The war this time has a lot of moving parts, and there is no time right now to sketch the full “big picture.”
Here are the key things to remember: the war is already in progress across the Eastern hemisphere. It’s a real war, even though it hasn’t been “officially” declared in the pre-1945 sense.
In some places, it’s as bloody and destructive as any war has ever been. It’s changing the meaning of borders, even though our minds haven’t caught up to that reality yet.
The geopolitical landscape in our Pax Americana-bound minds no longer applies. Across the Middle East, and even in North Africa, it’s not about the old borders now. It’s about the intentions of the anti-status quo instigators, and about geographic realities more fundamental than modern borders – coastlines, mountain passes, waterways, chokepoints, the location of resources and the demographics and situations of peoples.
In the Middle East, the instigators are Iran and ISIS. In the Far East, it’s China. And in Europe, it’s a bizarre, unprecedented combination of Russia – a Russia that is older, tireder, and weaker than the sum total of “Europe,” but still more assertive and focused – and an undirected surge of humanity from the war-torn Muslim world.
And the U.S., although our military forces are still present in many areas – and are thus dangerously exposed – is quietly pulling back from even the semblance of leadership.
So many things have happened, just in the last six weeks, that there is no way to list them all. I’m not going to try; if I waited until I had time to weave every thread together, I’d never get anything posted. So, yes, there’s a lot out there that I’m not addressing here (do please go ahead and post in the comments; contributions are always welcome). But I’m just going to update based on a few telling points.
First, it’s been confirmed today (Thursday, 18 February) that the U.S. has in fact been informing the Russians of the general location of some of our special forces in Syria, in the hope that the Russians will avoid bombing us.
If you were looking for confirmation of who has the upper hand in the battle space of Syria, there it is. It’s Russia.
The Military.com story (which is based on disclosures from defense officials) emphasizes the point that we’ve been engaging in this “coordination” in spite of denials about doing it. And that’s informative about this administration’s posture, but I don’t think it tells us anything we didn’t already know. Let’s say it’s confirmation, rather than revelation.
Meanwhile, another Military.com article – also based on Defense Department disclosures – highlights that the groups the U.S. is sponsoring in Syria are now fighting each other, instead of ISIS. The groups in question are the “moderate” Sunni rebels and the Kurds.
Although we have special forces in country, and we’re providing some amount of air power and supposedly have an operational plan we’re executing, the military spokesman expressed concern over this situation in the terms, basically, of a forlorn hope:
“We want them to stop fighting each other” and return to battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Army Col. Steve Warren said of the recent conflict between Kurdish militias backed by the U.S. and other so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition groups that also receive U.S. support.
However, Warren acknowledged that the U.S. has little influence over the groups caught up in the push northward by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad under cover of a relentless Russian bombing campaign.
If you were wondering: yes, this is really, really bad.
It’s more than questionable – more than irresponsible – to keep handing out weapons and hanging out with these factions under such circumstances. It borders on deranged.
Meanwhile, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are naturally anxious to operationalize their intervention in Syria. The U.S.-led “intervention” is useless – even counterproductive – and Iran is riding the collaboration with Russia into geographic positions that Persians haven’t occupied for many centuries.
Iran’s Qods Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, is reported to be in northern Syria, directing the battle to retake Aleppo – in which Iranian forces are heavily involved. It’s a silly fig-leaf now, the pretense that the Assad regime is in charge of reclaiming Syria. We don’t even know what “Syria” is now. What matters is that Iran and ISIS are all over it.
Turkey can’t ignore the prospect of Iran and Russia collaborating to control Aleppo. (Look at the maps, if you don’t understand why this is alarming for Turkey.) Especially when the Iran-backed “Shia militias” of Iraq – also operating under the military guidance of Soleimani – have pushed up the Euphrates to Ramadi, and are established in Tikrit.
Americans, thousands of miles away, hear “Iraqi militias” when we hear about this on the news. The Turkish leadership has a much more accurate ear: it hears “Iran” – and it is right.
But it’s not just central Iraq that Iran is pushing into. Iran has established, quite overtly, a “recruiting center” in northern Iraq, in Kirkuk, where the Iranians hope to attract Iranian-affiliated Kurdish “youth” into Iran-backed militias. This measure has been implemented at the same time as an announcement from Baghdad that thousands of Iraqis will be deploying to the north to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS.
