With the US elections coming up, and enduring chaos in the Middle East, we have to ask, which is the best candidate to sort that out? I am not exactly enthralled by either of them. First, the scenario. As is well known, the US has supported some “moderate” rebels who have the aim of ousting Assad in Syria, and is supporting the retaking of Mosul, apparently with air power. Russia is supporting Assad in Syria. Turkey wants to deal to ISIS in Mosul. This should have a straight-forward ending?
First, look at religion. Assad has support from Shia, including Hezbollah and Iran. The rebels include some moderates, but the important ones are associated with al Qaeda. So here, Russia is supporting Shia; the US is trying to protect Sunni and terrorists. Assad himself operated a secular government, as did Saddam, so an alien observer would presumably conclude that the US is against secular governments, which makes little sense. In Iraq, the US is supporting the Shia government to take out the fanatical ISIS, and will use air power to bomb the terrorists in Mosul. Or at least, that is a somewhat oversimplified account of what might happen. So, what do the candidates say?
Trump seemingly has not clearly defined policy here. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Leaving the place to sort itself out is a legitimate policy, and may be as good as any. The problem, though, is ISIS and al Qaeda. Left to their own devices, they are hardly likely to be beneficial. A second problem is that it appears Trump has not thought about this at all.
Clinton, however, is in my mind just outright dangerous. She has announced she will have a no-fly zone over Aleppo. That raises many questions. First, why? Does she want to nourish al Qaeda, who, as an aside, have killed far more innocent Western citizens than ISIS by a long shot? The nominal reason is to protect innocent civilians, but there are more in Mosul, and the US intends to bomb that, and, of course, there was “shock and awe”, which led to a very large number of dead Iraqis.
However, there is a much worse possible outcome than killing some innocent civilians, which is most certainly bad, but my worry is much worse. What does she do if the Russian air force continues bombing? Does she order the shooting down of Russian warplanes, which happen to be over the territory of, and at the invitation of, a sovereign government. If so, what is the justification? Because we can? That is a rather slippery slope. The US is actually one of the most warlike countries on the planet, and has been at war most of the time since 1890. It has been able to do this because the war is always “elsewhere”, and they cannot do any damage to the US. The result of this is that much of the population is unaffected by such wars. That does not give the US the right to shoot anyone they feel like, though. Russia has two choices: bow down before America, or ignore the threat.
If Russia bows down, then that establishes a precedent. Everybody expects that to happen again, and that encourages (from the Russian eyes) America to do more or less what it likes. It can order Russia out of the Crimea. Now what? Bow down again? Where does it stop?
If the Russians keep bombing, and the US shoots down at least one Russian warplane, now what? Russia can either bow down, or fight back. We don’t know the Russian capability, but we do know they have some ability, so unlike other recent opposition, Russia might shoot down an American plane, or attack an American base nearby. If the American aircraft came off a carrier, what happens if the Russians sink the carrier? The Russians have a carrier somewhere nearby, so the US sinks it. Now what?
Suppose the aircraft came from Turkey. Can Russia accept a border wherein America can come and shoot them down at will with no downside? It would be strange if they did. But if Russia attacks the base, that is an attack on a NATO country, which America could use to activate the NATO alliance. At this point we note that Russia could have done something more constructive earlier. When Clinton announces the no-fly zone, Russia should announce that any attack on Russia as a consequence of Clinton’s announcement from a NATO country will be taken as a declaration of war from that country on Russia. If the country is an aggressor, that should not trigger the NATO commitment. At the very least, some more nervous countries might decide that getting out of NATO is more desirable. Maybe not, but Russia should offer the option.
Now, suppose some missiles are launched from the Baltic states, and assume they are conventionally tipped. Now what? The least we can expect is that Russia sends all its motor rifle divisions westwards. Now what? Contrary to what some people think, my guess is that NATO would offer only moderate resistance, and indeed some of the countries would pull out of NATO on the grounds that it was not their fault that Clinton started all this. It is one thing to defend against an attack on one of their allies, but something else to get their ally out of a mess of its own making. Further, unless Russia makes good progress and has the ability to walk away from this with its head held high, there is little room for later negotiation.
It is hard to see such a war remaining conventional. The US simply does not have a big enough army to conquer Russia, which is a very big place, and it is far from clear that American soldiers want to fight multi-year wars in some of the world’s worst climate. One of the two will sooner or later resort to the nuclear option and a lot of us will be turned to ash.
Maybe there are other futures following such an edict. The Russians may surrender and comply with Clinton. After a brief skirmish, both parties might see sense, but do we want to bank on that? World War I was started almost accidentally. Do we want to start WW III?