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Syria, Iran and the Risks of Tactical Geopolitics

Mr. Nyet 

World affairs are much more like spider’s web than the neat little drawers of an apothecary’s cabinet. In the latter,  the contents of each drawer are cleanly isolated and conveniently compartmentalized. What you do with the contents of one drawer today has no bearing on what you do next week with those of another. By contrast, with a spider’s web, when you touch a web at any point, not only do you find it to be sticky in a fragile sort of way, but your touch sends vibrations through every centimeter of the lattice.

Which alerts the spiders.

The great foreign policy panjandrums of the United States and the Western allies – with assorted Middle-Eastern clients who have real skin in the game-  are attempting to muddle through two overlapping but different crises with Syria and Iran through the medium of international diplomatic organizations. In the case of Syria, whose Baathist-Alawite dictatorship of Bashar Assad is trying to crush a widespread uprising by pacing the body count of their atrocities to what CNN viewers can tolerate, the effort by SECSTATE Clinton and Ambassador Rice to rally the UN Security Council to issue a forceful resolution against Syria was itself forcefully rebuffed by the double-veto of Russia and China. A highly predictable event that left Ambassador Rice “disgusted” but we hope, not surprised.

The case of Iran, which incidentally is one of Syria’s few allies, involves the long-running dispute over Iran’s complex and semi-clandestine nuclear activities which, in violation of the NPT and IAEA agreements, appear designed to pressure the West by giving Iran, at a minimum, a “breakout” capacity to make some nuclear weapons.  This decade long “crisis” has recently escalated, with the EU and United States applying punishing new economic sanctions while an unknown party that everyone knows to be Israel is engaging in a campaign of  sabotage and assassination against Iran’s IRGC-run nuclear establishment. Iran for it’s part has taken hostages, blustered about closing the straits of Hormuz and threatened unspecified new breakthroughs in nuclear activities.

To say that Russia and China have been less than helpful in halting Iranian nuclear weapons-related activity is like saying Pakistan’s ISI might be involved with assisting the Taliban.  Another situation the American foreign policy establishment consistently has trouble puzzling out.

The problem with current US policy or it’s advocates is not target selection. Syria, Iran, Libya and various other states have nasty, disruptive and anti-Western regimes. Giving them the heave-ho, in the abstract, makes sense if advancing American interests  (or basic decency in governance) is the objective. However, unlike the aforementioned apothecary cabinet drawers, states and their regimes do not exist in the abstract, moving according to arid principles of conduct, but in the real world with a society of states which constantly are evaluating and re-evaluating each other’s conduct in light of interest. Which means, as with many things, in foreign policy, timing matters.

The West recently dispatched over the objections of two great powers, Colonel Gaddafi, a ruler who was also an unpopular and violent lunatic with a long pedigree of terrorism and cruelty.  That in itself was tolerable and comprehensible, if not welcome, to Moscow and Beijing, but we rubbed salt in the wound in two ways. First, simply stomping on the Realpolitik economic interests of Russia and China in Libya, as Walter Russell Meade eloquently put it:

….Russia has some specific grievances connected to Libya.  What seems to really enrage the Russians is less the overthrow of the Great Loon than the cancellation of his many contracts with Russia and the refusal of the new government to give Russia a slice of the Libyan pie.  Russia always thought the west’s democratic agenda in Libya was a laugh — and the antics of the thuggish new regime and the array of torturers and thieves now running rampant in that country has done little to dispel that view. (Again, the Putin/KGB worldview would suggest that the hard realists at the core of Washington’s power structure released the ninnies to dance themselves into a frenzy of humanitarian and democratic ecstasy while the cold purposes of the DC machine were advanced.)

But what Russia thought it expected and deserved in return for its abstention on the Libya vote was due consideration for its commercial interests in Libya.  France, Britain and Qatar seem to be dividing that pie enthusiastically among themselves and nobody is thinking about Russia’s share and Russia’s price.

