One of these days, the mainstream media will catch up with reality and start reporting things as they are. In the Libya intervention in 2011, the United States “led from behind” – France and Britain being the leaders out front – as a non-hostile kinetic military action sort of developed. Reporters and pundits might have learned from that event that the capitals to watch are those of Europe. They didn’t; but such appears to be the case again.
One watches Obama in vain. But according to foreign media, if one is watching David Cameron, one is seeing things actually happen. While U.S. Navy warships are told to prepare to close their ranges with Syria, this report comes out of the UK:
Royal Navy vessels are being readied to take part in a possible series of cruise missile strikes, alongside the United States, as military commanders finalize a list of potential targets, the report said.
Finalizing a list of targets would suggest a strike is actually being prepared for. The leaders of Western Europe have consulted:
According to the Telegraph, Cameron interrupted his holiday for talks with Obama, French President Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel. After discussions over the weekend, all the leaders agreed on the need for a “serious response”, according to the report.
Government sources confirmed to the Telegraph that military action was among the options “on the table” but said no decisions had been taken.
Prime Minister Cameron has reportedly left behind the passively legalistic approach indicated by Obama in last week’s interview with CNN:
The Prime Minister, however, is believed to have abandoned hope of securing any further meaningful response from the UN amid opposition from Russia, which has already vetoed several Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime, including one from last week after the chemical attack.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday that a military response is possible even without UN sanction. So, notably, did his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, who affirmed that Turkey would join a response coalition against Syria whether it had UN backing or not. (That is to be expected, of course; Syria being right on Turkey’s border, Ankara would hardly stand aside, even if her overall national strategy were more passive than it is. Whoever takes the lead, Turkey will want to be part of the solution.)
Meanwhile, the UK Guardian reports that locals and commercial pilots are seeing an uptick in military air activity at Britain’s air base at Akrotiri, Cyprus. As noted in the article, Cyprus would be used as the main base for NATO aircraft participating in an operation against Syria.
France under Francois Hollande plans, at least for now, to wait for the results from the UN investigation of the 21 August chemical attack in Damascus. (The France that took the lead in Libya in 2011 was led by Nicolas Sarkozy.)
Angela Merkel, a wild card in this hand, has come out uncharacteristically trenchant in favor of a potential military response against Syria. Germany watchers point out the political risk she incurs with this stance, given the general election scheduled for September, and German voters’ distaste for military actions abroad. If Germany participated in a Syria strike that began within the next week, the German contribution would be limited, perhaps to air logistics support, or to deployable air-defense or other defense packages for the air base in Cyprus.
Italy, whose bases would also likely be used – unless they were denied – is cautioning against a military intervention without the go-ahead from the UN:
Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said on Monday that ”military intervention in Syria without UN Security Council approval is not feasible.”
Remarking during an Italian radio programme on the Syrian issue occupying the international agenda, Bonino warned of the possible reactions of Russia and Iran, saying ”We should try to avoid making an international drama into a global one.”
”Even a limited intervention runs the risk of becoming unlimited. We must think it over a thousand times, because the repercussions could be dramatic,” she added.
It remains to be seen whether Britain – and presumably France and Turkey, along with possibly the US, Germany, Qatar, and perhaps Jordan – can simply do whatever they want in the Eastern Mediterranean with impunity. Emma Bonino is actually right on the money: the repercussions of an intervention, in the teeth of Russian objections, could be dramatic. Russia may or may not intervene directly against a military action, if one should emerge in the next week. But she will surely amp up her campaign to solidify a power base on her southern flank – amp it up significantly, in ways the whole region will feel – if she doesn’t see herself as being in position for the direct, immediate response. (Memo to Georgia: be afraid.)
Some Russian options
Western bases in Cyprus may not be a sure thing for a Syria intervention. Even though additional aircraft are operating there already – probably from the Royal Air Force – it isn’t certain that Cyprus will ultimately agree to the bases being used for a military strike. The world lost interest in Cyprus’s financial problems after the EU imposed a harsh bailout deal in March 2013. But Russia didn’t – and, as reported a few days ago, a consortium of nominally private Russian investors has gained control of the Bank of Cyprus in the less-visible aftermath of this spring’s drama.
