Symbolic air-strike in Syria

Donald Trump has acted swiftly in response to Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, by bombing the airfield from which the attacks had been launched.  A failure to respond would have appeared to condone a war crime.

His action was measured, and largely symbolic.  He had warned the Russians (and by extension the Syrians) of his intentions, which reduced the damage inflicted and reduced the risk of provoking Russia.  Russia’s subsequent protest is probably equally symbolic: not an overreaction and politically necessary.

There were both benefits and drawbacks to Trump’s strike. The benefits were twofold: the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, so some punishment was appropriate, and it will probably deter Assad from repeating such attacks.

There were two obvious drawbacks: he bypassed the UN and he bypassed Congress.  He may have taken the view that this was unavoidable. The stalemate in the UN Security Council would have prevented any action from being taken against Assad, and a request to Congress would have delayed him at a moment when swiftness was called for (though he should still ask for retrospective approval).

Trump’s action will have done nothing to help the process of finding the solution to Syria’s problems, but won’t have harmed it either.  On balance, it seems to have been a sophisticated intervention, in circumstances where the ideal course of action (a meaningful response by the UN) was not possible.

Seen as a gesture against the use of chemical weapons, Trump’s action is probably better than doing nothing.  It is important, though, that America doesn’t broaden its involvement in Syria.  Its only agreed role there is the battle against ISIS.  Russia would feel obliged to escalate if Assad is further threatened and, as noted in a previous post, peace talks cannot begin meaningfully until order has been restored in Syria.

Democracy under attack

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market on Monday, 19 December 2016.  Angela Merkel, in a televised broadcast, expressed concern that immigrants might be blamed – and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party has done just that.  Angela Merkel faces an election next year, in which AfD is strongly placed to become Germany’s  largest political party – and the Berlin truck attack will help it to do so.

It isn’t only Angela Merkel’s political party that is under attack, and ISIS isn’t the only attacker. The whole of Western liberal democracy is under a 3-way attack: from an Islamic terrorist jihad to set up a universal caliphate, from a wave of anti-establishment authoritarian populism, and from Russian interference with elections.  These three directions of attack are not coordinated, but are nonetheless helping each other to undermine Western democracies and the EU.

ISIS is trying to polarise society.  It wants headlines, Western indignation and condemnation of Islam – so that more Muslims will join its cause in what it presents as a conflict between civilisations.  It did not have to arrange for the truck attack.  It merely had to radicalise an individual, provoking the attack, and then claim responsibility for it.

Authoritarian populism is a style of political leadership which feeds on people’s discontent with their current situation.  That discontent might come from job losses due to globalisation, from liberalisation in society’s attitudes on gender, from gross financial inequality, or from multiculturalism.  Donald Trump, AfD and Nigel Farage can all be categorised as authoritarian populists.  Some of their supporters have reacted to multiculturalism by supporting ‘alt-right’ racial supremacists, whose views are similar to Nazism.

It has been alleged that Russia influenced the US presidential election by hacking into email servers, and Internet attacks on German political parties have also been traced to Russia.  It has also been alleged that Russia is sponsoring the spread of disinformation on Internet social media.  Disinformation is an effective way of swinging elections: Breitbart used it to help Trump be elected and is about to launch a German site.  It has been suggested that Russia is also using disinformation as a political tool, to promote nationalism and to undermine the EU and NATO.

It is easier to describe the problem than to propose a solution.  The European Union was initially established to counteract the forces of nationalism and fascism that had led to the Second World War, but it and its members are now experiencing this 3-way attack.  Sadly, the EU is no longer seen by many people as a force for peace.  There is some justification for the accusations levelled at it: bloated bureaucracy, failing to listen to the people and the pursuit of a political dream that seems to threaten the autonomy of its members.  It is clearly imperfect, and unless it starts to address the population’s real concerns it is likely to collapse – but now it is needed more than ever.

Time for realism in Syria

William Hague’s thoughtful article in Tuesday’s Telegraph (13 Oct 2015) is based on the mistaken assumption that a Western military intervention in Syria could be helpful.  When you have a hammer it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail, but when you meet a screw it is better to use a screwdriver – which is slower, and involves many twists and turns, but ultimately leads to a secure solution.  Whereas military interventions have sometimes worked in the past, in this case they are a dangerous delusion. The narrative of a holy war to protect Islam against a Western attack is used by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL) to recruit more followers.  Air-strikes alone will not defeat it but past conflicts have illustrated how the locals will tend to join in any struggle against foreign ‘boots on the ground’ – even if that means making alliances with groups they would otherwise disagree with.  Now is the time to develop a better strategy.

Freedom and democracy are desirable goals, but survival of the civilian population is the highest priority.  The West should remember that the Christians in Syria are fighting alongside Assad, not against him, because they understand the overriding need for stability.

