Monday, 5 February 2018

Imperial games in Syria

Syria’s regime and Iranian forces have attacked Turkish armoured vehicles which were deployed to establish a blocking position near a critical front-line south of Syria's Aleppo City in the Kurdish-majority Afrin canton.

Turkey's goal appears to be to deter Bashar al Assad and Iran from providing military support to Kurdish forces defending Afrin against the Turkish “Operation Olive Branch” offensive. Meanwhile, the US says it will stop providing weapons to the Syrian Kurds.

Given Turkey’s use of Syrian airspace with fighter jets during the offensive, it is likely that Turkey and Russia have been cooperating. So, what’s happening here? Why is Turkey doing the US’ dirty work in Syria? It’s almost as if Washington planned this. In fact, someone should check if they did.

Turkish armour in northern Syria
As always, there are multiple layers to this story. But the most important is to remember that the permanent government in Washington is a beast of two major factions: the Pentagon and the State Department. All empires have a competition between generals and diplomats like this. Although there is a single goal – expansion – exactly which faction controls this policy is up to the politics of the day.

When these two factions compete for control over Washington, you get Vietnam. The result is never a victory, but either a "quagmire" (State-speak for "obstructing the Pentagon") or "fighting terrorism" (Pentagon-speak for "obstructing the State Department"), depending on who has the political initiative. One more factor: Republicans are the Pentagon’s political arm, while Democrats are State’s.

But when the two factions unify to fight a war, the result is the utter annihilation of the enemy. WWII is a good example. Washington unifies when the enemy is a competing form of government, such as fascism, not just any old enemy. Otherwise, it prefers to encourage "organic" regime change through soft power or use proxies to undermine the target state.

What’s happening in Syria is a reaction to the crescent of influence Iran has been building from Basra to Latakia. It might look like Turkey is in control, but that would be misread. This comes down to the American grand strategy which demands that no other single imperial power emerges to unify a region and control the sum of its resources.

Such a power in the Middle East would dominate the Mediterranean basin and the Indian Ocean. If left unchecked, it may also control British geopolitician Halford Mackinder's "World Island" (Eurasia), threaten the sea lanes, and then eventually America itself. Washington is always watching for this and will step in preferably before the scene explodes into a world war.

Iran has both the will and the resources to control a significant swathe of the Middle East. Syria’s Mr Assad is an Iranian proxy Washington has been trying to remove for years. During the Obama administration, the strategy was to fund terrorists in Syria (State calls them "freedom fighters") to achieve regime change. Yet State’s indirect regime change hasn’t worked, and the Pentagon doesn’t have the stomach for direct action.

However, Syrian terrorism is mainly Sunni. This is a key point. During the Obama (State) years, ISIS (a Sunni group) was treated with kid gloves, but within a few months of the Trump (Pentagon) years, ISIS has been broken. The Pentagon has cancelled State’s “freedom fighter” programme, but that doesn’t mean the Sunnis are no longer useful for Washington.

Sunnis have been fighting a blood feud with Shiites for centuries, and Shiites are generally Iranian. And from Washington's perspective, it is better that Iraq and Syria have pockets of Sunni resistance than for Iran to dominate a contiguous landmass from Basra to Latakia. But the most important Sunni power is Turkey. Turkey’s offensive represents a new opportunity to deny Iran the security of a cooling Syrian Civil War. At the level of grand strategy, Ankara can also balance Tehran's imperial ambitions by playing the other side of the chessboard.

At a higher-level, Washington’s goal is an “international community,” dissolving the idea of the country down to a symbol. The Arab Spring was the result of years of careful propaganda into the Middle East to create pro-“democracy” agitators and encourage regime change from inside – much neater than the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions anyway.

No, the Arab Spring wasn’t a perfect plan executed by shadowy CIA operatives. It was simply the effect of chaotic pressure delivered by soft power internet tools. The internet collapsed a handful of Arab states and nearly broke others. Iran and Turkey haven’t escaped the pressure of the internet either, peppered as they constantly are by "pro-democracy" movements.

How is this pressure possible? The Pentagon uses military force, but the State Department uses internet penetration. Bombs are certainly effective, but as more people log on, they are exposed to American ideals creating within them a desire to be part of the "international community." After all, the internet is the quintessential American technology: global, free and egalitarian. Internet exposure pretty much guarantees eventual alignment with American ideals.

Washington knows it can’t fight all its wars. Not only are there never enough imperial troops, it is unwise to bring attention to one’s empire. Far better to sneak in the empire’s default assumptions of good government among subject people’s traditional cultures. That way, they might even think fighting in Syria is their idea.

No comments: