State and the proclamation of the “Caliphate” in 2014 was the culmination of this long struggle, and it should have ended Islamist terror attacks on the West. Now they have a real state, they are seeking to expand in Syria and Iraq by military force, and the last thing they need is Western troops around to make matters more difficult. So why didn’t the attacks on Western countries stop?
The only plausible explanation is the great split in the Islamist movement in 2014, when Islamic State broke away from Al-Qaeda. Since then there has been a ferocious competition between them both for recruits, and for the loyalty of Islamist organisations across the Muslim world. (The main Islamist organisations in both Egypt and Nigeria have switched their allegiance from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State in the past two years).
In this competition, the best and cheapest way of showing that your organisation is tougher, more dedicated, more efficient than the other lot is to kill Westerners in spectacular terrorist attacks. So, for example, Al-Qaeda sponsored the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in Paris in February, 2015, and Islamic State replied with the much bigger attack in Paris last November.
There is no strategic cost in these attacks, since Western and Russian forces are already bombing both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. The material cost of the attacks is negligible: neither organisation is devoting even one percent of its resources to them. So they will continue for a while, and the West will just have to deal with them as they occur.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Their main…strategy”)
“The Russians had a more realistic analysis of the situation than practically anybody else,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria. “Everyone should have listened to the Russians a little bit more than they did.”
Brahimi was referring to the Russian offer in 2012 to end the growing civil war in Syria by forcing the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to leave power. The Russian proposal went before the UN Security Council, but the United States, Britain and France were so convinced that Assad was about to fall anyway that they turned it down. Why let the Russians take the credit?
So Assad is still in power, several hundred thousand more Syrians have died, and millions more have fled. But Brahimi’s comments are still relevant, because the Russians are still right.
Finally, very reluctantly, the United States is coming around to the long-standing Russian position that the secular Baathist regime in Syria must survive, as part of some compromise peace deal that everybody except the Islamist extremists will accept (although nobody will love it).
Such a deal back in 2012 would have involved the departure from power of Bashar al-Assad himself, and it could still do so today. He’s mostly just a figurehead anyway. He was living in England, studying to be an optometrist, until the death of his elder brother made him the inevitable heir to the presidency that his father, Hafez al-Assad, had held for thirty years.
It’s the Baathist regime’s secular character that makes it so important. Its leadership is certainly dominated by the Alawite (Shia) minority, but it has much broader popular support because all Syria’s non-Muslim minorities, Christian and Druze, see it as their only protection from Islamist extremists. Many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities, see it the same way. They also see it as the one Arab government in the region that has always defied Israel.
The deal that the Russians could have delivered in 2012 would have ditched Bashar al-Assad but left the Baathist regime in place, while compelling it to broaden its base, dilute Alawite influence, and stop torturing and murdering its opponents. An over-confident West rejected that deal, while its local “allies”, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, gave weapons and money to the Islamist rebels who aimed to replace the Baathists with a Sunni Muslim theocracy
Fast forward to 2015, and by mid-summer the Islamist forces, mainly Islamic State and al-Qaeda, control more than a third of Syria’s territory. The exhausted Syrian army is retreating every time it is attacked (Palmyra, Idlib, etc.), and it’s clear to Moscow that all of Syria will fall to the Islamists unless Russia intervenes militarily. So it does.
When the Russian air force started attacking the Syrian rebels on 30 September last year, Western propaganda went into high gear to condemn it. Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t distinguish between ISIL (Islamic State) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go,” said US president Barack Obama. “From (the Russian perspective) they’re all terrorists – and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
All America’s sidekicks said the same thing. “These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Britain in a joint statement on 2 October.
The Russians simply ignored the Western propaganda and went on bombing until they had stopped the Islamist advances and stabilised the front. Then they proposed a ceasefire.
The brutal truth is that there is no “moderate Sunni opposition” in Syria any more. Almost all of the remaining “moderate” groups have been forced into alliances with al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, and the deal that the Russians might have brokered in 2012 is no longer available. The ceasefire they proposed in late 2015 deliberately left the Islamist groups out – and the United States (better late than never) went along with it.
That ceasefire has now been in effect for more than three months, and although there are many violations it has significantly lowered the level of violence in Syria. In the longer term, the Russians might be able to produce sufficient changes in the Baathist regime (including Assad’s departure) that some of the non-Islamist fighting groups might break their alliances with al-Qaeda and accept an amnesty from Damascus.
Maybe even the Islamist-controlled areas can be re-conquered eventually. Or maybe not: it’s a bit late for a peace settlement that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity. But at least the US State Department has finally abandoned the fantasy of a “moderate” rebel force that could defeat both the regime and the Islamist rebels in Syria, and instead is going along with the Russian strategy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has wisely given US Secretary of State John Kerry equal billing in the ceasefire initiative, and there has been no crowing in Moscow about the Americans finally seeing the light.
Great states never admit mistakes, so there will be no apology from Washington for all the anti-Russian propaganda of the past year. But it is enough that the US government has actually changed its tune, and that there is a little bit of hope for Syria.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 14. (“Such…years”; “All…October”; and “Maybe…strategy”)