Into the abyss?
Do the missile strikes on Syria make sense and what do they tell us about the future
The April 7 chemical attack in Syria has raised tensions to what is arguably unprecedented levels. Insofar as the rhetoric goes, the opposing sides in the conflict – namely Russia and Iran versus the U.S. – have never seemed further apart. At an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on April 9, the Russians and the Americans traded harsh words. U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called Syrian President Bashar al Assad a “monster” who murders children, invoking the horrific images of dead infants that flooded social media in the aftermath of the attack. Her counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the U.S. of faking the attack to justify raising the stakes and warned that there would be a heavy price to pay if the Americans responded militarily. It seems now the standoff between the world’s two most powerful militaries has reached an inflection point. What next in what appears to be a fundamentally intractable conflict?
D scuss ons are ongo ng n the U.S. over how to respond to th s latest chem cal attack. What opt ons does t have?
I think the big powers will still take care not to get into a direct confrontation with each other. The Russian reaction to threats that the U.S. is going to paralyze the Syrian government’s fighting capabilities is met by a warning to avoid escalation. Nobody wants a war between the U.S. and Russia to break out, including the U.S. and Russia. But the grounds on which they can negotiate are rather limited because there are a number of issues standing in the way. The number one issue is whether Assad is the legitimate leader of Syria. The two sides have different answers to this question. The next question is: do all the powers in Syria have a right to be there? This, of course, is closely tied to whether the government is legitimate. The Russian and Iranian argument is that they are in Syria legitimately at the invitation of the Syrian government. By that logic, the U.S. presence in Syria is not legal. This is an interesting debate in terms of international law. But the fact is, the U.S. is in Syria and no one can do anything about it. It appears that might makes right. Furthermore, we don’t know the extent to which the Iranians and Russians do things which the Syrian government does not approve of or the extent they force the Syrian government to do things that it doesn’t want to do. The question of legitimacy, in other words, is more complicated than might appear at first sight.
Is the quest on of leg t macy ntractable? Is there a m ddle ground between leg t macy and lleg t macy?
The middle ground is to forget the question of legitimacy altogether and ask what sort of Syria can be built that would be equally acceptable to the U.S. and Russia, as well as others involved. To do this, you have to identify what each party wants. From a Turkish perspective, for example, one might say that Turkey wants guarantees that its borders will not be challenged by terrorist acts. That means there has to be a Syrian government that can prevent acts of terrorism against Turkey; this is a non-negotiable position.
The Russians clearly want to maintain and probably expand their military bases in Syria. At this point, the U.S. wants to do something to counter that. The U.S. itself might want a base, and there are already small U.S. bases in Syria that have been constructed in cooperation with the YPG. So the critical question is whether the YPG occupy some kind of place in the Syrian political scene that is acceptable to Turkey.
What is needed is some sort of a Syrian political system that is neutral in its external relations. In terms of how it is ruled, the system has to allow the cleavages in Syrian society to be reflected in the ruling arrangement. I don’t know what that would be. The current system is supposed to be secular but it so happens that only 14 percent of the population produces the leadership and much of the cadres of the bureaucracy and the military. That has to change. Possibly, a secular arrangement that allows for free and fair elections, a neutral foreign policy, an effective central government that can control its border and prevent acts of terrorism from spilling over to neighboring countries could constitute a possible solution. Another possibility is something akin to Lebanon, a consociational democracy, where some of the critical jobs are allocated along ethno-religious lines and the leaders of the respective communities develop a stake in keeping the system going. For this to be implemented, some sort of exit guarantees must be given to all parties that are fighting each other today, including the elements of the current government.
Turkey has brought up the legitimacy issue as well. It seems to be caught between the Russian-Iranian and U.S. positions.
There appear to be two pressures on Turkey. On the one hand, the countries with which Turkey has been working closely in Syria, Iran and Russia, are encouraging Turkey to turn Afrin over to the Syrian government. The Turkish position, on the other hand, is that the Syrian government is not legitimate. This one side of the dilemma. The other side is that the Americans, and possibly Britain and France, are sending warships to the eastern Mediterranean. These countries are Turkey’s NATO allies and they are trying to make sure that Russia and Iran do not become the exclusive masters of Syria. Life for Turkey is likely to become progressively more difficult.
Is there an end n s ght, w ll all actors nvolved n the host l t es be able to susta n the r current pos t ons and goals for a long t me?
Well, let’s look at this from the Syrian perspective. The Syrian government is not strong. If Russian and Iranian support was not there, it would not be able to maintain its military momentum. But the Russians and the Iranians have made a strong commitment to the regime. I suspect that they will have to support it for a long time. From the perspective of the Russians and the Iranians, there is no viable alternative to Assad. But in the end, the Russians and Iranians may end up expending more resources in Syria than they ever imagined. Russia and Iran are not rich countries. They have significant economic weaknesses. They don’t have impressive domestic production capacities and make their money by selling gas, oil and raw materials to the world. The current conflict is a war of attrition and in that kind of war, Russia and Iran are more exposed. They can’t back the Syrian regime forever.