Syria and the pessimistic imagination.
A number of people supporting this military action have said to me personally that 'things can't get any worse than this'. This has to one of the most over-used phrases in the English language and relates to the title of this post. What we have is a regional conflict with the Assad regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side; Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the Sunni insurgents on the other. On top of this we have the United States and France air power. The Assad military - depleted though it undoubtedly is - is still the largest functioning military force in the country. It cannot win the war but now it is backed by Russian air-power, it can't lose. Without it, the only other force capable of winning is ISIS and its affiliates. Among the many problems the American have is that they don't want either side to win but are not - thank goodness - willing to countenance a military confrontation with both sides. It is this horrible situation that we have been drawn into and one would have thought the dangers of this escalating into something wider and very much worse should be obvious.
In the time since things have indeed got worse, and thanks to the terror gripping the Turks, and to a slightly lesser extent the Saudis following the advances of the Syrian army towards encircling Aleppo, we are facing a situation where like it or not, the Americans may find themselves in something resembling an outright confrontation with both sides.
The strange or in fact not strange at all thing is how just as the Russians used the excuse of Islamic State to intervene on the side of Assad, despite 90% of the time attacking the other rebels, jihadist, Islamist or "moderates" alike, so our allies have done also. Turkey claimed to be striking against Islamic State only to in fact attack the Kurds 99.9% of the time. Now the Saudis have made the offer to send in ground forces, again supposedly to fight Islamic State. This doesn't for so much as a moment fool Michael Clarke, former director general of the RUSI thinktank, writing in the Graun:
Militarily, the Saudi threat issued at Munich has to be made credible. If a ceasefire does not materialise soon, the Russians, Iranians and Assad himself have no incentives to quit while they are ahead. Only the possibility of Arab ground forces, from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, heavily backed by western logistics and intelligence, air power and technical specialists, could force Assad and his backers to make a strategic choice in favour of cessation. Only the US could make that work for the Saudis and others – and only Britain could bring along other significant European allies.
How genuine the Saudi offer of ground troops is remains open to question, not least as the deployment of troops in Yemen in support of their own air strikes has been limited. This more than suggests they have little to no confidence in their ability to achieve much that their air strikes aren't already. Bearing in mind that the Houthis, capable as they are, do not have an air force backing them up as the SAA, Hezbollah and the other groups fighting for the government do, and that with the best will in the world the Houthis would be no match for Hezbollah, chances are the Saudis would not last long, advanced weaponry brought with them or not.
In any case, you might have imagined that after 5 years of miscalculations concerning Syria, now would be the point to fold rather than double down. Yes, we could of course let our regional allies send in troops, and back them logistically and with air power, and possibly tempt in the process a third world war, or we could say sorry, we tried, and let everyone who still thinks Syria is worth fighting over get on with it. Clarke sort of gets this, and sort of doesn't:
This would undoubtedly be a dangerous escalation of the conflict. But in the absence of a genuine ceasefire, the conflict is destined to escalate in any case as Russian forces and Iranian militias put a vengeful Assad back in control of a broken country. If that has the eventual effect of letting him deal with Isis in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor it will leave the west with much bigger strategic problems across the region as a whole. Fifteen years ago these would not have seemed such difficult choices. But after Iraq and Afghanistan they look like dismal options.
Yes, it's a difficult decision, isn't it? Do we put everything on black, and risk the possibility of a direct confrontation with the Russians, as would be more than plausible if things didn't go to plan and we really did have to support Arab ground forces from the air, or do we let Assad deal with Isis himself, leaving "the west much bigger strategic problems"? These strategic problems would be seemingly not much different to the ones we faced prior to the Syrian uprising, wouldn't they? Or is Clarke obliquely referencing how if we don't back our regional allies now, they might lose all faith in us? Is not being aligned with governments that have backed the Syrian rebels such a terrible thought? Earlier in the piece Clarke correctly identifies that Isis is not the crisis, but rather a symptom of the civil war within Islam in the Middle East, and the struggle for dominance between the Saudis and Iran. Now, if we had to pick a side, my choice would most certainly not be the one that finds common cause with Islamic State, and that has armed and funded jihadist groups in Syria and around the world for that matter. It wouldn't be the state set to be effectively fighting on the same side as Islamic State if it intervenes.
Which really does sum up how utterly deranged and mangled American policy, if not British policy also, has become on Syria. The Americans are supporting the Kurdish YPG as the only ground force they trust against Islamic State. At the same time Turkey, our Nato ally, has been bombing and shelling the YPG, which has also been advancing in alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces, under the umbrella of Russian air strikes. The Turks are once again raising the idea of a "safe zone", protected by a no-fly zone, which is just by coincidence in the same area as the Kurds have advanced into. Germany is now apparently supporting this venture, which the Americans continue to oppose on the grounds they are still resistant to getting into a shooting war with the Russians. While Turkey is asking the Americans to choose between it and the Kurds, probably not entirely seriously, the similar game of supporting the rebels through the arming and training of "verified" groups, who routinely ally with jihadists, including the al-Nusra Front, goes on, at the same time as condemnation of Russian attacks on these "moderates" continues to be hurled.
The west can choose a dangerous push for a settlement now, or a tepid continuation of a policy that promises a longer war and strategic failure in the region – while hundreds of thousands of desperate people wait at Europe’s doorstep.
It comes back to what Shuggy called the "pessimistic imagination". What Clarke describes as "dangerous" looks to me about the most foolish gamble imaginable, hoping that the Russians will blink over the laughable combined forces of the Saudis, Jordanians and Emirate nations, and the not so laughable backing of the West. What happens if they don't and they start bombing them in the same way as they have "our" rebels? How do we respond?
By contrast, a "tepid continuation" of our policy as it stands is preferable by a factor of 50. Not offered as an option it's worth noting is telling Turkey to stop bombing and shelling the YPG, telling the Saudis their hopes of overthrowing Assad are over and that if they must carry on with their proxy war with Iran they should concentrate on Yemen, and making clear to the rebels that now is the time for a deal. These would also be options, although presumably would add to our "strategic problems". Perhaps, as noted above, it's about time that regional strategy was reviewed.