Secondly, was icing Gaddafi under the moral banner of R2P, which would seem – in theory of course – to be applicable to governments very much like those run by the allies of….Moscow and Beijing. To say nothing of , Moscow and Beijing themselves, which already see the “color revolutions” as subversive Western elite sock puppets with a democracy stage show kit.  To be frank, Russian and Chinese leaders see R2P as a doctrine or policy that potentially can be used not only against their nation’s interests, but their own hold on power, which they view, accurately, as a violation of sovereignty.

So it can hardly be reassuring to Moscow or Beijing that when the dust has yet to settle in Libya, that the United States and it’s NATO allies are now pressing for new UN resolutions designed to justify military intervention in Syria to overthrow Bashar Assad. Like the late and unlamented Colonel Gaddafi, Bashar Assad is a cold-blooded murderer, but unlike the crazy Colonel, Assad is a client of Russia and close Syrian ties to Moscow go way back to the earliest days of his father’s dictatorship. There’s no way, in such a short amount of time, that an American effort to topple Assad – however justified morally – that Vladimir Putin and to be truthful, many ordinary Russians, would not view that as a Western attempt to humiliate Russia. And R2P would indicate still more humiliations to come! As Dan Trombly wrote:

….that is precisely why the United States should drop even lip service to the Responsibility to Protect. Honestly stayed, the doctrine requires intervention after intervention, and its strategic advantage to the United States relies on consistency, because without consistency the supposed normative benefits it creates quickly evaporates. Yet R2P, far from strengthening the international order, actually demands continually more resources and, each time it is employed or contemplated, calls into question the rest of the international order the United States promulgates. If the goal is to “expand and strengthen an effective international order,” why would increasing the visibility of Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine that divides the United States and Western Europe from Central Europe, the rising democracies of Brazil, South Africa, and India – not to mention, of course, the major powers China and Russia and exhausts an already overburdened and shrinking Western military capability? 

In that context, the idea that Russia and China would support a UNSC resolution to intervene in Syria and depose Assad borders on the bizarre.  Advocates of R2P, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, would counter here, arguing that both Russia and China previously accepted R2P, so their cooperation in support of a UNSC resolution on Syria should have been a manageable enterprise. It wasn’t, largely because the Russians do not seem to give R2P much weight as a part of international law, the Russian Defense Ministry being even more blunt than their diplomatic counterparts:

….Russia’s Defense Ministry on Thursday reiterated its position stated earlier by the Foreign Ministry: Russia will do its best to avoid military intervention in Syria.

 “As for Syria, we see that harsh discussions are going on in New York and we are just giving backup to our colleagues from the Foreign Ministry who are tackling these problems. Of course, we think it is necessary to prevent military intervention in Syria,” Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told Vesti 24 TV channel.

 Russia has firmly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the uprising against his regime. Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, backed by the Arab League and Western nations, to prevent a repetition of “the Libyan scenario.

Joshua Foust, writing in The Atlantic, addressed the situation with admirable clarity:

….A big reason for Russia and China’s intransigence is the NATO coalition that led the intervention, which badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention. Russia was an early critic of such actions as France’s weapons shipments to the rebels — criticism that could have been accounted for (Moscow never made any secret of its concerns) but which seemed to be ignored in the rush to intervene. President Obama made a rapid transition from saying “regime change is not on the table” last March (part of the bargain to get Russian abstention from the UNSC vote) to publicly calling for his ouster. France and the UK used similar language, ignoring the politics of getting UN approval for intervention.

….Many states, none of whom are free, worry that the West’s renewed love of intervention might one day be focused upon them. This is a critical consequence of rejecting sovereignty and declaring governments unfit to rule through a mixture of expediency and opportunity. Powerful states with poor human rights records — Russia and China included — look at what happened in Libya and see disaster, not freedom. And they are taking steps to avoid it.

