Interview with O’Globo – Russia, France and Syria

The interview was conducted in English for O’Globo, a Brazilian newspaper, over the phone on November 20th and then a written follow-up several days later. Here is a discussion in Portuguese about the intervention of Russia in Syria and its regional consequences. The interview took place before two majors events: the destruction of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, a NATO member; and the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of November. Both events have directly affected the situation in Syria by creating serious tensions between NATO and Russia as well as mobilizing European powers in contributing to the war efforts against ISIS.

Interview - O'globo
O’Globo. Published on November 24, 2015. Section: Mundo. p.25
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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Migration, Terrorism and the Quest for Transatlantic Sanity

Photo: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
Photo: Reuters/Michaela Rehle

The debate in Europe and the United States has been hijacked by a simple and false amalgam that Syrian refugees are the same type of people that have bombed a Russian airliner and killed over 120 civilians in the streets of Paris. Such amalgam is resonating among the citizens of the Euro-Atlantic nations and is affecting societal unity as well as serious policy-making.

American and European Discourses

In the United States, the political debate for constructive policy-making and governance is on hold until the November 2016 Presidential elections. So far, the political debate has been framed by the large pool of Republican presidential hopefuls seeking for attention and party nomination. Because of the two-step process of American elections, candidates ought to win their party

Photo:
Photo: AP

primaries in order to face the opposition in the second round. Historically, this part of the race is the most extreme and radical as each candidate (from the Republican or Democrat) wants to win the nomination from their party base. In recent decades, the base for the Democrats and Republicans has become more extreme. For such reason Republican hopefuls are tapping in the most radical rhetorics in order to get the nomination. This leads ultimately to ultra-nationalist and anti-immigration narratives highly embedded in ideologies and leaving facts on the side. The current leader of the Republican field, Donald Trump, has been quite tough on wanting to stop immigrants from coming into the US and even rejecting illegal immigrants currently living in the country. But the debate in the US has become even more radical ensuing the terrorist attacks in Paris. Now Governors of the states of Florida and Georgia have both claimed that they will be refusing to welcome any Syrian refugees. First of all, immigration in the US is a federal matter, so that would go against federal policies. Second, the process to get asylum in the US is extremely difficult, long and thorough.

Interestingly enough, Marco Rubio, Senator for the state of Florida, is even forgetting about his own history by taking a tough stand against refugees. His family flew the Cuban dictatorship as many Cubans did since the 60s. For political and historical reasons, the Cubans are among the very few to receive automatic citizenship. Cubans were fleeing a violent dictatorship persecuting individuals opposed to the regime; so are a majority of Syrians. If the 60s and 70s were one of the most tense moment between Communist regimes and Capitalist regimes, the fear was about protection of intelligence and the US responded through the implementation of virulent anti-communist policies starting with McCarthy. Today, the fear from the Syrians is not so much about intelligence gathering and spying, but rather about terrorism. In both cases, the American public has been extremely fearful of welcoming refugees from highly unstable places. Individuals like Marco Rubio taking a selecting reading of personal and national history and migration are affecting the sanctity of an important debate on proper refugee policies.

Credit: Pew Research Center. September 2015.
Credit: Pew Research Center. September 2015.

As illustrated by the recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans (51%) approves the US decision to take more refugees. Within this 51%, the wide majority of Americans in favor of such policy move belongs to the Democratic Party (69%), when only less than 1/3 of Republican supporters approve it. When asked about the US on doing more, only 44% of citizens agree with such statement. If Democrats were predominantly in favor to welcome refugees (69%), only 50% of them are in favor on doing more and 35% rather stay with the current course of action. Ultimately, the current debate taking place in each party reflects very well the results of such poll. In the case of the Republicans, the main argument is to limit the number of refugees, while in the case of the Democrats it is to maintain the current status-quo. Neither parties offer a true solution on welcoming Syrian refugees.

