Photo – Eastern Aleppo, December 2016 – © Jan Oberg
January 17, 2020
If Western leaders are able to put aside the now worn-out cliches such as Russian Vladimir Putin ‘punching above his weight,’ ‘Trump handing Putin a victory on a silver plate’, not to mention ‘Trump as Putin agent’, there are serious lessons that they might still be able to draw from Putin’s looming victory in Syria.
First, the era in which the United States and/or the West (NATO) can dictate outcomes anywhere across the globe unilaterally has ended. Events in Syria are but the latest confirmation of this fact, but many in Washington and Brussels still do not see it. NATO expansion drove Russia into China’s arms, and the rest is history and the future.
Second, Washington and Brussels (NATO and less so EU) must abandon some aspects of its idealism for realism in foreign policy.
Third, hubris, cynicism, and their handmaiden of ethical if not financial corruption have become an obstacle, not ‘facilitating grease’ for the implementation of Western foreign policies pursued by Washington and Brussels.
Fourth, the West must create mechanisms for protecting the conduct of foreign policy from the influence of domestic political competition, as was clearly over the top in Syria and more so in Ukraine.
Fifth, while a tough negotiator and dangerous enemy, Putin is an effective tactician and diplomat and improving strategist, who has outplayed the West in Syria and elsewhere precisely because of the Western deficiencies outlined above.
Unipolarism’s Grave: ‘We Came, We Saw, He Died’
Putin’s successful intervention in Syria and utilization of not just Iranian interests but also those of NATO member Turkey has demonstrated that even a ‘country with ‘an economy the size of that of the Netherlands’ can foil American plans for color revolution and inflict great damage to America’s interests and reputation in foreign affairs through effective diplomacy and measured military means.
By exposing the new Washington style of hubris, cynicism, and corruption in Syria, Putin’s Syria intervention put the last nail in the coffin of the United States’ ability to dictate outcomes anywhere across the globe and define the future. Events in Syria are but the latest confirmation of this fact, but many in Washington and Brussels still do not see it. NATO expansion without Russia continues to push the West on the same dangerous road of radicalizing Russian anti-Westernism, strengthening the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, and creating a phalanx of authoritarian regimes strongly opposed to American and even Western interests.
Thus, the world is not only no longer unipolar. It is becoming bipolar or multipolar in ways exceedingly detrimental to Western interests and international stability and security. This is a disaster not just for Washington and Brussels but for the world, and mantras about Russian imperialism and totalitarianism will prove of no help.
The West must rein in its ambitions for continued global hegemony and reshaping the world in its own image carried out unilaterally.
We in the West must have the wisdom, confidence, and compassion: (1) the wisdom not to force change artificially but rather to allow them to occur much more spontaneously; (2) the confidence that sooner or later the rest of the world will adopt values of democracy, human rights, rule of law virtually on its own because they are superior values morally and in terms of societal strength and efficiency; and (3) the compassion to refrain from risking destabilizing entire countries and regions in our haste to transform the world, especially as one source of our haste is that Western policies are not wholly altruistic but are driven by our own interests.
Thus, the West must seek ways to achieve goals multilaterally more often than is the case today, while not foregoing its pursuit of global acceptance of democratic and human rights principles and ideals.
In Eurasia, the West might try more directly, robustly, and broadly applying the recent approach taken in Moldova in which it partnered with the regional power broker, Russia, and the West to avert a crisis in Eastern Europe next door to unstable Ukraine by preventing a corrupt oligarch from seizing power there.
Second, Washington and Brussels must abandon some aspects of its idealist-driven hubris for a return to realism, not cynicism, in foreign policy. The ideologization of Western foreign policy built on liberal-leftist ideals of identity politics, ‘institutional racism,’ and destabilizing dual-use political technology of democracy-promotion must be rolled back considerably in order to avoid sparking revolutions artificially.
Revolution-promotion should only to be used against states that pose a grave threat to the West or international stability. Not every state and society is required to mirror the US and Europe.
In fact, today in the West idealism is used cynically to pursue realist foreign policy objectives. What really needs to be done is to separate idealism and realism, so both function more consistently.
For example, US foreign policy’s utilization of identity politics is very uneven. For example, on the one hand, it criticizes Moscow for violations of minority rights but focuses virtually no attention on this issue when it comes to its Arab allies. Washington and Brussels are very critical of what it views as ‘russification’ in Moscow’s language and education policies but largely ignore Ukrainization by Kyiv.
With the exception of the ‘Arab Winter’, democracy-promotion revolutionism has had a strange propensity to be realized in actual revolutionary upheavals against regimes closely tied with countries that oppose Western, in particular, US interests, in particular, Russia and China: Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kirghizistan, most recently Hong Kong. There was no ‘Arab spring’ in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, or the UAE.
Where there was an Arab Spring, it was artificially induced using social media that made the protests far more robust than the level of discontent in society. Moreover, the tech-revolutions or ‘techolutions’ are not likely to be successful if they are not based on the intricacies of the target countries internal politics and culture, which are very difficult to harness in the service of such grand enterprises as political and social revolution.
Obama’s disastrous Muslim Brotherhood (MB) strategy is a case in point.
It was a misguided attempt to apply leftist identity politics’ affirmative action in the international arena – the result of one American president’s peculiar belief (not religious faith) in the ‘power of Islam’ in a multi-confessional and secularizing society. Under President Obama’s ideological delusion that Islamists can be regarded as moderates worthy of partnership with democracies and other civilized states in the war against jihadism, his administration undertook a series of high-stakes, ideologically-driven and naive policy gambits, misnamed the ‘Arab Spring.’
It turned out to be the coldest spring on record. In and of itself sympathy for Islam is not necessarily a problem. If it is measured and indirectly influences a few, non-strategic policies, then fine.
However, Obama sought to instrumentalize specifically political Islam in one of its worst forms. His 2011 directive, Presidential Study Directive-11, or PSD-11, according to the Washington Times, outlined a strategy for backing the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East as a strategy for supporting reform and blocking jihadism’s advances in the region.
Obama’s pro-MB policy, begun in the eventually reversed Egyptian revolution, delivered weapons and funding to Libyan rebels and then to Syrian rebels through Libya, Turkey and Arab allies in defiance of US intelligence findings that those weapons would likely end up in the hands of Al Qa`ida (AQ) and the Islamic State (ISIS) and give rise to a jihadist stronghold in the Syrian-Iraqi border regions (See here and here).
Then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was an enthusiastic ‘executioner’ of this policy and when it began to backfire as it did in Benghazi with the 2012 murder by MB and AQ elements of a US ambassador and CIA operatives arranging weapons transport from Libya through NATO member Turkey to Syria, Clinton along with President Obama covered up the unfolding disaster by conjuring along with the corrupt US mainstream media ‘fake news’ – a revolt supposedly inspired by a video – and imprisoning the filmmaker.
Democracy along with the image of ‘shining city on the hill’ of the American example were dying in the darkness. The rise of ISIS, AQ-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and a host of smaller jihadi groups to dominance within the Syrian rebel movement over ‘democratic’ elements such as the MB was kept from the American people by the government, military, media coverup, fostering the fake news about ‘pro-democracy rebels’ and the like. No hearings on any of this, except the Benghazi murders, occurred.
Republicans’ preferences for high levels of defense spending and unlimited maximization American power abroad trumped a search for the truth that might damage their erstwhile Democrat foes.
Leaving the great policy failure in the Levant desert in relative obscurity as far as the American public is concerned reserved the possibility of future revolutionist adventures in places like Ukraine. Indeed, the Maidan revolt is another example of overly ambitious but poorly informed demo-promotion techolution gone wrong; one unexpectedly hijacked by neofascist snipers on 20 February 2014 and that grossly underestimated the effect events in Kyiv and western Ukraine would have on Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
This underestimation was predetermined by more hubris, wishful thinking, and an unwillingness to absorb the intricacies of Ukraine’s badly fractured polity, shaped by centuries of conflict between its east and west.
Unevenness in demo-promotion is also evident in its economics. Leftist economics has still not penetrated the democracy-promotion agenda; market economics is still the liberal order’s ideal at least abroad.
The IMF and World Bank withhold assistance if liberal economic reforms are not implemented quickly enough, often ignoring the domestic and international political consequences of assistance delay.
In some cases, it is in the West’s interests not to promote market reforms, no less insist on them. For example, if the US sees itself in competition, no less in another ‘twilight struggle’ with Moscow, then is it not in US interests to ‘let Moscow be Moscow’ and maintain the high level of state control over its economy.
