France seeks to build coalition with Russia – Ukraine and Turkey seek to disrupt it

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The former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once commented that the most difficult thing about politics was “events, dear boy, events”. Events can be helpful or unhelpful coincidences for statesmen. No one would suggest that Russia was in any way related to the Paris attacks. Nevertheless it has played out well for Putin as Hollande has sought to involve Russia as a key member of the coalition against Islamic State. The Kiev government’s relationship to the attacks that cut off electrical supplies to the Crimea is more ambiguous. However, the Ukrainian government is increasingly concerned that Russia will leverage its role in Syria to secure a beneficial deal on the Ukraine. Stressing the costs of Russia’s occupation of the Crimea, and reminding the West of Russia’s nefarious role there, certainly suits Kiev’s purpose. Likewise, Turkey may not have shot down the Russian fighter for geopolitical purposes, but it will take advantage of the incident to put a spoke in any Western rapprochement with Russia (and Iran) over Syria.

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The West needs to get better at making these geopolitical linkages (and fast). As I suggested in my previous blog (http://www.shaunriordan.com/?p=233), it also needs to engage seriously with Turkey. Turkey looks to be the major loser in any settlement of the Syrian (and Iraqi) crisis. Turkey’s major regional rival, Iran, will probably end its international isolation and gain influence. Turkey’s Syrian allies will be marginalized. Turkey’s declared enemy Assad may survive for a while, and at worst will enjoy a comfortable retirement. Most crucially the Kurds will secure a de facto if not de jure state (and probably that too). Erdogan is increasingly authoritarian and increasingly mistrustful of the West (as the FT points out – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7d813cc8-9458-11e5-b190-291e94b77c8f.html#axzz3sZjUskog – there are interesting similarities between Erdogan and Putin). Turkey, rejected by the EU, marginalized in the Middle East, with a failing economy and internal political instability, risks becoming another destabilizing factor in the Middle East. Western engagement with Turkey cannot repeat the farce of Merkel’s recent visit to Ankara to beg Erdogan to staunch the migrant flow. The West, and especially Europe, must pose the question “what does Turkey get out of the defeat of ISIS”, and find a convincing answer.

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Ignoring Turkey’s interests will be dangerous. Turkey no more wants a direct conflict with Russia than Russia wants one with Turkey. But Turkey does have a convenient proxy war at hand in the frozen conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan has spent the last few years using its oil money to build up its military with a view to retaking Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. But the collapse in oil prices has hit its economy hard and the window of opportunity for a successful military operation may be closing. A Turkish-encouraged Azeri attack on the enclave would force Moscow to choose between Yerevan and Baku (so far Moscow has guaranteed Armenia’s security – it has a military base there – while hedging its bets by selling weapons to Azerbaijan). For Turkey this could be a low risk option. But if Moscow is seen to support Christian Armenia against Muslim and Turkic Azerbaijan it could have serious implications for Moscow’s position elsewhere in Central Asia, and the Middle East. At the very least, it would put serious strains on the Eurasian Economic Community. Nagorno Karabakh could be a conflict too many for Putin and the Russian military. It would scarcely be in the West’s interests either to destabilize further the Caucasus.

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The Ukraine in some senses is less geopolitically challenging for the West than Turkey. But it must be taken seriously. There is little prospect of Russia returning the Crimea, which is now de facto part of Russia. This makes it all the more important to secure a good deal for the rump Ukraine, which guarantees not only its borders and security, but also its economic and financial stability. If Putin wants sanctions lifted, then he must still pay a price, in the form of guaranteed security for Ukraine and the other former Soviet Republics in Russia’s Western Near-Abroad. This will require a framework agreement in which Europe addresses Russian paranoia while maintaining its right to develop economic relations and cooperation with the former Soviet Republics. Setting this in the context of joint European-Russian security guarantees may assuage Russian fears of further NATO expansion. Europe has its own leverage over Russia. It must not give the game away in exchange for Russian support against Islamic State.

