Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Donald J. Trump’s record is not that good, but he does get it right once in a while. He got it right on Tuesday, when he said that Hillary Clinton would be dangerously agressive in Syria if she wins the presidency.
Trump went too far, of course. He always does. He claimed that Clinton would trigger World War Three with her Syrian policy, which is utter nonsense. Given the current international balance of power, it is almost impossible to get a Russian-American war going. The Russians simply aren’t that stupid.
Even a new Cold War is hard to imagine. The Russians know that they would lose it in only a few years, so they would refuse to play their allotted role in any such scenario. But US-Russian diplomatic relations would get distinctly frosty for a while – and the United States, in the meantime, would be up to its neck in the Syrian civil war and betting on the wrong horse.
What Trump actually said, in an interview conducted in his Florida golf resort between bites of fried egg and sausages, was that the United States should focus on defeating ISIS. “We should not be focusing on Syria. You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”
The Clinton policy in question is her promise (repeated in the third debate) to declare a no-fly zone and “safe zones” on the ground in Syria to protect non-combatants. Those zones, of course, would deny the Syrian government the chance to recover the territory it has lost to the rebels, and deprive the Russian air force of the ability to help it in that task.
But what if the Syrians and the Russians don’t accept that the United States has the right to set up no-fly zones on Syrian territory just because it feels like it? What if they send their planes into those zones and dare the US air force to shoot them down? Then the US has to choose between backing down and being publicly humiliated – or shooting down Russian aircraft and (according to Trump) starting World War Three.
“You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?” Trump explained. If Hillary Clinton set up her no-fly zones and “safe zones”, she would be asking for a war with Russia.
She would indeed be asking for it – but she knows that she probably would not get it. The Russians might shoot down a few American planes in response, and the United Nations would plead with both sides to show restraint. By then both sides would be sufficiently frightened that they would be all too happy to back away from their confrontation.
The Russians would be especially happy to do so, because they know perfectly well that they could not win a war with the United States. Even leaving aside the question of nuclear weapons (which make such a war unthinkable), Russia is simply not a credible rival to the United States any more: it has half the population of the former Soviet Union, and an economy one-tenth the size of the United States.
So Clinton would not really be courting World War Three if she did what she has promised. She would, however, be doing something very reckless and stupid. After Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the United States really does not need to get more deeply entangled in another unwinnable war in the Middle East.
What Trump is advocating is actually the policy that Obama has been following over the whole five years of the Syrian civil war: concentrate on eliminating ISIS, and do not get involved in the rebel military campaign to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime however much you may dislike it. No more moral crusades.
Whereas Clinton, by declaring no-fly zones, would effectively be creating safe areas for the rebels to operate out of. However, the great majority of the active anti-regime fighters belong to ISIS, or to the equally extreme group that used to be called the Nusra Front and is now changing its name every week or so in an attempt to conceal its true origins as a breakaway part of Islamic State and an affiliate of al-Qaeda.
Most of the smaller rebel groups that Washington calls “moderates” are actually less extreme Islamists who are either voluntarily allied with the Nusra Front, or in thrall to it. But the fantasy still lives in Washington that it can bring together enough genuine “moderates” to create a “third force” that defeats both the Assad regime and the extremists of ISIS and the Nusra Front.
This has been the official position of the “Washington consensus” on foreign policy for five years now, and Hillary Clinton is a paid-up member of that delusionary group. If she carries through on her promises, she probably will trigger a crisis with the Russians, and she will certainly involve the United States much more deeply in the Syrian civil war.
It’s almost enough to make you vote for Trump. But not quite.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Trump…horse”)
As the Syrian ceasefire arranged by the United States and Russia teeters on the brink of collapse, it’s clear that the main problem lies in Washington. Moscow’s goal has never been in doubt: it wants the regime of Bashar al-Assad to survive. The Obama administration has been reluctantly moving towards the same conclusion, but it simply can’t admit it, even to itself.
The Russian government bitterly condemned the American air strike that killed sixty to eighty Syrian army personnel on Saturday, but everybody knows that air strikes sometimes hit the wrong people. It was a mistake, that’s all, and the Russians really understand that – but it was a mistake that tells us a lot about how far the US has moved.
Until recently the United States, still formally pledged to overthrow the Assad regime, would not attack Islamic State troops if they were fighting the Syrian army. (That’s why Islamic State captured the historic city of Palmyra two years ago: the US air force would not strike the long and vulnerable IS line of communications across the desert, because that would have been “helping Assad”.)
But the US air attack that went astray at Deir es-Zor last weekend was targeting Islamic State troops who were in direct contact with the Syrian army. It’s because the two sides were so close together that the planes hit the Syrian troops by mistake. American diplomats still deny it, but the US is now willing to help Assad, at least sometimes.
The strategic calculation that has driven US Secretary of State John Kerry into this uncomfortable position is brutally simple. If Assad’s regime does not survive, then the extreme Islamists will take over all of Syria. The fantasy of a “third force” in Syria, made up of democracy-loving non-Islamist rebels who could defeat both the Islamists and Assad, has died even in the US State Department and the Pentagon.
The “moderate” rebels that the United States has backed for so long make up no more than ten or fifteen percent of the real fighting strength of the anti-Assad forces, and most of them are actually allied to the Islamists. In fact, the “moderates” wouldn’t survive long without their Islamist alliance – so it’s time for Washington to abandon them.
The ceasefire terms show that Kerry has implicitly accepted that logic, for they demand that the Syrian government and the “moderates” stop shooting and bombing, whereupon the American and Russian air forces will cooperate in bombing the Islamists. And the targets will not only be Islamic State but also the al-Qaeda-linked group that was known until recently as the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front saw this coming, so last month it changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria) and said that it has cut its ties with al-Qaeda. (An al-Qaeda spokeman said that the terrorist organisation understood the Nusra Front’s need to break the public link, and wasn’t angry at its Syrian branch.) But even Washington could see through this flimsy disguise, and Nusra (under its new name) is still on the hit list.
Unfortunately, the “moderate” groups are not only in close alliance with Nusra, but are physically mixed in with the Islamist forces. They will get bombed too if they do not break their links with the Islamist extremists and somehow move away from them, so the ceasefire co-sponsored by the US and Russia demands that they do exactly that. Unfortunately , they can’t.
They can’t do it because on their own they could never hope to overthrow the Assad regime – and also because the Islamists will start killing them as traitors if they even try to break away. So the “moderates” haven’t really accepted the ceasefire either, and the Russians are quite right to complain that they have “not met a single obligation” of the truce.
Everything we know about the ceasefire argues that the Obama administration has accepted the regrettable necessity of leaving the Assad regime in power, although it still cannot bring itself to say so publicly.
This conclusion would probably be even clearer if we knew the full text of the Russo-American ceasefire agreement, but the US insists on keeping it secret. (The Russians, naturally, are pushing for it to be made public, but so far they have respected the deal.)
So the ceasefire, as such, is probably doomed, but the crabwise, deeply embarrassing shift of American policy towards a recognition of the strategic realities in Syria will continue. There is therefore hope that the fighting will stop one day.
A year from now, the areas controlled by the Assad regime, including at least three-quarters of the Syrian population, will probably be the same as now or maybe a little bit bigger. The surviving “moderates”, having detached themselves from al-Nusra, will hold little bits of territory and will be observing a real ceasefire.
The Kurds will still control a band of territory across the extreme north of Syria unless Turkey has waged and won a full-scale war to conquer it. And the Russians and the Americans will both be bombing the territories still controlled by Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, although in less than perfect harmony.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“The Nusra…list”; and “This conclusion…day”)
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”)