According to Western mainstream political and economic thought, a country’s international influence is in large part a function of its economic power and effectiveness, and dirigisme in economies is inefficient. So let Moscow figure it out, and in the meantime avoid adding another irritant to the relationship by denigrating its system or — should a reformist government emerge at some point — insisting on liberal economic reforms, which pose political risks domestically and to the US-Russian relationship, as occurred in the 1990s when poorly designed, American-influenced economic privatization and other reforms damaged the reputation of democracy and markets in Russia and Russians’ image of the US.
Tə-ˈmā-tō/To-ˈmä-to, Pə-ˈtā-tō/Po-ˈtä-to, Russiagate-Ukrainegate
The scale of the domestication of American foreign policy has rendered it almost nothing more than a football in US domestic political battles and a means by which presidents and presidential wannabes can build their legacies, line their pockets and those of the prospective election campaigns.
Corrupt politicians secure positions for their corrupt sons and daughters in countries ‘liberated’ from corrupt Russia’ such as Ukraine and its criminally-owned gas company Burisma. More and more, idealistic realism in U.S. foreign policy, once anchored by the sensibilities of the middle of its political spectrum, is held hostage to presidential ambitions, other careerist ambitions, and radical social engineers intent on foisting on the world their peculiar vision of the liberal world order, one that is increasingly socialist and identity-revanchist.
Ideological blinkers and dreams render the goals of U.S. foreign policy divorced from realities on the ground, sacrificed to the illusions and wishful thinking of social engineering careerists in elite capitols, most notably Washington and Brussels. All this overlays more traditional imbalances in American foreign policy-making, such as long-standing revolutionism going back to 1789, an excessive influence or even subordination to business interests, and the powerful institutional interests of the military and intelligence services.
The West, especially Washington, must create mechanisms for protecting the conduct of foreign policy from the influence of domestic political competition.
The American Republican and especially Democratic Parties are eschewing the pursuit of the national interest in order to pursue their own agendas abroad. In Ukraine, for example, it appears the two leading American parties were competing for influence over key actors. Perhaps, they each had their own factional fiefdoms, competing against each other ‘for Ukraine and America.’
Back home, the US’s anti-intellectual, ‘sportified’ allegiance to one team (party) or another to the exclusion of any pursuit for the truth. Fans of ‘Team R’ reject out of hand any wrongdoing by Trump and even the possibility of honesty or patriotism on ‘Team D’. Few Team R fans criticize Trump’s vulgarity, egoism, and corruption.
Fans of Team D had little to say when Obama, Clinton and the Podestas played footsie with Putin, Assad, and Yanukovych just a decade ago, but they are outraged that members of Team R did so. Fans of ‘Team D’ are convinced Trump colluded with Putin, absent any and all evidence, and reject any accusations against their key players Obama and Clinton, despite mountains of evidence of corruption, obfuscation, and lying.
Russia and Ukraine have become baseball bats for bashing the other Team and its fans over the proverbial head, rather than a profound civilizational and geostrategic problem that needs to be solved in order to preserve the peace. Putin becomes Hitler and Ukraine the vanguard of Europe protecting the West against the Russian horde.
No sound foreign policy can emerge from an elite entangled in such a moral, ethical, and intellectual morass.
Finally, disjointed radical idealism, national hubris, and elite cynicism have yielded their handmaiden: corruption. Just the mention of a few last names and scandals depict the new scale of the problem: Russia-gate, Ukraine-gate, Uranium-gate, Manafort, Podesta, Giuliani, Chalupa, Steele, Shearer, and many, many others. Moral if not financial corruption has become an obstacle, not the ‘facilitating grease’ for the effective implementation of Western foreign policies as pursued in Washington and Brussels.
The West, in devolving, has dispensed with its historical comparative advantage of pursuing the maximum level of realism in its goals ends with at least some minimal altruism in means to the extent possible in the universe of politics. In Washington, there is enough hubris, cynicism, and corruption to go around on both sides of the aisle.
When the world’s leading democracy degenerates into decrepitude internally on such a scale as today, the world’s stability surely is soon to follow.
Putin the Winner? Putin the Diplomat? – Western Myths
Finally, beyond ‘punching above his weight’ and being a tough negotiator and dangerous enemy, Putin is an effective tactician and diplomat and an improving strategist, who has outplayed the West in Syria and elsewhere precisely because of the Western deficiencies outlined above. But when Putin moved in September 2015 to put an end to a bacchanalia of terror, the supply of weapons by US-NATO members and their Arab allies to jihadi terrorists, and the purchasing of ISIS oil by NATO member Turkey to help finance the terrorists, and so on and so on, he turned over the playing board to expose its dirty underside.
