Led by the US and NATO, the clash of imperialist powers accounts for the absence of stability not just in the Middle East and Africa, but also the Ukraine and parts of Asia. Behind the rhetoric of democracy, national security, and anti-terrorism there are direct diplomatic and indirect diplomatic efforts through government-financed and pro-business NGO’s. There are overt and covert military operations carried out by the US, EU, China, Russia and their less powerful allies motivated by aggressive intentions for spheres of influence and markets. Behind the “war on terror” and regional conflicts around the world rests the reality of an era characterized by a power struggle for spheres of influence not much differently than in the Age of Imperialism (1870-1914). Those who have studied history know that the period 1870 to 1914 is also known as the “long fuse” that inevitably led to the Great War, followed by the Great Depression and another global war that was in many respects a continuation of the first. History does not repeat itself, but the similarity of patterns in the policies of the Great Powers have dangerous consequences in the early 21st century as they did in the Age of Imperialism during the late 19th and early 20th century.
The regional episode involving the shooting by Turkey of a Russian Jet fighter plane on 24 November 2015 led to a serious rethinking about resolving the five-year old conflict in Syria that the US and its allies essentially instigated because they were seeking regime change. On grounds that it invaded Turkish air space for a few seconds along the border with Syria, Turkey destroyed the Russia jet, prompting Moscow to retaliate with a series of economic sanctions and a greater military presence in Syria at a time that the Europeans needed Russia to defeat the jihadist ISIL group that Turkey had been supporting along with Saudi Arabia, a number of the Gulf States and indirectly Western nations more interested in regime change than the aftermath of such change.
The Russia-Turkish confrontation is not a struggle between President Vladimir Putin who fashions himself as modern Russia’s Peter the Great (1672-1725) against Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan who is delusional enough to believe he is a modern-day Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) harboring ambitions to resurrect the old Ottoman Empire. Turkey is a NATO member and it really stretches credulity to imagine that Ankara acted completely alone without even informing US and its NATO partners before taking down the Russian jet. Immediately after the act, NATO, EU and US sided categorically with Ankara and against Moscow, although eventually Putin embarrassed Erdogan by accusing him of kneeling down to lick the private parts of the Americans in a desperate show of approval seeking.
At the core this issue is not just Syria’s political future, but the balance of power in the Middle East and who would emerge as hegemonic. Syria has been a traditional Soviet, now Russian sphere of influence with Iran exerting influence directly and via Hezbollah. Because the US created a chaotic situation in Iraq after the invasion where Iran emerged as the dominant influential power, the goal in Syria was and remains to counterbalance Iran and push out Russia. Five years of war has proved the US goal failed.
No matter the efforts on the part of Western politicians and analysts to construct distractions from the core issue of the global power struggle that has become much more intense because China is on its way to replacing the US as the world’s most powerful economy, the issue remains that the inability of the US to achieve its goal in Syria after five years demonstrates the continued dwindling of Pax Americana. The mid-December US-Russia-China negotiations on this matter illustrate that unilateral military solutions, even when they drag along some EU and Arab allies do not work. One would think that Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya proved this very clearly, but then there are the militarist ideologues and of course the advocates of more spending on defense and intelligence that are determined to prove the impossible.
For its part, Russia has been eager to revive the Tsarist Russian Empire within its historic spheres of influence in Eurasia and the Middle East, especially considering that the US has been expanding NATO as part of a containment policy to deprive Russia much influence outside of Eurasia. China has embarked on a long-term economic imperialist policy not just in Asia, but in Africa, Latin America and even in the Middle East. This is largely because it sees gaps it can easily fill with the US and EU weakening economically on a world scale. The EU led by Germany has been just as aggressive in its imperialist quest first by redefining the integration model within Europe so that the southern and earner EU members form in essence a “second tier” within the larger union where Germany is hegemonic.
The stakes are very high for economic and geopolitical advantage on a world scale and even lesser players like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey have been playing the imperialist game of the great powers as they compete for regional hegemony and try to undermine each other within the broader region through various alliances and alignments. Syria has played a catalytic role in the regional struggle to determine the balance of power, not only because of the competing ambitions of Turkey and Saudi Arabia that have been on the same side with the US and EU against the regime of Bashar al-Assad by backing various rebels that once included ISIL, but also Iran that has been on the same as Russia. True to its goal of economic expansionism, China has been keeping a more hands off policy on the matter but mostly siding with Moscow and Tehran rather than the US when it comes to UN voting and multilateral diplomatic negotiations.