The problem is not  intervention per se but an otherworldly posture of Western policy makers that embraces tactical geopolitics – i.e.  each intervention (Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq), undertaken whenever chance arises somehow exists on it’s own terms, in splendid isolation. It doesn’t, except in NATO capitols. Any nation not seeing itself as safe and impregnable is constantly calculating their opportunities and dangers based on our actions. If we continue to pursue intervention at the current tempo, blind to the perspectives and interests of others, we will get pushback on a more strategic level. And we will rue it.

NATO has been around so long, it is so enshrouded in hazy nostalgia and circumlocational love of diplomatic process, that we forget it was originally a radical departure for Americans and Europeans alike. Soviet postwar behavior under Stalin was so menacing, so intransigent, so relentlessly pressuring that the US set aside it’s traditional isolationism and the French and British their justified loathing of the defeated Germans, to make common cause against Soviet Communism. The West, on the defensive and backed into corner after corner in one tactical scenario after another by Moscow – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Iran, Berlin – took the conflict with the Kremlin to the next level by forming an enduring supranational, nuclear-armed, military alliance that ensured the next war in Europe meant WWIII.

That turned out to be more conflict than Uncle Joe Stalin was eager to buy.

We are now the ones backing others into corners. Iran, North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe and other states ruled by kleptocrats and monsters act as buffers for China and Russia. Aside from the benefits these failed states can bring as customers for military hardware or sellers of raw materials, the attention of Western statesmen and human rights activists are diverted by the cause du jour in these hellholes, rather than being focused on what Beijing and Moscow might be up to at home or abroad.  Every dismantling of an anti-Western dictatorship, from their perspective, is a step closer to their direct confrontation with the West’s hyperactive, erratic, morally hypocritical, meddling, ruling elite who will be no more able to ignore “grave injustices” in Wuhai or Kazan than they could in Aleppo or Benghazi.

This is not an argument that we should not press our claims, or not try to keep nukes out of the hands of religious fanatics or refrain from crushing states that attack us with terrorist proxies; we can and should do all of these things with vigor. But when possible, much is to be gained by pursuing our interests in a manner that permits other great powers to at least save face. Destroying Iran’s government because of it’s nuclear activities, for example, is not a strategic “win” if  the way we do it convinces China and Russia to form a military alliance against the United States.

There is no need to forge ahead stupidly just because it is faster not to think matters through to their logical conclusions. America is heading down a road, led by an insular foreign policy clique of lawyers, activists and ex-academics, that eschews the need for maps because all that matters is that we drive well enough to take every short-cut.

21 Responses to “Syria, Iran and the Risks of Tactical Geopolitics”

  1. historyguy99 Says:

    You have penned a post that counts as brilliant in it’s logic. Loved the opening paragraph, a superb analogy.

    World affairs are much more like spider’s web than the neat little drawers of an apothecary’s cabinet. In the latter, the contents of each drawer are cleanly isolated and conveniently compartmentalized. What you do with the contents of one drawer today has no bearing on what you do next week with those of another. By contrast, with a spider’s web, when you touch a web at any point, not only do you find it to be sticky in a fragile sort of way, but your touch sends vibrations through every centimeter of the lattice.

    Beware of spiders with memory and fangs.

  2. zen Says:

    Much thanks Professor Tomas! It is like nobody reads Thucydides anymore – “Fear, Honor and Interest”. Never easy, but always simple

  3. Madhu Says:

    “The problem is not  intervention per se but an otherworldly posture of Western policy makers that embraces tactical geopolitics – i.e.  each intervention (Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq), undertaken whenever chance arises somehow exists on it’s own terms, in splendid isolation.”
    Bravo, Zen. You can’t hear me cheering out here in digital internet land, but boy, am I cheering this post.
    Maybe all policy makers in DC should learn to play three-dimensional chess, or something….
    – Madhu

  4. Madhu Says:

    I take that back about three-dimensional chess. They will think they are Jedi and screw everything up.
    I know I’m a doc and everything, but seriously people, FIRST DO NO HARM.
    – Madhu

