The downing of an outdated Russian SU-24 warplane by Turkish F-16s along the Syrian border has a lot of people thinking about Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962) and the outbreak of the First World War. I am tempted to agree, but with some serious provisos.
First of all, the notion that the two European blocs in 1914 “fell into” the First World War because of contingent circumstances is problematic. In the end, the Kaiserreich played every trick in book to kick-start a European conflagration – even if the war they got was not the war they wanted. Also, I am thinking more World War II than World War I. The firestorm growing in the Greater Middle East is not binary but a three-player game, and that’s leaving the interlopers out of the equation. This is, generally speaking, how it was at the commencement of the Second World War: the Soviets, the signatories to the 1940 Tripartite Pact and, of course, the Western democracies.
Today in the Greater Middle East there is, in the first instance, Iran and all its sectarian allies, from the hybrid official-unofficial Shia forces of Iraq, including the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and the homicidal Assad regime. The best one can say about Russia’s military intervention in Syrian is that it might safeguard the interests of the Alawites, Christians, Druze and Sunni merchant class residing in Assad’s seriously shrunken state. More likely, though, if Vladimir Putin continues on his current course he will be condemning those minorities – in the longer term, at any rate – to exile or worse.
The Syrian conflict is a civil war inside a greater civil war throughout the Middle East, and if it goes the full fifteen rounds the winner will be – if for no other reason than demography – Sunni fundamentalism. Given that Putin is now depicted within the Shia-populated world as some kind of a “tribal Shia hero”, we should not have been too surprised that at some point Russia would come into direct conflict with Turkey’s Islamist-in-chief, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the increasingly dominant force on the other side of Shia-Sunni rivalry.
Then again, Putin’s and Erdogan’s “anti-terrorism” policies have certain things in common: their respective air forces brutally bomb a lot of towns in the region in the name of destroying the Islamic State – without, well, hitting Islamic State targets. There is reason to believe that Moscow and Ankara were in serious negotiations to come to an arrangement in Syria: indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei would have been arriving in Turkey at this very moment had not the SU-24 been shot down. Now, of course, the visit has been cancelled and President Putin is making all kinds of ominous noises short of declaring war on the Turkish Republic: “…today’s tragic events will have serious consequences for Russo-Turkish relations.”
The policies of Moscow and Ankara follow along logical – if felonious – lines. Putin wants to prop up the Assad regime for his own reasons of Realpolitik and that involves focusing not on the Islamic State but the other Salafi jihadist outfits – including the al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and up to a dozen Turkmen militias – pressing at the extremities of Assad’s heartland. Erdogan, for his own self-interested reasons, has been prepared to do business with the Islamic State because its enemy – the Kurdish YPG/YPJ militia of Rojava/northern Syria – is also his enemy. Putin and Erdogan might have been trying to draw up demarcation lines before the SU-24 came down and the Turkish-backed Alwiya al-Ashar jihadist militia began firing at the Russian pilots attempting to parachute to safety.
Now we come to the third player in the Middle East – the ‘moderns’ or the secularists. The loser in any Russian-Turkish carve-up of Syria would have been the secularist Kurds (Rojavans) and their Kurdish-Christian-Sunni tribal alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has of late been taking it up to the Islamic State. Their capture of the Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, is no longer beyond the realms of possibility. And if Putin decides to rip up any nascent understanding between himself and Erdogan, then he might be prepared to spend some of his military efforts backing the SDF against the Islamic State in order to punish the interests of Turkey and its jihadi proxies in Syria. In that case, “the Guns of November” might turn out differently from what we first feared.
Daryl McCann has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au