Managing Geo-Political Change: Attending to the Architecture

President Trump reportedly likes to delegate authority.  He also likes to make his ‘team leaders’ vie with each other, competitively.  It has worked well for him in his real-estate business, Trump often says. President Obama, in contrast, liked to micro-manage the military, so Trump has delegated his Presidential authority to the senior military commanders, and they in turn, have delegated their authority to field commanders.

It may seem self-evidently the way to stimulate the best out of your ‘team leaders’ (if you are in business), but if you are seeking transformative political change – that is to say, the metamorphosis of a deeply embedded tenet of geo-political thinking – this tactic can land you in a war -- a war that you may not have intended, but one which will surely sink the transformative change ambition. 

Trump has two main foreign policy projects: One - defeating ISIS - requires clarity of thinking and a wide knowledge of the region; but the other - détente with Russia - precisely requires a huge cultural, institutional and mental change on the part of the armed forces. That does not just occur spontaneously.  The hands-off, ‘let the alpha males slug it out approach’, simply permits the old culture to persist, (as true change is always the preserve of a lonely voice).

A former, highly respected, American military and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officer, Pat Lang, outlines the problem of cultural and intellectual rigidity very clearly:

“A pervasive assumption among these young people [NSC military ‘staffers’] is the notion that Russia is a ‘paper tiger’, and inevitably an enemy.  Some of you will have watched the four part Oliver Stone interview with Vladimir Putin.  [In my opinion] Putin is not a ‘paper tiger’.  The belief that Putin is afraid of the United States, and will back away from us, to avoid a fight is, I think, badly flawed.  There is a pernicious fever of Russophobia that is now wide spread among active and retired officers of the US armed forces.  Many officers, however intelligent and well-educated, are extremely rigid in their thinking. This is a professional defect that was rewarded in the long process of competitive service leading to promotion.  It was thought to indicate reliability and firmness of character.  The Army’s Russian studies graduate school at Garmisch, Germany has, [in my opinion], contributed to this Russophobia by inculcating an attitude of implacable hostility toward the USSR and now Russia.  The officer graduates of that institution have imparted this attitude to many others in the US Army.  Retired US Army officers are now heard on Foxnews saying that the Russians must be “pushed into submission.”  This is crazy.  Russia is no minor power.”

Pat Lang describes the general situation of culturally induced resistance to change, but I recall one newly-appointed Israeli Divisional Commander saying to me (this was in the run up to the second Palestinian Intifada) that, on taking command, he discovered that his forces were killing thirty Palestinian civilians per month, on not very compelling pretexts.  He had wanted to bring it down to zero, but in spite of his best efforts, at the end of his three-year tour, the total remained at about 5 dead Palestinians per month. This is just one example:  changing the culture of an army, in short, takes many years – even when senior officers are committed to making that change.

So it was too, with our efforts to de-escalate violence in Israel and Palestine. Ambitious young military commanders always want to ‘test’ the ‘enemy’ - to push the envelope.  Everywhere junior military officers want to be regarded as young Turks: bold and aggressive towards whomsoever it is that is the designated ‘enemy’ – and to see what they can get away with.  Any attempt to wind-down the violence, always brought out some pushy, self-important field commander, convinced of the absolute wrong-headedness of de-escalation with an ‘enemy’, an enemy, who needed, rather, given a searing defeat - more than diplomatic understanding.

It is these ‘facts of life’ that may propel the US in Syria to conflict.  Pat Buchanan makes the point:

“We are getting ever deeper into this six-year sectarian and civil war [in Syria]. And what we may be witnessing now are the opening shots of its next phase — the battle for control of the territory and population liberated by the fall of Raqqa and the death of the ISIS ‘caliphate’ …But if America has decided to use its air power to shoot down Syrian planes attacking rebels we support, this could lead to a confrontation with Russia and a broader, more dangerous, and deadly war for the United States.

How would we win such a war, without massive intervention?

Is this where we are headed? Is this where we want to go?”

Here is where clarity of purpose is being muddied: as Politico’s Nahal Toosi notes:

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is advising the Trump administration on Iran policy. He noted that the administration is nearly finished with a review of U.S. policy toward Iran and that how to deal with Tehran’s role in Syria is part of those discussions.

“A rollback strategy against Iran starts in places like Syria,” Dubowitz said. “The administration is making clear they’re not looking for a direct confrontation. They’re not looking for a fight, but if Iran, Assad and Hezbollah continue to push into areas in southern and eastern Syria, they are prepared to take the fight to Iran and its allies.”  [emphasis added]

What are US interests in southern and eastern Syria (which is desert up to the Euphrates valley)?  It is not the oil and gas – it is Israel, (and Saudi Arabia’s) desire for a US-led, Iran-rollback, strategy that are in play here. With Dera’a (in the far south of Syria and adjacent to Jordan) at risk of falling to the Syrian army and its allies, Israel foresees the Syrian and ‘partner forces’ arriving at Quneitra in the Golan.  Equally, Israel does not want the border between Iraq and Syria to be opened to inter-state trade and movement (lest Iran takes advantage of this land passage).  In short, Israel wants a ‘friendly’ cordon sanitaire in depth, along both the Syrian-Jordanian border and the Syrian-Iraqi border. Additionally, Israel and Saudi, would like ‘a wedge’ inserted, north to south, in eastern Syria, that would sever Iran from Syria and the Mediterranean.

