Saturday, 14 April 2018

Syrian strikes prove certainty is the secret sauce of geopolitics

Wait, something's wrong with the reporting here.

Not only does Washington apparently know the Syrian regime conducted the alleged chemical weapons attack (it couldn't confirm this only 12 hours ago), sources now say there were 50 similar chemical attacks since March 2017.

Who believes this nonsense? Who can believe anything that comes out of Syria anymore?

This afternoon, US President Donald Trump ordered precision airstrikes targeting facilities in Syria linked to the government's chemical weapons programme. He says the strikes were conducted in a combined effort with the UK and France, and that the operation against Syria's chemical weapons capabilities would be sustained, integrating "all instruments of national power."

British Prime Minister Theresa May aligned with the White House statement, clarifying that the strikes were intended to be "limited and targeted" and are not about intervening in Syria's civil conflict. Pentagon officials confirmed that normal deconfliction channels with Russia were used, but that the Russians were not notified of target sites in advance and they did not attempt to intervene in the strikes, as had been expected.

And a good thing too, because if Russian air defence systems had activated and attempted to shoot down the incoming coalition missiles - and missed - it would have looked pretty bad. The Russians are competent fighters in the grey zone where it's not clear if troops on the ground are regular Russian forces or "deniable" green men without insignia. Russian troops are everywhere, but the Kremlin can't claim this because that would place Russia firmly in the conventional army category, which would mean competing with the US.

Do I really have to explain how Russia isn't capable of going toe-to-toe with the US?

The coalition factor is important. In 2017, US destroyers pushed dozens of cruise missiles through a robust Syrian air defence umbrella. Not only did the US learn about what Russian-built SAM systems could cope with and how much they could see, US platforms gathered crucial data on whether their stand-off arms work. Syria is not an easy target for suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), and the presence of Russian systems in port and airbases compound this.

This time, it wasn't only US missiles. The UK and France ordinance made it through Syrian air defences (Russian supplied) and through land-based Russian air defence systems. It's unclear whether the Russians turned on their early-warning radar before the strike, but the message is clear: Russian systems can't even stop British and French unmanned aerial vehicles. That should unnerve Russia.

The fact that Russian operators weren't even confident of their own systems' success is a strategic revelation for the EU and how Brussels might choose to deal with Russian aggression in eastern Europe. Everyone just saw that not even the top Russian-supplied air-defence systems, no matter how layered they may be, can stop ordinance from passing through - even from the UK and France. That's big news.

And yet I still think there's a distraction here.

Go back to geopolitics. Syria is a battlefield, not a country. And it won't be a coherent country ever again. I have never seen so many interests competing in one battlespace as in Syria. Every major country is involved in some form, from China to North Korea to Russia and Australia. Syria is a patchwork of spies and lever-pullers.

But the most important players are Turkey, the US and Iran. The Iranians are in the ascendency in four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. That should be scary to anyone watching from Washington, which it clearly is. Whatever reasons the Saudis had to move into Yemen – good or bad – the Iranian involvement there was far less dramatic than the Saudis portrayed it. And yet the Saudi intervention may have set in motion things that didn’t have to occur. However bad it was before, Yemen has now become a Sunni-Shia front and the Saudis are proving to be an incompetent fighting force.

Tehran can see that Mr Trump is conducting his presidency like a business because, well, that's what he says he's doing. Mr Trump knows real estate and television. In those businesses, the path to success is in matching the talent to the job. If you have a bridge to build, you don't hire high-rise engineers. And if you need a skyscraper, a team of bridge architects aren't going to get you far. Same with movies.

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson was hired because of his Russia contacts back in his ExxonMobil days. To create the US-makes-friends-with-the-Kremlin movie, Mr Tillerson was the obvious director choice. But the movie couldn't be made. Now, the president needs two new movies filmed - North Korean denuclearisation and the Iranian nuclear deal - neither of which Mr Tillerson can direct. So, Mr Trump removed him and replaced him with someone who might be able to direct those movies - Mike Pompeo.

The Iranian nuclear deal movie needs to be made. The American-Iranian problem sits in three baskets: first is the nuclear deal; second is what comes after the nuclear deal 10-15 years in the future; and third, everything else. Mr Trump knows he needs to be aggressive with the Iranians in a whole bunch of places and he knows Washington is giving Tehran a free ride in Syria and none of the people who matter - Turkey included - are happy about Iran's crescent of influence from Manama to Latakia.

This is why the coalition strike itself isn't important: it is the type of target that is key.

The Pentagon listed the targets as a scientific research facility in Damascus officials say was involved in producing chemical and biological weapons, as well as a chemical weapons facility near Homs, and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a military command post near Homs involved in the most recent attack.

An RAF Tornado prepares for takeoff
This means the audience wasn't Russia or Syria, but two countries with similar controversial scientific facilities - North Korea and Iran. Regardless of Tehran's huffing and puffing, everyone knows it continues to develop nuclear weapons. The key word here is "develop." Iran doesn't actually want nuclear weapons, because that would invite a US attack. What matters is the programme, which it can always bargain away.

Same with North Korea, which has requested five concessions in exchange for denuclearisation. The US knows the North Korean definition of denuclearisation is very different from its definition. The DPRK believes denuclearisation means a peace treaty with the US, the withdrawal of all of American forces from Korea and the removal of US security guarantees to the Republic of Korea. But the fact that Pyongyang is talking about how to denuclearise - not whether it should - is a clear sign Mr Trump's message of resolve is getting through.

Kim Jong Un's control over his own state is, as far as outsiders can tell, terribly insecure. He is surrounded by a world that considers his rule illegitimate and is no doubt very happy to work with any insider ready to risk Kim's wrath and plot a coup. And in fact there seem to have been quite a few attentats in the last decade or so. Everything in Kim's regime is subordinated to the goal of maintaining internal security. If he relaxed for a second, I'm sure he would end up like Ceausescu.

Does anyone really think this man believes in socialism? He believes in himself. He believes in Swedish hookers and Dom Perignon. Kim would love to liberalise and set up controlled capitalism as the PRC has. That would certainly earn him a lot more luxury goods. The reason he doesn't is almost certainly because he's afraid to. There have actually been some attempts to set up special economic zones in the DPRK, but these piss off the Chinese for obvious reasons.

The real tragedy is that, due to its fanatical commitment to human rights, the West or South Korea can't simply buy North Korea from its rulers. I'm sure Kim would be delighted to spend the rest of his life as a billionaire ex-King of Korea, mixing it up with the other playboys in Portofino. But in real life, he has only two options: tyranny or death. It is quite understandable that he chooses the first.

So, these latest missile strikes, I think, clearly give Tehran and Pyongyang legitimate reasons to alter their framework of reality. For the last ten years, both countries have lived in uncertainty with a US president who said one thing and did another. Now they are dealing with a president who actually does what he says. Certainty allows people to plan and ironically makes the world safer.

Again, Syria is not a country - it is a battlespace of multiple sovereign interests competing, not for control over that desert country, but for political and military influence in their own near-abroad. The US has shown it is serious about removing the supply-chain of forbidden weapons and is proving it can reach through any system of protection and reduce to rubble any facility it wants to. That's the kind of lesson only a world-class battlefield playground like Syria can offer, and it helps Mr Trump film his next movie on Iran and Korth Korea.

What would we do without internationally-agreed warzones?

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