On 26 November the prime minister made the case in parliament for extending anti-ISIL airstrikes from Iraq into Syria; he also took 103 questions from MPs on the matter. Before the debate the prime minister published a 35-page written response to a previous report by the Foreign Affairs Committee which had come out against the idea of airstrikes. David Cameron’s document provides answers to each point raised by the Committee and lays out the government’s intended approach – the strategy – with respect to Syria.
In short, David Cameron argued that ISIL is a direct threat to the UK which must be tackled directly, and that it makes no military sense that British warplanes which are currently attacking ISIL in Iraq would have to turn back at the Syrian border and not be able to pursue the same enemy across that line; that now there is a much solid legal framework for military action in Syria, after the UN Security Council resolution; that the UK has a duty to support an ally (France) which has been attacked; and that airstrikes are part of a broader strategy, which includes a political process – the Vienna negotiations – working toward an agreement for a functional Syrian government (eventually without Assad), and the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria (to which the UK has pledged £1bn), In particular, the prime minister set out very clearly – and very well – two things: that we cannot wait until the political process is concluded in order to take military action; and that, essentially, the proposed strategy prioritises the fight against ISIL (over the fight against Assad), because you cannot have a successful political process unless and until Syria’s integrity is re-established.
It is expected that a vote on airstrikes will be put to the House of Commons in the next few days; the government will likely win the vote, although there is still significant resistance from the Labour opposition (which is now in the grip of a bunch of ultra-pacifist Trots).
It is also true that not just the extreme left of British politics is against military action; there are (were?) plenty of Conservative rebels as well. The reasons for it are quite complicated, but as usual they fall into two brig categories: moral and ideologically-informed doubts; and practical doubts, regarding the feasibility of the strategy put forward by the government (how effective can it be, whether it’s worth the risk or not). I’ll leave out the ideology and focus on the practical aspects.
The sceptical argument goes something like this: ‘the situation in Syria is very complicated (especially since Russia’s intervention etc); airstrikes from a handful of RAF planes will not have any significant military impact; ISIL cannot be destroyed without a sustained ground campaign, and for that we can only rely on local forces, but these are either too fragmented, or too weak, or too radical, or ‘too Kurdish’ (from a Turkish perspective, which matters a lot) etc; and, of course, what about Assad?’. There is also a broader, almost hysteric form of the sceptical argument, which envisages a migrant invasion of Europe which cannot be controlled (so we’re in for mass Islamisation), on the one hand; and a wave of terrorist attacks across Europe, also uncontrollable (so we’re in for mass murder); both of them being linked, of course. The cherry on the apocalyptic cake is Russia, which is itching to invade the Baltics or the rest of Ukraine, which has its finger on the nuclear button, and which now is a sort of kingmaker in the Middle East.
Obviously, all this is grounded in real problems. But we must also retain a sense of proportion, to hold our nerve, and take a longer, cold-eyed view of these things.
The anti-ISIL campaign
David Cameron hit the nail straight on the head: the correct order to solve the problem is (1) the destruction of ISIL; (2) a new Syrian government without Assad; (3) post-conflict reconstruction. Strategy is firstly a question of priority-setting, and until now we haven’t had a clear articulation of the order of these objectives in Syria. All options were on the table and had their supporters: either to focus first on Assad; or to try to do everything (Assad and ISIL) at the same time, but gradually and very slowly; or let others do what they can and want, about it, etc.
Of course that Russia’s intervention focused the minds in the West, but this – an ISIL-first strategy – would have probably been our conclusion in the end, anyway. Additionally, the logic of this new phase of the Syrian conflict will not be one of an alliance with Russia in the friendly sense of the term, but rather in the sense of a limited, military collaboration on the battlefield. I think that we can lay to rest any serious concerns about a possible direct linkage between the Syrian issue and the Ukrainian one, in the sense of supposed ‘backroom deals’ or ‘horse trading’. The fact that this military collaboration in Syria (and/or other unforeseen events) can lead to some change in the political ‘atmosphere’ between Russia and the West (in a positive sense), is very possible and desirable; but not much more possible than an expectation that the Iran deal has radically changed or will change, overnight, the basic strategic positioning of Western states vis-à-vis Iran.
