As dangerous as Western misinterpretation of its co-responsibility in perpetuating the current Syria crisis is its lack of understanding of the larger macro-region Syria role as a link between the Middle East and Southern Eurasia. Russian military operation in Syria might transform the much needed understanding of the macro-region.
Failure to understand the immediate picture
Assessing unfolding Western action in Syria one comes to discouraging conclusions.
First, chronic inefficiency.
Washington and its allies had ample time to understand the geostrategic puzzle and human drama inherent to protracted conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and particularly, to acknowledging responsibility in the dramatic turning point represented by the invasion of Iraq, as British Prime Minister, Tony Blair stated. Evidence shows that each military operation undertaken by Western allies needs a long time to be put into action, typically when it involves coordination between different agencies in Washington as well as in the main capitals of the allied forces.
Second, legality. Since Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, asked for Russian military support, the airstrikes are in tune with international law. No matter whether one likes his regime or not, one should acknowledge that no such calls for help came to Western powers from Damascus. Furthermore now the Iraqi government seems to be considering asking Moscow for help in fighting ISIL, and a similar request is being reported in Kabul’s agenda.
Third, double standard. Few hours after Russian airstrikes started in September 30, Obama administration declared to be highly preoccupied with missed targets and casualties in Syria. Those were the same hours when US planes bombarded a civilian hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. At first the Pentagon denied that action, giving a blurry explanation of its decision-making process some days later.
Fourth, assessment and concerted efforts. Realizing its blind strategy highlighted by the Russian freshest move, Obama administration declared the end of support to groups of anti-Bashar al-Asad opponents, and soon after started dropping weapons to Syrian rebels in a style resembling Bay of Pigs disembark in Cuba in 1961.
NATO’s show of unity following incidents with a couple of Russian planes flying over the Turkish border and the announcement of the Organization readiness to defend Turkey was an unfocused and unfortunate remark since only hours later Ankara was hit by the worst terror attack in Turkey’s recent history.
Failure to understand larger picture: Eurasia
By the end of October, the latest talks in Vienna over Syria, that included representatives from the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey marked a tendency to understand the immediate picture (thanks to Moscow’s latest strategic overture), but still it is not enough to grasp the equally necessary larger strategic panorama.
A decade earlier former US secretary of State Condolezza Rice’s democratic transformation plans from Afghanistan to Maghreb have a dangerous utopianism, that renders such school of thought and its related branches unqualified to envisage credible agreements leading to rational peaceful processes. A realist such as former US secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, clearly acknowledges the lack of American understanding of the region, as Moscow’s recent deployment in the Middle East is not only unprecedented in Russia’s history, but it has also highlighted Washington disorientation in the Middle East, Western Eurasia and Central Asia. ISIL fighters not only include members of the Arab world as well as Western Europeans, but also around 7,000 nationals from former Soviet republics, including Central Asian and Caucasus.
It is highly possible that ISIL’s appeal reaches radical Uyghurs in China’s Autonomous Region of Xinjiang.
This month, in spite of all evidence, EU's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, called Russia "a game-changer" whose actions have «very worrying elements." Also NATO’s chief Jens Stoltenberg highlighted that the Organization must adapt to long-term security challenges. Since NATO plus the US integrate a significant war-machine well experienced in fighting between Afghanistan and Libya, one wonders how shrewd Stoltenberg’s statement is. Or is not NATO supposed to operate with a strategy to cope with long-term security challenges? By contrast, Russian strikes have been massive, immediate and coordinated from Moscow, the Caspian Sea and from inside Syrian territory, and in close interaction with Iran and Iraq authorities.
The West has underestimated Russia’s experience and location in Eurasia because Moscow’s moves have been assessed by ideologized strategists and leaders with old mental maps. Wrong operations continue to be explained with misleading terminology stemming from the times of «freedom fighters» (mujahideen label in Afghanistan’s eighties), prolonged later on in operational terms such as «friendly fire» or «collateral damage» in Iraq, to «moderate rebels» and «democratic liberation» aimed at Damascus.
The relevance of new players: Russia and China… and Europe
Regarding the Syria crisis, it is apparent that Moscow has a vision that incorporates Southern Eurasia and neighbouring Middle East. The latest evidence shows that Russia favours diplomatic solutions and acts abroad directly only if formally requested by a country facing a large-scale terrorism in a face of expansionist-oriented ISIS, which endangers the Middle East and Eurasia as a whole.
For its part Beijing can also contribute, since it is not only United Nation’s Security Council permanent member but a power with privileged ties with Eurasian and Middle East countries. Beijing proclaims non-intervention plus an economic and financial diplomacy as instruments of choice for resolving foreign issues. In addition, 60 States in the macro-region including the Mediterranean are in Beijing’s Silk Road Strategy (also known as OBOR). In several cases Beijing is the first or the second or third trading partner of concerned countries. As a result, China can be viewed as a key player in post-conflict reconstruction of Syria, particularly since Syria was an important trading hub of the ancient Silk Road.
Singapore former diplomat and respected intellectual, Kishore Mahbubani, remarked just five years ago that unlike China, Europe has been unable to share prosperity in its strategic neighborhood engulfing Muslim societies. Now the consequences are there. Beyond NATO, the EU should play an independent and creative policy beyond its frontiers by grasping the meaning of the most immediate threats and developing a cooperative role with Russia. If not, it is seriously risking falling into international irrelevance and accumulating plenty of NATO inherited problems as a bitter legacy.