US policy of toppling the regime of President Assad and eliminating all of his institutions so that Syria’s dependency transfers from Russia and Iran to the US and EU has failed in the last five years of civil war. This is because of the emergence of jihadist extremist ISIL striking back at the West that was indirectly supporting it through Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The Saudi announcement of a Muslim coalition coming on the heels of the Paris bombing by ISIL operatives, and Western pressure that Muslims must themselves forge a coalition to fight domestically-grown terrorism, make it easier for the US to claim that the US is indeed serious about fighting terrorism across the board and not selectively as it has throughout the Obama administration in northern Africa during the rebel uprisings and in the Middle East – Yemen, Libya and especially Syria.
The absence of tangible results in Western-led coalition to destabilize Syria sufficiently so that there is regime change and sink into chaos has backfired both in terms of a massive refugee problem for which the EU must pay but also the continued strength of jihadists and their anti-Western campaign. These developments convinced Washington that a move closer to the Russia-Iranian position with which China agrees was necessary, especially given the massive evidence that ISIL oil and ammunitions operations in fact facilitated through Turkey, profiting Erdogan’s family and crony capitalists.
After spending more than $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US finds itself in the unusual position of watching the government in Baghdad under the hegemonic influence of Iran, adamantly opposed to Turkey and much closer to Russia than the State Department prefers. In short, the problem of spending billions and having absolutely nothing to show for it other than feeding the defense industry with more contracts while adding to the public deficit convinced the US that a diplomatic solution rather than a military one is much cheaper and beneficial in both the short term and the longer run.
The “Metternichian” (Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich, 1773-1859) that Henry Kissinger introduced to US foreign policy during the Vietnam War, is now back under the Obama-Kerry team to resolve the impasse over Syria. Metternich was a conservative imperialist who wanted to prevent revolutionary changes and to maintain the balance of power in Europe. At least one scholar has argued that Vladimir Putin is a modern-day Metternich in so far as he respects the traditional spheres of influence, likes dealing with the Great Powers directly to resolve regional conflicts and is a conservative imperialist. Finding itself in a serious predicament with a failed Middle East policy, the Obama administration has been forced back to Metternich as well.
On 16 December 2015, US Sec/State John Kerry announced that the US, Russia and China agreed that the institutions of the Assad regime must remain intact while during a transitional period President Assad would have to prepare his exit from power. The Saudis and the pro-Western rebel groups in Syria also agreed because they would have to convert into political factions and compete in the electoral process while the country would contain some of the dreadful refugee problem that is a nightmare for Syria’s neighbors and the EU. At the same time, the UN Security Council approved a US-Russia proposal to cut ISIL funding, something that requires the cooperation of governments around the world because ISL operates not just in Syria and Iraq, but Yemen, Libya and other countries, as does al-Qaeda that is included in this measure. Obviously, this means that Turkey would be the big loser despite its efforts to cover its tracks of back-door cooperation with ISIL by using various groups to fight Syria’s Assad government.
On 17 December 2015 that the US and Russia agreed to maintain the structure of the Assad regime but not the man in leadership, the UN Sec-General has stated that the solution of the Syrian crisis must not depend on the fate of a single man, Assad to the detriment of an entire nation. The UN statement provides the diplomatic cover for the US approach of multilateral foreign policy solution that includes Russia as a key player. This leaves Turkey in an odd position, scrambling to secure allies, including ameliorate relations with Israel after several years of a mini-Cold War and even Greek Cyprus where Russian oligarchs enjoy enormous economic influence and with which Russia has cordial relations.
Of course, anything can go wrong, as things have in the last five years without a peaceful solution so far. Similar multilateral solutions have been floated before, but the intense competition among the great powers seeking imperialist advantages in spheres of influence as well as the ambitions of lesser regional players preclude agreement. In an election year in the US, Obama wants a deal on Syria after ameliorating relations with Iran and Cuba, if for no other reasons than to save face and allow Hillary Clinton an advantage in 2016 by depriving the Republicans the number one issue on their platform which is terrorism and military solutions in the Middle East.
In August 2013, the online journal Investors.com published a story entitled “Attack on Syria is About Saving Face, Not US” in which it claimed: “A Turkish jihadist website 14 months ago claimed that Syrian opposition forces obtained chemical weapons equipment from a Syrian army base in the northwest city of Aleppo. And Syria’s al-Qaida-linked Al Nusra Front has plotted sarin and mustard gas attacks, say recent reports out of Iraq and Turkey.”
History will show whether the Obama administration manufactured stories and covered up evidence to destabilize Syria exactly as the Bush team did in declaring war on Iraq. The larger question that has been raised during the Obama presidency by various analysts is to what extent is the US willing to sacrifice resources pursuing militaristic foreign policy that in the end will fail as it did under George W. Bush? The US decision in mid-December to cut loses and run with a compromise deal that includes Russia but also Iran and China is an indication of lessons never learned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan where military solutions also failed.