As regards the effectiveness of Allied airstrikes, these cannot destroy ISIL on their own but they’re not insignificant either. ISIL’s initial offensive last year, both in Syria (especially around Kobane) and in Iraq, was halted by local troops with decisive assistance from Allied (mostly American) air power. Since then, 30% of ISIL-occupied territory in Iraq has been recovered by the Peshmerga, including the strategic city of Sinjar in the north; everything, again, with constant Allied close air support and ISR – not to mention logistics, weapons, training, and even ground artillery (US HIMARS) and perhaps special forces contributed by the American-led coalition. It is fashionable to emphasise the comparatively small number of Allied aircraft involved in these operations, as well as the small number of actual strikes (RAF has reached a total of 1,600 sorties in Iraq, and only 360 strikes against ground targets). What is not as visible as these statistics, is the manner and the effect to which these resources are being used. The intelligence data that feeds into these bombing missions (the reconnaissance and analysis) is impressive, to say the least; the targets are chosen for maximum military effect (arms depots/caches, tunnels and bunkers, command posts/hideouts, individual commanders etc). Additionally, the emphasis on limiting collateral damage (the UK has probably the most missile for this type of missions, Brimstone) is not a fancy but an operational necessity relating to the wider propaganda war.
Finally, the idea is that even a relatively small number of airstrikes – but highly effective and well integrated with friendly ground troops’ operations – can have (and is having) significant effects. Beyond all this there’s the reality that the West has plenty of resources to intensify this air campaign – and we’ve recently seen that the Americans can, if they want to, to also attack ISIL oil production facilities and tanker trucks. The hold-up is, as usual, political – and there, things get really complicated. But a political problem always has a political solution – and in this sense there can be some progress, and there is now a renewed focus on this front.
As regards Russia’s role, no one is under any illusions as to Putin’s objectives in Syria, which are in the inverse order than they appear in Cameron’s vision: (1) to support Assad; (2) to destroy ISIL. Moscow’s logic is that a collapse of Assad’s regime would all but guarantee ISIL’s triumph in Syria, or in the ‘best’ case it would unleash a total war across the entire country, that could then really not be stopped and that would have incalculable consequences. The only serious argument against this logic, the only alternative, would be the idea that that assorted collection of anti-Assad Syrian rebels could: (a) defeat the regime; (b) smoothly replace the regime and ensure a stable administration of non-ISIL areas, without giving rise to sectarian conflict; (c) in the meantime, also fight against ISIL and prevent the jihadis from interfering with this transition from the Assad regime to a rebel-led regime. What can go wrong with all this?
Precisely because Moscow’s logic has some merits, after all – which are being increasingly recognised in the West – but also because the mission is difficult even for Russia itself, there’s a serious basis for negotiating a common approach and for arriving at a compromise. I think it’s difficult to assert with any degree of credibility that Russia’s fundamental purpose for intervening in Syria was either some sort of strategic ‘trick’ to get a leg up on the West and break out of its international isolation etc; and/or to support (save) Assad, somehow out of ‘friendship’, and to secure Russian naval bases in Syria. These are undeniable effects of Putin’s move and clearly they constituted major factors in the Kremlin’s decision-making process. But why would it be entirely unacceptable to think that the fundamental and end goal could be, in a very real sense – even if planned for the second stage for Russia’s Syria strategy – the fight against ISIL?
Is it really credible that Putin and the Russian high command did not make a very realistic assessment of the risks involved in sending a considerable expeditionary force a long way away from Russia’s national borders, straight into the most dangerous wasps’ nest on the planet? And in what context: with a crippled economy, with the Ukrainian conflict on stand-by, and in a cold stand-off with a NATO which is rearming and upping its game – with difficulty, insufficiently, frustratingly slow, but overall it’s improving. And with what precedent: a Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the ‘80s which traumatised an entire generation of Russian soldiers (who are now in command positions, so they should know), but which, unlike Syria, happened next door to Russia, with lines of communication that did not have to pass through a NATO state (the Turkish Bosphorus, in the present case). And, finally, with what stakes: Russia’s military credibility, which is precisely the keystone of Putin’s regime – because there are several high-risk scenarios which can lead to a ‘failure’, massive casualties or even outright disaster either for Russian forces in Syria, or in the wider sense of a war with NATO arising precisely out of the sort of incident like the recent Turkish downing of the Russian jet.