The Syrian government has killed many of its people.  War crimes have been committed, and not only by the government, but those responsible cannot be held to account until security has been restored.

Russia is self-interested but nonetheless wears the fig-leaf of having been invited by the Syrian government to operate in its country to help to restore law and order.

William Hague’s suggestion of “assistance from the West to the more responsible opposition groups” and his proposal for “the UK to join the military effort against Isil in Syria” would merely prolong the war and more people would die as a result.  There are grave risks of escalation in proxy wars, not just between different factions of Islam but between Saudi Arabia and Iran as regional powers and even between America and Russia.  Now is the time for realism.  Since Russia’s escalation of its support for Assad it is now next to impossible for freedom and democracy in Syria to be established by the use of force against the government.

William Hague rightly makes the point that ‘safe havens’ are an unrealistic option, partly because Russia would veto their authorisation by the UN and partly because they are difficult to defend by force unless they are reinforced by troops who are prepared to put their lives at risk – unlike the position in Srebrenica in 1995.

The refugee crisis has made the world aware of the scale of the Syrian problem, but only people who have enough money are reaching Europe.  The refugee camps in neighbouring countries are the only sanctuary for those who are less wealthy.  People cannot return home until there is a credible ceasefire.  William Hague makes a very sound point that these refugee camps are receiving insufficient aid.

A ceasefire has to be negotiated between all the combatants.  The American strategy seems to be to eliminate both ISIS and the Assad government, so that neither would be invited to peace talks, but this is totally unrealistic.  ISIS is thriving in the power vacuum of Syrian instability and is still gaining adherents.  The Assad government has Russian support and is unlikely to be overthrown in the short term.

For the West, working with the Russians in the UN Security Council would be a better plan.  Support for international law would give the West some dignity in a difficult situation.  Although this gives Putin a diplomatic coup, it might also leave him with the ensuing problem of developing a viable peace plan – which would mean finding some way of dealing with ISIS.

Ukrainian Narratives

The recent talks in Minsk were reported in the West in terms of a conflict with Russia – as in this week’s Economist leading article, entitled “Putin’s war on the West”.  Alternative narratives are possible and less dangerous.  Ukraine’s civil war can be seen as just that: an uprising by a portion of its population that believed that its interests were being ignored by the government in Kiev.  It can also be seen as an objection by that part of the population to a major change in the country’s status: a move towards joining the EU.  It will now be difficult to have a united Ukraine forming part of a borderland between Russia and the EU.

The Cold War narrative is convincing.  The West is sensitive about Russian expansionism and the Russians don’t want Ukraine to join the EU and NATO.  Russia has been assisting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking separatists, in pursuit of its own geopolitical agenda.  Europe and America have responded in geopolitical terms – and America has talked of sending arms to support Ukraine’s West-leaning government.  This is a dangerous way of framing the conflict in Ukraine.  The West’s support for the Kiev government echoes America’s attempt to prop up the government of South Vietnam – which failed.

There is much less danger of escalation if the conflict is seen as a civil war, where the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine’s population is protesting against being treated as second-class citizens.  As commented previously on this website, the Kiev government has failed to be inclusive, i.e. to take into account the concerns of its Russian-speaking population.  Attempts to prevent the use of Russian as an official language strengthened that impression (although that law has since been repealed).  The interests of Ukraine’s Eastern population, such as its trading links with Russia, seem to have been virtually ignored by the Kiev government.  There is an alarming parallel with events in Iraq, where Nouri al-Maliki’s government discriminated against the Sunni population; as reported by Al Jazeera, this gave an opportunity for groups affiliated to Al Qaeda to launch a rebellion – and now the so-called ‘Islamic State’, feeding on Sunni discontentment, has grown far beyond Iraq.

The conflict can be framed as a protest by Russian-speaking Ukrainians against the Kiev government’s desire to tilt towards the West.  There are echoes of the events in Cyprus from 1955 onwards; Turkish Cypriots became alarmed at a proposal by Archbishop Makarios for enosis (unification) with Greece; this eventually led to an invasion by Turkey to “protect” the Turkish-speaking minority and a subsequent partition of the island.  The ceasefire agreed in the Minsk talks looks like a partition – and if this remains, President Putin would be able to trumpet success in further enlarging his empire.

If Ukraine wishes to stay a single country, the negotiated ceasefire has to hold and it has to propose a constitution which attends equally to the requirements of its different constituencies.  A neutral Ukrainian federation might be acceptable to Russia, the West and the Ukrainian population – if it offers adequate safeguards for the Russian-speakers and if it guarantees not to join either the EU or NATO.  An escalation of the war is not a viable alternative; at best it would lead to a partition like those in Cyprus (and Korea).

