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).
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Vinyl Diplomacy – A refreshing look at US Diplomacy

Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)
Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)

Diplomacy is more than high-level meetings behind closed-doors. Diplomacy is primarily the art of building relationship between humans. However, it seems that this core component has been lost leading to a decline of Diplomacy in its role, perceptions and successes, at least since the end of the Cold War. Even though American diplomacy seems to have failed on many levels, as demonstrated in this piece, there are still some glimpses of successful use of diplomatic instruments, like music, in order to deepen ties between nations and individuals. The rise of ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in an over militarized diplomacy can speak volumes about American soft power.

The Militarization of Diplomacy and its Demise

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the American hegemony, diplomacy has been confused between foreign policy and defense policy. How many times since 9/11 has the Secretary of Defense taken the lead on issues that should be first undertaken and/or overtaken by diplomats? In the US, the Department of Defense, in charged of military affairs and the use of force, tend to have too much power over the decision-making processes in diplomatic affairs and the solution implemented. Diplomacy should always be first, followed by military power, in the last resort.

The most obvious case was the race to the Iraq war in 2002-03 when diplomacy was sidelined, and even diminished/discredited, by the Bush administration in order to use the ‘almighty’ american power against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Diplomacy, at least the American and British, was irrelevant and to some degree useless. The Anglo-American couple undermined the primacy of international law, diplomacy and international organizations like the United Nations. One of the most memorable moments on the road to Iraq was the speech made by Colin Powell, at the time US Secretary of State, before the

Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA
Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA

United Nations Security Council demonstrating that Iraq had in its possession weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The fact that Powell was a four-star general leading the American diplomatic service demonstrated the militarization of American diplomacy. In the last decade, the US has not conducted proper diplomacy where it should have been; military power has been now framed as part of diplomacy. Well it should be the other way around: first, diplomacy (but credible policies with a ‘real’ support at home) and then the threat of military power in order to provide the stick. In the post-9/11 world, diplomacy is now perceived as a sign of weakness from the highest-elected officials and large segment of population.

One of the most interesting case is the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The current negotiations are complex, difficult, and lengthy. Diplomacy is and should be all of the above. The fact that the legislature, and especially the Republican party, continuously threaten to deepen sanctions against Iran and even use force affect the credibility of the American diplomatic machine. This raises important questions: Can diplomacy bring everything wished for the two negotiating parties? No and it has never been the case. Now, is the use of force against Iran a credible scenario? No. Americans are not ready to start a war requiring at least 100,000 soldiers on the ground with an endless war in sight. Americans have grown war-weary since the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the fascinating components behind the lack of trust in diplomacy and negotiation lays in the polarization of domestic debates. How can a country show unity and trust in its diplomatic body when domestically the different political forces are unable to communicate, interact, negotiate, and compromise? Once again the failure of American diplomacy is not caused by the complexity of the current global issues and/or the inability by American diplomats to do their jobs, but in fact by the degree of incoherence and cacophony in domestic political debates.

Vinyl diplomacy

Photograph: State Department
Photograph: State Department

So how can American diplomacy address these problems? What elements could be integrated in order to do diplomacy? In a recent interview for PRI’s the World, Matthew Barzun, US Ambassador to the United Kingdom has been working on his ‘vinyl diplomacy’ (listen to the interview here). In this enlightening and refreshing interview, Matthew Barzun talks about his love for music and how the US embassy has become a concert hall featuring bands like the National and Belle and Sebastian with spectators counting Prime Minister David Cameron and his spouse among others. As he argues in this interview, “Diplomacy at its fundamental level is about connecting with people. And it’s not just elected or official government-to-government relationships. … We actually do get the government leaders but in a different context. all together in one place, united by a love of music and the particular band we’re featuring that night.”

The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ is a wonderful initiative with most likely real success in building human relations outside of closed-meetings. It is a trademark of the diplomat in charged and demonstrate one of the many ways to strengthen ties between countries. Certainly, doing ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in the UK could seem routine in between two close-partners and among anglo-saxon countries. The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ falls directly under the broad umbrella of American soft power. Would any other world ambassadors initiate such type of diplomacy?

Last but not least, Marco Werman, host of PRI’s The World, asked Matthew Barzun about one of his favorite songs. It was difficult to resist and underline a common pleasure for Iron & Wine’s ‘The Trapeze Swinger.’ Let’s finish with one of America’s best dimension of soft power, music.

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