Few expected Syria’s ceasefire last week to persist without serious trial. Too many players and too many moving parts are involved. So it’s no surprise the guns have started firing again.
It seems a major tipping point was a US mistake. An accidental airstrike by two USAF F-16s and two A-10s, accompanied by UK, Danish and Australian aircraft, killed 62 of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. The incident occurred at a key location in Syria near the Islamic State-controlled eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, a common target for US warplanes.
The troops were fighting IS near a mountaintop, and the US aircraft, acting on intelligence, engaged what they thought were enemy forces. Russia, which has been trying to set up a joint intelligence platform with the US for the Syria theatre, immediately claimed the strike as proof Washington’s hatred of the Assad regime extends to duplicitous “support” of the jihadists and promptly complained to the UN Security Council. Washington denies the airstrike was deliberate.
The fog of war hangs heavy over Syria, even with a vast constellation of satellites orbiting above. The conflict remains a focal point of the world system, not because the Syrians are fighting, but because it now involves every major power. Even the Chinese are there, both as militants fighting with IS and with the Russians behind Assad. That’s concerning because what happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria.
Two immediate lessons. First, the Pentagon will now assess what went wrong, how its targeting data was corrupted and whether the scenario can be avoided in the future. If the joint intelligence project with Russia is further along than publically known, then this raises questions as well, especially given Russia’s stated support of the Syrian regime.
Trusting Russian intelligence on who is an enemy and who isn’t would only be marginally more risky than trusting a fox with guarding the proverbial henhouse. Simply put, it works in Russia’s favour if the US appears reckless and barbaric.
Second, the failure of yet another ceasefire, which will probably have the effect of splitting the various Syrian rebel factions even further apart, isn’t an entirely bad situation for the US. Washington has persistently deferred engaging in any decisive way in Syria, even though it could, preferring to contain the fighting by using strategic strikes or support for “vetted” rebels where necessary.
It does this because it needs breathing room and time to think about what comes next. A collapse of the regime will lead directly to a jihadist leadership over the broken country. That’s not a useful outcome. And a perpetually embattled Assad also secretes the distinct smell of schadenfreude. The Syrian despot, after all, facilitated the movement of thousands of jihadists into Iraq during the last decade who worked to kill US troops by the thousands. Seeing him struggle must feel good.
But geopolitics isn’t personal. The subtlety in Syria is a nasty but perfectly legitimate imperial strategy of maintaining chaos as an end in itself. The entire region – the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, North Africa and increasingly Eastern Europe, – is destabilising in worrying ways. A lot of pent up geopolitical energy from this destabilisation is leaking out through Syria.
This attracts not only nation states, but non-state actors as well (jihadists, criminal gangs and other low-lifes). A lot of proof-of-concept techniques and weapons are being tested in the shattered country, both high end (Russian cruise missiles, fighter-bombers) and simple (IS assault attacks, explosive devices). It is a gladiator’s academy. The same thing occurred with the Spanish Civil War, which ended five months before the beginning of WWII.
The longer the fighting goes on, the more those techniques are honed. But the obverse of this is also true. Adventurous young men from around the world are drawn into the meat grinder, and the fewer of those left to wander the streets of Paris, London, New York or Auckland, the better. From a geopolitical perspective, as long as there is a narrative of anti-western feeling in Eurasia, the better chaos in Syria is for the status quo power (US). At least warplanes can legally bomb in Syria.
No one looks at the last few years in Syria and says, "See the US can be scared off, so we can scare them away too," because that isn't the lesson. The lesson in Syria is that defiance of the US could result in the defiant country being cast into the abyss of anarchy and civil war. The US may not win, but no one else will either. Petty? No, this is geopolitics.