Ukraine after Crimean Separation

The West has mishandled its relationships with Ukraine and with Russia.  President Putin’s annexation of Crimea now looks irreversible – despite the West’s protests.   The West appears impotent, whilst President Putin has considerably increased his domestic popularity.  The West’s all-too-familiar catalogue of errors includes the failure to respect other countries as having equal rights, inconsistent adherence to international law, and an abject failure to think strategically – preferring to play for easy headlines at home.

President Putin has garnered critical media coverage in the West, and Western politicians have predictably postured – forgetting that they are in no position, morally or legally, to tell him what he ought to do.  Thinking of Russia as an enemy, and treating it like one, may be a popular attitude with Western voters but it is not a sensible way of conducting relationships.  It must have appeared to Russia that the West planned to woo Ukraine into joining the EU and possibly NATO.  It would be hard for Russia to accept having Sevastopol, which is important as a warm-water port, in a NATO country.  President Putin has been provoked into action.

As President Putin has pointed out, the West’s claim that he has broken international law is hypocritical.  And international law has become a toothless force, with a permanently-divided Security Council whose members are clearly pursuing their own interests rather than maintaining peace.

Ukraine’s interim government has no more legitimacy than the self-appointed government of Crimea.  The Kiev ‘government’ has made it clear that it is not looking after the interests of its Russian-speaking population – so it is hardly surprising that the latter have run for cover.  What is left of Ukraine needs an inclusive constitution which protects the interests of all its citizens – perhaps a federal structure would be appropriate, and it is not necessarily a disadvantage that Russia would favour such a solution.

The world is now understandably nervous about President Putin’s further intentions.  It has been pointed out that we seem to be slipping back inexorably into a new Cold War, and driving Russia into the arms of China.  A stable future for Ukraine would require some form of neutrality, as suggested by Anatol Lieven for example, but this might only be possible now for the rest of Ukraine – without Crimea.

The economic ties between Russia and the West should be mutually beneficial, not turned into weapons for sanctions.  The EU, NATO and Russia would benefit from a normalisation of relations.  The respective politicians have allowed their dislike of each other’s politics, and their desire to score domestic political points, to deflect them from policies that are everyone’s interests.  They should start to negotiate on Ukraine’s future, as equals – without posturing.

The Future of Ukraine


It isn’t easy to see how Ukraine’s future can now be determined by its people.  By rejecting a negotiated peace-plan, the protesters in Maidan Square have inadvertently (but predictably) brought Russia onto the stage.  Political opinion within Ukraine is increasingly polarised, partly because the parliament tried to disallow the use of Russian as a second language.

This piece is intended as a starting point for discussion, identifying the patterns of power involved.  It looks at the viewpoints of three actors:

The Ukrainian people, recognising that they are not united;

The West, recognising that the EU and the US have different issues;

The Russians, recognising that what suits President Putin may not benefit the population.

The three types of power being used are economic, political and military.  The legal dimension of governance seems to be in abeyance, both within Ukraine and internationally.

Economic Options

Western politicians are huffing and puffing, threatening economic sanctions.  This well-worn pattern of power ( would have entirely predictable outcomes: the economies of all the participants would be damaged, but the politicians would have covered themselves with the fig-leaf of being seen to do something.  This time, though, the economic outcome might be more damaging than usual – since Russia controls the gas-tap to both Ukraine and the EU, so economic retaliation is easy and is inevitable.

Political Viewpoints

Much has been written about divisions among the Ukrainian people.  The protesters in Maidan Square might say that they want a united Ukraine, but Ukrainians in the east of the country don’t feel obliged to comply with a west-facing interim government that they didn’t elect.  Perhaps each department of Ukraine, or at least the Crimea, should be offered a referendum, asking people whether they would prefer to become a satellite of Russia or whether they would prefer strong links to the EU.  This approach might lead to the peaceful division of Ukraine into two separate countries – and they could divide the national debt in proportion to their size.

President Putin has already gained strength from the situation, and the idea of punishing him is merely comic.  He has faced down protests from the EU, the UN and the US – so he appears to the Russian population as a strong leader (an image he is carefully burnishing).  If sanctions are applied, he can blame the economic damage on Western aggression; the external threat from the West will help to unite the country behind him in a familiar pattern of power (6.3.6).  He will be politically strengthened within Russia, and he doesn’t care about his popularity in the rest of the world.  His country will lose by its reduced international respectability, but most ordinary Russians will not be able to assess the damage that he has caused.

The West has already been damaged.  The Washington Post, previously a supporter of President Obama, has condemned his foreign policy as being “based on fantasy”, because he is reducing troop levels and he doesn’t appear powerful.  US foreign policy has not completely adjusted to the realities of the 21st century: it has rightly discarded military force as its preferred policy option, but it is still trying to exercise global leadership by exceptionalism – instead of what has been described as “exemplarism”: throwing its weight behind a pattern of power that this website calls “responsible global citizenship” (  The EU also lacks a coherent foreign policy; its only formula for relationships with its neighbours appears to be to offer them membership.