However you look at it, however you assess it, going into Syria is a huge risk undertaken by the Kremlin. Why do it, then? There are only two possibilities: either because of a risk assessment ‘error’; or because you have a serious, but extremely serious, reason. I think we can rule out an ‘error’, considering that Russian strategists have been providing us with ample proof – at least since 2014 – that the very last thing they can be found guilty of is incompetence and myopia. So we’re back where we started: what is Russia’s core goal in Syria. Is it all for Assad and some naval bases? The risk/benefit calculus doesn’t support this. (A popular argument is that Russia wanted to ‘prove’ its loyalty to its ally Bashar Al-Assad – but no one had any doubts about that, after almost five years of Syrian civil war and constant support from Moscow, so the idea is a non-starter.) Is it, then, a strategic move to break the diplomatic deadlock over Ukraine and Russia’s international isolation? The calculus is even weaker in this case. Was Russia really, seriously suffering from its ‘isolation’, or did it now become, overnight, the key player in international politics, to justify the Syrian risk? Simply, no. For Russia, the so-called diplomatic isolation was firstly only partial (only from some Western states); secondly, it did not affect in any major way Russia’s decision-making and international actions; thirdly, the intervention in Syria did not change and will not significantly change the new status-quo (Russia’s exclusion from the G7 still stands; the sanctions still stand; the confrontation with NATO continues, etc), despite the hype in the world media (see various lists of the world’s ‘most powerful people’ and so on), and even by the specialist commentariat. The decision-making structures of the great powers operate with realities, not with perceptions. Besides, there would have probably been other, less dramatic and risky ways to do something about ‘isolation’ than to send your army to Syria. As for Putin himself, the ‘isolation’ really was not affecting his political standing at all – his popularity in Russia was stratospheric even before the Syrian gambit.
What’s left is the possibility that Russia might have taken this risk mainly out of a real concern about ISIL and Islamist terrorism in general, rather than about the Assad regime itself. The idea is not that far-fetched. People often overlook the fact that Russia’s greatest security problem after the Cold War has been the Islamist insurgency in Chechnya, not NATO expansion. Nobody understands this danger better than Putin himself: he took personal command of the second Chechen campaign at the end of the 1990s. The most horrendous terrorist attacks in Russia – the Beslan school, the Moscow theatre etc – have been the work of Islamists. Russia has a Muslim population of about 20 million (14% — one in seven Russians prays to Allah), and with an approximately 2-2.5 million-strong Muslim community (almost as big as the UK’s entire Muslim population), Moscow is the largest ‘Islamic’ city between the Atlantic and the Urals (geographic Europe); Paris is in second place, with 1.2-1.7 million. This September, Putin – together with Erdogan, by the way – opened in Moscow the largest mosque in Europe, and spoke of Islam’s contribution to Russian history and culture. The idea that Russian policy is guided by various bizarre and almost mystical doctrines, such as Alexander Dughin’s ‘Orthodox Eurasianism’, makes for good tabloid headlines – but the reality facing the Russian government at home is very different. The truth is that the greatest ‘Muslim issues’ any European country (France, for example) might ever have, pale in comparison with the situation that the Kremlin has to manage, and with the potential for extremism in Russia. The idea that Putin and his staff would see in a terrorist Caliphate just south of the Caucasus a very real and serious threat to Russian national security, is not unthinkable at all – it would be strange if they didn’t.
The problem is made worse by Russian internal security services’ insufficient and inadequate resources and equipment; Russia does not have the technological capabilities for surveillance and analysis available to leading Western nations (at least not at the required scale). Even if you have them, something like the Paris attacks can still happen – more so in Russia. Of course, there’s also the ‘small detail’ that about 2,000-2,400 ISIL foreign fighters come directly from the Caucasus, with the total number of ISIL jihadis of Russian/FSU extraction standing as high as 7,000 – many of whom are keen to demonstrate on Russian streets what they’ve learned in Syria.