Western governments, media, and military institutions issued forth a united message to protect their failing liberal revolutionist gambit. We were told Putin was not attacking ISIS, he was there solely to replace Western power in the region by Russian power, and was doing these things in order to put an end to the Western way of life (1).
Wishful thinking went ‘Russia’s operation was “doomed” to failure, and Putin was going to get bogged down in its own Vietnam, another Afghanistan debacle for Moscow’ (More here).
George Soros-funded think tanks and US-government-funded media, International Crisis Group and RFERL, claimed it was Putin after all that was sending Russian’s North Caucasus ‘Caucasus Emirate’ jihadi terrorists to Syria and invading Syria to cause a flood of refugees to Europe in order to destroy it.
Oddly, before that, the same media were telling us that the CE mujahedin were not jihadists at all, but democratic-nationalist freedom fighters seeking liberation from Putin’s Russia and its amir Doku Umarov — their loving father (See Liz Fuller, “Chechnya’s Youngest Insurgents,” RFE/RL, 14 February 2011. Putin was charged with sparking the entire crisis in order to flood Europe with refugees and undermine the West and its way of life.
Now, the DC consensus acknowledges Russia’s efforts against ISIS, doing so stealthily, without mentioning Russia (2). Trump’s withdrawal of troops signals the West’s recognition of Putin’s victory. It was only in the wake of, and by dint of Putin’s very intervention into Syria that we learned from whistleblowers in US intelligence and leaked documents of the joint Western-Turkish-Arab support of Syria’s jihadi rebels and saw the caravans of oil tankers weaving their way through the Iraqi northern desert through US-allied Kurdish territory and under the nose of the US air force to the NATO (Turkey’s) border. The increasingly leftist Western was exposed among the world elite, and Ankara defected to the Russian cause insulted by the West’s betrayal in arming the Kurds.
Reality? – Russian Realism
Putin had several motives in intervening: (1) to preserve both the principle of state and UN sovereignty over Western interventionism and Russia’s role in the Middle East and globally by ensuring Russia’s say in the outcome of the Syrian war and crisis; (2) to weaken the global jihadi revolutionary movement, which includes the Islamic State (IS), Al Qa`ida (AQ) and host of other jihadi groups, in order to reduce the likelihood of jihadi terrorism at home by the IS affiliate ‘Vilaiyat Kavkaz Islamskogo Gosudarstvo’ (the Caucasus Province of the Islamic State) or the AQ-allied Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate); (3) to create a balance of power between the pro-Western and pro-Islamist Sunni regimes, on the one hand, and non-Western powers (Russia and China) and the region’s Shi’a, on the other, in the Middle East; and (4) to expose the fecklessness and recklessness of US policy in Syria, the Arab spring, and color revolutionism in general.
To achieve these goals, Russia engaged in robust diplomacy from the Annan peace mission, later UN efforts at peace, the alleged Syrian chemical attacks on the rebels, to coordinating with Washington, Brussels and Israel on ‘deconfliction’ to avoid clashes in the skies over Syria and Iraq, to bringing NATO member Turkey and Iran on board in coordinating military operations, to the Astana process led by Russia in tandem with Turkey and Iran to sit down with the Bashar al-Assad government and opposition forces at the bargaining table, to fashioning a new Syrian constitution-writing process to help settle the conflict.
Putin leveraged what Russians have called for more than a decade its ‘multi-vectored’ foreign policy, which tries to maintain working relations with all countries, to good effect.
The results are:
– the Russians, Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah cleaned ISIS and AQ out of Syria, with belated assistance from the US mostly across the border in Iraq and in the air.
– Russia has established what can be a permanent military presence in Syria far beyond the small naval base it possessed before. Just recently, it took over the abandoned US base in Kobani and a helicopter base at Qamishli, both near the Turkish border. Moscow is in a position not just to be the guarantor of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity but those of Turkey’s vis-a-vis the Kurds as well.
– the Russians turned Ankara further from NATO. Turkey is now closer to Moscow than Washington and bought Russian S-400 air defense systems from Moscow to demonstrate it.
– Turkeys’ shift away from the Western fold, leaves NATO with a bit of a dirty face as Erdogan moves into northern Syria in operation ‘Source of Peace’: A member-country is involved in what, granted is an arguably legal but domestically popular military intervention (the third in recent years) but one conducted under Russian not NATO auspices (Turkey has an agreement with Damascus which allows it to pursue terrorists across its border in Syria). However, Russia’s new partner, Erdogan, is increasingly vulnerable domestically.
– Russia is now the premier power in the Levant – though certainly no hegemon, too many powerful local and global players – and has pulled even with the US in the Persian Gulf and perhaps the Middle East as a whole.
– through Russia’s rise in the Middle East, the position of its strategic partner China has also been enhanced just as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project begins to take off.
– Iran’s positions in the Levant are strengthened, potentially emboldening Teheran in the Gulf but potentially restrained by Moscow.
– Russia’s possible emergence as a protector of the Kurds or a faction thereof, further exposing American incompetence in its repeated abandoning of the Kurds. An indication of that potential is evident in the agreement between the Kurds and Syria. With new bases in Syria, Putin can restrain Erdogan in his drive to drive the Kurds from his border and protect them under any scheme to ensure their security or, less likely, carve out a Kurdish state in Iraq.
To an extent, Moscow is doing the international community’s heavy-lifting by helping Turkey implement its buffer zone in northern Syria, as even the US has supported Ankara’s preference on that score. An international conference on a compromise to get the Kurds a state might be a good place to recoup Western losses in the region and redeem ourselves in the eyes of history and the Kurds, but that is also highly unlikely given the overall state of global leadership and US-Russian relations in particular.
Now, with US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops presumably from Syria, which turns out is only partial, we are met with a chorus of claims that he handed Putin a victory on a silver platter. Years of a vast left-wing conspiracy to smear Trump as a ‘Putin agent’- one of millions now occupying the West, by all appearances from media reports – have primed the average viewer, listener, reader to assume not only that it is true that Trump ‘handed a victory to Putin’ but that this is precisely what he intended.
Of course, it was Obama who ‘handed Putin a victory’ in Syria, and Trump is driven by domestic political concerns such as the upcoming presidential elections and reversing a bad policy implemented by his predecessor. Putin’s checkmate of Obama offered few ways to reverse the political, diplomatic, and security catastrophe Trump inherited by the Obama administration. The elements in the US hoped to hold parts of northern Syria in order to protect the Kurds but more so to preserve an enclave of opposition to Assad and thus the threat to his regime. The loss of this last lever is only the most recent in a series of Syrian failures initiated by the Obama administration.
Trump has no good choices in Syria if he was unwilling to cooperate with Russia and Turkey and therefore Iran in negotiating a way out for the Kurds and that was made impossible by the Russiagate hysteria fomented by the American left and their Democratic fellow travellers.
The only other way to soften Obama’s catastrophe and salvage the American prestige it squandered was to risk another debacle by way of a massive US commitment in arms and men in what could likely have become a regional if not world war. Rather than join in, he chose to fold.
More coordinating and even cooperating with our foes might help avoid such debacles in future, but the present political atmosphere in the US portends little movement in such a direction.
In sum, it was in fact the Obama administration’s hubris, corruption, and outright fecklessness that afforded Putin an opportunity and the near necessity to intervene in Syria. The hubris, corruption, and foreign policy fecklessness of Trump and Team R await their moment in the sun.
(1) See https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/30/washington-post-urges-more-jihadi-chaos/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/20/spinning-russias-syria-intervention-the-institute-for-the-study-of-war/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/22/more-distortions-of-russias-military-intervention/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/07/lets-get-syrious/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/01/russias-military-intervention-in-syria-update-attacks-against-isis-and-other-jihadists/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/03/russia-is-targeting-jihadi-terrorists-in-syria-including-the-islamic-state-and-russians-approve-of-putins-military-intervention-against-isis-update/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/12/16/the-need-for-international-cooperation-and-a-grand-alliance-in-the-war-against-the-global-islamist-and-jihadist-revolutionary-movement/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/30/russian-military-intervention-in-syria/, and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/29/explaining-putins-counter-jihadi-coalition-proposal-russian-interests-not-a-new-cold-war/
(2) See Foreign Affairs here. See IHS Markit here. And see my own Who Got Syria Wrong and Who Got It Right: An Update.
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California. Dr Hahn is equally an author, most recently of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia.