Date: September 20, 2015

Is Obama a Realist in Syria? TL-DR: No.

Nick Cohen is wrong about Syria and “Realism”

Obama is not a Realist, and the way the West dealt with Syria, is not Realism, and it is about time this recurring myth is talked about.

Nick Cohen, one of my favorite writers, also wrote about the Syrian Refugee crisis recently, and opined, that the future generations will blame our Realism in dealing with the refugee crisis. In this instance, however he suffers from a notable disadvantage, of being wrong.

Needless to say, as a researcher of foreign policy and realism, I find this argument of Western Realism a bit oversimplified. Studying the Western response deeply and empirically, one would notice, that the policy of the West to deal with the Syrian crisis was neither Realism, nor Liberal Interventionism. It has been one of shabby half-hearted indifference.

First of all, I don’t want to go into the details of policy frameworks, partly because I have written about it before, and partly because better men have commented on it, and I don’t want to add on to the literature. However, I feel compelled to point out, that an actual realist policy for Syria would be markedly different from the one we are observing presently.

First of all, Realism is amoral and solely based on State interest. However the first fallacy of this line of thought is that the West is not acting to deal with the Syria crisis as a single block. We see a Realist Britain and some specific East European countries, trying to maintain an offshore balancer role, an inward looking and isolationist America busy with Hillary’s email skulduggery and an insufferable Donald Trump and his twitter hordes, and a terribly liberal Germany and Sweden, now facing a shocking reality check about their own demographic unrest.

A Realist policy for Syria therefore would actually be somewhat like this.

  1. Form a no-fly zone in northern Levantine sea coast, to carve out an area, which can house genuine refugees.
  1. Train the fighting age men and boys (almost 70 percent according to a startling UNHCR report), and send them back to fight ISIS. Accept the women, children and war infirm, the genuine refugees, rather than the economic migrants. That’s what India did during the 1971 waragainst Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh.
  2. During the 1815 Barbary wars, a joint naval British-Dutch taskforce, under Lord Edward Pellew negotiated with the Algerian human traffickers with “shots and nothing but shots”. It bombed and destroyed the human trafficking network. There’s a lesson for the policy makers for Syria while dealing with overcrowded boats carrying refugees to Europe.
  3. European navies with their overwhelming superiority should put up a Mediterranean blockade similar to the Second World War.
  4. Help the Kurds to carve out a state of their own. The old boundaries from the Sykes-Picot agreement are invalid, and it would be prudent to accept that and make policies based on new facts in the ground. Give the Peshmerga weapons to battle it out with the ISIS. The Kurdish forces are the most modern, egalitarian and secular fighting force in the entire Middle East. They are an asset to the West.
  5. Finally, keep an eye on Russia and Iran, but don’t try to stop them. This is the Middle East’s version of the Thirty years war going on. Having Russia and Iran try and balance the Middle East will have its own advantages. There will be an opportunity to study Iranian and Russian forces in actual combat and COIN operations, even if they get bogged down, without direct loss of money and manpower for the West. As Kenneth Waltz wrote before his death, power begs to balance itself. If Russia and Iran balances against the Wahhabi forces, Jihadists and Islamists, at the cost of their money and lives, nothing wrong in that.

However, as we can see, this is not what the West is doing, obviously. In place of an actual Realist grand-strategy, we are caught winging it, with heavy rhetoric about saving human lives, and stopping the war, and having a democratic middle east, while being simultaneously completely ambivalent to the ground realities.

Now, I write these policies as a researcher of Realism, being detached from my emotional considerations. I know I might be coloured heartless for that, but this is a purely academic discussion. I feel horrible seeing the photo of Aylan Kurdi as much as the next man with conscience and sanity. But drafting policy is not an emotional job. It is not activism. It is prudence, pragmatism, logic and reasoning, and a clear assessment of goals and capabilities. Hopefully foreign policy mavens or commentators keep that in mind.


Hungary is just a starting point

As the internet woke up with photos of a camera woman of the nationalist Hungarian TV channel N1TV, which is closely associated with the far-right Jobbik party kicking and tripping on three different instances, refugee children running from police. Petra Laszlo, was filming refugees scrambling from police crackdown, when there was a father with his daughter in his arms, who Petra tripped by sticking her leg ahead of her. When he fell down and came up and started asking why was he kicked down, Petra continued to film it. German TV channels picked up the footage, and it went viral, with other instances coming out, when she kicked on two separate incidents, a refugee boy and a girl. She has since been dropped by her channel, although the incident sparked furious debate in Europe.