In conclusion, when we look at international anti-ISIL efforts in Syria, it is very important to have a set of credible assumptions (we can never operate with certainties, without classified information) regarding the end goals pursued by each party to the conflict. To restate the point made above, Russia very likely has a real interest in a massive degrading and, eventually, the destruction of ISIL; in that, there is a convergence with the increasingly clear (and politically accepted) Western interest in an ‘ISIL-first’ strategy in Syria, which is a progress. But cooperation with Russia will be very tightly defined and limited to military operations.
Ensuring security and stability within the EU/NATO area
The waves of refugees, terrorists’ ability to strike in the very heart of Europe’s greatest cities, and the ‘bear’s shadow’ over NATO’s eastern flank, represent the three great causes for alarm – sometimes, hysteria – regarding Europe’s security. Is our civilisation, as we know it, about to end? Maybe, but it will most likely not be because of this, if the issues at hand are approached with calm, without ideological filters, and with a willingness to take effective action.
Refugees. The disservice done to European security by Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s doors practically to anyone who can cross the sea in a criminal smugglers’ boat, is very significant, but not lethal. Europe will survive a few hundred thousand, even more than a million, refugees (although some things might change a bit, in some places and cities) — but on the condition that this irresponsible policy is stopped, and that adequate arrangements are put in place to manage these people. The optimal solution is the British approach, which is to take in refugees directly from the source, from refugee camps around Syria. There are two advantages to this: (1) a much better screening, in two phases (first through the local system of admission to the camps, operated by international humanitarian organisations; second, through special filters operated on the ground by the British themselves; in addition, after the transfer to the UK, the refugees enter a national programme purposefully designed to manage them); (2) discouraging dangerous sea crossings, which have led to so many shipwrecks and tragedies. Beyond this, with £1bn invested so far, the UK is the second-largest aid donor (after the US) to local refugee programmes. The true choice facing Europe with respect to refugees is not between helping or not helping; but between helping in a responsible manner (both with regard to your own country, and to the refugees themselves), or irresponsibly (like Germany).
Terrorism. We’ve always had terrorism in Europe, and the threat has increased massively since 9/11. Today this problem is aggravated by the influx of refugees (the risk of ‘infiltration’); it’s a relatively new challenge which has developed very quickly. There will be important adjustments made to procedures, resources and systems used in counter-terrorism, at national and European level. Serious security services are pretty good at learning from past failures. The solutions are there, from more (and better) technology, to more border checks etc. This is how America was secured following 9/11, so that nothing remotely similar has ever happened again, with almost all terrorist plots having since been thwarted – and the same in Europe. In time, Europe will adjust to the new, higher level of risk just as America has.
The main problem when it comes to security (internal or international) is not that we cannot implement it, but that we as a society don’t want to (unless and until the threat is literally upon us). We don’t want surveillance, we don’t want military interventions abroad, we don’t want to spend money on defence, we don’t want to offend anyone. We want it to be peace, and to be left in peace. The problem is ideological and it is anchored in the hollowing out of the intellectual political debate. The intellectual post-modernist triumph of the New Left has swept away (especially with the help of the Iraq war) all significant classic-liberal opposition – a situation from which we have not yet recovered. Right-wing populist and extremist movements are now advancing into this gap; the window of opportunity for defining a classic-liberal rationale for the necessary security measures, compatible with our real democratic values and freedoms, is closing fast.
Russia. When it comes to Russia, we are best served by realist analysis based on capabilities and strategic logic, than by anything else. The most counter-productive thing to do is to lower the discussion to stereotyping, prejudice, superficial historical analogy and emotional reactions. Russia has proven yet again (for those who had forgotten) a formidable strategic opponent. No more, no less. With comparatively much lower resources (with an economy about the size of Italy’s, and a conventional army only a fraction of NATO’s combined strength, but which has to cover an immense territory), Russia successfully handled the strategic crisis triggered by the sudden possibility of ‘losing’ Ukraine to EU and NATO, after the Maidan uprising, and even ‘recovered’ Crimea – from a Russian point of view. Russia also held out in the face of wide-ranging Western sanctions coupled with a critical collapse in the price of oil (disproving analysts’ expectations in 2014 of an imminent economic crash), and is now re-configuring its economy – in a very inefficient, corrupt and Russian way, but it’s being done. Bottom line, Russia is still very much there, and increasingly stronger militarily.