Russia had repeated all along that it was not committed to Assad personally, implying it wanted a regime that would not lock out Moscow from its historic role in Syria as a sphere of influence. Russia’s angry response to Turkey’s downing its jet fighter is also another reason to de-escalate tensions by adopting the Metternich-Kissinger approach of having the Great Powers, all motivated by imperialist aims, solve conflicts at the regional level before such conflicts escalate into a major war.
To appease Israel, the US offered additional aid as a payoff and a virtual carte blanche on the Palestinians. This will not stop the endless propaganda war against the US-Iran deal, but it appeases the Jewish lobby in the US and the pro-Israeli elements that are the same ones advocating unilateral military solutions rather than a Metternichian diplomatic route. Meanwhile, the concession to Iran was the agreement between the US and Russia on saving the Assad institutions but not Assad who would finish serving out his term and not run for reelection or resign before the term expires. This allows Iran and Hezbollah to retain their influence in Syria.
The US-Russia rapprochement on Syria is a deal between imperialists and there were signs that it has been in the works as early as August 2015 when the US hinted that it would indeed compromise with Russia and Iran.
(http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2015/08/30/The-fate-of-President-Bashar-al-Assad.html) Domestically, the Obama administration can claim that it prevailed on this issue against Republican calls for putting troops on the ground in Syria, a scenario that could potentially be much worse than Vietnam because Russia and Iran, backed by China would have to react diplomatically as well as militarily by supplying arms to the pro-Assad elements.
The question that even Republicans have been asking is what would replace Assad? Would it be a regime even more hostile to the US than the existing one? After all, what replaced Hussein in Iraq but a regime beholden to Iran and increasingly at odds with the US. The following excerpt from an article by a CATO Institute member illustrates the skepticism of many about US foreign policy in the Middle East and specifically ISIL. “The Obama administration’s war against the Islamic State is turning into another interminable conflict that serves the interests of other nations far more than America. U.S. policy has been impossibly incoherent, attempting to do everything: oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, shove aside next door Iran, defeat vicious jihadist insurgents, promote ineffectual “moderate” forces, convince the Gulf States to act against the extremists they’ve been supporting, promote diplomacy without participation by Damascus and Tehran, and convince Turkey to serve U.S. rather than Islamic interests.”
The Paris bombing combined with the refugee crisis that EU has been facing was also another very serious dimension in the change of US policy from regime change to a Metternichian-style diplomatic solution of diving spheres of influence through negotiations and preserving the status quo threatened by jihadist rebels. After agreeing to pay off Turkey $3.3 billion to keep Syrian and Iraqi refugees from crossing over to the European continent in the aftermath of Turkey shooting down the Russian jet fighter, the flow of refugees remains the same prompting concerns on the part of Germany that Ankara has no intention of honoring the deal.
Turkey received other concessions, including easing of visa terms to allow Turks into the EU, as well as a more serious effort to induct Turkey into the European Union and open its markets for goods in the wake of Russia’s sanctions. In the end, Turkey’s imperial ambitions at the regional level mirror those of the Great Powers at the global level. However, just as Turkey was a pawn during the Cuban Missile crisis when the US placed missiles on its soil directed at the USSR, but then had to bargain them away, similarly Turkey today is between East and West and it constantly tries to play all sides for leverage. That it has an Islamist ruling party rather than a secular one based on Kemalist principles is not an advantage on the international scene at this point amid the war on terror targeting jihadists. The only option for Turkey is to adjust to the realities of the Great Powers’ imperialist interests and see what benefits it can derive.
Finally, human rights violations and the humanitarian crisis in Syria have been of concern to the UN that has accused the Assad government and the rebels for creating amid the civil war. The humanitarian crisis and human rights violations took place because of the weakened “state structure” in Syria, just as has taken place in other Islamic countries that suffered destabilization and externally-imposed regime change. Factors contributing to weakened state structures include a weak economy based on extreme uneven income distribution that leaves the vast majority in chronically poor status and in some cases receptive to support a jihadist organization. However, the anti-Islamic crusade on the part of the Western countries that simply dismisses all Muslims as suspects of “terrorism”, as well as the regional wars that the West has started along with regime change operations convince Muslims that racism on the basis of religion is deep-seated among Western Caucasian Christians who have no problem with the merciless apartheid state in Israel at the expense of the Palestnians.
If the Metternichian route works for the US and Russia with China taking a back seat but supporting it, then it could become a model for regional conflict resolution in the future as the Great Powers will continue to struggle for spheres of influence and markets on a world scale. Imperialism is at the core of the problem and that does not seem to be vanishing any time soon. On the contrary, more and more it seems that we are back in the era of 1870-1914 when wars of imperialism took place around the world and eventually led to a global conflict. The only difference today is that the Great Powers possess nuclear weapons that themselves impose self-restraint, thus forcing governments to step back from the madness of total war.
About the author:
Jon Kofas is a retired university Professor from Indiana University, USA.
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