  5. Madhu Says:

    Not to colonize your blog comment section, but jeez, what are the ways in which Russia and China could respond to our in-your-face droning and UN-ing and coaltion-building and mercantalism with NATOist getting the spoils?
    Hmmm, Iran and Pakistan could be even more weirdly confident. India could have more border troubles. And so on and so on and so on, and now we have pivoted to Asia and are sending Marines to Australia. Folks, much of my Pakistan blogging had nothing to do with Pakistan. We are going to get sucked into the jostling game over their outside of any reasonable risk-reward ratio….
    I should have called myself Bob and said I was a male vet instead of being myself online. Hey, I’m American, too, I know how this works when diaspora start complaining about other parts of the world. “We fly above, we beyond mortal internationalist Americans. We see and know all.”

  6. Nick Says:

    Dude, well put!! Now ,the question remains ,does the US get involved or not? On the yes side, if we do get involved at what level. Supply arms, or tell Russia and China to F themselves and go full out?I really think if we gave those two the stink eye,they would back down..OR, Do we make the rebels agree to follow some sort of human rights guide lines in exchange for weapons.( sick idea in and of  itself) .OR ,do we let Iran and Isreal keep playing a real life version of spy vs. spy,killing diplomats until some one blinks and the whole region goes up like a tinder box..As a musican,first, I’m not really qualified to make this decision,but then again, who really is? The spiderweb is a perfect way to describe this ..Hopefully the answer has the least amount of blood on it.

  7. The New Rules: The Coming War With Iran | The Image Says:

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  8. amspirnational Says:

    “The problem with current US policy or it’s advocates is not target selection. Syria, Iran, Libya and various other states have nasty, disruptive and anti-Western regimes. Giving them the heave-ho, in the abstract, makes sense if advancing American interests  (or basic decency in governance) is the objective.”

    Only if you define America as Empire and not Republic or Nation.

  9. YNSN Says:

    Excellent.  Absolutely excellent. 

  10. Bruce Kesler Says:

    This post definitely ups the level of discussion, and is welcome for that. I’ve had to read it thrice to “get” it.
    However, although favoring either restraint or laser-like focus, in general, I’m not convinced.
    I didn’t think Libya worth the intervention, frankly, and the inevitable and hypocritical intervention was both antagonizing to other despots and self-destructive to the R2P pretenses.
    But, Syria as Iran’s fulcrum into Lebanon and Gaza and dangers to Israel is a “prize” worth taking.
    Iran, as a potential nuclear power threatens the entire Middle East and Western interests there. Its interventions in Iraq and Syria, already, are quite serious enough. No one is advocating overthrowing Iran’s rulers from without, indeed they well may accomplish their own overthrow from within. Taking out, seriously delaying, Iran’s nuclear capabilities is, again, a “prize” worth taking.
    As to Russia and China forming a military alliance, fat chance in anything but name. As to they upping the antes, that may be likely in some places, but would face their own overextension as well as facing the complexities. Further, none of those mentioned, at first glance, seem to rise to the seriousness of Syria and lebanon to the West.
    All that said, the best argument for restraint is simply that the US lacks the focus and follow-through, at least under the Obama administration’s self-regards and ideology, and likely under a Romney or whomever alternative self-restrained by flounderingly trying to recover our economy.
    Nonetheless, to not provide aid to the Syrian rebels and not to really delay Iran’s neclear ambitions are worse than doing little or nothing.