Credit:
Credit: Steve Benson

On the other side of the Atlantic, the populist and xenophobist parties of the extreme right are getting some serious leverage. Not only they are getting into power like in Poland, Denmark and Sweden, but other extreme right parties like in France are continuing their progressive ascension. The European rights are shifting towards the extreme of their spectrum in order to seek for a confused electorates. In the case of France, despite the ongoing investigations, the rights are splitting from the government  and are fighting over a ‘frighten’ and ‘powerless’ electorate. In his many speeches and addresses, President François Hollande has called for national unity and solidarity. But the rights are rejecting such unity. For instance, during the address of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls before the National Assembly, the rights booed and refused to join the current government in maintaining the national unity. The Republicans (center-right) and Front National (extreme-right) shall be called for what they are in this moment of grief, tension and uncertainty (considering the fact that the police and intelligence services are still looking

Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA
Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA

for terrorists and working on dismantling terrorist cells around the country): vultures. In addition, if one were to actually read and listen to the narratives of Prime Minister Valls, one would get confused about his political affiliation. The securitarian rhetorics of the current socialist government is identical to the ones used by the French rights. In a recent interview with international medias, PM Valls expressed through very tough language radical policies in order to curb the threat of terrorism (read here an article in the Financial Times). In addition, the PM and President have not shied away from repeating that ‘France is now at war’ and more attacks should be expected.

Politically, France is highly divided, much more than after the terrorist attacks in January, while socially, French citizens are in fact seeking and searching for some sort of unity and solidarity. Interestingly enough, the world has offered the unity and solidarity to French citizens more than its own political class. The demonstrations of support in the US and the UK (both on the right of the political spectrum and in opposition to economic and social policies of the Hollande’s government) have been quite humbling.

 The Quest for Transatlantic Sanity and Maturity

The threat of terrorism and its recent successes in Paris, Egypt, Beirut, Tunis (to name a few) is causing Westerners and others to reflect on a simple question: what does the future entail? How do we, as a society, avoid for a radicalization of our youth? and how do we secure our nations without violating our own democratic principles and values? The US waged two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for over a decade, violated its democratic principles (through the Patriot Act, rendition and the use of torture). Now the French are at war and are passing laws in order to extend the state of emergency as well as a deprivation of nationality for bi-nationals. A French Patriot Act was already in the making ensuing the attacks against Charlie Hebdo 10 months earlier.

With regards to the refugees leaving their homelands in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and others, Europeans cannot find a common position on welcoming them and relocating them across the Union. Member States rather locked them down by closing their borders and ultimately slowly killing one of the greatest successes of the EU, the Schengen agreement (read here a previous analysis on the issue). Europeans live in the absolutely fantasy that closing and re-instituting national borders will ultimately stop the flow of migrants. In the 19th century and early 20th, an ocean and closed American borders did not stop Italian and Irish migrants to seek for an opportunity in the United States. So it is quite futile to forget about history and geographical realities.

The obvious policy response from, supposedly developed countries, should be to assume their responsibilities by welcoming refugees and letting their legal mechanisms grant asylum to the few of them. The question of the Schengen agreement should be properly addressed instead of being criticized for political reasons. The concept of Schengen, a borderless continent, is fascinating but cannot work without its members boosting up their cooperation between their police and intelligence services. Free movement of people should be guaranteed, but that does not mean that it should be a lawless continent. Criminal and terrorist networks ought to be controlled through deeper European cooperative mechanisms requiring more funding, more human and material capabilities, and naturally political will.

The two complex crises of migration and terrorism have illustrated a core reality. Our ‘leaders’ need to do more ‘leading’ and less following. Governing is a complex matter that requires vision, leadership and courage. Until our elected officials seek for perpetual reelection by only worrying of grabbing an endlessly shifting confused electorate, these complex crises will linger.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Let’s talk Schengen, and the Future of European Ideals

Photo: Oona Raisanen
Photo: Oona Raisanen

Most of the killers of Charlie Hebdo in January and of November 13th were European passport holders (read here an analysis on the terrorist attacks of November 13). So why should European leaders propose to close Schengen? And why would Europeans feel more secure behind national borders, when French nationals are killing other French citizens? The rationale in dismantling the Schengen agreement is quite ludicrous and ideologically-based. Schengen is one of the great European endeavors, like the Euro, that is facing serious scrutiny because of political unwillingness and reticences by the Member States to fully complete it by fear of losing national sovereignty. Today, the EU Member States, and their citizenries, can only blame themselves for having failed to complete such mechanisms in the name of national sauvegarde. The EU is facing its worst crises not because of its inefficiency, but rather because of its incomplete construction. No one should expect a sailing boat to sail without its sails.