Here is the former US Ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, speaking with unmasked candour: “Events are moving very fast,” Ford said. “The Syrian government’s bold moves on the ground show that it, with the help of its Iranian allies, will not readily accept American attempts to dictate local governance in eastern Syria.”  [emphasis added]

It could not be plainer: defeating ISIS is being conflated with push-back against Iran.  And as for the (irritating) reluctance on the part of Damascus to accept American attempts to dictate the political map of eastern Syria, might it be that the Syrian government does not wish to be confined to ‘useful’ western Syria, and that the oil and gas fields of south-eastern Syria will be necessarily to sustain it as an independent sovereign state – as will be the revenues from Iraqi trade (formerly Syria’s biggest market)? 

And perhaps Damascus does not want to see eastern Syria seized as a bargaining chip, by which the US would not simply “dictate local governance in eastern Syria”, but use it to force ‘transition’ on President Assad, or to serve as a platform – post ISIS – for the US to resume a regime change agenda in Damascus?

Nahal Toosi continues: one senior US administration official insisted that [whilst] the No. 1 goal in Trump's White House remains defeating the Islamic State, the Trump administration [however], is still working on a …s trategy that ultimately will include how to deal with the power vacuum that will be left in Syria once the terrorist group is defeated: “Good strategy takes time to develop. We’re interested in getting it right,” the senior official said. “We’ve got to defeat the bad guys in a way that doesn’t offer opportunities to other bad guys.”

This type of flabby thinking whereby only the US is a good guy (and anyone not readily accepting US ‘dictats’) is a ‘bad guy’ (even when the US has clear shared interests with the ‘bad guy’), clearly risks putting the US at risk of war – were the US military ground commanders to pursue their attempt to ‘rollback’ of Syrian government and allied influence in southern and eastern Syria.

Why?  Because, firstly, Russia is fully behind Damascus in the recovery of the integrity of the state.  And Iran (and its partner forces) are allies of both Russia, and Damascus.  And all these actors are effectively fighting ISIS, lest the NSC ‘staffers’, sometimes forget.  Going head to head with this alliance inevitably will lead to a clash – at some point, just as happened with the recent shooting down of the Syrian jet.

But secondly, because the US, in thinking to use the Syrian Kurds to “dictate governance over eastern Syria”, is guilty either of wishful thinking or is ignorant of the reality.  Yes, there has long been a so-called ‘Kurdish enclave’ in north-eastern Syria. But to call it ‘Kurdish’ is a tad misleading.  Kurds in Syria as a whole amount to no more than 7 – 10% of the Syrian population (some 1.4 million).  This is quite different to Iraq or Turkey, in terms of their numbers. The Kobani ‘canton’ (in NE Syria) is ethnically diverse, across its expanse.  The Kurds there are diverse too, in language and in their origins. The various ethnicities historically have had to rub shoulders with each other to survive (as they live jostled together in mixed communities).  In a few areas, the Kurds form a majority, but mostly they represent a large, or the largest population group – but are not a majority.  And this is in their own area.

Raqa’a is not their area at all.  It has never been Kurdish. It is peopled by desert Sunni Arabs (who are again culturally different from the Arab components of the SDF).  If the US thinks that the Kurds can act as ‘the wedge’ of local governance to sever Iran from Syria and Lebanon (in place of the Obama Administration’s ‘Sunnistan’ plan for the Euphrates Valley), then they will be leading the Syrian Kurds up the garden path to being the biggest losers in the Syrian war.  Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and (even) Russia are dead set against any project to establish a Kurdish proto-state in the interest of Israel at the most sensitive hub in the region.  When the Kurdish project fails, the Kurds will be left to swing in the wind – with no tears shed by all their big-power neighbours - or their Arab, Syrian compatriots.

And thirdly were the US to try “to take the fight to Iran and its allies” in south-eastern Syria, as Dubowitz is advising, the US will end with a bloody nose:  In fact, the Iranian military component there is small – what is tipping the military balance in south eastern Syria is not so much Iran, as the Iraq forces (now present on both sides of the Syrian border).

President Trump’s ill-judged tweet in the wake of the ISIS attack in Tehran (effectively saying that it is the Shi’a who are the terrorists - and that Iran had it (the attack on parliament) ‘coming to it’ as a consequence of its ‘terrorist’ support), has angered and mobilised the Iraqi nation (which is majority Shi’a). The Iraqi Shi’a see themselves in a bloody war against ISIS terrorism. Hitherto, the government and the Hauwza in Najaf, had been distancing Iraq from the Syrian conflict.  Now - with Trump acting as a cheer-leading, al-Saud partisan - the Iraqi militia are becoming militarily engaged in large numbers in northern Iraq, and south-eastern Syria.

The greatest danger of some military ‘mishap’ catching fire in Syria however, lies not so much with America’s foreseeable overreach in attempting to provide Israel with a cordon sanitaire around the Israeli State, but (unfortunately) with President Trump himself.

Reportedly, he listens to no one but his daughter and son-in-law (channelling Netanyahu and bin Salman), and has as ‘advisers’ those, such as Dubowitz, itching to take the fight to Iran and its allies.  Pat Buchanan, despairing of an increasingly elusive ‘America First’ strategy, wryly concludes:

“We cannot allow our friends in the Middle East and Persian Gulf to play our hand for us, for it is all too often in their interests to have us come fight their wars, which are not necessarily our wars … The question before us: After Raqqa and Mosul fall and the caliphate disappears, who inherits the ISIS estate?  The U.S. needs now to delineate the lines of advance for Syria’s Kurds, and to talk to the Russians, Syrians and Iranians …

During the campaign, candidate Trump won support by pledging to work with Russia to defeat our common enemy. But if, after ISIS is gone from Syria, we decide it is in our interests to confront Assad, we are going to find ourselves in a regional confrontation.”

If Trump truly wants paradigm change, through establishing détente with Russia, he must first attend to the architecture of change (it does not attend to itself), or see it all slip away, for the sake of pleasing certain old American ‘allies’; or because the cultural change message is not reaching down to the field commanders

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.