This Is How the World Ends, Part V

by Peter ZeihanMelissa Taylor, and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

See Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV.

Event 5: Trump Unleashed (in progress)

The United States has never made foreign policy by committee.

The Constitution grants the executive broad authority and autonomy to collect information, come to conclusions, chart out strategies and implement foreign and military policy. Congress technically has oversight, but the legislative branch lost interest in and surrendered meaningful control over foreign policy over a decade ago. Within the executive branch there are no meaningful checks on the president’s powers, with all senior executive staff serving at the President’s pleasure (or, if you prefer, whim).

Trump has been pruning his executive staff quite rigorously in recent months, and the foreign affairs team is no exception.

Think back to the 2016 campaign. In the early months there were 18 people vying for the Republican nomination. Everyone assumed Trump’s campaign was a marketing scheme, so Trump got 18th pick for advisors. This landed him with disasters-in-waiting such as Michael Flynn.

Upon actually becoming president, a number of individuals from more established interests either saw an opportunity to shape a man who was obviously a neophyte and/or felt it was their duty to the country to try and advise the freshman president. This gave rise to what I’ve called the “Axis of Adults.” These are the men who wanted to make sure the country didn’t go off the rails.

The chair of the National Republican Committee – Rince Priebus – became Chief of Staff in an attempt to inject some Republican orthodoxy. Army General HR McMaster became National Security Advisor with the intent of speaking truth to power. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson took over the State Department to share the insights of corporate America. Gary Cohn climbed aboard to explain the ins-and-outs of Wall Street.

All sought to actively shape President Trump’s views. All are now gone.

Washington, D.C.

Another pair already have one foot out the door. Priebus’ replacement as Chief of Staff – General John Kelly – felt the best thing he could do to help the president was ensure accurate information delivery. That meant, among other things, taking away the president’s phone so he wouldn’t ingest bad information… and so Trump now plans his life without much consulting his chief of staff. General James Mattis – the Defense Secretary – now seems to be the only person allowed in the room with an interest in accuracy, context and consequences. It makes him a bit of a downer in adrenaline-fueled TrumpWorld, and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t excused by year’s end as well.

Bottom line: All the chaos and disruption of the past 15 months has been the result of a Donald Trump who has been actively held back. Now the world gets to see what a Trump unleashed – an America unleashed – can do.

The pace of… everything is about to pick up considerably. Between the end of the WTO and the dawning exploitation of secondary sanctions, the US is getting the free use of its other hand – its natural economic power. The Trump administration is testing America’s strength just as other major powers are hitting structural barriers, not least of which are demographic. The Americans are now only one of the few peoples that are repopulating, within a generation the average American will be younger than the average Brazilian (the Americans are already younger than the average German or Chinese). At the same time the collection of people who have repeatedly talked the president out of some of his more disruptive policies are now either gone or sufficiently discredited in the president’s eyes that they might as well be.

It isn’t so much that any individual actions taken by the Trump administration will or won’t work. It isn’t so much that there is or isn’t a grand, multi-faceted plan in the White House. It isn’t even that the president does or doesn’t understand the context or consequences of his policies. And it certainly isn’t that this is not what I would do if I were king for a day.

It is that global population patterns are dependent upon global manufactures trade to generate income, and global agricultural trade to pay for food from abroad. It is that the global transport that enables such sectors to work requires a global order.

It is that since World War II the United States has sustained the only true global order that our world has ever known.

It is that not only is the United States no longer holding the global order together, it is actively breaking it down and there is no power or coalition of powers that can even theoretically take its place. It is that a world without America is a world in which other countries – whether out of desperation or opportunity – feel forced to protect their own interests. And most are wildly out of practice, wildly vulnerable, or – in most cases – both. It’s that America’s only significant geopolitical competitors – Europe and China – have become irrevocably addicted to that order just in time for it to end.