Protecting the Homeland

Should Schengen be blamed for the attacks on Paris? Not at all. Schengen is a legal agreement not an actor. The open-border agreement was put into force 20 years ago and counts 22 EU Member States plus 4 non-EU states. Schengen can only succeed if its members are willing to guarantee that all the mechanisms are properly enforced. Not enough coverage has been done about the lack of police and intelligence cooperation between EU Member States. In order to enforce Schengen and guarantee its success, which implies national security, the Frontex agency was created, but has never been empowered or even properly funded. The best example is the border assistance program off the coast of Italy, wherein Frontex has a huge mandate without substantial human and material capabilities, as well as fund (read here a recent analysis on the Joint Operation Triton). In an interview for the New York Times, Jan Techau of the Carnegie Europe said “those trying to benefit from the situation, are trying to redefine the entire Schengen debate in a way that makes Schengen look like the culprit here.”

Brookings

Schengen can only be as good depending on the protection of the European common borders and neighborhoods. EU Member States have been risk-averse for too long and have free-rided their security responsibilities on NATO. Now Ukraine is split in two and is fighting a vicious civil war. Europe let Russia took Crimea almost two years ago and has yet to fully criticized such violation of international law. In the Middle East and North Africa, Europe has not followed up on its promises and short-term engagements like in Libya and Syria. Since 2011 (in the case of Libya) and 2013 (in the case of Syria), Europe has been looking the other way and avoiding to deal with the root causes of today’s crises. Now Europe is dealing with the worst migration crisis of the 21st century, and instead of seeking to address the root causes and take a human approach to welcoming refugees, EU Member States have chosen short-termism once again and blamed the other. Only Germany and Sweden have welcomed refugees in large quantity and the rest of Europe is instead talking of building fences, selecting only christian among the Syrian refugees, and so forth.

Cartoon: KAL in the Economist of November 21st, 2015
Cartoon: KAL in the Economist of November 21st, 2015

No EU Member State, at the exception of France, has been willing to participate in the war effort against ISIS and even finding a political solution for Syria. EU Member States are incapable to think strategically and refuse to spend money in their national foreign and defense policies. Instead of building an army, why not strategically pooling ressources at the European level through the empowerment of the CSDP and military industrial production (here is the link to a book on CSDP). EU Member States, France included, rather protect one military industrial sector, for short term political gain, than really building up a common army and a common industrial military complex. If EU Member States are unwilling to go it alone or simply spend money into their militaries, then the EU alternative should be the appropriate one. What the 21st century has proven to experts and leaders is that realpolitiks are well alive and shaping foreign policy decision-making. The European neighborhoods are demonstrating the need to boost-up military capabilities in order to assure the basic security of the homeland, which most EU Member States are unable to do and provide.

Falling into the Nationalist Trap

In the whole debate about freedom, empowering the state, and dismantling the core aspects of the European Union, one player has been purposely absent, British Prime Minister David Cameron. If Britain has demonstrated warmly its support to France ensuing the attacks, Cameron has been quiet and to some extent welcoming the ideological debate about the EU and Schengen. Weeks after sending his letter to President of the Council, Donald Tusk, wherein PM Cameron is asking for less human Europe and more for a trade agreement (read here an analysis on the letter), David Cameron is simply looking at European capitals offering him what he has been asking and campaigning for: less Europe and more national power. It is very unfortunate to see these attacks against the European project and the reactions from European capitals.