  11. Madhu Says:

    Zen, I have no idea what I was trying to say in my third paragraph of my third comment above. Even on rereading (and me writing it), I have no idea where that impressionistic Jackson Pollack of a comment came from? Oh well.
    “Nonetheless, to not provide aid to the Syrian rebels” – Bruce Kesler
    This is an honest question because I don’t know the answer. Who, exactly, are we aiding given the problems we’ve had with leakage in Libya? We’ve had problems before with supporting Sunni radical types against Shia radical types, if you see what I mean. There is still an Al Q in Iraq and if we give money we can’t audit it. It is possible to face more than one problem set or enemy.
    The Bush administration effectively armed the Pakistan Army with nuclear weapons given the fungibility of aid, (the Obama admin is guilty in this way, too). Remember a few years ago that some fissile material was believed to be stolen by some bad actors. Remember, for those of you who read him, Instapundit questioning why there were so many public pronouncements kind of alluding to “dirty bombs” and the like?
    All around the same time….
    The costs are already raised simply by the existence of an opposition. Why not hang back a bit and get better intelligence? I don’t know. It’s just that so many interventionists have been so wrong about so many things in the past decade or so. Every prediction by the Washington foreign policy consensus: wrong, wrong, wrong.
    But again, I don’t know. I am not so confident as others.

  12. Madhu Says:

    “The Pakistani military did not use most of the funds for the agreed objective of fighting terror. Pakistan bought much conventional military equipment. Examples include F?16s, aircraft?mounted armaments, anti?ship and antimissile defense systems, and an air defense radar system costing $200 million, despite the fact that the terrorists in the FATA have no air attack capability. Over half of the total funds—54.9 percent—were spent on fighter aircraft and weapons, over a quarter—26.62 percent—on support and other aircraft, and 10 percent on advanced weapons systems. ”
    BAGHDAD – Al Qaeda’s chief has called on Muslims from other countries to support rebels in Syria seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad, saying they cannot depend on the West for help.
    Ayman al-Zawahri, in a videotaped statement released late Saturday, asked Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the uprising against Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime.” All four states border Syria.”
    We have no idea what we are really doing in these situations. I’m sorry, I don’t see it.

  13. zen Says:

    Much thanks YNSN and Nick! No, I don’t think either Russia or China wants a direct confrontation unless we put them in a position where they have no choice – in which case, they would angrily back down in the Mideast but greatly up the ante elsewhere for years to come. Given their high levels of corruption, it is cheaper to buy them off with a mixture of face-saving gestures in public and modest slices of any economic pie behind the scenes to grease their wheels.
     amspirnational – I don’t define the US as an empire. All kinds of polities with a certain degree of power will look after their interests, but first they have to identify what those are. The R2P crowd essentially posits intervention as an end in itself without regard to interests, costs or outcomes. Even creating a democracy does not matter. Libya is a shambles of mob-rule and they see that as irrelevant.
     Thanks Bruce! Regarding your points:
    Definitely agree with you on our lack of focus and follow through.
    Syria – Israeli air power could have really shellacked Damascus in 2006 during the Hezbollah War, perhaps broke the regime’s crack security units. I am not sure why they refrained. Was it US pressure or Israeli fears of what might emerge from the rubble of Assad’s dictatorship?  If the latter, that would still hold true today if the likely winners to replace the Alawite Baathists are Sunni extremists.
    Syria is a low hanging fruit, but I think the Israeli hard covert ops focus on Iran right now is correct because Iran’s size, oil revenues, nuclear program and military capabilities make it a much more dangerous state to Israel and Western interests than Syria can ever be. Syria is much like Cuba during the 70’s – a proxy state that can forment mischief so long as somebody else pays their bills but relatively toothless on their own. Getting Iran divested of nuclear weapons is, IMHO, a more worthwhile strategic priority to spend our time and diplomatic capital, especially that Iran is now under much greater economic strain
    Right now a China-Russia bloc is unlikely. But so was NATO in 1945-46. Simply upgrading the SCO as an IGO would make Central Asia more inhospitable to US interests and in general we should encourage Russia and China to play separately in the international arena and not push them into functioning as a tag-team. They may come to like that arrangement.
    Madhu – I see Pakistan as a state that would naturally gravitate to a Sino-Russian bloc and act as their catspaw within the larger Muslim world, or at least the Sunnisphere part of it. 