And perhaps most worryingly, it is that the Americans’ abdicating global leadership isn’t the same thing as the Americans’ abdicating global power, or global reach.

It is that the party is over.

This Is How the World Ends, Part IV

by Peter ZeihanMelissa Taylor, and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

See Part IPart II, and Part III.

Event 4: The World Trade Organization Loses Its Grip (in progress)

Before we talk about a life without the WTO, we need to review why it exists in the first place.

The core of the international system during the Cold War was the Americans’ support of the global trade and security order in part by stepping back from the role of global economic hegemon. In exchange, the Americans wanted strategic control over the alliance. The economic half of the American understanding was codified in a series of international negotiations in the late 1940s which created the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade. GATT eventually morphed into what we now know as the World Trade Organization. The basic concept is that the United States – the most powerful economy and military in history – has no stronger legal standing than Paraguay or Malawi when it comes to economic matters.

The Americans’ willingness to sublimate their economic interests in exchange for security control is what enables the global system to work, and the WTO is the institution that manages the economic side of the global order. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that pretty much everyone plans to use the WTO to sue the United States on the issue of secondary sanctions.

No wonder Donald Trump has the organization in his sights.

The American ambassador to the WTO has made it clear that so long as the WTO isn’t furthering America’s direct economic interests – a position diametrically opposed to the original negotiation – the United States will prevent judges on the WTO’s appellate bench from being replaced as their terms expire. (The U.S. enjoys a de facto veto over procedural measures like this.) By year’s end the WTO’s dispute resolution system will shut down due to lack of judges, and that spells the organization’s functional end.

Now consider the context:

  • In the United States political and strategic interest in all things international is at the lowest level since at least the 1930s.
  • The United States economy is one of the least exposed in the world to the global system, but the Americans are the sole country with the ability to maintain that system.
  • The shale revolution has made U.S. oil production cost competitive OPEC producers, and the United States will be a net oil exporter by the end of 2020.
  • The dominant strains of political thought in both the Republican and Democratic Parties is staunchly anti-trade. Anti-trade factions have seized control of the White House in 2016, and are highly likely to dominate both sides of the Congressional aisle after this year’s mid-terms.
  • The U.S. dollar dominates the international trading system. The American administration has discovered it can use that fact to selectively punish countries for reasons wholly disconnected from trade.

It isn’t exactly a big step to say the Trump administration might choose to use secondary sanctions to selectively punish countries for other reasons.

The WTO works because the Americans have always deferred to it on economic matters. Remove that, however, and the entire global structure of anything that involves a border crossing falls back into a combination of survival-of-the-fittest and how-big-is-your-gun. For a country like the United States with scant exposure but global reach, that’s pretty good.

For anyone else, not so much.

And that’s before the Trump administration really gets going.

Next, the final installment of our series: Trump unleashed.

This Is How the World Ends, Part III

by Peter ZeihanMelissa Taylor, and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

See Part I and Part II.

Event 3 – The Chinese discover they have no clothes (May 18)

The threat of American secondary sanctions threatens the stability of more than just Iran and Europe, it also is a mortal threat to the world’s largest oil importer: China. And it isn’t like the Chinese were not already under some fairly stupendous pressure.

Two weeks ago U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer led an all-star team to Beijing to list out the Trump administration’s trade demands. Lighthizer is an old hand when it comes to brutal trade talks. He is the trade lawyer who in essence wrote the legal backbone of what is now the World Trade Organization, and during the Reagan administration he (repeatedly) brought the Japanese to heel on a raft of trade and financial issues that the Japanese blame for many of their subsequent economic troubles.

Lighthizer brought a small army of officials with him: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow, and America’s ambassador to China Terry Branstad. Of them, the only face that the Chinese consider even remotely friendly was Branstad – Xi’s first trip to the United States back in 1985 was to Iowa, and he and Branstad have a warm personal relationship. It was a classic bad-cop bad-cop bad-cop bad-cop and-this-guy-will-help-you-to-the-hospital-afterword set up.

Lighthizer and Co didn’t negotiate. They simply delivered some ultimatums.

  • China will unilaterally increase its imports of U.S. goods by at least $100 billion.
  • China will immediately cease protections and subsidies for any sectors related to its Made in China 2025 central economic plan, as well as eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers on those sectors.
  • China will accept that it is a non-market economy under WTO rules (which would allow the United States to apply protective tariffs against Chinese exports).
  • China will accept American restrictions on Chinese investment-led acquisitions in the United States.
  • China will cease all technological/cyber theft as well as cease any and all policies which aim to force American firms to share technologies with China.
  • China will accept American quarterly reviews on all trade policies, and pre-commit to cooperation with American findings.
  • China will submit rosters of goods shipped to third countries so that China may not do end-runs around American import restrictions.
  • China will abandon all WTO cases it has prosecuted against the United States as regards any of the above issues and preemptively agree to launch no new ones.

The items are notable for their unprecedented nature in the post-WWII order, their depth, how they cut to the core of the Chinese Communists government’s legitimacy, how Beijing hopes to develop the Chinese economic and political space, how China hopes to project economic power internationally, and above of all, by their deadline – July 1.


Hong Kong, China

In “normal” relations such demands would all be non-starters and rejected out of hand. Instead, the Chinese sent their own delegation to the United States for talks a few days ago to see just how much wiggle room there might be with Lighthizer and Co. On May 18 the Chinese discovered that the Americans were actually serious.

As in Europe, local media in China is all aghast with how unreasonable the Americans are being. As in Europe, the real decisionmakers are being far more circumspect. President Xi has been deathly quiet. He and the politburo may have nationalist aspirations, but they fully realize the reality of global power ratios.

  • The Americans are China’s single-biggest end-market and the Americans import more than triple from the Chinese than the other way around. In any tariff v tariff conflict the Chinese just don’t have much ammunition.
  • The Chinese are the world’s largest exporters. Nearly all that trade is dependent upon the US dollar-denominated and SWIFT-managed trading system. Should China befall American financial sanctions the China story would crash pretty quickly.
  • The U.S. Navy has ten times the power of everyone else’s navies combined. Since World War II the Americans have used that imbalance to create a unified global system. Should that commitment fail – and it is – anyone dependent upon global trade is more or less screwed. Like, say, China. Making matters worse, nearly all Chinese trade with the rest of Asia is water-borne and therefore vulnerable.

European bureaucrats don’t get that. American media doesn’t get that. But Merkel does. So does Xi. He has to. Apparently, the U.S. Treasury Secretary has already threatened the Chinese with a SWIFT cutoff.

The biggest outcome of the Lighthizer talks to date? On May 20 the Chinese and Americans indicated they’d stop publicly threatening each other with tariffs. My read is that now that the Chinese realize the Trump administration is serious, there’s no point to beating the trade war drum because that’s a field of combat the Chinese cannot hope to win on. Best to try other methods of persuasion.

(On a side note I’m quite amused that the media is making much hay about how competing agendas in the Trump administration’s senior staff are weakening the team’s negotiating strategy, as if that hasn’t been the norm for American administrations since time began. The person most in tune with Trump’s vision is Lighthizer. You can safely ignore the rest when it comes to comprehending the United States’ bottom line.)

If the Chinese are not going to have their entire economic and political system shattered by American (in)action, they have to bring something big to the table. That something would have to be on the scale of the economic demands the Lighthizer team made. I have no doubt that the talk back in Beijing today is to come up with strategic topics than can be exchanged for continuing American largess. North Korea will certainly make the list. Cooperation with the Americans against Iran – or maybe even Russia – is undoubtedly under consideration.

But time is running short, because the American shifts against Iran and China are only part of a broader pattern.

This Is How the World Ends, Part II

by Peter Zeihan, Melissa Taylor, and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

Part I is available here.

Event 2 – Europe Guts Itself (May 10)

The way the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal has consequences, but for the most part I’m less concerned about the local fallout than I am about the ripple effects beyond the Middle East. Let’s start in Europe.

The response from the European governing institutions to the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal can be best summed up as righteous indignation.

In part this is economic: the Europeans were fast to pour investment into Iran after the deal was codified and are not looking forward to rolling those efforts back.

In part it is political: the Europeans are signatories to the deal, working long and hard to show Europe could contribute to a strategic normalization beyond their borders. No one likes it when another country simply informs you that your efforts don’t matter to them and they are imposing their own reality upon a situation.

In part it is personal: French President Emmanuel Macron was sure he had a strong relationship with Trump, and his personal charm offensive a few weeks back was intended to sway Trump to keep the Iranian deal. Such a public rebuke has to sting.

In part it is institutional: bureaucrats are supposed to ignore politics and strategy when making policy, and the folks within the European Commission (said bureaucrats) are the ones most cheesed-off by the Americans’ dictating of Europe’s economic and security policies. Commission officials have been talking of counter-sanctions against the United States, as well as offering legal and financial guarantees to firms who still want to do business in Iran.

But the politicians are singing different tunes, not just from the bureaucrats, but from one another. Macron has, as expected, been if anything even more strident than the Commission. On the other end of the spectrum, a few Central European countries sabotaged a French effort to condemn the Americans for moving their Israeli embassy to Jerusalem – in part to stick it to the French, in part because they plan to move their own embassies.

But as seems increasingly the case, the person who matters most is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While lamenting the end of the Iranian deal, she sees bigger forces at work than “merely” the future of the Middle East. American policy evolutions/gyrations under the Trump administration have adversely affected many, but none more so than the Germans.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

Germany is individually powerful, but anything it does to enhance its national power tends to spark an alliance among its neighbors to tear it down – typically in a cataclysmic war. The only way the Germans – and by extension, the Europeans – have ever found around the problem is to bring in an external security guarantor who forces everyone to be on the same side. That’s the United States.

And so Merkel has watched in increasing horror as the Americans stop treating the Europeans as allies, or even partners, but instead as competitors. The prospect of American secondary sanctions must terrify the chancellor: Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter and nearly half of German goods are traded outside of the EU on markets that are managed by the SWIFT system the Americans plan to use to box Iran in. Even a minor application of American sanctions would be catastrophic to German economic and political stability.

To that end Merkel noted two days after the Americans withdrew from the Iran deal that “it’s no longer the case that the United States will simply just protect us. Let’s face it, Europe is still in its infancy with regard to the common foreign policy.”

But while her words were a call for Europe to deepen its integration, her actions indicated something very different. If the Americans cannot be trusted to put Europe first, then the Germans have no choice but to act to prevent a broad-scale coalition from containing German interests. That means courting new allies… from beyond Europe. And so after making the comments that Europe needed to pull together, Merkel didn’t travel to Brussels. Or Paris.

She went to Moscow.

Now don’t overreact. I’m not saying that Molotov-Ribbentrop v2.0 is just around the corner. What I’m saying is that even with seven decades of the most favorable strategic environment the European continent could have ever hoped for, that a meaningful strategic and political merging of the European countries still hasn’t happened. That forces the individual powers of Europe to chart their own – individual – destinies. For the United Kingdom that means Brexit. For the Italians that means a new populist government that will veto any effort to further federalize the EU. For the French that means some serious globetrotting to build up an independent strategic position.

And for Germany it means putting some irons in the fire that have nothing to do with Europe whatsoever. That means economic and energy connections to Russia. That means at least giving Russian demands a hearing. That means taking Russian strategic interests into account as concerns the countries between Germany and Russia.

OK, maybe that does sound a bit like a Molotov-Ribbentrop redux.

Never forget that the founding concept of the EU and NATO were to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. All three of those pillars are gone.

History is moving on.

Next up: The Chinese discover they have no clothes.

This Is How the World Ends, Part I

by Peter Zeihan, Melissa Taylor, and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

I like to say that I sell context. It’s all about how seemingly disparate things like age structures and trade patterns and political evolutions and technological advances interact. In any such dynamic system there are winners and losers. My concern is that the global system itself now faces a moment of truth in which the countries of the world, first and foremost the United States, will fail to rise to the occasion. Which is a nice way of saying that what I’m really seeing – what I’m really selling – is the end of the world.

This world system was put into place 70 years ago. The core of the international system during the Cold War was the Americans’ support of the global trade and security order. The Americans agreed to provide global and regional security to their allies in exchange for deference on security matters. When issues of economic import rose to prominence, the Americans tended to give way. When issues of strategic import rose to prominence, the Americans tended to get their way because that was the deal.

This arrangement froze geopolitics as previously independent countries were pulled into a massive, interconnected system because of not only America’s overwhelming economic and military power, but also the power of the alliance structure it controlled. This was sucha powerful force that it even pulled in America’s enemies one-by-one and allowed them to rise, fueled on exports. In the process, the US made the global economy dependent on the relatively free flow of goods, people, and money while also alleviating the need for the large militaries that defined the first half of the 20th Century. In other words, the US and its alliance shifted every global system that mattered for literally every country in the world.

Everyone except the US, which managed throughout this to remain isolated economically. It maintains its own military, largely produces what it needs (though it imports a lot of what it wants) and remains the largest economy in the world. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, just as the world began to truly bet their economies on the American plan, the American’s need for this incredibly expensive system faded. It’s taken the US awhile, but it finally noticed.

There is no replacement for US power, economic or military. “Europe” as a concept, China, and Russia are all in existential struggles and each of them is likely to lose. There is no alternate reserve currency. There is no one who can react to any event anywhere in the world like the US can. The Americans are leaving a power vacuum and we know what happens in power vacuums.

I’ve been speaking and writing about this approaching “end” for the better part of the past decade. One of the fun things – and incidentally, one of the things that helps keep me sane – is that it is all very abstract. I can blithely note that wars will happen, that supply chains will break down, that the lights will go out, that famine is an inevitability, but so long as the timeframes are fuzzy and the locations are over the horizon it is easy to speak and write with a degree of detachment. This doesn’t affect me, and certainly not right now.

I think/fear that I’m about to lose that insulation. The end is pretty god-damn nigh. Exactly how this plays out is still very much up in the air. The blow by blow will matter immensely in the short and even medium term. So I’m going to lay out the most recent big events that seem to be giving shape to the Disorder over the course of several newsletters.

Event 1: The United States withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal (May 8)

The Obama administration did not sign the U.S. up to the nuclear deal because it thought Iran would suddenly become an upstanding member of the international community. After decades of being the region’s arbiter, the American security apparatus in specific and the American public in general wanted to get out of the region. That meant the White House needed to make a choice.

Option one was to appoint a “winner.” This “winner” would patrol the region, keep the local powers in line, and in general do what the Americans had done: keep the region as stable and static as possible.

The Obama team didn’t like the candidates. Iran was out as a matter of principle. Saudi Arabia didn’t field a meaningful army, much less a navy. Israel was potent, but small, and the religious angle meant it could never lead the region. Turkey may have been capable, but it had unrelated interests in Europe and the Caucasus and the Mediterranean, and so could never concentrate its efforts on such a gangly region like the Middle East.

Even then, there was no guarantee that any “winner” would look out for American interests unless a large American military presence remained… which would defeat the point of a sustained withdrawal. And the last thing Washington wanted was to cause the emergence of a new regional hegemon that was not consistently pro-American.

That left option two: establish a regional balance of power so the region would self-regulate. This balance, ultimately, is what the nuclear deal sought to achieve: partially rehabilitate Iran, partially reintroduce it into the international system so that Iran could counter – and be countered by – the other regional players. In doing so – or so the theory goes – the region’s wars will be many, but limited.

The key selling point of the balance-of-power option was that the Middle East has so many competing centers of power that no single country would ever be able to gain a significant, long-term advantage. That would keep any of the (many) expected battles bottled up within the region. It sounds a bit cruel, but the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen are good examples of the balance-of-power strategy working because those conflicts keep the region’s powers at one another’s throats.

Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal does two things. First, it wrecks the balance-of-power strategy by gutting the possibilities of the region’s most active player: Iran. The resurrection of global financial sanctions on Iran will – at a minimum – halve the country’s export earnings by year’s end. This means the Americans will need a new strategy for the region. At present, the Trump administration hasn’t offered anything as to what that might be. But that is an issue for another day.

From my point of view, the second outcome of the withdrawal is far more important. The old/new sanctions on Iran uncaps what has traditionally been the Americans’ most potent economic weapon: secondary sanctions.

Secondary sanctions are not something the Americans have ever used often or liberally. They present would-be sanctions busters with a choice: do business with the sanctioned country (in this case, Iran) or do business with the United States. Since the Iranian market is roughly 1% the size of the American market, there may be a bit of whining but for most firms that’s not all that difficult a decision. And that’s before you consider the long-term demographics of the world’s major economies.

What is truly different this time around is the presence of some institutional infrastructure the Obama administration set up a few years back to force the Iranians to negotiate the nuclear deal in the first place. Via an exhausting series of bilateral negotiations, the Obama team got a good hard grip on something called SWIFT, a system for managing financial transfers between various players in the international space. They used this newfound power to apply secondary sanctions to anything that touched the U.S. dollar. Since the U.S. dollar is the only global currency of exchange (the euro position has been shrinking for years, and even the Chinese yuan has been backpedaling of late) the end result was to cut any sanctions-busters out of pretty much all international trade, even if those sanctions-busters have no direct exposure to the American market.

I think the Trump administration fully understands just how powerful of a tool it just picked up, and that tool is perfect for the job of pretty much everything else on the administration’s international agenda.

Up next: Europe Guts Itself.

The Syrian War, 2.0

The Israeli Air Force announced April 21 that it would scale back participation in the Red Flag exercises in Alaska. The joint Red Flag drills are regular events hosted by the United States, with the upcoming April 26-May 11 exercises allowing the Israelis to train in an environment they rarely experience (non-coincidentally, Alaskan terrain is somewhat similar to the Persian highlands). IDF spokespersons attributed the decision to keep Israeli F-15s at home due to the changing situation assessment of tensions along its northern border that have left everyone holding their breath.

We weren’t kept waiting long. In the early morning hours of April 30, the Israelis launched a series of significant strikes throughout western Syria, targeting infrastructure that supports weapons development and distribution. A rocket factory made for some particularly impressive fireballs.

The Israelis normally hold their cards much closer to their chest than this – particularly when it involves possible actions in their close-in neighborhood. But these are not normal times. The open secret is that the United States sees almost no role for itself in Syria going forward (at least, compared to what American engagement in the Middle East typically looks like). The Americans’ primary goal in Syria has been the eradication of ISIS. With the terror group’s holdings nearly obliterated, so too goes a compelling case for extending American involvement in Syria. This is compounded by the fact that a country as broken as Syria needs the kind of costly, involved, long-term occupation and rebuilding efforts the Americans pursued in Germany and Japan after World War II – a cost the Americans were unwilling to pay in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The pending American withdrawal evolves the Syrian War in a much fiercer direction. Initially, the primary players in the fight were domestic: the Assad government, ISIS, the Syrian Kurds, and the various collections of anti-regime elements who seemed to occupy every spot on the spectrum from wonky democrats to those who felt ISIS would have been more successful if it had just been a bit more brutal. Foreign powers used these factions as proxies to meet their tactical and strategic needs in the country without committing significant troops. It also created plausible deniability in a very volatile situation with many major actors. In exchange, these factions received intelligence, money, weapons and on-site support far superior to anything they could hope for otherwise, not to mention promises for their role in the future in Syria that may or may not be fulfilled. While those foreign players could certainly make their presence felt, using proxies inherently means the foreigners were rarely present in sufficient strength to dictate events on the ground. (The sole exception might be Iran’s proxy militant group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which has apparently redirected nearly all its fighters into the Syrian theater to assist the Assad government. More on that exception in a moment.)

The presence of U.S. forces in Syria has limited what all the outside players could do, as well as the sorts of risks they were willing to take. The Americans may have never had more than a couple thousand troops in-country, but their vast array of naval firepower combined with the base at Incirlik, Turkey meant they could at a moment’s notice squeeze off missile and bomb barrages at any target they desired. There was no point in baiting the eagle (as Moscow discovered Feb 7 when the Americans obliterated a Russian probe attempt).

But take the Americans out of the equation, and the lid comes off the pot. And since everyone has different goals, Syria is about to get consistently lively:

Russia was an early participant in the Syrian conflict for a mix of reasons:

  • Syria is one of the few of Russia’s Cold War-era proxies that is still of some use, so propping up Assad holds some slight strategic value all its own.
  • Politically, being involved where the Americans were not helped burnish Russia’s credentials as a player, guaranteed it a seat at any table that discussed Syrian issues, and was an easy propaganda win back home.
  • Being in Syria annoyed the crap out of the Turks, forcing Ankara to rivet its gaze to its south rather than to the north where more core Russian interests were in play.
  • Being able to twist the Syrian fighting this or that way enabled the Russians to generate scads of refugees on demand. A mix of geographic, climatic and infrastructure patterns meant that most of those refugees could only go north to Turkey and Europe, enabling Moscow to scramble European politics with nothing more than a few dozen bombs.
  • More recently, the Russians have turned Syria into a vast testing and training range for its forces. Russia’s military may be huge, but it hasn’t seen 1% of the sort of expeditionary combat American forces have seen since 1992. Syria let’s the Russians play catch up.

What do all these reasons have in common? Russia has a vested interest in seeing the Syrian War never end.

Moscow, Russia

Iran is the closest to a strategic ally that the Assad regime has, and Syria has quite surprisingly – to Iran – become the lynchpin in Iran’s entire regional strategy. The most important tool Iran has is the militant group Hezbollah, which Iran uses not simply as a foothold in the Levant, but to threaten Israel and pressure the United States. When Saddam ran Iraq, the Iranians were able to shuttle support to Hezbollah via Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. Well, the Americans overthrew Saddam and now civil war threatens Syria. The Iranians didn’t just have no choice but to go all-in in Syria, but they are now the power seeking to maintain governments in the region rather than seeking overthrow them. That requires a degree of political, strategic, military and economic commitment that is downright… American.

Assad may have won the civil war, but now Iran has to hold the place together, and as the Americans learned in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the second phase is far more difficult. But unlike the Americans, the Iranians can’t just go home. An ongoing Assad victory is absolutely critical to maintaining Iran’s current sphere of influence from Mesopotamia to the eastern Mediterranean. In short, the Iranians can never go home.

Directly opposite the Iranians are a series of powers that seem to be somewhat confused about what’s going on in their neighborhood: the Gulf Arab states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Their efforts in Syria are, in a word, messy.

  • Part of this is due to geography: large swathes of desert terrain separate the Gulf Arabs and Syria.
  • Partly it’s a lack of experience: the Gulfies are among the most dependent countries on earth when it comes to relying on the American security blanket.
  • Partly it’s ineptitude: Saudi and Emirati and Qatari-backed groups spend as much time fighting each other in Syria as they do Assad or anyone else.
  • Partly it’s an issue of distraction: these same powers are also fighting a war in Yemen.