The Schengen agreement is one of the greatest successes and materialization of the European project. Seeing France overreacting and shifting towards an almighty executive-power led country is worrisome. The extension of the ‘state of emergency’ for an additional three months can be explained considering the existing threats representing by ISIS affiliates in the homeland and the upcoming COP-21 meeting in December. The French government does not

Photo: GettyImages/AFP
Photo: GettyImages/AFP

want to see another attack during the international climate talks as it would undermine its abilities to protect the homeland and offer a primetime moment for terrorists. France is shifting dangerously towards extreme right. The call to extent the state of emergency is one thing, but closing the borders and seeking to remove French nationality to bi-nationals are straight from the Front National playbook. Not only they violate French republican values and principles, but they validate to a scared and emotional french electorate that the policies advocated by the Front National for decades are actually legitimate. The Socialist government is empowering the extreme right and could make such fascist party even more acceptable. Marine le Pen, President of the Front National, is absolutely correct when talking to the press that the current government is implementing her policies.

Intensifying the bombing over Syria and building a coalition, which has legal legitimacy after the approval of the United Nation Security Council Resolution 2249, which condemns the terrorist attacks and calls on members states to act against ISIS, are appropriate foreign policy measures. But at home, François Hollande ought to lead by empowering the existing European mechanisms, calling for greater cooperation at the European level, and sticking to French democratic values without falling into the nationalist trap. These steps would be symbols of leadership and show to Europeans and terrorists that France is not scared and feels confident in its legal and political structures developed by President Charles de Gaulle in the early years of the Fifth Republic. For the French government and citizenry, this is not just about terrorism, but as well about how France deals with the migration crisis, the euro crisis and national social tensions and inequalities. Right now, it looks like ISIS is winning and this is well too bad. François d’Alançon, a french analyst, said about the Europe ideal and project that “it’s all gone, it’s just a big fog.”

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Emptying the Spirit of the Union – Cameron’s Wishlist

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

British Prime Minister David Cameron finally sent his requests to the European Union in light of the upcoming referendum about the membership of the United Kingdom in the Union. In a letter addressed on November 10, 2015, to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, PM Cameron laid out the areas wherein the UK will be seeking for reforms in order to satisfy the British demands. In some ways, this letter is the first step in starting officially the discussion between the UK and the EU prior the referendum in 2017.

Reforming the Union – Cameron’s Demands

In a letter titled, “A new settlement for the United Kingdom in a Reformed European Union,” PM Cameron identified four main areas where the UK is seeking for reforms.

The first area is Economic Governance. In this section, PM Cameron addresses the problem of a two-speed Europe caused by the Euro. On the one hand, there are the Eurozone members, and on the other the non-Eurozone members. Britain is concerned about “the integrity of the Single Market, and the legitimate interests of non-Euro members.” In other words, Cameron wants to avoid a power grab by the Eurozone members over the others. Cameron wants to see a discussion among the 28 Member States on issues related to the Eurozone that affect the Union as a whole.

The second area is Competitiveness. The UK wants to scale back the number of regulations limiting trade and ultimately the competitiveness of European products. In addition, Cameron wants to initiate “massive trade deals with America, China, Japan and ASEAN.” Ultimately, Cameron wants to lower the number of existing regulations and their ‘burden’ in order to boost productivity and competitiveness.

The third area is Sovereignty. On this particular theme, highly cherished by extreme right and right parties accross the Union, Cameron wants to bring several proposals. The first one, Britain does not want to be part of ‘an ever-closer union.’ So no political union for Britain. Second, Cameron wants to empower national parliaments, which could stop ‘unwanted legislative proposals’ taken at the European level.

The fourth area, and the longest of all, is Immigration. On the point, Cameron wants to limit movement of people as it creates too much pressures on British public services. If Cameron mentions the mass movement of people from outside to inside, he underlines that “we need to be able to exert greater control on arrivals from inside the EU too.” In addition, Cameron is asking for a restriction on distributing social benefits to individuals leaving on British soil.