  14. Madhu Says:

    “I see Pakistan as a state that would naturally gravitate to a Sino-Russian bloc and act as their catspaw within the larger Muslim world, or at least the Sunnisphere part of it.”
    Thanks, that’s the way I see it too. I’ve always thought that no matter what the US would hold on to Pakistan as a “strategic asset” to keep Russia, China, and India busy. It’s what many an Indian analyst says. It’s also why I never believed much in an Anglospheric alliance with India or any long term alliance with India.
    We are stuck with Saudi now and that Sunni bloc, now, and it doesn’t matter how many people the NATO/Sunni/Saudi/US bloc hurts because we won’t break that alliance.
    I don’t wish to be in these alliances full stop, but to be more judicious in our actions. It won’t happen, will it?
    Oh well. What can an everyday person do? I hate this expression, but: It is what it is. 

  15. Madhu Says:

    Allright, after this link I will leave you all alone for a bit. When working on a writing project, I take breaks and harass all my favorite bloggers. A bad habit I have yet to kick….
    “We shouldn’t fear China’s citizens. But we should be worried about the actions of its authoritarian — and, yes, still communist — regime that tightly controls the People’s Republic. And we should be downright terrified by some of our own leaders’ attitudes toward China.
    True, Washington periodically lashes Beijing verbally about its human rights practices. But most U.S. policies bolster a regime that is undemocratic, brutal to its critics and bullying to trade partners.”

    Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0212/72807.html#ixzz1mMk1lsjD
    While much of that is true, what does the future hold for our Asian foreign policy? Folks, I’ve lost the plot.

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  17. amspirnational Says:

    Is Kesler an American?! Gotta laugh.

    <b>” Its (Iran’s)interventions in Iraq</b> and Syria, already, are quite serious enough.

  18. Andy Says:

    “But, Syria as Iran’s fulcrum into Lebanon and Gaza and dangers to Israel is a “prize” worth taking.”
    Imagine Iraq around 2006-2007 except with a lot of chemical weapons floating around.  That’s what Syria could look like if we help the opposition overthrow the Alawites.  Frankly, it’s not a fulcrum in that event, it’s a big gamble which is why Israel prefers the devil it knows.

  19. Organizing Entropy Says:

    What would a Syrian Intervention Look Like?…

    Talk of an intervention in Syria is beginning to sound serious and there are a non-trivial number of influential people advocating for an intervention. The stated purpose would be to protect certain members of the Syrian population from their governmen…

  20. Madhu Says:

    “Even such dramatically reduced market leverage, Tehran will be forced to cut its prices further for those non-Western buyers, like China, which, while sidestepping the embargo on principle and as a supply hedge, will nonetheless maximally exploit Iran’s isolation. Frankly, this is the primary reason why China likes being friends with rogue regimes: the opportunity to loot their natural resources at bargain basement prices. Just take a look at China’s mineral trade with North Korea, which Beijing has emptied at below-market prices while paying off the military elite that now commands the government. Myanmar presents a similar tale.

    But China will not go to the mattresses on Iran’s behalf, any more than big-talking Russia will. In truth, a regime-toppling war in Iran will overwhelmingly work to China’s long-term benefit, just like it did in Iraq. In the short run, Beijing will end up paying more for the product. But money is not China’s problem — supply is, and an Iran opened back up to global investment and Western technology would soon re-emerge as a far larger source of both oil and gas. So yes, expect Beijing to make all of its usual obstructionist moves, and then cry crocodile tears when the regime finally falls, because the Chinese will invariably clean up on both the reconstruction process and the improved energy export flows.” – Tom Barnett
    Zen, is this a counter to your arguments? Or can you both be correct? One in the near term, and one in the longer term?
    I am uneasy about all of this. We are being outmaneuvered strategically in the long run, somehow. It’s a gut reaction and I may be wrong.

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