Military Options

Many Russians, including President Putin, regret the collapse of the USSR; his actions now indicate a desire to return to the simple opposition of the Cold War.  NATO is deciding how to respond.  Moving more force to the area and setting up new bases would seem to be the heaviest response that they could safely make at this stage.  It is clearly important to prevent Russia from annexing its neighbours without their consent and, since neither America nor Russia respects the UN or fully supports it, a restart of the Cold War now looks all but inevitable.


Eventually there will have to be a political resolution to this crisis.  Splitting the country seems inevitable, unless the interim government is prepared to return to the negotiated peace plan (which President Putin has indicated that he would still accept).  A new peace plan would be much more difficult to negotiate, because the situation is now more polarised than when the previous one was negotiated.

The protesters have the right to expect President Yanukovich to stand trial, for the deaths of the protesters and for corruption – given the well-publicised opulence of his mansion.

America and Russia ought to negotiate a better arrangement than restarting the Cold War.  Reform of the UN, particularly of the Security Council, is necessary.  Since both America and Russia wield vetoes they can act with impunity, and both of them have repeatedly failed to comply with their obligations under the UN Charter.

American moral authority

The Economist asserted that “Meeting Mr Assad’s atrocities with appropriate force will help to rebuild American moral authority in the world” (Leading Article, 7 Sept: Fight this war, not the last one).  It is worth asking within which constituency “American moral authority” might be rebuilt.

From one Western perspective, as put forward by The Economist and others, a strike on Syria is seen as necessary for America’s credibility as “the world’s policeman”.  It would also help to assuage the moral indignation that people rightly feel about the use of chemical weapons: people could say that they had not condoned the use of chemical weapons – they had ‘done something’.

Another Western perspective, dismissively referred to in the article, is “an abiding scepticism about the use of intelligence and the purpose of intervention”.  Voters can be excused for such scepticism, given the sorry record of previous costly and counter-productive interventions.  If the purpose of bombing Syria were to improve international security, then it could be criticised on at least three counts: it is risky because the outcome is unpredictable, it increases resistance to the West, and it undermines the UN.

It is time for the West to consider how it is seen by the rest of the world.  A “reaffirmation of Western values” implies regime change in Iran and Syria (and in many other countries, including China), so those countries see America as a threat to world peace.  America is also openly trying to protect Israel’s interests, so it cannot be seen as “the world’s policeman” – who would have to be neutral – and it cannot legitimately punish infringements of human rights.  That is the function of the UN.

“Moral authority” should not be purely self-interested.  A sincere attempt to work towards strengthening international law would win much more support in the rest of the world and would gain considerable support in the West.  A stable international arena, rather than one which is “inherently anarchic”, would suit everyone’s long-term interests.

President Putin is cleverly leaving open the door to reaching agreement in the UN Security Council.  If he really believes that President Assad did not give authorisation to the use of chemical weapons, he would not oppose an immediate ceasefire whilst the facts are established.  The criminals, whoever they are, could then be brought to book in the International Criminal Court and peace negotiations should commence.

The only certain outcomes of a bombing campaign in Syria are that a few people (not a majority) in the West would feel better for a while, and that hostility to America and its allies would increase.

Peace and Strength

We have been reminded that Ronald Reagan advocated “peace through strength”, which included the twin policies of deterrence and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Deterrence relied on ‘mutually-assured destruction’: it sent the message ‘if you strike us, we will strike you back’.  This policy was successful against Russia because Russian cities would have been obliterated in the event of nuclear war and the Russians didn’t want to take that risk.  The international situation has now changed, though, with the advent of Al Qaeda.

Deterrence would never work against Al Qaeda for two reasons.  Firstly, the organisation is so dispersed that it does not present a target which could be struck with nuclear weapons – so it is an empty threat to say that one would strike back.  Secondly, we now know that some of these terrorists want to die because they believe that they will go to heaven.

The SDI is similarly less effective against some of America’s current enemies.  Al Qaeda uses suicide bombers and doesn’t yet use inter-continental ballistic missiles.

President Obama has realised that for America to respond to today’s situation it is appropriate to use soft power in addition to maintaining some elements of the Cold War policy.  Islam is a peaceful religion but Muslims are encouraged to go to war if they are attacked or perceive themselves to be under threat; it is therefore necessary for America to be seen to be working for international peace rather than to be seen as an aggressor.  America is able to act with international approval when it uses its strength to defend itself, to defend its allies, or (with UN approval) to protect vulnerable groups.  Perhaps it is time to update the wording of the motto to “peace and strength”.