Russia is open about wanting access to Cyprus’s airfields and ports. But she may use her financial leverage over Cyprus for a nearer-term objective, if it looks like the West European nations will indeed try to use Cypriot bases for an attack on Syria. The outcome of such a showdown is by no means guaranteed; Cyprus is small and weak, and whoever pushes harder will almost certainly get what he wants. What we don’t know is who will push harder. Whoever does will have the most important momentum to come out of this situation – and the Russians, less complacent and less fettered by post-modern pieties about multilateralism, see that more clearly than the West does.
Overall, given the threats from Russia and Iran, a real game of “chicken” is forming up in the Mediterranean. Another option Russia has – one that Western observers might call a “nuclear option” – is to try to shoot down any cruise missiles or drones launched by Western militaries into Syrian air space.
The cruise missiles used would be subsonic: e.g., Storm Shadow, Tomahawk; the Exocet, optimized against maritime targets, has too short a range to be useful for most potential targets in Syria. Russia’s modern air-defense systems, including the S-300 PMU2 and the SA-17 point-defense missile, are well capable of shooting them down, as long as the missiles are tracked properly. The same is true of drones, whether armed or for reconnaissance. Considering that Syria is known to have been provided with these air-defense systems, Russia has deniability regarding who actually pulls the trigger.
Limiting the effectiveness of our cruise missiles would force us to do more with manned aircraft. (If the confrontation actually came to pass, and a significant number of Western cruise missiles were taken out, that would be a game-changing development in and of itself. Western subsonic cruise missiles have ruled military calculations for nearly a quarter-century now. It’s only a matter of time before they meet their match; will it be in Syria, this weekend?)
The Russians may consider it a bridge too far, to shoot manned aircraft down. But Assad might not. Depending on how the West is behaving, he might calculate – and he might be correct – that he will achieve a better result by shooting some Western aircraft down, if he can. Between them, Moscow and Damascus have the ability to make us question our commitment to a strike that doesn’t turn out to be quick and easy.
Resupplying Assad’s air defenses, meanwhile – or simply getting Russian forces into Syria and pretending they are Assad’s – is a matter of flying cargo planes across Iraq from Iran. Will Iraq agree with the Western powers to actually deny her air space to such flights? The record to date is not promising. Iraq objects, meanwhile, to any use of her bases or air space for strikes on Syria. She is not likely to allow Western forces in during a coalition action, for the purpose of blocking cargo flights from Iran to Syria. Nor is there the smallest likelihood of Turkey trying to force down such flights, or allowing her bases to be used for that purpose by Western fighter jets.
A coalition against Syria can undoubtedly count on using Turkey’s bases and air space for strikes on Syria (which relieves somewhat, if not entirely, the operational burden on Cyprus). But it will be a separate question, and one with no certain answer, whether Turkey would agree to put herself in the middle of a shoot-out that involved Russia. What, indeed, will Turkey do if Russia simply moves more ships into and out of Syrian ports, many of them coming from the Black Sea? What will the Western navies do?
A Western punitive attack may well be of such short duration that no meaningful direct response by Russia is feasible. Moscow’s priority beforehand will be to avert the attack; it’s hard to predict right now how much she will respond to one directly. The Russians may decide they would rather provoke their own tectonic shifts under cover of a lingering sense of status quo – and therefore may keep their overt response muted.
But what’s important, if a strike is conducted, is what happens afterward: what Russia and Iran actually do, and whether they do it with impunity. The smart money is on their resolve and their postures hardening, and their plans accelerating and increasing their focus.
The import of a decision to strike
Emma Bonino is right in her dire assessment, because we have reached the limit of the Pax Americana’s ability to hold together without enforcement. There is no longer a reliably enforced status quo backstopping the European powers and their proposal to ignore Russian threats. The context has already changed around them and their operational planning.
If they assume they can bring off a strike without altering everyone’s strategic reality in the mid-term future – call it the next one to five years – their assumption is faulty. In fact, a coalition strike on Syria will be the trigger event for a sea change in geopolitical relations. Although I do not believe it will “start a war” any time soon, failure to plan for the sea change could turn out to be the biggest miscalculation since the summer of 1914.
Of one thing we can be certain. The driving factor in shaping this situation will not be the policy of the United States. That day is done; we have the president we have. If we want American primacy back, we will have to bestir ourselves to establish a new order. It’s not post-1991 anymore. Indeed, it’s not post-1945 anymore. All things old are new again. The question, as the potential for a strike on Syria dominates the headlines, is whether the West’s leaders see that or not.