By Trevor Busch
The tragedy that is present-day Syria originally grew out of what was termed five years ago as “the Arab Spring”, an outpouring of grassroots protest which witnessed the toppling of brutal authoritarian regimes in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. At the time, it had appeared as though a watershed moment might bring the blessings of freedom and some semblance of democracy to nations and peoples that had long felt the harsh grip of tyrants.
While the “Arab Spring” hasn’t been a total success, by far the worst outcome of has been a protracted and bitter sectarian conflict in Syria that sparked from those early protests. Unwilling to back away from the brink, the tyrannical regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad has resorted to the most reprehensible military tactics witnessed by anyone in living memory, up to and including the use of chemical weapons against civilians and others.
That horrifying incident finally prompted some limited action from the West, which for the most part had stood idly by for almost two years while conventional conflict raged in Syria between regime loyalists and rebels, factions of which would go on to form the present ISIS menace.
While the West usually has difficulty in recognizing their own hypocrisy, the immediate international outcry following Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a case in point: Wagging our fingers at bad-behaving tin-pot dictators around the world is a favourite way for nations to look like they’re doing something when in fact doing nothing at all. In a relative sense we tend to look the other way when dictators murder civilians using rifles and machine guns, but switch to using chemical weapons and now they’ve committed a “war crime.”
The fact the West watched and did nothing for almost two years prior while Assad was involved in borderline genocide shows how troubling selective indifference can be when we approach foreign policy decisions. Would we have cared more about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, for instance, if they had been using nerve gas instead of machetes?
Today, the outlook for Syria is even worse than it was five years ago. Millions have fled the country after years of civil war, the air forces of many nations continue to rain fire on the desert, human rights abuses and atrocities continue virtually unabated — on both sides — and the increasingly crowded airspace over Syria has already caused serious geo-political fallout and contributed to rising tensions between NATO and Russia.
And that airspace is getting even more crowded. Following Islamic State terrorism in Paris in November, France dispatched a carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean and is poised to take a leading role in the fight against ISIS, with French president Francois Hollande even visiting Moscow last week to discuss Russian president Vladimir Putin’s plans to create what he terms a “grand coalition” to fight terrorist threats in the region.
In the past, France and Russia have had ancient foreign policy goals in the Middle East, goals that stretch back to the days of imperialism and beyond, and the quest for global domination.
It is one of the quirks of history that what was once old is now new again, and it is fascinating to view contemporary conflicts through the lens of the past, and to learn there is a great underlying wisdom to the old adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
It is today mostly forgotten that modern Syria is in fact one of the “bastard children of Versailles”, which like Iraq, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, among others, was carved from territories following the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires at the conclusion of WWI in 1918. Simple lines drawn on a map by hapless and greedy diplomats still steeped in the era of imperial domination, these nations would be the source of almost endless conflict in the 20th century — contributing to the outbreak of WWII in the case of Czechoslovakia, decades of war in Iraq from the 1980s to the present, and ethnic cleansing and other conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Following the conclusion of WWI, France took control of what is modern Syria and ruled the territory as a virtual colony until her defeat in WWII by the Germans, when Nazi-puppet Vichy government officials seized control. Following WWII, France eventually gave up the territory following some half-hearted attempts to maintain control, as they did in other parts of the world with former colonial possessions overran by Axis powers, such as Algeria or French Indo-China (present-day Vietnam). While French rule was largely without incident in the 20th century, there are still Syrians today that remember the legacies of colonialism and who will not necessarily welcome increased French military intervention with thrilling renditions of “La Marseillaise”.
A Russian bomber downed by the Turkish air force for violating Turkish airspace has been the latest full-blown diplomatic crisis the Syrian conflict has spawned, and while it doesn’t look like war (Turkey is a NATO partner, and thus any conflict between Russia and Turkey would inevitably involve Turkey’s NATO partners, including Canada) it hasn’t done anything to improve the conflict’s potential to spill over borders or even touch off a global conflict.
Here again the old meets new. In past centuries, Russia and Turkey (or the Ottomans, or the Byzantines before them) have been traditional blood enemies, involved in long, expensive, bloody conflicts over territory in the Caucasus and other areas, but most especially over control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles, narrow straits which command the entrance to the Black Sea, for centuries Russia’s only year-round ice-free access to the open oceans. Russia never managed to secure both straits despite successive wars, and they remain one of the anti-Russian military choke points that others still control (namely Turkey). A 19th century locus of conflict, with the Crimean War in the 1850s, the Black Sea area is again focusing the eyes of the world, through Caucasus terrorism and independence movements, wars between Georgia and Russia, the Syrian conflict, and most recently Russia’s seizure of the Crimea from the Ukraine and ongoing conflict sponsored by Moscow in the Ukraine’s eastern borderlands.
Close calls in Europe over the summer (most of which flew largely under the radar for most media coverage), between NATO and Russian aircraft in the wake of Russia’s belligerence in Ukraine, showed how inherently dangerous it is for opposing hostile air forces to confront each other over minor violation of each other’s airspace. Turkey’s recent actions have shown how short-sighted it was to ignore the potential repercussions of air operations in such close proximity by multiple military powers without more central co-ordination, and to then throw into the mix the Russians, who largely refuse to co-operate with most Western military powers in the region.
While Putin may pay lip service to a dream of a “grand coalition” to defeat terrorist threats in the region, this is only window-dressing for the Western public as actual Russian goals in Syria would appear to be different from those of the West. Russia is a strong supporter of the Assad regime, and her tactics so far since intervening in the conflict would suggest Putin’s military is heavily involved with propping up his erstwhile partner rather than eradicating terrorist threats. While France may flirt with joining Putin’s “grand coalition”, it would do well to remember the goals of the West in the conflict are entirely different from those of Russia, and may even come into conflict in future.
Russia sees a “peaceful” Syria united under al-Assad bringing an end to the civil war — while probably ushering in some new decades of large-scale reprisals, executions and political repression. In the West, we’d prefer to see the al-Assad regime gone along with murderous ISIS fighters.
When competing world powers have fundamental differences in their war aims, are involved in the same conflict, and have been inherently hostile to each other in the recent past, this is usually a recipe for an international incident.
While recent events would certainly qualify, Russia and NATO appear to be backing away from the precipice — at least for now.
But the increasingly crowded airspace over Syria will lose none of its potential to create more of these kinds of incidents, all of which have the very real potential to lead to a regional, or even global, conflict.