Judging by media and popular accounts, with all the inherent limitations therein and biases attached thereto, President Putin’s recent visit to South Africa for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit was an overwhelming success. Based on the tone of commentary and analysis prepared thereon, President Putin is widely admired in South Africa and across the African continent for his strong leadership qualities, although not everybody agrees with his country’s policies.
This admiration seems to have been influenced in part by the decisive manner in which Russia has pursued its military campaign in Syria and the resultant success thereof. While Russia’s aims are not universally shared, the clarity with which President Putin has outlined his nation’s objectives and the firmness of conviction he has displayed when defending his nation’s position appears to have won him grudging respect. In so doing, he seems to embody Russia’s resolve and determination to restore its stature on the global stage.
In contrast, American foreign policy towards Syria has come across as weak and ineffectual, characterised by indecision and fickleness and failure to act on behalf of key allies and “good guys” like the Kurds who seem to have been left to their fate. This shambolic policy is seen as a direct reflection of the calibre of leadership at the helm of the United States ship of state.
Coming so soon after that post-conference press interview, i.e. the one held after Presidents Trump and Putin’s Helsinki, Finland summit this past July, and amidst continuing allegations of Russian interference and collusion between Russia and then presidential candidate Trump’s aides in the 2016 American presidential campaign, it is relatively easy to see why this belief has gained traction and why President Putin’s visit to South Africa later that month struck such a triumphalist note among African commentators and media pundits.
Upon closer inspection, far from American acquiescence to Russian interests or a sign of its waning power in the region, developments in Syria might actually indicate that American tactics in Syria are part of a deliberate strategy to out-manoeuvre her regional and global geopolitical rivals. Moreover, it will be contended that this strategy is currently being executed extremely effectively.
By way of support for this argument, consider that letting the Russians take a leading role in an intractable civil conflict like the Syrian War and limiting one’s involvement to issuing threats, uttering meaningless statements on the need to “respect human rights” or “listen to the voice of the Syrian people” whilst offering piecemeal support to Syrian opposition forces and launching sporadic air raids ensures that Russia is tied up in an unwinnable conflict which will drain much needed resources from the Russian fiscus. More importantly, it enables the US to play on fears about Russia’s resurgence and the need to contain Russia, tropes which are useful in diplomatic machinations designed to entice smaller countries in the region into the American orbit of influence.
In the longer term, a comparatively muted military role in the conflict absolves America from taking responsibility for undertaking “nation-building” in Syria once hostilities cease. As America has learnt in Afghanistan and Iraq, the arduous task of knitting together fractured states lest they become failed states and havens for terrorism is a painstaking process that is both costly and complicated. Needless to say, neither is this undertaking assured of success.
Drawing Russia deeper into the conflict increases the expectation that this responsibility will rest with them in their role as the dominant power. Should they accept this duty, it might be reasonably presumed that they will be embroiled in this conflict for the foreseeable future. Given the problems Russia has traditionally experienced in accommodating her own ethnic minorities, it is unlikely that they will be up to this task. On the other hand, should Russia spurn this responsibility, they run the risk of being accused of abandoning Syria thus undoing, socially and politically at least, their military gains. Either way, the Syrian War will provide leverage for the United States in its battle with Russia and other rivals for the hearts and minds of people of the region.
Likewise, the US may countenance or even encourage an Iranian presence in Syria on the grounds that Iranian involvement could weaken their position by fomenting discontent and destabilisation at home. American policymakers may reckon that squeezing the Iranian government between escalating costs of military intervention in Syria and the financial hardship wrought by sanctions imposed after President Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal may increase the potential for social upheaval and thence regime change in that country.
Iran’s presence in Syria is also useful as it can be cited as evidence of Iranian aggression and used to justify the necessity of supporting this or that oppressive monarch or some other autocratic leader in the region who has their own quarrel to pick with Iran. As an added benefit, America can exploit these rivalries by selling greater amounts of arms to these partners (loosely defined). Citing Iran’s presence in Iran as evidence of its aggressive foreign policy also serves several purposes on the domestic front. Chiefly, presenting Iran to the American public as a threat that needs to be contained is useful to hype up the threat of Islamic terror and the need for increased vigilance and social surveillance.
Further afield, grinding out the Syrian War is also likely to strengthen America’s position vis-à-vis China even if the Chinese are not directly involved in the conflict. To see how prolonging the war in Syria impacts upon China’s geopolitical aims and enhances the US’s ability to thwart her global ambitions, one invites the reader to turn their attention to the Chinese-driven and largely Chinese funded Belt and Road Initiative. Continued conflict in Syria and the instability it engenders in the wider region blocks Chinese access to seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean, a critical cog in China’s ambitious project to move goods quickly across the Eurasian landmass to markets in Western Europe and extend its influence across the entire Eurasian region.
Blockages in the greater Syria region could lead to the creation of bottlenecks elsewhere on this route. The formation of chokepoints along the route, which jeopardise access to economic opportunities, increases the overall vulnerability and the viability of this flagship Chinese project. This is something which China can ill afford at a time when it seeks to reduce its dependence on the maritime transport route through the South China Sea as tensions there are rising and US naval dominance is unsurpassed. Thus, China’s ability to escape America’s stranglehold in the event of heightened tensions would be restricted. By implication, the effectiveness of this project (as measured by extent to which it would shift the fundamental nature of global geopolitical and power dynamics) is likely to be limited; that is, if compared to initial assessments at least.