The national government in Baghdad is heavily dependent on Iran now; this troop deployment is not an “Iraqi” action that can be separated from the assistance or policy influence of Iran. Turkey is 100% correct to interpret this as a threat, growing on her southeastern border, from Iran. Added to the Iranian-backed push up the Euphrates, and the Iranian involvement in Aleppo (and basically the whole corridor from Aleppo to Damascus), it portends an alarming transformation of Turkey’s basic security situation.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a bad guy, no doubt about it. But Turkey, qua Turkey, has legitimate concerns here. So does Saudi Arabia, with Iran advancing on multiple axes to her north; backing the Houthis in Yemen to her south; and actively fomenting instability in the Persian Gulf. It would make everything worse for the Saudis if Iran were able to establish a true, effectively overt beachhead in Syria. The Saudis have long relied on Mesopotamia to be a buffer against a resurgent Iran. Now Iran proposes to slowly establish an occupation of it, pushing toward the middle from both ends.
The question at this point isn’t whether Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a “right” to react. We’re past that. The niceties of such “rights” mattered when there was a Pax Americana in force, but they no longer do. The only question now is whether and how the countries are going to react to the security alarm bells going off madly in their Mesopotamian hinterland.
Less forgivably, perhaps, but understandably, ISIS and Turkey are both making pushes to chart the future of Sunni Libya. It’s no surprise that today’s mail has brought news about an American strategic retirement there. The lurking threat of a deployment of U.S. forces seems to have ended: Obama has now decided against it.
And that’s probably a blessing. The last thing we need is more incidents like this one in 2015.
Astute observer Yochanan Visser noted in January that John Kerry seemed remarkably out of touch with the reality of what’s going on in Libya (as well as Syria), when he attended a coalition summit in Rome trying to grapple with what to do about the fractious African nation. There are a few key things to keep in mind about Libya, and that’s one them. It’s emblematic of how out of position the Western nations as a group are to do anything about Libya – because they’re still trying to patch it up as the “Libya” of the post-1945 period.
This has them dealing with a “recognized national government” that can’t even safely enter Libyan territory, and conducts its business from Tunisia.
ISIS has been growing and spreading in the western half of Libya, mostly on the coast near Sirte. The recognized government is nominally in control of eastern Libya, with its putative headquarters in Tobruk. Actual control of that area is exercised by General Khalifa Haftar, a one-time deputy of Qadhafi who fell out of favor with him years ago, and has established himself as something of a national hero in the post-2011 period.
It’s essential to understand, however, that a separate entity, the oilfield protection force, is Haftar’s main – actual – competition for the control of territory from the eastern border of Libya to the precincts of the west. The protection force has the unique advantage of being connected to foreign oil companies and the countries they come from; it can thus operate somewhat independently, as long as it remains useful to its foreign patrons. This condition of operation for the oil protection force is why ISIS was attacking the oil-industry infrastructure in January.
In the west, the Al-Qaeda-connected “Libya Dawn” faction holds Tripoli. And it is with Libya Dawn that Turkey has been making connections. Regional observers have reported for months that Turkey is supplying arms to Libya Dawn. (A ship bearing Turkish arms was even intercepted in September 2015, reportedly headed for a port controlled by Libya Dawn.)
ISIS is also making overtures to Libya Dawn. And here – in Libya, with the rival Sunni factions pushing for dominance – we see efforts by both ISIS and Turkey to outflank the emerging Russian-Iranian pincer in Syria-Iraq, while at the same time setting the stage for reconstitution of the “caliphate.”
Their visions for that reconstitution are different in historical heritage and details. Erdogan’s vision starts with the Ottoman Empire. The vision of ISIS goes back to the earliest days of the Islamic Conquests, from the 7th to the 11th centuries, long before there was an Ottoman caliphate. Libya was a strategic waypoint and anchor in both periods of geographic organization for Islam. (Americans will remember that the pirates of the Barbary Coast, which included Libya, prompted our earliest “power projection” foray into the Old World.)
What’s going on in Libya cannot be a matter of indifference for Europe. The waters off Libya have become a lawless void in some areas, and it’s only a matter of time until the menace to commercial shipping creates serious problems. ISIS is certainly thinking already of ways to project power off the coast, by air and sea. The viral map of an “ISIS caliphate” shows ISIS controlling Spain and the Balkans by 2020, and ruling Libya across from an Italy thus flanked, and fully exposed.