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Europe could do this. Mira Milosevich points out the importance of France’s role and its historical precedents (http://www.fundacionfaes.org/en/analysis/221/la_alianza_franco-rusa-_-fin_de_la_pax_americana). She suggests that France’s pursuit of a Russian alliance against Islamic State reflects traditional French priorities. In a sense, Hollande is reprising De Gaulle’s positions of the 1960s, when he flirted with privileging relations with the USSR over those with the US. His decision to invoke article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty rather than Article 5 of the NATO Charter recalls De Gaulle’s withdrawal from the NATO integrated military and leadership structures. What Sarkozy repaired, Hollande may again undo. Putin will no doubt follow his Soviet predecessors in relishing the opportunity to divide the West. Yet Hollande’s leadership of Europe against Islamic State is probably inevitable. Although British Prime Minister Cameron is seeking parliamentary permission to launch air strikes in Syria, he is too wrapped up in the navel gazing of Brexit to play any kind of leadership role in Europe. Merkel, so dominant in the Euro crisis, finds herself irrelevant in dealing with security issues because of Germany’s inability to deploy military forces abroad. If France is looking to base its response to Islamic State on its traditionally close relations with Moscow (and Hollande certainly looks to be enjoying his “De Gaulle moment”), this will open further tensions within the European Union, especially with those countries like Poland and the Baltic Republics seeking a tougher line against Russia.

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China’s role in the geopolitical nexus surrounding Islamic State and the Ukraine has been underestimated. Only Merkel invoked China to put pressure on Putin over the Ukraine. Otherwise the West, led by the Obama Administration, has seemed determined to drive Russia and China together into an anti-Western embrace. China’s direct relevance in Syria may be limited. But it too has declared war on Islamic State after the decapitation of a Chinese hostage and has its own jihadist problems in Xinjiang. If France is insistent on bringing Russia into an anti-Islamic State coalition, it should bring in China as well. Partly as a means of bringing China ever more into the processes of global governance, and partly as another channel for applying pressure to Moscow (the West must re-learn the art of triangulation, which only Merkel seems, imperfectly, to recall). China may have a limited military role – even if if it was willing to deploy, it is not clear we would want the PLA in the Middle East – but it could play a significant economic role in post-settlement reconstruction. If China wants to proclaim its standing as a world power, it is time it got its hands dirty in the Middle East.

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Many of the problems in constructing an anti-Islamic State coalition arise from US disengagement with the world. Like the British Empire before WWI, the US is ambivalent about its super-power role. But this ambivalence generates a loss of confidence among allies and uncertainty among rivals. Tensions and the risk of conflict increase as regional rivals seek to re-calibrate their security assumptions. In 1914 this uncertainty about British intentions was a major factor in the outbreak of WWI. In 2015 Obama’s indecision has allowed Putin’s irruption into Syria and may yet cede leadership of the anti-Islamic State coalition to a Franco-Russian axis. This would have serious implications for the future of both NATO and the EU. The main lesson to be drawn from Macmillan’s preoccupation with “events” is the need to be adaptable, but within the framework laid down by a coherent narrative that prevents the statesman being constantly blown-off course by events. The sailor needs to change tack and course in response to changes in the winds and tide, but he needs a map to ensure he recovers and makes it safe to harbour. In the US such narrative frameworks are called Grand Strategy, which brings us back to the inability of the West any more to do strategy.

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What the West Lacks – A Strategic Approach to Fighting Islamic State

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The English novelist EM Forster once said “Just connect”. It is the West’s inability to do so that undermines its response to the Paris attacks. Brussels is on lockdown. France is launching air strikes on Syria. The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution condemning Islamic State. But still there is no coherent strategy for combatting Islamic State, either in Syria and Iraq or in Western Muslim communities. In a sense this is a domestic challenge for West European countries. If France really wanted to strike where the terrorists had come from, it would have had to bomb Brussels and the suburbs of Paris. The number of European jihadis fighting with Islamic State is evidence of serious failures of economic and political policies towards Europe’s immigrant communities. But even if the core of the problem behind the Paris attacks lies in a crisis of identity among marginalized and disillusioned young people, men and women, in our own societies, the convincing military defeat of Islamic State remains essential for three reasons: to stabilize the Middle East; to stem the tide of migrants into Europe; and to remove a source of inspiration for Europe’s alienated young. But military action must be set in the context of a broader diplomatic strategy. This is what is lacking. To a large extent Europe has lost the capacity for strategic thought, and thus for effective diplomatic and military action. Foreign policy has been replaced by moral outrage (and moral superiority), which gets in the way of good strategy.