On the other hand, let’s keep things in proportion. A great many commentators were convinced, in 2014, that Russia would either march straight to Odessa across southern Ukraine in order to establish Novorussia – the Russian-Ukrainian nationalist fantasy-land – or that at least it was realistically capable of such exciting adventures. In the same vein, there were serious concerns that Russian tanks could be in Kiev (or was it Warsaw?) in two days. And all this, fit neatly with what had been determined to be ‘the real goal’ of that ‘KGB agent’, Putin: the reconstitution of the USSR through blood and iron. But what ended up happening in reality? Russia had to send tens of thousands of its own troops – including some of its best, ‘elite’ units – in the Donbass, and to fight hard in order to save in extremis the ragtag rebel forces from the Ukrainian army, which was (and is) notoriously corrupt and had been barely standing even before the war broke out. Even allowing for the fact that the Russians fought effectively with one hand behind their back (air power and other types of weapons), the campaign demonstrated something often confirmed over the past few decades by the experience of different conflicts: ground warfare, especially occupation, is a terribly difficult and costly business. The Russian army has not had, does not have, and will not have too soon anything remotely approaching the necessary capacity for waging an offensive ground campaign of any significant (geographic) scope, of any significant length, and against any significant adversary. Let alone for the subsequent phase of military occupation of any hostile territory that it would somehow manage to conquer. It is simply beyond the means of a state like Russia, unless it pours all of its national resources into that conflict (and even then…), thereby leaving itself exposed in other areas of its huge territory – something that Moscow is well aware of. This type of action is simply not worth the effort, as an end in itself.
This does not mean in the least that Russia is ‘weak’ or that it cannot cause a lot of trouble. We’ve seen that it’s very good – thanks to Russian military education and research, which has always been maintained at superlative standards – at developing new forms of aggression, such as the so-called ‘hybrid warfare’, to blend different forms of pressure etc. Moreover, Russia maintains – and is expanding – powerful strategic weapons and forces, including a full complement of ballistic and cruise missiles (conventional and nuclear), strategic air and naval capabilities, and special forces. But the main point is that Russia does not have the capacity, the resources or the intention to initiate a classic ground offensive (on any scale) in eastern Europe. Let alone against a NATO country, because Russia simply cannot have the guarantee that such a move would not lead to a general Russia-NATO war, which it cannot afford and which it does not want (its reaction to the recent incident with Turkey being a case in point), because it makes no sense from the point of view of Russia’s national interest. And those who seem to think that Russia, under Putin, has showed any particular evidence of irrationality (more than the West), should be able to give clear examples. It might be possible to identify wrong or counter-productive decisions, but I think that the idea that Russia does not calculate and that it makes ‘absurd’ moves, does not hold any water. Russia makes the same type of calculations as NATO, there’s no radical difference between them on that count from a professional point of view.
Does all of this mean that NATO countries are safe, because the Russians ‘wouldn’t dare’? Absolutely not. It’s a fine balance. All I’ve said above was that Russia would not initiate a sizeable ground invasion, especially without a clear and compelling reason relating to first-order, vital Russian strategic interests. But at the same time, Russia does have the capacity – and the intent – to continue to put pressure on NATO’s eastern flank, which it perceives as a threat; and, most importantly, it is more willing than the West to engage in conflict escalation if it comes to it for one reason or another (most probably, as a result of a mistake), and if it concerns essential strategic positions. In other words, Russia does not back down unless confronted with a force strong enough to make any potential gain not worth the effort and the risk. But unless opposed by such a force, Russia’s current posture drives it to press its advantage as far as it is allowed. Where is that key point where the two opposing forces balance eachother out? This is the key assessment made (and constantly reviewed) by general staffs and national security councils, at all times.