It all adds up to a lot of ammunition backed by a lot of money that’s causing a lot of deaths. And that just might be the point. For decades the Americans’ took on the mantle of preserving countries in their current form; If your job is to maintain the global system, then you want stability. But with the Americans leaving, the only power that really wants a stable Syria is… Iran. And if there is one thing the Saudis do not want, it is an Iranian-dominated anything. Better to burn the whole place down than allow the dust to settle in an arrangement that doesn’t suit Saudi preferences.

Which puts Israel and Saudi Arabia more or less on the same side, with Israel in the perfect strategic and political position. The regional powers with which the Israelis have passably good relations – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt – are fighting against Assad and Iranian influence, which means Israel is free to strike targets according to its own national security prerogatives with little risk of even angry tweets from regional stakeholders.

The Syrian War has quietly ushered in a new era of Israeli security relations with its neighbors: rather than relying on the Americans, Israel is aggressively, proactively and decisively pursuing its national security interests and intervening in Muslim conflicts… and no one except Syria and Iran has anything to say about it. The Israeli Air Force has attacked over 100 targets within Syrian territory since 2012, from suspected missile and arms deliveries en route to southern Lebanon to high value Hezbollah and Iranian targets. With the Iranians now the force for order in the country, the Israelis will gleefully expand their target list to anything that will cost the Iranians lives, equipment or money.

It’ll be a long list.

Tehran, Iran

The role of Turkey in Syria has been… unmoored for a reinforcing pair of reasons.

  • First, Turkey’s World War One defeat was so total and humiliating that Turkey in essence took a vacation from the world that lasted a century. The Turks are out of practice using the political, diplomatic, economic and military tools that are standard for pretty much everyone else. The learning curve is fairly steep, but it is still there and the Turks are starting from almost zero.
  • Second is that the political situation within Turkey is flattening that learning curve. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has largely completed the process of purging the country of, well, everyone who opposes him. That has left this very Trumpian personality with zero competent allies, which means he is running Turkey’s $900 billion economy, 80-million citizens, and 900,000-strong military all by himself. Such concentration of power makes for erratic decision-making, with Erdogan highly vulnerable to bad intelligence, fake news, Russian manipulations, personal mental blocks, and a host of other issues that would routinely be filtered out in a more decentralized system.

At the end of the day the Turks’ primary concern in Syria is the military capacity and de facto independence of the Syrian Kurds. Ankara/Erdogan fear – with significant reason – that a Syrian Kurdish statelet will provide a template that could be reproduced within Turkey’s own Kurdish regions. To that end and despite Erdogan’s best efforts, the Turkish military/intelligence apparatus is steadily constructing effective networks of military groups throughout northern Syria. When the Turks do decide to move in force, they’ll be able to.

And let’s not kid ourselves. Unlike the United States, Russia, Iran or Israel, Turkey can put troops on the ground in Syria in the hundreds of thousands if it wants to and the Turks have the motivation and staying power to see their strategy through in what will be a complex and bloody new stage in the war. It is ultimately Turkey that will decide what Syria will look like, and years from now we’ll all be looking back at the 2018 American withdrawal as the event that unleashed Turkish power in the region.

I’d like to end with one particularly dark thought. The primary reason the Americans were in Syria at all was because a militant group called ISIS was stupid enough to post the beheadings of a few American co-eds on social media. Expunging ISIS is pretty much done and so the Americans are now leaving. But look at what enabled ISIS to exist in the first place: local sectarian divisions, multiple competing power centers, an arid geography that complicates regional consolidation, meddling outside powers, and a metric butt-ton of easily attainable military-grade weapons. None of these factors have gone or are going to go away. Every power playing in the Syrian sandbox is creating, sponsoring and supporting their own constellations of mutually-antagonistic militias. It isn’t so much a petri dish from which will emerge the next ISIS as it is an ISIS factory.

Happy Monday.