If you’re not convinced that we are now in a “post-American” (and hence post-NATO) world, consider these events of the last 72 hours.
After the Paris attacks on Friday, the G20 leaders gathering in Turkey knew that both Syria and ISIS would top their agenda in Antalya. On Sunday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron expressed the standard position of the Western allies, since late summer, that Russia should stop prosecuting what is essentially a unilateral war in Syria.
How odd that that position should seem antique a mere 48 hours later. In the wake of the most recent events, one now has the sense that Cameron was speaking in another world and time.
Obama’s watershed moment
The most important thing happened on Monday. Barack Obama made it clear that the U.S. will not change anything we’re doing in Syria. He made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t care what happens in Syria, to Syria, or to the regional nations that are affected by Syria.
This may or may not mean he has no vision at all for what should happen in the Middle East. But it does mean that he has no interest in applying a positive strategy with specific political goals – the only kind of goals that matter at this point – to the security problem created by Syria.
Europe sees no value in waiting for us any longer. France, to be specific, is not going to wait. To prosecute his war, Francois Hollande is not invoking Article 5 of the NATO treaty – and that has enormous implications for the alliance. France has invoked a mutual-defense clause of the EU agreement instead. But if NATO is not for this security problem – as it was after 9/11 – then what is it for?
Is it for defense against Russia? What an interesting question. Because the same day Obama was bored and dismissive about going after ISIS and settling Syria, Hollande came out and urged the U.S. and Russia to work together in Syria – join a global coalition to defeat ISIS – with the lurking implication that it’s the U.S. that needs to giddy-up.
This was also the day after Cameron urged Russia to halt the bombing there, and wait for a more multilateral approach to resolve itself. For two such long-time anchors of NATO in Europe, that’s quite a messaging turn-around in one day.
It’s worth pointing one thing out here. Hollande and everyone else in the G20 is aware of something Americans mostly are not. (The mainstream media certainly aren’t.) When you get into an international effort with Barack Obama, you’re going to be in charge – not Obama, and not America. Obama may drag his heels and limit what you can do from a passive-aggressive posture, but he won’t take active leadership.
(That’s why Russia perceived it to be a crisis point, from her standpoint, when Obama agreed this summer to mount a joint effort with Turkey in northern Syria. Putin knew Erdogan would be in charge – and would be using the cover of a joint operation with the U.S. to pursue his own agenda in Syria.)
So when Hollande urges America and Russia to work together in Syria, he’s essentially urging America to work for Russia in Syria. And he’s by no means unaware of that. He’s entertained enough bizarre visits from John Kerry and James Taylor at this point to take the measure of the Obama administration.
Now, the change
The Sunday-Monday dichotomy this week was an abrupt and game-changing turn-around. Its meaning has now been clarified, less than 24 hours later. Russia and France are both bombing in Syria, and Russia – far from waiting for more multilateralism to blossom – doubled down Tuesday morning with strategic bomber attacks on Syria, launched from Russia (see here and here as well).
But wait! – there’s more. France has just (Tuesday) announced that the aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R-91) will be heading for operations off Syria this week, instead of going to the Persian Gulf, as originally planned. Hollande and Putin reportedly conferred on Syria (via phone, since Hollande is still in France) prior to this announcement, and Russia’s ministry of defense says it will have the military forces deployed to Syria “work with” the French carrier task group.
Two important points about these developments. One, it clarifies France’s posture and priorities. Instead of continuing on the path laid out by the American “strategy” for Syria and Iraq – such as it is – France is moving on her own. The carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf was to support the U.S.-led coalition (of which France is a member) and its approach to the problem. Now France will not be doing that; she will instead be taking a separate approach emphasizing Syria, specifically – and in doing so, will become a de facto partner of Russia (and Iran).
But how could France not do this, with her own security directly and immediately at stake? What we are seeing here is a breakdown of the Atlantic alliance, because of Obama and his passive stance.
Obama should see that what has happened to France is a grave security problem for NATO, and one whose NATO priority should change his plans in Syria and Iraq. But for all anyone can tell, he doesn’t see that. (He has, however, managed to establish himself since the Paris attacks as America’s Special Snowflake-in-Chief.)
The other point is the openness with which Putin is now widening Russia’s military footprint across Southwest Asia. I predicted this when he launched the cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, and six weeks later, it’s happening: Putin is using long-range bombers in Syria.