However bizarre this incident is, it somehow doesn’t defy logic. Questions were asked, about if she was just doing her job, because sensationalism sells on TV. A rambling, incoherent, frothing at mouth Syrian dad, with a scared helpless looking child would make a great footage after edit on a nationalist channel. It will justify exactly the narrative being promoted, of Europe under siege. But what if it is not as simple? What if she is just an example of a simple day earning living person, being swept off by fascist propaganda, being in the middle of it 24 / 7? What if she is genuinely in a moment of hatred and anger actually thought of kicking a young girl, who was fleeing brutal bombing in her own country? What if we are seeing a start of a kind of xenophobia, rarely so virulent since the 1930s? This narrative, this fever pitch rhetoric, this partisan and divided Europe is very similar…to what we saw eighty years back. And that didn’t end well. Fascism is an idea. A little bit of fascist is there in every ethno-religious-sectarian group, which raises its ugly head, during times like these, with war and economic downturn being the norm of the day.

Why is Viktor Orban, Hungary’s maverick head of state, fuelling this? A bit of context is necessary. Orban is old guard, was a nationalist student leader who was spearheading the 1989 movements of opening up Eastern Europe. What makes it doubly ironic is his role in opening borders of Hungary then. However, he is now just reflecting the mood of his country and broadly a massive section of European populace. And he did that by following European rules, or in other words, he paid EU back by their own coins. Hungary declined to open borders from non-EU crowds, thereby stifling the increasing number of refugees to the exodus in the west. In the midst of all the media hype, Orban masterfully took the opportunity to lecture Europe, in words that are hardly used in the stiff upper lip high nosed European bureaucracy. Orban played to the gallery saying European Christian roots are at a threat, and Europeans risk being a minority in their own continent, and the demographics are going to change due to this incessant incoming.

Ofcourse Hungary had to let these people go, and there was never a doubt Hungary will keep them in a camp. But in the two days of this drama, and the subsequent media coverage the message already was passed and resonated to a certain section of European crowd. Eurosceptics from Britain to Slovakia, were rejuvenated. Fascist, ultra-nationalist and far right forces were on the street chanting Orban’s message. And Orban successfully took the wind from the sails of his own country’s Jobbik party, putting himself further right than the far right. Orban’s party put up billboards warning migrants “not to take our jobs”. One can only imagine the caustic irony of the number of Polish and Hungarians and Czechs going to West Europe to do jobs like construction and taxi driving, and how Arab migrants might now take those.

But the problem is deeper. The main narrative is why Europe is bearing the brunt, and why not the Gulf countries. Other than Germany and Sweden, there is unbelievable anti-migrant sentiment in Europe at present. Bloomberg News tried a shoddy explainer piece on why Gulf countries are now reluctant to take in refugees, and did more harm than good. So, Gulf states are bombing ISIS and involved in conflict, so are the Europeans. Gulf states might have blowback from refugees changing demographics, so will the Europeans. Nativists might rebel in Gulf states, Nativists are being violent in Europe as well and there IS a blowback currently happening as we speak.


Interestingly here are a couple of figures in the refugee data released by UNHCR.  Striking on the refugee data charts, that the males outnumber the females and children massively. 66% are males, and also 8% are from “other places” which include places like Ivory Coast, with absolutely no wars going on. Exactly the reverse trend than any other wars we have seen in recent memory, where women and children were sent off as refugees, with men staying behind to fight. This is a new phenomenon absolutely NO ONE is highlighting. Also, a very important question that is being pondered in Europe is that if these “refugees” are not staying back to fight and make their “own” country a better place, what loyalty will they have for their host countries, as diverse and culturally different as Scandinavia to Germany to Italy, to England? This is the predominant policy question with far reaching implications. As we speak, there is massive battle going on in the historic and mythical Greek island of Lesbos, where migrants are fighting pitched battles with local police.

The European Union dream is falling apart, and that is not sensationalism or conflict mongering; that is a fact. European leaders should act fast to ensure stability. As far as ethno-nationalism, war and social cohesion is concerned, Europeans don’t have history on their side.

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