Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Cameron Plan for Syria

While the contributions ring out in the House tonight, Dave's scheme for Syria has finally taken on some flesh. Well, that assertion is perhaps too generous. Vapours would be more accurate. But a plan of sorts exists, which is more than bombing for appearance's sake, or bombing and hoping for the best.

Dave's grand strategy got a full airing on this evening's Channel 4 News via his Philip Hammond appendage. Those 70,000 figments of his imagination have now assumed form. They comprise some 20,000 Kurds and 50,000 assorted moderates, apparently. The RAF's unique capability to smash IS forces and installations accurately and without civilian casualties in the complete absence of reliable, on-the-ground intelligence is something this army needs if they're to smash their way into Raqqa and liberate the town of the blight that befell them.

Of course, the fiercest fighting taking place is between Assad's forces and that of the rebel groups variously organised under the Free Syrian Army banner. The involve some progressive, secular, and democratic forces. And groups that are not. Yet there's no reason why any of them would break from their fight with the dictator's army and turn their guns exclusively against IS. For the Dave plan to work, that has to happen. Luckily, the plan is underpinned by another plan to solve this thorny issue. The big powers have met with various Syrian opposition figures as part of the Vienna Process. It's early days, but Hammond gave the long-drifted idea that some sort of conciliatory compromise can be struck between Assad and his non-Islamist opposition whereby his dictatorship would give way to an interim administration, followed by democratic government. This would free up these sides to turn their attentions against IS and crush them. According to Hammond, the only man standing in the way of the scheme is one Vladimir Putin. Therefore the British bombing campaign is premised upon a road map that no one, not the Russians, not Assad's regime, and neither the FSA nor the Kurds are signed up to yet.

And what are the chances of such a deal getting struck? By any reckoning they cannot be described as generous. Putin's interest in Syria is the maintenance of a reliable ally in the Middle East. He knows what Russia can expect should Assad remain in power, hence why FSA positions are getting a hammering. The Kremlin is hardly likely to assent to an uncertain transitional government where, at best, a question mark is raised over the fidelity that has with Russian geopolitical interests. From his perspective, under the name of democracy his opponents in Washington, Paris, and London are looking to install a regime more congenial to their designs for the region. And one does not need to be a Putin cheerleader to see that is more or less correct. What, did you think the US bombed IS positions on behalf of the Kurdish YPG out of kindness as opposed to a coincidence of interests? IS are hardly an existential threat, despite their bloody crimes, but they do stand in the way of a permanent settlement in the region what would leave US hegemony unchallenged by Russia and Iran. With diametrically opposed interests, the idea Russia are going to roll over on a perceived strategic asset is thinking more woolly than anything ever uttered by pacifists demonstrating outside the Palace of Westminster.

If Dave didn't desperately want his war, surely military action would post-date, not precede a plan of action. But, again, the war drive draws deep from a desire to be seen to be doing something and, of course, to play the war leader. Dave's plan is fragmentary, vapid, and depends the unfolding of an unlikely scenario. There is no case for bombing.


Michael Kelly said...

I'm not convinced that Putin cares all that much for Syria as an ally. I think he'd trade the regime down the river and give a Assad a nice house in a Moscow suburb if the price was right. It's easy to forget that the Russians are still engaged in a more problematic conflict in Ukraine along with the sanctions regime as a result of annexing Crimea. To me it looks more like his support for Assad means Russia forces NATO to deal with him. I mean, diplomatic contact like that is usually the first step towards rebuilding relations. Trade helping ease NATO's Assad problem for them defacto recognising his gains in Ukriane and ending the conflict there.

There's also the issue that there just isn't much the Russians can really do with just airstrikes. Plus the Assad regime is very weakened anyway and it still looks like it's going to fall eventually. Even if they win, it's not much of an ally after half a decade of warfare. Better to trade it for something useful.

Chris Rivers said...

