The recent intervention of the Russians in Syria raised hopes among many in the Alt-Right that ISIS (a.k.a. Israeli Secret Intelligence Service) would be swept away like dune dust, and President Assad restored to his adoring people. Since the Russians got involved, however, not much has really changed. Assad may be looking a little more stable and one or two villages may have changed hands, but the country remains a chaotic mess. Why, one wonders, is this the case?
The truth is because – unlike normal businesses, which now rely on practically Communist level of support through financial chicanery, bastardized Keynesian economics and a consumerist economy bloated in various unnatural and ungodly ways – the military sector in most countries remains a rigorously efficient and economical entity that has to scrape by with limited supplies.
This might sound surprising, given the fact that there are now so many actors involved in Syria – the West, the Russians, the Israelis, the Iranians, the Turks, the Kurds, Hezbollah, the Saudis, and various other Gulf States – but for a war with so many participants it is also a remarkably small war.
The large number of participants is also the reason why not much real progress is possible. Each player in this game knows that if it ups its stake drastically, the other players will respond with the result that the stalemate will persist, but with a mutual loss in wealth and resources to both. Putin’s recent move was more an act of shoring up Assad than resolving the crisis in one fell swoop, as it was wrongly seen by many in the Alt-Right-o-sphere.
There are a number of obvious cost-saving mechanisms that have become apparent as the war has progressed – a preference for aerial combat, the use of proxies, and allowing front lines to evolve an ethnic or sectarian character.
Aerial combat may sound expensive, and indeed not everyone can afford the start-up costs, but contrasted with the alternatives, it is actually one of the cheapest forms of warfare. A warplane flying over hundreds of square miles and dropping a payload on a weapons dump or hospital is the cheapest way of sending a “war signal” to the largest number of people in an area.
The use of proxies is another effective way of economizing. If Russia brought in actual Russian frontline troops in significant numbers, they would clearly roll up the anti-Assad elements fighting against them. But introducing such instability would not go unchecked, and would lead to the deployment of troops capable of stopping the Russians, whether Turkish, Western, or Israeli.
Putin knows this and so the battles will continue to be fought by Middle Eastern troops – Arabs, Kurds, Iranians – fierce looking bearded fellows, who nevertheless shoot high or shoot round corners without looking, and who run away when it suits them and cry like babies when captured.
The third way of “economizing” the war is to let it develop an ethnic character. Good old-fashioned “fear of the other,” and the possibility of seeing one’s sisters, daughters, and mothers raped, is the best way to keep the lackadaisical Middle Eastern militia man at his post and performing his desultory military duties cheaply.
This is the reason the frontlines in Syria are such a mess, because in ethnic terms Syria itself is a bit of mess. ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, whatever their outlandish Islamic excesses, are simply the Sunni team. The Kurdish areas of Syria are almost completely under Kurdish control, while Assad’s own Alawite people provide the heartland of his territory with a few tribal clientist excrescences extending into Christian and Sunni areas.
Let’s be clear, then, this is a war that no-one is now trying to win, as that would be (a) expensive and (b) provoke counter-moves by the other players, that would (c) make it very expensive and pointless. The question then is, if the war is going nowhere, why do the participants continue with it at all?
One answer is that pulling out would be a defeat. Assad falling would be a defeat for Russia and even Israel, which stands to suffer from having a strong radical Sunni state on its North Eastern border. On the other hand, the destruction of ISIS, or whatever rebranded Sunni movement takes its place, would be a defeat for the Saudis, Turks, and the Gulfers.
The other answer is that the war is not actually going nowhere – over time it is slowly sorting the country into more solid ethnic and sectarian blocs that can increasingly operate apart from each other and form the basis of future statelets.
But this is not that important for most of the participants. The Russians, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the West have little interest whether this particular village or that particular suburb is under Druze, Christian, Sunni, or Kurdish control. The main exception is the Turks, who are reluctant to see a Kurdish statelet crystallize along their border.
The real game that is going on – and the essence of the Syrian conflict – is the struggle to resolve competing economic interests. The Russians are the de facto leaders of an alliance (Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, & Iraq) that can be characterized as “Shiite,” but this is only due to circumstance and opportunity. The Russians know that in order to benefit from the conflict in Syria, they will have to reach “across the aisle” to Sunni elements.
The real coalition of interests in this conflict – and the one that will ultimately decide it – is that between the oil and gas interests of the main players, namely Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf States.
Both the Russians and the Middle Easterners want to improve their access to the European markets. The Russians want to revive their South Stream pipeline project, which aims to transport natural gas through the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Austria. This was stopped by the EU in the wake of the conflict in the Ukraine, but Russia hopes that resolving the Syrian conflict might lead to a new agreement with the EU on this. There is also another proposed pipeline, the Turkish Stream, which means that Russia and Turkey have mutual interests.
But the main coalition of interests is that between the Russians and the Saudis coming to an understanding on the pricing of these commodities. Recently there have been several scare stories about the Saudi economy being in trouble. These no doubt originate in Moscow and are mere propaganda, but the truth is that Russia and Saudi Arabia coming to a deal on oil would suit both their interests.
In late 2014, the Saudis flooded the oil market in a move designed to hurt their main Middle Eastern rival Iran by crashing the price of oil. But this also hurt Russia (not to mention the US fracking industry). This was what probably pushed Putin towards a more proactive policy in the Middle East.
The Russians decided that they needed a more direct means of exerting pressure on the Saudis, and so escalated their support for the failing Assad regime. The Saudis for their part have been disappointed with America’s conciliatory attitude to the Iranians, something that has pushed them closer to Israel. But their position remains fragile in numerous ways, so improving relations with fellow oil exporter Russia makes sense.
To the man on the street Syria is the place where gays are thrown off tall buildings, women are sold into slavery, POWs have their heads removed by chainsaws, and the source of many of Europe’s future rape gangs. But it is also the fulcrum in which a game of “war poker” is being played with plenty of bluff, winks, under the table dealing, and chips correlated to the price of oil.
The determinants of war and peace will not be the self-determination of the Syrian people or the nature of Islamic radicalism – these are mere pawns – but the degree to which cynical Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Israeli, and Turkish interests can coincide and coalesce.
The groups that stand to lose the most in this combined poker and chess game will be the various Syrian ethnicities caught up in it, and those countries most adversely effected by the flows of refugees. This at least will incline the EU to accept a wider deal when it emerges.
As for America, with little inclination to get involved militarily and no direct economic interest of the sort that Russia has, it is in danger of being sidelined in a way that may involve a loss of face for a so-called superpower.