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At a workshop on the Future of Diplomacy in Bulgaria last week, I was asked what diplomacy could contribute to the fight against Islamic state. The presumption of the question was that you cannot negotiate with terrorists, or at least with Islamic terrorists (we did, after all, negotiate with the IRA), and that diplomacy was therefore irrelevant. But this misunderstands the nature of diplomacy. Direct negotiation is only one of the tools available to diplomats. Diplomacy is centred around networks of information and influence. Any diplomat who is not an effective networker should seek a different career. These networks are used to create coalitions to promote the interests and objectives of the diplomat’s country. Equally importantly these networks can be used to take down and disrupt hostile coalitions (there is a reason the board game “Diplomacy” centres on the creation and disruption of coalitions among European powers). All this is underpinned by the analysis of the motivations and objectives of other actors and the underlying pattern of geopolitical and economic realities. These are what diplomacy can contribute to the fight against Islamic State. More specifically they are the techniques that will allow the West to construct an effective diplomatic strategy, of which military action will be but one part.

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Given that Islamic State ranges across both Syria and Iraq, any effective strategy must deal with both countries. But it must take account of the differences between them. Whether the West likes it or not, Putin (largely through the West’s own ineptitude) has made himself the indispensable man in Syria. He must be part of any solution, for two reasons. Firstly, Putin alone can deliver Assad (and possibly Iran) in collaborating with the West in designing a post-Assad political settlement that can allow all Syrian factions to unite in the fight against Islamic State. Such a settlement will need to protect the interests in Syria of Russia, Iran and the Alawites, but also meet at least some of the aspirations of the non-Jihadist opposition. Secondly, Russia is willing and able to offer the military support, including on the ground, that the West is reluctant to offer. But if the West must work with Russia in Syria, it means that the West will also have to find an agreement with Russia over the Ukraine. Putin knows this, which may be one of the reasons for his engagement in Syria. Unlike the West, Putin (or at least Lavrov) does think strategically. The deal will be difficult to make, and will stick in the craw of many who have insisted Putin be punished for seizing the Crimea. But the elements are already pretty clear: Russia retains the Crimea; stabilization of a federal Ukraine in which regions have considerable autonomy (the legislation is already in the Ukrainian parliament) – Russia and the West will guarantee the new Ukraine and Russia will withdraw from the East of the country; Russia and the West will agree security guarantees for Eastern Europe and Russia’s near East; and sanctions will be lifted on Russia. The West may not like the deal, but it is little more than a recognition of reality and may be essential to securing Russian collaboration against Islamic State.

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The West must also re-engage strategically with Turkey. Such re-engagement must take account of the changes in Turkey in recent years, especially the increasing authoritarianism of Erdogan and his revival of conflict with the Kurds for electoral reasons (there are increasing parallels between Erdogan and Putin). The re-engagement must also be based on geopolitical realities. Merkel’s desperate pleas to Ankara to stop the migrants crossing over to Europe in exchange for financial support and cynical promises to re-open Turkey’s entry into the EU (promises that Merkel knows she cannot keep) have only served to undermine her and the EU’s credibility with Erdogan. Whatever the outcome in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds are likely to emerge much strengthened, including possibly with their own state. Getting Turkey to sign up to this will difficult. The West needs to develop a clear analysis of Turkey’s role in the region and how Turkey’s interests can be protected in a post-Islamic State Middle East.