Bottom line, Russia must be treated seriously as an able, creative and eminently realist adversary, which has no hesitation (unlike the West) in pursuing its national interest. The main challenge when it comes to Russia – or any other rival for that matter, but especially Russia – is to distinguish between actual capabilities and perception. The secondary challenge is to operate with credible assumptions as regards Russia’s fundamental strategic posture, which comes down to the key question: is Russia defending or attacking, generally speaking? Those who believe that Putin the ‘Tsar’ is currently engaged in a sort of Russian version of the Reconquista, and that his dream is to physically (not metaphorically) reconstitute the Soviet empire, will see in his actions since 2014 – including Syria – a great Russianoffensive. On the contrary, those who see Putin as a Russian leader operating within a particular political system and who has a very Russian idea (in historical and cultural terms) about Russia’s place in the world, and about his responsibilities as president, will take these actions to indicate more of a defensive logic (justified or not). In the end, the difference (an attacking Russia, or a Russia on ‘active’ defence) is of little consequence to those who are responsible for NATO’s defence and our collective deterrence capabilities, because the practical threats and challenges we must tackle are the same. For the prospects of an eventual, gradual, politically-driven ‘normalisation’ of NATO-Russia relations, however, this difference could matter a great deal.
In the wake of the Paris attacks a new momentum has formed for taking decisive international action over Syria. It is very likely that the UK will join France and the United States in the air bombing campaign against ISIL in Syria, not just in Iraq. We now have the elements for a broader strategy. Very importantly, this strategy is focused first on the destruction of ISIL, followed by a political process to replace the Assad regime. The final outcome will depend firstly on the Vienna negotiations, as all interested parties must come to a shared compromise – including regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Important differences remain with respect to Russia’s vision, but the distance between the West and Russia on the Syrian issue is reducing, particularly because Russia has a very real interest in destroying ISIL (although the Russians differ, for now, on the correct order of taking the steps required to reach that end goal). The important thing is that there is now a renewed focus on achieving a solution, and the more the West will be militarily invested in this conflict, the more opportunities (with the attendant risks) there will be to stop the war – and the refugee streams.
European security as regards the fight against terrorism is at a rather dangerous pass, in the sense that there are still many available measures that can be taken, but it’s not clear how much determination and political support there is to do it. Practical experience is also crucial, in counter-terrorism, and now the central problem is that the threat has grown considerably in states like Germany and Italy which do not have the same CT tradition and expertise as the UK or the US, for example — but are now so much more exposed and vulnerable. On top of this, some of the leading intelligence services are somewhat reluctant to boost and ‘open up’ their intelligence sharing arrangements with other partners in Europe, as the new situation would demand, because the level of trust is not, shall we say, adequate (and for a good reason). The sort of measures now required to secure Europe’s borders are again relatively new (or at least require a serious increase in the quality and range of the checks) for those frontier states. The institutions and the states now facing this new challenge at a different intensity than previously will eventually adapt, and experience shows that terrorism can be kept under control; but at the same time we must be prepared for an intervening period (perhaps very short, hard to say) of weaker security.
As to the NATO-Russia confrontation, the situation is, largely, under control (thanks to the cumulative effect of the measures taken and sponsored mainly by the Americans, as usual), but this balance is tested every moment of every day; it is not a fixed or final result. NATO must keep up with Russia’s rearmament and evolving military doctrines. To that end, concrete and urgent investments in defence, across Europe, following Britain’s example, are absolutely vital – as is the political requirement to keep the United States firmly engaged in the continent’s defence. Much of the obstacles to all this are political, coupled with an anaemic public debate which does not put enough pressure on the political decision. In turn, an effective debate requires a sharp sense of reality that can cut through perceptions, especially when it comes to Russia.
In the end, the central problem of security is not one of resources, but of the willingness to use them. It is an ideological problem. When a nation (or a civilisation) cannot justify anymore the measures required to ensure its own existence, the game is up. We’re not there yet, but that is the direction of travel. The French invented the notion of ‘moral disarmament’ to explain their great defeats in the last century. Nothing is new: we should, all the more, know what needs to be done.