In order to feel comfortable, Cameron is asking for reaching “an agreement that would, of course, need to be legally-binding and irreversible.” Even if the 27 EU Member States were to agree of these point, they would have to go through national discussion in order to accept a treaty change. This could increase the pressure on each Member States.

Cherry-picking, and Removing the Essence of the Union

In his daily chronicle on France Inter, David Guetta, underlined that the initial response from Europe to Cameron should be ‘best of luck in your new adventure outside the Union.” The UK since his entrance in the Union has not always been a Member State pushing for the deepening and widening of the EU. But as Guetta expressed “irritation is not a policy.” The Financial Times reports that “One European minister involved in the talks described the ‘British question’ as not addressing what the UK or Europe needs, but what Cameron requires ‘to successfully campaign’.” The 28 heads of states and governments will be meeting in December in order to address the British case and see where to start. However, it is quite difficult to sideline some irritation.

The initial response from Brussels was that finally the UK has clarified its positions and demands. European diplomats feel that with this exhaustive wishlist “they will not be ambushed at the last moment with fresh UK demands.” Many experts are arguing that the only major point of contention may be the fourth point on ‘immigration.’ Eastern European members, like Poland, would undeniably reject such point. But it should be a redflag in Paris and Berlin as movement of people is one of the most fundamental freedoms offered and guaranteed by the EU to European citizens. Once citizens are confined to their national territories, the spirit of the Union disappears.

Cameron’s overall plan – which could be conscious or not – is to remove the human and ideational components of the European project in order to transform it into an advanced trade agreement. PM Cameron’s vision of the future of the EU and UK is quite dramatic. The fact that Cameron wants to maintain three freedoms (capital, goods and services) but wants to limit the fourth one (labor) is quite dramatic. The Common Market was set up around the respect of the four freedoms. Cameron political vision is directly aligned with the ultra conservative British view of the world and understanding of the UK.

To some extent Cameron demonstrates that the British conservative political class has not evolved since the entry of the UK in the Union. Cameron’s vision of the European Union is simply a space of trade and transaction without any European identity. His vision and understanding of the European Union are too simplistic and dangerous to be left unanswered. European capitals will have to find the political courage to address London respectfully and highlight the added value of the UK in the Union. But European capitals should not play this dangerous game of emptying the essence of the Union.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Film Review – An Artistic Window into the Horror of Islamic Fundamentalism

imagesCitizens and leaders of the Euro-Atlantic community are scared, and to some degree fascinated, by the rise, power and influence of fundamentalist islamic movements such Al-Qaeda, AQIM, and most recently with the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). These powerful networks are attracting Westerners, especially their young adults, to either join the fight in Syria, Mali, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan or even taking it to their homelands, like in Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, and in the Thalys. Westerners are trying to understand the logics and thought process of these networks. So far the narratives have been engrained in the traditional framework of us versus them, Christian versus Muslims, and the inevitable clash of civilization. The recent picture Timbuktu offers us an artistic look into one of these islamic networks, their ideologies, their contradictions, and the horrors perpetuated in the name of bigotry and oppression.

Aside from traditional hollywood mainstream pictures, Abderrahmane Sissako dug deep, his powerful Timbuktu (2014), into the darkness of an fundamentalist islamic movement ruling over Timbuktu, the historical Malian city and a scholarly centre in Africa. Sissako, a Mauritanian-born film-maker, decided to make this movie after hearing about a story of a unmarried couple being stoned to death by a fundamentalist islamists for having children outside of the sacred bound of marriage. This movie is, as titled by a Guardian’s article, ‘a cry from the heart,’ which shows the horror, stupidity, ignorance of radical islamists over the inhabitants of Timbuktu. However, the picture is much more than a basic criticism as it  confronts the viewers to a complex conundrum. Sissako is very careful in maintaining the humanity of these men fighting the jihad.