It’s in this context that we need to understand the odd little incident in January in which Turkey sent a warship out to stop a drug-trafficking ship off of Libya and confiscate its cargo. Turkey took great care to frame the episode in terms of counternarcotics and a UN mandate. But we can be certain that conditioning the region to the activity of Turkish warships off the Libyan coast is Erdogan’s primary motive.
If Russia is going to leapfrog Turkey with a decisive military presence in Syria, Turkey will try to leapfrog Russia – Russia’s solidarity with Serbia and Greece, her influence in Cyprus, and her position in Syria – by putting a stake down in Libya, which commands the next major maritime chokepoint to the west.
This is how the war this time will go, for the foreseeable future: regional-leader nations moving as best they can to fill voids – or, as in Iran’s case, to force them open for exploitation. This is what the world looks like, and what it invariably does, without a dominant hegemon.
In late January, General Haftar visited Egypt, presumably looking for backing for a bid to unify Libya. The recognized national government, fresh from a useless confab with the Western-led coalition, visited Egypt too – with Turkey in attendance. Egypt is an important factor, but doesn’t have the power to be a decisive one. Libya will remain an exploitable mess for some time. ISIS will grow in strength there.
And that’s what is essential to understand: that for the actors in this great drama, the war in Libya and the war in Syria-Iraq are the same war. Nothing from the Strait of Gibraltar all the way to the western border of India is sacred, unbreachable, or inherently uninvolved. Why would it be, if Russia can seize Crimea without meaningful consequence, and Iran can march across Iraq and Syria, and ISIS can hop around from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Sinai, Libya, and Nigeria?
India has imposing terrain and distance on her side. But we don’t know yet where, or if, the outward ripples of the war this time will find containment – decisive pushback – to the north, south, or west of Mesopotamia. Northernmost Europe may not be the place, if Russia decides to play king-of-the-hill there. It will help Africa to have the Sahara as an obstacle, but it won’t help that much. Islamic extremism is on an alarming rise in Africa, and central governments are overstretched. There is a real potential for decades of economic progress, in major nations like Nigeria and Kenya, to suffer serious setbacks – not even because of unrest inside their own borders, but because of spillover from their neighbors’ problems.
If China and Russia can provide them with security assistance, many of the African nations, which the Asian giants have been cultivating for years, will find their offers tempting. China’s “outreach,” certainly, is destined to be less and less quiet in the next few years.
There is a great deal to say about China, but I’ll confine myself this time to the news that the Chinese have, inevitably, deployed a surface-to-air missile system on one of their artificial reefs developed in a disputed area of the South China Sea. The HQ-9 SAM system is the Chinese version of the Russian S-300 air defense SAM system.
The HQ-9 has been placed on Woody Island in the Paracels. But China has been developing reefs into artificial islands elsewhere in the disputed South China Sea – notably the Spratlys – and as Michael Auslin points out in his AEI article, it will be an even bigger geopolitical earthquake when Beijing deploys missiles further out into the seaway. The map depicts a couple of potential deployment locations; there are more, but these would extend the reach of China’s anti-air systems the farthest.
As alarming and undesirable as this deployment is, there is a worse one to come. I previewed it a few years ago, writing about the prospect of China deploying a network of coastal anti-ship missiles in the South China Sea.
They key take-away from all updates on China’s activities in the South China Sea from here on will be this: China is effectively expanding her territory. She is changing the geography of Southeast Asia. Beijing wants to be able to operate from the South China Sea as if it is part of China – as impregnable and invincible as if it were land. China will seek to “build out” through the SCS and be able to project power from it, dragooning the littoral nations into a regional security scheme run by China, and making the area a defensible base, extending up to 800 miles from the Chinese coast, in which decisive control by China is uncontested.
This is as much about China’s position vis-à-vis Russia and Japan as it is about the United States (and perhaps more, given the rapid fading of American colors). It’s about India too, if half a step less immediately. In the near term, consolidating the South China Sea approaches as an effective Chinese territorial “lake” will change the “correlation of forces” in China’s favor for inducing the fall of Taiwan, and for showdowns with Japan over the southern Japanese islands (including the Senkakus).
Again, there is a lot more to say about China, but one has to stop somewhere. For the moment, the live fighting of World War III is limited – if we can call it that – to the belt running from Afghanistan to the back lots of Northern Africa. But things won’t stay that way.