Confrontation remains the best option for the belligerents, who can neither win nor lose.
Syria is living proof of Blaise Pascal’s statement: “The worst of all evils is civil war.” Over five years, the conflict has become progressively worse, with 500,000 dead and 11 million refugees out of a total population of 22 million. It marks a new development in warfare, going beyond all limits in both duration and the means employed.
The siege of Aleppo – or rather its methodical destruction – has reached a new level of violence. The former economic capital of Syria is of major strategic importance for the Damascus government, since recapturing the city would give it control of all the useful parts of the country, from north to south along the M5 freeway. It also has a symbolic significance since the city is representative of rebellion. Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin have thus decided to make the most out of the end of Obama’s pusillanimous presidency to bring about the fall of Aleppo at any cost.
The objective is not so much military as civil. It does not consist in regaining the city, street by street, with a high cost in human lives, but in destroying it and emptying it of its population. The massive aerial bombings which principally target water and electricity supplies, hospitals, rescue workers and humanitarian aid, aim to make life impossible and death inescapable for the 250,000 inhabitants of the rebel zone. The Islamic state gains a double benefit from this strategy. On a military level, it is being given a suspended sentence, for its retreat should already have brought about the fall of Al-Raqqah and Mosul, which would be a death blow for the pseudo-caliiphate. On an ideological level, it is regaining legitimacy because of the massacres being carried out with impunity in Aleppo.
Far from ending the war in Syria, the recapture of Aleppo by Damascus is not going to end the war in Syria; quite the contrary, for it will make things escalate. More than ever, Syria is the theater of an endless war. Firstly, because this is a hybrid war – between civilians, religions and states, as well as being international – involving factions supported by regional powers (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Turkey) against the background of a new Cold War between the USA and Russia. War remains the best option for all the belligerents.
The different camps can neither win nor be defeated; they are too weak to win and too strong to lose. All the more so since defeat means genocide and they can call on outside help in case of setbacks: Bachar was saved in this way by Iran in 2013 and by Russia in 2015. The aim is therefore not to win but rather not to lose. The same goes for the nations that finance, arm and support the belligerents; they do so whilst seeking to limit the cost and the risks, notably as far as the deployment of ground forces is concerned.
Syria has therefore become the central theater of a fight to the death between Sunnites and Shiites. For Vladimir Putin, it serves as an manœuvering space in which to stage a demonstration of his army’s capabilites and to invest Russia with the status of a great power. On the other hand, it represents a pitiful failure for the USA. All in all, there are only two parties who have a direct interest in peace: the civil population, who have become the main target of the combatants, and Europe, which, faced by terrorism and the influx of refugees, is powerless on both diplomatic and military levels.
Together with Afghanistan (which has never been at peace ever since Soviet intervention in 1979), Iraq and the Sahel, Syria is the perfect example of the endless conflicts characteristic of the 21st century. It is more than ever true that war is – as Clausewitz defined it – a chameleon. It is freeing itself from the boundaries fixed during the Cold War – fixed by the superpowers and by the balance of nuclear terror. Conflicts have become so complex and so hybrid that solutions can no longer be found. The final objective of war is no longer peace, but war itself. Hence the never-ending prolongation of violence.
The extreme nature of the conflict, displayed on the social networks, has become a weapon in its own right. Extremism is claimed and proclaimed not only by terrorist groups but also by démocratures [= a combination of democracy and dictatorship]. The status of the civil population has changed. No longer is it an element from which to seek support; it is a threat to be eradicated. Genocide is no longer a political aberration or a moral monstrosity; it is a propaganda weapon.
This is why, in Syria, the central principle remains the continuance of war and the spread of violence. It is improbable that peace could be imposed by external powers. Outside support and the horror factor are preventing the factions from tiring of the war, and are blocking any reduction in the level of violence by means of the de facto partition of the country. It is both unlikely and undesirable that any of the parties should achieve complete victory, since this implies the liquidation of the vanquished and a shift of the conflict to other places, including developed societies. The disappearance of checks to violence constitutes a major challenge for democracies, who have suffered a series of strategic defeats ever since 2000, whether it be the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, or France in Libya. Free nations are no longer able to win wars or obtain peace, and public opinion is increasingly fed up with the mediocre results obtained by armed force. However, hybrid conflicts serve the interests of démocratures because they are based on violence and have greater powers of endurance enabling them to operate long term strategies.
The democracies must react, for security is a prime condition for freedom. They have to rearm, but priority must be given to coordinating means of power and union rather than to the creation of force and technology. The spread of runaway violence cannot be contained by military means alone. Security policies cannot simply be national – they must be made on a global level. In the spirit of the Marshall Plan, there has to be coherence between civil and military action. As in the Helsinki agreement, we have to rework the ways in which to resist terrorist threats and the ways in which to take the offensive, in order to win the hearts of the population and change societies. Just as with “Sovietism”, facing Islamism does not simply mean using force, it also means knowing how to win people over by means of ideas.
(Column published in Le Point, 13th October 2016)