One of the most beautiful scenes of the movie is a group of young Malian playing soccer on a soccer field without a soccer ball. On a previous scene, a young Malian is being physically punished by the newly-established Islamic tribunal enforcing the Sharia law for owningTimbuktu 5 and playing with a soccer ball. The scene of soccer game, so well choreographed playing with a red sunset light and the yellow dust of the sand, offers one of the most stunning moments of the picture. While the youngsters are playing ‘virtual’ soccer, which includes corner kick, penalty kick and counter-attacks, two jihadists are riding in circle around the field on their motorcycle in order to assure that no soccer ball is being used. In some way, the game illustrates the limits of oppression and Sharia law. The soccer match offers a powerful moment demonstrating the power of the mind and the desire for freedom under oppression. One can compare this scene as one of the many examples written in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Throughout the movie, one cannot stop making connection with any authoritarian regimes, from the Nazis to the Soviets and so forth, about the basic concept of power and authority (reference to Foucault, Freud and other great thinkers can be undeniably made throughout the picture). Even though scenes of oppression and injustice are ever-present and make the movie difficult to watch at times, Sissako wanted to give humanity to the fundamentalist fighters, the jihadists, by showing their doubts, lack of convictions of their actions and beliefs, and their violations of their bans on the inhabitants. For instance, one leader continues smoking even though it’s forbidden; another one, in a moving scene, is dancing ballet-like; others are continuously talking about the best soccer players being Zidane, so on and so forth.

A large part of the success of ISIL and other group has been to attract muslims in joining the jihad either at home or abroad. A lot of emphasis in Western media has been done on the successful PR campaign of these groups recruiting in US, France, Britain either in person (in prisons and/or in mosques) or through social media (facebook, youtube, twitter and so forth). Sissako spends a look moment filming the making a video for recruitment, wherein the speaker, a young fighter, talks with a real lack of conviction about his past ‘sins’ being a smoker and a rap singer. The man, behind the camera whom is much older and clearly not from Mali (as it has been the case in most of these terrorist networks), is desperate by the lack of conviction of the young jihadist.

1214559_Abderrahmane-SissakoTimbuktu whom was nominated for an Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture and for a New Regards at the Cannes Film Festival, was celebrated by receiving Césars Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director in February 2015. This movie offers the only artistic look into the horror of oppression, violence, power, and morality. It does respond to the growing interest, fear and fascination of Westerners about ISIS and alike networks.

For instance, a recent study produced by the Pew Research Center looking at the perceptions of global threats by citizens of the world demonstrates that ISIS is considered as the greatest threat in every members of the Euro-Atlantic community. ISIS is perceived as more dangerous than global economic instability and climate change.

Source: Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. "Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger." Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]
Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

Interestingly enough, if climate change has been considered as a direct threat to humanity as whole for decades, ISIS was a non-factor two years ago. Al-Qaeda was the principal network since 2001. It is quite interesting to see that Westerners consider ISIS as a greater threat than climate change.

In the case of Mali, the French have been the only Western power to use their military2_TIMBUKTU force in order to protect Timbuktu and block the progression of the radical islamists. At the time of the 2012 American Presidential campaign, between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, only Mitt Romney acknowledged the growing threat taking place in Mali. When François Hollande launched Operation Serval 63% of the French citizens were in favor of the use of military force in order to maintain order in Mali, block the progression of radical islamists in Mali and throughout the Sahel region (read a previous analysis on Operation Serval here). A little later, President Obama provided assistance to the French army through transports and through intelligence gathering.

Timbuktu offers Westerners a needed look into the reality of oppression in the case of Mali. It falls in the same category of great movies looking at bigotry, power, oppression, violence, injustice and stupidity like Path of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. It confronts the viewer with contradictory emotions of anger and amazement. Dark as it is, Sissako’s core message of the unbreakable human spirit is an ode to hope.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Syria – Russia Returns to the Table of Great Powers

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Russia just started its airstrike campaign in Syria after approval by the upper house of the Parliament. “We [Russia] ’re talking exclusively about operations of Russia’s Air Force,” announced Mr. Ivanov, Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, “as our president has already said, the use of armed forces on the ground theater of military operations is excluded.” The airstrikes have for objectives to assist the Bashar al-Assad regime in his war against the Islamic State.

After more than four and half years of war, Syria is the home of a complex crisis seeing a war between the Bashar al-Assad regime, Syrian militias, and many terrorist networks. The Syrian war has permitted the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Levant (ISIS), and has been costing the lives of 250,000 civilians and a million injured, displaced millions displaced, and put million refugees on the road. The Syrian civil war is taking a new turn with the direct military involvement of Russia. A simple, but yet complex question, ought to be raised: Does Russia dictate global politics in the European sphere of influence?

The Syrian Civil War

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad never lost his power. Even though the country is highly divided among a multitude of militias, terrorist networks and the al-Assad forces. The interesting case of Syria is that the West did not see coming the fall of Mubarak and Qaddafi and wanted to be proactive in the fall of al-Assad. In September 2013, the West was trying to build a coalition in order to start bombing Syria and the al-Assad forces after he was found guilty of having used sarin gas against civilians. Two forces played in favor of al-Assad, and

Photo: AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images

still are, avoiding the launch of airstrike against Syria’s al-Assad: Russia and Western public opinion.

Vladimir Putin has played an important role in sponsoring the al-Assad regime through military and financial assistance. Putin’s rationale is that the Assad regime is a better alternative and protection against radical Islamic groups than rebels. In the case of western public opinions, they had grown war-worn especially for the Americans and Brits both involved in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade. British citizens, through the UK House of Commons rejected to grant authorization to Prime Minister Cameron to participate in military airstrikes in Syria. The British aversion to use force in Syria was a powerful signal for the Obama administration, whom refused to intervene despite the fact that al-Assad had crossed the ‘redline’ in using sarin gas. Ultimately since 2013, the war in Syria has seen the rise of refugees, displaced individuals, rise of ISIS and a continuation of war without any direct role being played by the West to stop the conflict.

US-Russia Divergences

Mr. Putin has been very clear. Russia uses military force in order to fight ISIS and support the al-Assad regime. Vladimir Putin does not want to see his regional ally go and wants to maintain Russia’s influence in the region. Putin sees Russian intervention in order to stop the expansion and rise of ISIS in the region. If attention has been raised about radical islamists trying to conduct terrorist acts in Western Europe (like in Toulouse, Charlie Hebdo, the Thalys) and the US, Russia has as well been dealing with radical islamic terrorism for decades. Since being in power, Vladimir Putin has been fighting a lengthy war in Chechenya. Major Russian cities have been the targets of acts of terrorism over the years. In Syria, President Putin has played his game carefully by first bringing military capabilities, like fighter jets, in Syria at the airbase base of Latakia, in Western Syria.

In the case of the US, President Obama is neither interested in protecting al-Assad nor keeping him in power. As demonstrated by his two mandates, President Obama has been150928153854-barack-obama-vladimir-putin-toast-exlarge-169 trying to leave the Middle East and readjust American power towards Asia. Obama’s presidential promises were to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he has done even though some military forces are still on the ground. During the Arab spring, the US with his European allies missed the moment. The US was leading from behind in 2011 in the implementation of a no-fly zone in Libya. The mission was led by France and the UK, under the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), which facilitated the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Since 2011, and especially after the killing of US ambassador in Benghazi, the Americans have been extremely reluctant in playing an active role on the ground and rather remain in the sky. But ISIS has brought back the US in the region. As demonstrated in recent polls, Americans consider ISIS as the greatest threat to the US.

Chart: Global Perceptions of Major Threats (Only the ‘Very Concerned about’ are being represented here)

Threats
Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

With the rise of ISIS over the region, President Obama was obliged to send some hundreds of military advisors in Iraq in order assist the Iraqi army and leadership. Since then, the US with France have conducted airstrikes over Iraq in order to limit the rise of ISIS.

Even within the US team, there is a certain division as reported by the New York Times between President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry. “Obama seems to approach Syria with a professor’s detachment”said David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “while Kerry — perhaps because of his high regard for his own diplomatic acuity — sees it as something he can solve.” President Obama deeply distrusts President Putin, while Kerry feels that he can work on a deal with the Russians in order to bring in the long-term Bashar al-Assad down from his leadership position.

But the tension between the US and Russia can be sensed. During his address before the UN General Assembly, Russian President underlined that the US air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were illegal and a violation of international law. Putin claimed that the US used military force with neither a UN Security Council Resolution nor with the consent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now it will be interesting to see if the UN Security Council agree on a resolution in order to fight ISIS in Syria.

Europeans, Russians and Americans

The Syrian crisis is, and ought to be perceived by the Europeans, as the top priority. From Europe, the civil war in Syria is causing regional instabilities all around the Mediterranean front, is at the origins of the worst migration crisis since World War two, and is exposing the failures of Europeans address a direct security threat to its continent. The massive number of migrants seeking for refuge in Western Europe is exposing the weaknesses of European cohesion and solidarity, European integration (see the failure of the Schengen agreement and Dublin rules), and is destroying the myth of Europe as a civilian/normative power.

The only power in Western Europe to be military active is France. Under Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, France has sought to maintain its global and regional influence and interests. France has been flexing its muscles in Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. Back in 2013, France was waiting on the Americans in order to start airstrikes against the al-Assad forces after he was proven to have used sarin gas against civilians. If French air power has been used as part of the coalition with the US over Iraq in order to fight ISIS, but it started its bombing campaign over Syria several days ago. However, François Hollande has maintained the fact that a solution in Syria cannot exist with Bashar al-Assad. As demonstrated during the nuclear talks with Iran, French diplomacy has been one of the toughest in order to assure that French and Western interests would be protected and enforced. On the Syrian case, Laurent Fabius is keeping the similar cap.

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The United Kingdom has expressed a less clear position. British Prime Minister Cameron said “I know there are people who think Isis is even worse than Assad, so shouldn’t we somehow cut a deal with Assad to team up and tackle Isis.” But the Brits, in order to show support to their American partners, underlined that a long-term solution cannot include Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. The French and Americans have been clear on the fact that any peace deals cannot include Bashar al-Assad.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy said that Russia was a central actor in the fight against ISIS in the region. His tone towards Moscow is much softer than his European partners, as Italy and Russia have always had deep relationship, especially in recent times. For instance, Italy has been the least supportive of European sanctions against Russia.

Russia, The Return of the Global Power?

Since the arrival of Putin to power in 2000, his priority has been to make Russia a great power once again. He has demonstrated that Russia not only plays an important role, but can shape global events. If Putin put himself in a corner after the annexation of Crimea and lingering war in Eastern Ukraine, he has brought Russia back at the table of great powers with his actions in the Middle East. If this aspect has been lost in translation as the world is more concerned about the approval of the deal by the US Congress, Russia played an important role on bringing a deal for the Iranian nuclear program. In the case of Syria, most powers have been reluctant to act aside from airstrike bombings over Syria and Iraq. Now Russia is actually forcing the West to act and do something about the vicious war in Syria.

Europeans have been inactive on dealing with Syria and have struggled on welcoming Syrian migrants. Aside from boosting border patrols in the Mediterranean and increasing financial assistances to countries hosting Syrian refugees, Europeans were unable to agree on a clear military operation in order to address the root causes of the migration crisis. The Americans, under Obama, have been much more reluctant to start another military mission in the Middle East. Obama promised in 2008 to quit the greater Middle East, he certainly does not want to leave office in 2016 with another war in Middle East.

With the escalation of its military intervention, Russia is bringing itself outside of the corner and rejoining the table of great powers. This last decade, Putin has demonstrated his ability to promote Russian influence and interests where and when desired. By using realpolitik, Putin has been able to promote Russia’s interests without any moral dilemmas, while the West is trying to act morally (which is highly debatable) and is actually limiting its flexibility and interests. Russia is back and the West needs to work with a complex partner.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Politipond’s Quiz – Summer 2015

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Fall is on the corner, and it is time to see how well you have been following the different issues taking place over the summer in the transatlantic arena. Take a short quiz and see if you passed.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).