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The struggle against Islamic State in Iraq should be strategic and diplomatic in the true sense of the word: the creation and disruption of coalitions built on profound geopolitical analysis and accompanied by effective public diplomacy. It also offers digital diplomacy the opportunity to show that it amounts to more than Ambassadors blogging and First Secretaries tweeting. Islamic State in Iraq appears to be a coalition between (mainly foreign) Jihadists, Sunni tribesmen and ex-Baathist officers (two of the deputy commanders are ex-generals from Saddam’s army). This coalition is similar to that led by Al Qaeda in Iraq eight years ago. General Petraeus broke up that coalition by a combination of CIA officers driving around West Iraq with suitcases of dollars with promises that the Iraqi Government would respect the Sunni community. Petraeus was able to form the Anbar Awakes coalition from Al Qaeda’s ex-allies to eradicate the groups’s influence. Although the objective remains the same – break up the Islamic State led coalition to create a new coalition to fight against Islamic State – the details will need to differ. It is too dangerous to send CIA officers, or anyone else, driving around Western Iraq looking for Sunni tribal leaders to recruit. Islamic State is well aware of the dangers. Part of the reason for the online beheadings, analogous to Himmler’s briefings for senior Nazi Party and army figure on the holocaust in Poznan in 1943, was to bind the allies into a circle of horror from which they cannot escape. Nor will promises of good behaviour by the Iraqi government cut the mustard. The promises were unfulfilled last time, and would not be credible now.

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The situation in Iraq offers digital diplomacy the opportunity to prove it has come of age. If direct contact with Sunni tribesman and ex-Baathists is too dangerous, they can be approached through social media and chatrooms. Once potential targets have been identified, they can be approached online before direct contact is made. Indirect relationships can be created by online platforms offering exchanges of views and ideas on the future of the Sunnis in Iraq. The objectives remain those of classical diplomacy: building networks to allow the creation and disruption of coalitions. Digital diplomacy offers new, and possibly more effective (certainly safer), tools for achieving them. But such tools will achieve nothing if the West does not have convincing assurances to offer Sunni tribes about their future. This may mean moving beyond the current Sykes-Picot inspired borders of the region. An offer to the Sunni tribes that convinces them to break with Islamic State could be to create a Sunni state out of the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. The corollaries would be a Shia/Alawite state and a Kurdish state. This would offer the prospect of greater stability in the region, but would run up against the opposition of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Iran may be satisfied to maintain the Shia Crescent from Tehran through to Hizaballah in South Lebanon and Saudi Arabia with the creation of a new Sunni state to balance against Iran. But what would Turkey get to compensate for the creation of a Kurdish state.

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If one of the aims of tackling Islamic State is to undermine its attractiveness to Western European Muslims, then it is essential that Islamic State is defeated militarily by other Muslim forces, not the West. If these can include disaffected Sunni tribes who have broken with Islamic State, so much the better. As some commentators have pointed out, if Islamic State is defeated militarily, it could unleash scores of jihadist terrorists in Western Europe. But they will be less effective as the remnants of a humiliated Islamic State defeated by their co-religionists. It will not be like the returning Mujahdeen in the nineties, fresh from victory over the Soviet Union.

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This points to the importance of the West (and Russia) not being seen to impose a solution. Any successful strategy must take account of, and engage with, the views of the people living in the region, as well as those who have been forced to flee. This offers another opportunity for digital diplomacy to show its true worth. In 1991 the Mont Fleur scenario exercise brought together 22 South Africans from across the political spectrum to think about what post-Apartheid South Africa would look like 10 years hence. The exercise helped develop a common language and common assumptions about the future that were able to influence the key political debates. Such an exercise could be of value in the Middle East, but the security and logistical challenges could be insurmountable. Digital scenario building platforms, however, could offer the opportunity of bringing together an even broader range of actors to debate the future of the region. The potential of digital tools, whether social media or more structured platforms or networking tools, to promote conversations in conflict zones has barely been explored yet, but could offer a significant way of engaging with Middle Eastern populations and giving them a voice in deciding their own future.

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None of the above elements will work alone. The approach to the defeat of Islamic State must be holistic and strategic. This is turn will form part of broader strategies to combat Jihadism in Western Europe and manage mass migration to the EU. Military action will be necessary, including military (primarily air) support from the West and China. But it must form part of a broader diplomatic strategy with clear and agreed political objectives. These may need to be radical in terms of current borders. Mass Western military action, on a scale scarcely acceptable to Western publics and with civilian casualties abhorrent to Western sensibilities, might secure victory over Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But only in a way that would unleash more Jihadists, with nothing to lose, onto European streets.