Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.
Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential. If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.
Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.
Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.
If the Middle East were a forest, Syria would be a propane tank burning beside it. Despite the efforts of firemen, the blaze continues. It’s only a matter of time before the tank explodes and sets the trees afire. The Syrian Conflict has been raging for seven years and shows no signs of receding. The war has transformed from a civil war to an amalgamation of loosely connected blood feuds, civil, tribal, and proxy wars that have the potential to spark a major regional conflict or worse. To make matters more complex, the Syrian Conflict is now on the verge of escalating to a point where two allies are threatening war on each other.
Syrian Government forces, with the invaluable support of Russian, and Iranian forces, are rolling up rebel forces, and expanding the amount of territory it controls. ISIS is reeling as US, and British forces are moving in for the kill. Iranian actions have brought about Israeli air strikes and the threat of further Israeli involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, in the north Turkish forces continue their offensive against Kurdish militias, and forces, some of which are supported by the US and other Western governments. France is now taking a stand against Turkish operations against the Kurds. Relations between Ankara and Paris are deteriorating amid reports the French are considering sending additional troops to Syria to aid the Kurds if Turkish forces extend their offensive east of Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated Turkey would regard such a move as an invasion. Turkey and France, both members of NATO, are sounding more like opponents instead of allies these days. The repercussions of a military clash between the two countries would be felt around the world.
The latest layer added to the conflict is President Trump hinting that the US will be scaling down or ending entirely its military presence in Syria. With ISIS close to defeat on the battlefield, the primary mission for US forces is ending and Trump sees no reason to keep them in country. A final decision has not been made, however, and some senior US officials have warned that a US pullout now could strengthen Russia and Iran’s influence across the entire region.
Later this week I’ll continue this subject by discussing the ongoing geopolitical chess match in the Middle East between the US on one side and Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the other.
Western leaders have accused Russia of being responsible for being behind the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter at their home in the United Kingdom. In a rare, yet encouraging show of unity, the leaders of the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom released a joint statement condemning the attack and calling upon Russia to live up to uphold peace and security. The statement was released one day after Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the nerve agent attack. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov labeled the allegations as ‘unacceptable.’ Moscow is expected to respond by ordering the expulsion of British diplomats from Russia in the coming days. Putin will possibly go beyond that and attempt to prod Britain in another way. Do not be surprised to hear about increased Russian air activity in close proximity to the British Isles over the coming days. Business might be about to pick up for the RAF Typhoons on QRA.
Author’s Note: Apologies for the shortness of this update. Scheduling conflicts have minimized the time I have available to write today.
The European Commission has begun legal proceedings against three EU member-states who have not taken in refugees as per the 2015 plan to relocate migrants then located in Italy and Greece. The governments of Poland and Hungary have refused to take refugees in. The Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people, then informed the EU it would not accept any more. The EU plan was intended to relocate 120,000 refugees, but so far less than 20,000 have been moved. The plan was opposed bitterly by some EU members in 2015, yet ended up being pushed through. Not surprisingly, the strongest resistance came from central and eastern European member-states.
The actions announced by Brussels are infringement proceedings. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic will face large fines if they are found in fault, or cuts in EU funding. Whether or not the three nations pay the fines is another matter entirely. Poland especially has been outspoken in defense of its migration policies. Polish government officials have confirmed more than once that it will fight the legal proceedings. It does not appear that Poland is prepared to back down from the EU action. Hungary and the Czechs have also remained staunch in the face of threats and action by Brussels.
This matter has the potential to expand into a major issue as the year goes on. With Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron coming together and expanding their influence in all things EU, Eastern Europe’s defiance could be a challenge for them to confront. Although the nations of Eastern Europe are all EU members, most are aligned more closely Washington than they are to Berlin, Paris, or Brussels. The ‘Old Europe-New Europe’ argument that was sparked by comments by then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 has long simmered below the surface of US-EU relations. Merkel and Macron could decide to use Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic’s reluctance to accept refugees as justification to attempt and reassert the power and influence of Brussels and highlight Washington’s inability to influence matters that are strictly EU in nature.
This is certainly a situation to keep an eye in the future.
The French people have spoken. Emanuel Macron will be the Republic of France’s next president. Marine Le Pen’s bid to win the presidency fell well short of the expectations of her and her party. Whereas Le Pen rode a wave of Brexit and Donald Trump inspired populism, Macron’s own political position was made up of a pseudo-socialist cloak that differs little in substance from the current president’s own positions.
What does this mean for France? Macron is portrayed as a centrist and political outsider by the European media. In reality, nothing is farther from the truth. He has held government positions in the past and is an avowed globalist. His policies as president will reflect his pro-European Union slant. He will attempt to bring France closer to the EU and its sphere. At a time when other European nation-states are rethinking their relationships with the EU, expect France to go all in, for lack of a better term. France’s future economic and trade policies will fall in line with what favors the financial policies dictated in Brussels, and, to a lesser extent, Berlin. Macron will also do everything possible to throw a wrench into Brexit negotiations. He’s very much opposed to Britain’s departure from the EU and his position there will have a very negative effect on UK-French relations in the future.
In the security and refugee realm, France will attempt to reach a compromise of sorts between continuing to accept large numbers of refugees and strengthening the borders of France. Francois Hollande made a similar attempt and it ended in near disaster for the Republic. France became no more secure and ISIS-inspired attackers were emboldened by the lack of effective defenses put up by the French government. The string of attacks across France in recent years contributed greatly to Hollande’s plummeting popularity. Marcon needs to accept and understand that his own political fortunes are inextricably tied to his ability to combat terrorism in France.
The aftereffects of the French election will take some time to materialize. It is fair to assume that France and Germany will spearhead an effort to rally the European Union. Despite the recent victories by pro-EU candidates across the continent, the future of the European Union continues to remain unclear. Europe’s populist movement is by no means dead, however, it has suffered a powerful setback. For the moment, Donald Tusk, Angela Merkel, and Jean Claude Juncker can breath a bit easier.