Observe too that, despite the setbacks suffered by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, jihadi ideology has managed to retain a certain allure for disaffected young Muslims from neighbouring countries and countries across the wider region. Their disaffection can, in part, be explained by the inability or unwillingness to integrate them into the socioeconomic mainstream, which dominant groups and the political powers that be in these countries have exhibited. This includes places like Central Asia, Southern Russia and China’s western Uighur regions.
So long as Syria remains an active theatre of war and atrocities there continue to occur, it will remain a rallying cause for members of these marginalised groups, young people in particular. These dynamics and the potential security threats they give rise to could, in turn, be exploited by the US and used to justify the escalation of its military presence across the region, either in the form of increased aerial surveillance or increases in troop numbers. Alternatively, in those areas where the US does not have a physical presence, it could manipulate these groups’ grievances and often legitimate frustrations to incite civil strife and possibly armed insurrection. In both these scenarios, the US is able to counter Chinese influence in key countries along the Chinese-driven Belt and Road Initiative route and thereby nullify its economic and political aims.
Events unfolding in Syria may also grant the Americans unanticipated advantages, which are likely to favour them in their increasingly-frosty relations with their European allies. Faced as they are with ageing populations and struggling with awkward questions related to issues of national identity and belonging in increasingly diverse societies, instability in Syria and the subsequent mass migration of large numbers of refugees to Europe it spawned seems to have blunted Europeans’ desire for closer continental integration and unity. Under these conditions, the values underpinning the European social democratic project have been challenged.
This can be seen in the rise of nationalism and the shift to the right witnessed in recent national elections that have been held in European countries such as Italy for example. Should these trends persist, it could be reasonably expected that, in time, European societies (rulers and members of the body politic alike) would gradually become more inclined to American ideologies and a more American interpretation of the rules of the game under capitalism leading them to systematically dismantle their post war consensus and tear apart the (somewhat) more tempered models of capitalism and social democracy which they have developed over the last 70 years.
Having key allies identify more closely with the competing, harsher understanding of the free market system which holds sway in the US is likely to be deemed crucial to defend the economic status quo by US economic and political elites, more so when democratic fundamentals are being eroded across the West and popular anger and frustration with widening socioeconomic inequality is growing globally.
Look closely and one may even find evidence in support of this hypothesis in the recent actions of Israel, the US’s closest ally in the region, which suddenly seems keen to cooperate with Russia and to coordinate its military operations in Syria more closely. This has been widely interpreted as tacit Israeli acknowledgment that Russia is kingmaker in that country. Rather than deference to Russian suzerainty, their behaviour could indicate that the hardline Israeli leadership has discerned or been informed of the Americans’ underlying strategy and are unhappy with it.
Knowledge that that the current US administration has no intention to intervene decisively in the Syrian conflict by removing President Assad for example but rather seeks to maintain a “sufficient” level of destabilisation (sufficient: enough to warrant foreign intervention and prevent any side attaining a comprehensive victory but not too much as to make demands for direct intervention impossible to ignore), is likely to cause unhappiness amongst an Israeli leadership who, given their own security fears and regional foreign policy agenda, would like to see a pliant regime in Syria and eventually a US attack on Iran. Israel’s unhappiness could spur them to seek a second-best solution, from their perspective, in Syria. It is this search for a second-best solution, which could explain why the current hardline leaders of that country have been shuttling to and from Moscow so frequently in recent times.
And if one needed final proof that taking a back seat to Russia is part of the American strategy to preserve the macabre status quo in Syria, consider that the Syrian conflict offers the ideal context for a president who has shown himself to be indifferent to common folk’s suffering, no matter how deeply late-night televised images of death and destruction in Syria supposedly affect him and prompt him to bomb selective targets there, to do nothing but utter platitudes on human rights violations while sitting firmly on his hands. Except when he needs to use them to fire off a blustery tweet. With very few deals poised to be struck for American companies once this or that side gains the ascendancy and very little domestic attention focussed thereon, there is very little political or economic cost attached to adopting this approach.
Seen from this perspective, the view that President Putin “owns” President Trump might be far off the mark and the notion that President Trump is doing Russia’s bidding in Syria sorely misplaced. Granted, this strategy might not make America look great again, but America is winning the war in Syria. In other words, President Trump might actually be prosecuting the war according to plan and it may be going better than anticipated, for the US that is. Before re-appraising one’s views on who is winning the Syrian conflict, however, spare a thought for President Trump’s true handlers in Washington on whom the enviable task of restraining a fickle, image-conscious President who measures his performance via the metrics of social media from veering from this policy falls.
After all, indifference can only stay his hand for so long. Maybe if he begins to waver will commentators and analysts be able to speculate with some degree of confidence that Russia or President Assad or Iran has the upper hand in Syria. Anytime sooner and it is premature to conclude anything other than that America is currently winning the Syrian War.
*Gerard Boyce is Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.