We haven’t been told how the bombers flew to Syria, but we can be quite certain they took an easterly route via the Caspian, and the air space of Iran and Iraq. Until late August 2015, it had been a long time since Russian military aircraft flew to Syria. But during the Cold War, the former Soviet Union rotated only maritime surveillance planes to Syria – the only kind that Turkey would allow to fly through the air corridor over the Bosphorus. (In the late years of the Cold War, Russian aircraft carriers brought fighters into the Mediterranean. But Russia did not forward-deploy any land-based aircraft to Syria other than the surveillance planes.)
We can assume with confidence that Turkey hasn’t suddenly decided to let Russia fly bombers over the Bosphorus. The bombers came from southern Russia and undoubtedly took the easterly route described above. (See map for context.) The change in Russian posture, with its implications for the military balance in the region, is taking place just as I outlined in October.
This is the context in which France and Russia will reportedly “work together.” There may be some question as to how intentionally and enthusiastically France is becoming a partner with Russia. But that distinction is one without a difference. Russia is depicting these developments as effectively a partnership, and France isn’t going to actively repudiate that characterization. It’s what it looks like, for all intents and purposes.
One more piece of information sets the cherry on top of this week’s work. A team of journalists visiting the Russian base in Latakia last week at Moscow’s invitation (see more here) seems to have verified that the S-400 surface-to-air missile system – Russia’s most advanced, and a formidable system – is indeed deployed to Syria. Photographers on the ground got images of what look like S-400 components: not just radars, and command/control equipment to track the air picture with, but a missile launcher vehicle.
To clarify, if Russia has the complete system in-country, then Russia is the participant now able to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
Perhaps the timing of this unsubtle disclosure from Russia was related to the arguments for a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone that erupted in the wake of the GOP debate last week. Regardless, the timing could not have been more impeccable, given the events in Paris on Friday night, and the change they prompted in France’s posture. America doesn’t set the conditions of this fight anymore.
American forces don’t belong in this situation
Very honestly, it is becoming actively dangerous to keep U.S. forces in a theater where we are showing no leadership and prosecuting no real strategy – but others now are.
One concern is the political fallout from the war as it will now be waged in Syria: without the care for collateral damage observed by the United States, and with measures that will anger and galvanize other nations like Turkey. Russia will blame as much as she can on the U.S., and Obama will have no effective response to that.
Even worse, America will find herself roped into backing other participants’ plans and strategies, both at the conference table and in the battle space. The day is not far off when we will go where Russia tells us to, inside Syria. France would get nothing out of taking a stand with us against Russia, regarding day-to-day priorities and tactics. France will not do it. (In the interest of prosecuting her own war in Syria, France will tolerate a lot from Russia that she might otherwise object to.)
But an even more immediate concern is simply the safety of U.S. forces. Where we have no effective voice in the military planning and intentions, our airmen and soldiers should not be fighting. American servicemen should never be subject to or constrained by Russia’s method of warfare. Bad as it would be to abandon Syria (and effectively Iraq) entirely, the true nightmare scenario would be fighting there under Russia’s political leadership.
Yet it’s entirely conceivable for Obama to back us into that scenario. This situation is unfixable while he remains in the Oval Office. We should probably hope Turkey kicks us out and shuts down the joint operation in northern Syria.
We should also hope there is a way to gracefully retreat from Iraq. Iran might well see it as a high-payoff method, to get some third-party jihadis to grab a group of U.S. military hostages so Iran can extort Obama over the last vestiges of the U.S. sanctions.
I emphasize that a U.S. withdrawal from land operations need not mean that we abandon the seas and adjacent air space of the region. We should try to maintain that posture, and enforce traditional U.S. interests in that regard, as much as we can until Obama is gone. To the extent that our traditional partners like the Saudis and the other Gulf nations still think of us as useful, we can continue working on missile defense and other forms of national defense preparations for them.
There are things we should still keep doing, if we can; certainly, retaining our close relationship with Israel, and backing our defense guarantees to both Israel and Egypt, are essential.
But a number of things will change for the worse. The problem is, it would actually be even worse for Obama to keep an American footprint in Iraq and Syria for no good purpose.
In the last 72 hours, we have taken a giant step backward: a 100-year step, to be precise. The U.S. is back to being a second-rank power, flailing to find a subordinate role in an Eastern-hemisphere crisis.
When we get to the post-Obama America, we will have to deal with the world as it is at that point: changed, in turmoil, with key differences affecting our alliances, our trade, and us. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. What we do not need to do is keep twisting on a gibbet between now and then, with our forward-deployed servicemen and our flag in peril.