What does it mean to be a “moderate rebel” in 2016? Whatever the answer, in 50 years the declassified US diplomatic cables of this past June will be extremely interesting to read.
Three critical steps were taken in geopolitics at the end of last month. First, Turkey apologised to Russia for downing one of its Su-24 bombers over Syria in 2015. Second, Russia and the US agreed on expanded military cooperation against jihadist forces in Syria. Third, Turkey and Israel normalised diplomatic ties after nearly three years of chilly official reception.
These were steps toward the same goal: a balance of power. Putting aside the person of the President of the US – the role carries no weight compared with the federal government – it is clear that US foreign policy is developing into a post-9/11 reality and moving toward a more mature contemplation of its empire. Its broad brushstrokes can best be seen in Syria.
Elsewhere, the creation of balances of power between mid-weight nations is less obvious and appears to be taking two strides forward and one back. But in the Middle East, the balance sought between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey is developing essentially along the designs arrayed before it. Geopolitics moves fast in the region.
To achieve this, the US must create the conditions in which spontaneous order – also known as freedom – arises in Syria. The process is relatively straightforward: To maximise freedom it is necessary to eradicate anarchy and create ordinary, down-to-earth, non-spontaneous order – often requiring artillery.
Spontaneous order is the highest level of a political pyramid of needs. In ascending succession, these needs are: peace, security, law and freedom. To achieve order, always work for the next step – without skipping steps.
So in a state of war, advance toward peace. In a state of insecurity, advance toward security. In a state of security, advance toward law. In a state of law, advance toward freedom. Once military conflict is ended, peace is established. But mere peace is a low state of order. In peace, the state must work toward security by crushing all resistance.
Once a state of freedom is reached, lawful government can be created. The state can generally improve itself by minimising its interventions and applying a policy of laissez-faire – proceeding from enforced to spontaneous order. With the proviso, of course, that this policy not jeopardise the more important achievements of peace, security and law. In Syria, the US cannot or will not engage the anarchic state to enforce peace, so proxies are used. This is how Turkey, Israel, Russia and the “moderate rebels” enter the stage.
Israel is in the best security position since the Cold War. None of its former enemies threaten it while some are treaty-bound not to. Mending ties with Turkey was an inevitability, especially considering the two have a mutual enemy in Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Israel is still the weakest of the four powers and, while its normalisation with Turkey is important, it is a kingmaker in the emerging balance.
There is still work for Israel in suppressing the anarchy in Syria and it will intervene unilaterally across the region whenever its intelligence warns. The decision to include itself in the emerging balance – keeping up with the changes occurring around it – by aligning with the only one of the four powers that does not have specifically anti-Israel tendencies was not so much wisdom as the only choice available. This will do, for now.
Turkey’s plan to stubbornly stand with hands shoved in pockets is proving impossible for its worried and vulnerable leader. Power-hungry President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watched with indifference the immolation of the lands to his south after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, preferring not to become involved in what he considered a geopolitical dead end. That luxury has now ended.
During that time Turkey developed into a significant regional power. Aside from US forces stationed in Europe, Turkey boasts the largest military force on the continent. Its geography also covers some of the most strategic points in Asia, and its history is deeply connected to the inner workings of the Middle East. Turkey, try as it liked to avoid entanglement, was always going to re-engage eventually and it sees Syria as a win-win option.
Russia is playing its own game, as always, a game in which it thinks of itself as dungeon master. This is a role it is encouraged to believe, so long as it doesn’t notice its strings.
As this column has outlined earlier, the reason Russia became involved in Syria in September was as a show of faith to earn concessions from the US in the Ukraine negotiations. It was happy to assist in Syria if it meant moving closer to that critical goal.
This is where the declassified documents will be so intriguing. The result of Russia’s Syria intervention was the bolstering of a teetering Syrian regime, avoidance of a power vacuum and the denial of an Islamic State-led country. None of which the US wanted to do itself. Russia knew it did the US a favour and something like that is always written down.
The announcement of enhanced cooperation advances this favour. Russia agrees to cease air-strikes on US-backed rebels in exchange for receiving targeting intelligence from the US over jihadist forces in Syria. The deal will result in an escalation of strikes against Islamist forces. But from the outside the deal looks remarkably like mission-creep for Moscow and one step closer to spontaneous order.
The US is getting what it wants and it is using moderate rebels to get there. In many ways “moderate rebels” is best understood as anyone furthering the US interest of encouraging spontaneous order in Syria. Just because it may be a nation state does not subtract from the desired outcome. The results are the same either way.
The “moderate rebels” including Russia, Turkey, Israel and Syrian democratic forces will help usher in Washington’s balance. The trappings of power will be handed down as reward but the actual power will remain firmly in Washington’s grip. This is how an empire conducts itself. Officials on both sides of the Potomac are learning how to do just that. Good thing too – and about time: They will all need these skills in the dangerous decades to come.