Putin, it has been suggested, will take the option of backing the Kurds' wish to have their own state. Britain and Nato make soft noises offstage about supporting the Kurds in this way but it's all rather nebulous and given the British and French Sykes-Picot approach hardly something the Kurds can rely upon.

Britain refused to arm the Kurds because of Turkish pressure, so Germany did so. If Russia lends the Kurds ground forces and guarantees a Kurdistan, encompassing Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria and giving tacit backing to Kurds living in Turkey, that could really set Cam's Plan on fire.

George Hallam said...

. Initially I was bemused by what seemed to be a vanity project (playing the Great Power, getting a seat at the conference table, etc.) combined with a very visible way of addressing public concerns.

Then it occurred to me that Cameron et al were playing a deeper game.

This is not just about "doing something" it is also about NOT doing something else.

The real problem in Syria is foreign intervention by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey's role has been decisive, for geographical reasons alone. Without Turkey the insurrection against the government would have fizzled out years ago. If Turkey really does seal its border with Syria then Daesh's position would be untenable.

The problem for Cameron (and the US) is that they need Turkey as a partner if they are to control the Middle-East. Opposing Turkey would wreak their plans.

Second time as farce said...

I'm not sure that the Russians are backing Assad personally, but rather the Ba'athist regime behind Assad - with which it has treaty to lease the (Russian) naval base at Tartus.

David Timoney said...

We know that UK airstrikes in Syria will make no discernible difference to the military situation, not least because airstrikes in Western Iraq have also been irrelevant (contrary to Hilary Benn's claim, Daesh stopped short of Baghdad because that is the boundary between Sunni and Shia). Clearly the vote for airstrikes is a purely political gesture.

Part of Cameron's calculation is simply making up for the embarrassment of the 2013 vote, allowing him to reassure the US that the UK is still sound, but part is surely to get credit in the bank with the French ahead of the EU negotiations that will form the basis of the coming referendum.

As noted above, Russia has a material interest in Syria at Tartus, however as this is little more than a maintenance and resupply depot, it isn't likely to be central to their concerns, let alone any peace talks. Ultimately, they are interested in maintaining or expanding their regional influence relative to Turkey and Iran, hence their historic sympathy towards the Kurds.

The problem in Syria is that this "great game" dynamic collides with a separate dynamic in respect of the Arab-Persian conflict in the Gulf, which is played out by proxy in the Sunni-Shia schism across the Middle East. The region has always been a delicate balance of multilateral and overlapping tensions, hence the geopolitical irresponsibility of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

We now have a collapsed order that, until recently, wasn't sufficiently in anyone's interest outside Syria to resolve, so it was allowed to drag on destructively, giving rise to the morbidity of Daesh. The impetus for change was not the Paris attacks or earlier atrocities but the refugee crisis of the summer (facilitated by Turkey), which led to the commencement of the Vienna peace talks in October. The UK is a participant in those talks, so you can think of the bombing sorties as table stakes.

Boffy said...

The ultimate problem is also not just the "Bogus Battalions", but who would form the government, as with in Libya.

According to Crispin Blunt on the DP today, a solution involved boots on the ground from neighbouring Sunni states, who will then hold the ring for the establishment of a new state, and government.

That's a non-starter, because there is no way that Alawites are going to agree to Sunnis fulfilling that role, which would lead to a genocide of Alawites and Christians within Syria. It is those very same Sunni States who have been pumping fighters and weapons into Syria in the first place, including to ISIS.

Nor will Russia simply sit by whilst that happens, because its not just about the naval base, but global strategic advantage in the region. Its also complicated by the rise of Neo-Ottomanism in Turkey, which is why they are pushing into Syria itself, and why they have made 1200 incursions into Greek territory in the last year.

The obvious thing here, actually would be for Russia to fill the Kurdish region with anti-aircraft weaponry, for its defence, and to throw its weight behind the Kurds and their demands for autonomy. That would give the West all kinds of problems trying to explain why they will not support it.