In their addresses to the UN General assembly, last week, Presidents Obama and Putin focused on the civil war in Syria. Both emphasized the need for the war, now in its 5th year, to be brought to an end. They both said that a political solution needed to be found, but they differed on a central issue: the role of Syrian President Bashir Al Assad.
The US position widely supported by western and key regional states and, of course, Syrian groups fighting the regime, was that Assad and his government must go. The Russian position was that Assad’s government is the legitimate authority in Syria and it must have a role in any negotiations to bring about an end to the conflict and determine the future government of Syria. Even before Putin’s public address, Obama stated in his, that Assad might be given a transitional role, but could not be left standing at the end. This was seen as a concession by the US. Indeed, conservative critics of Obama decried this as yet another sign of his inherent weakness.
Importantly, both Presidents agreed that it was essential for the Islamic State (IS) to be removed. There was an expectation that, in their subsequent private meeting, they might be able to identify ways in which, despite their differing basic positions, they might forge a political/diplomatic process through which an end to the war was negotiated.
While there was no substantive indication of what took place in that meeting, other events which took place immediately thereafter, were very clear.
Obama invited States prepared to form a coalition against IS to join him in a meeting, which he chaired. Sixty States took part. Australia was one. Extradordinarily, given the history of US/Iraqi involvement, Iraq was not. This group pledged to step up and coordinate action to defeat IS.
Putin announced the formation of a group with a similar purpose. It was formed by 4 States: Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It mirrored the establishment in Baghdad, a few weeks earlier, of a common intelligence and coordination center targeted on the situation in Syria.
Within the same period and while this public political discourse was taking place at the UN, Russia was moving significant military assets, mainly although not exclusively, aerial assets into western Syria.
Three days after the UN speeches and talks had concluded, Russia launched its first attacks on targets on the ground in Syria. They have continued daily since then. Credible reports indicate that their targets have been, in the main, forces opposed to the Assad government, not IS. Russia has not stated why this has occurred, what exactly is intended, for how long or far this military action goes.
But, these things are clear. Russia has now entered the Syrian and regional contest in a significant way. Putin gave some of the reasons for this in his UN speech. Russia is not prepared to accept a world shaped by US power or the notion so favored by the US that is “the exceptional country”. It believes that the west abused the authority given by the UN Security Council to protect threatened citizens in Libya by extending that to regime change in Libya. Russia will never accept external intervention to change a legitimately constituted government. (See my paper on Russian foreign policy, Pearls and Irritations, January 5th, 2015)
As ever, in international politics, the stated reasons for extraordinary action, especially military action, are never the whole or real reasons. Naturally, Putin has not highlighted publicly other issues which clearly are of concern to him because of the threat they pose to his hold on power; The existence of potentially jihadist groups within Russia, and his reliance upon support from small but immensely powerful groups in Russia, principally with economic interests.
He is convinced that this pressure demand from him the visible exercise of strength, of strong government, and this in turn, is a crucial element in his wider public popularity.
The Russians and others have watched US bombing in Syria for almost a year and have noticed that its usefulness in “degrading and defeating” IS has been questionable, to say the least, but that the impact of the actions of Syrian rebels, supported by the west have been starting to threaten the Assad regime. It is the latter trend that has more likely stimulated Russian military intervention.
The complexity of the situation in the region, with facets not unlike a rubic cube, is now underlined by immediate reactions to Russia’s military actions and its 4-power coalition.
Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf States see it entirely through the lens of their obsession with the rise of Iran. They take virtually no refugees from Syria, they supply arms and money to the Syrian rebels, the very groups the Russians are now bombing, because they are opposed to Assad, and that because he is supported by Iran. They welcome some of the US’ actions but not necessarily the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Turkey, with its long and troubled border with Syria and what it sees as its Kurdish problem, and its fairly good relationship with Russia, but bitter opposition to Assad, has promoted the idea of a safe, no fly zone, in northern Syria. The entry of the Russian air force into the area has rendered that untenable.
Perhaps above all, the US at least for the current moment seems to have no clear idea what to do, although it has just been reported that it is to increase military support to anti IS forces in Syria. It is now faced with the fact that its main nuclear armed rival has now entered, militarily, into a sphere, the gut politics of which it has thought it controlled, no matter how ineptly, and expected to continue to control. What can be done about the significantly increased possibility of military accidents between them?
The underlying philosophy advanced by Putin at the UN, a conservative, state centered philosophy, has widespread appeal in UN circles and it is in large measure supported by international law. The US/UK/Australia invasion of Iraq in 2003 was contrary to international law. The removal of the Qadaffi regime in Libya was not what the UN authorized. Russia claims that its current military intervention in Syria is at the invitation of the legitimate government of Syria, and if this is so, then it’s legal. The action Russia then takes within Syria may be another matter and, it’s lying about its targets there is a case in point.
Von Clausewitz’s now classic observation that, “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, would appear to be alive and well in Syria today and much of the region in which it lives. It is the approach the US has mostly employed, parlayed as pursuing peace through strength, and the Russians have now plainly adopted.
The trouble with it is that it constitutes a continuum between violence and political settlements. It is always so costly and stupid because the settlement will come, even though it almost certainly will not be the one some would have preferred, yet only after insupportable cost. As Australia has chosen to be a participant in the US led coalition to address problems in Syria and Iraq, indeed has sent military assets there without public or parliamentary debate, we should in these new circumstances, seek respectful inclusion in policy discussion within the coalition. It should not be acceptable for our military simply to be given deployment orders. We should check ourselves any proposed deployments given the shocking errors in the US bombing of Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz.
As, it seems that military competition between the US and Russia in a common theater is now more likely, and this could lead to calls for further engagement by Australia, the task of clarifying the legitimate legal and political means by which Australia decides to go to war has become urgent .
Richard Butler AC, Former Australian Ambassador to the UN and Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq (UNSCOM)