World learned a lesson: in Middle East it’s either dictator or anarchy – ex-US govt adviser

The risk of escalation in Syria is growing as the Trump administration warns Damascus once again that it’s preparing to strike. What’s at stake as world powers are sucked into the vortex of the civil war in Syria? Is the White House really preparing for another escalation, or is it just tough talk to win support at home? And can world leaders avoid dangerous confrontation where their interests collide? We ask the man who advised presidents and ministers all over the world, military strategist – Edward Luttwak is on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Military strategist, advisor to presidents and ministers all over the world, Edward Luttwak, it’s great to have you back on our show again. Welcome, back. So, I’m going to start with the U.S. and Syria. The U.S. is finding itself deeper and deeper in the Syria conflict - sending more troops, warnings of more attacks, shooting down government jets and bombing its forces, etc. Is the new American strategy going to get it into a war with the other powers involved in Syria?

Edward Luttwak: Which other powers? You mean, Iran?

SS: There’s Iran, there’s Russia, there’s Saudi Arabia, there are all these Arab states.

EL: Alright. The Saudis are very interested in a conflict, but there are no Saudi troops or Saudi aircraft. The Turks have only sent in some troops to the border area to prevent the Kurds, basically to try and stop the Kurds or limit them. The Russian involvement is primarily air power, and the Iranians are present by sending militias, mainly of Shia from Afghanistan, Pakistan, some India, even, Shia militias that they send out. Now, all these players - Saudi is absent, the Iranians, even when they are drunk they remember that they are no military power. The Iranians have only ever fought one enemy, which is Iraq, and they lost. So, these Revolutionary Guards are good for parades. They’re not fighters. They could not survive any kind of combat with American forces of any sort, even very small combat. So what we have here is Russian air power and Russian support for Assad. Now, the Americans don’t share the Russian taste for Assad. Russian government finds Assad delicious. The Americans don’t think he smells very good.

SS: Are they going to get involved in the conflict or not? Do you there’s chance that these superpowers could actually clash?

EL: First of all, they are present in support of the Kurds. What the Americans are doing in Syria is actually not to directly attack Assad’s regime, but they’re there to support the Kurds, and they’re supporting the Kurds primarily against Turkey, actually, which is a NATO ally for the time being. It still is a NATO ally. So the American action is rather limited, it’s to support Kurds who are only active in a small part of Syria.

SS: You know, the White House says it has evidence that the Assad regime is preparing for another chemical attack on its people. It hasn’t been proved yet that Assad was behind the previous attack. Is this a prelude to another Tomahawk missile strike?

EL: Well, the previous attack was not an attack done with Borjomi mineral water, it was an attack done with chemical weapons. Every single element present there - UN, whatever - they identified the use of nerve gas, rather traditional nerve gas, nostalgic nerve gas from WWII - Sarin nerve gas, actually. That was confirmed. Now, there’s obviously only some internal rumor or intelligence - somebody’s saying to somebody: “Oh let’s use some more!”. Obviously, there’s no ongoing action, there’s no evidence of chemical action. However, the American warning is issued because in this very confused situation, the Americans have taken a kind of minimal position, which is: if the Assad regime uses gas, they intervene. They have a prejudice against gas: they don’t intervene when Assad regime drops normal high-explosive bombs or cheap  barrel bombs. They don’t intervene when they do other things, but they have a prejudice against gas, for some reason, really, they don’t like gas.

SS: The U.S. has tried all kinds of approaches in Syria - saying that Assad must go, then saying his removal isn’t a priority; arming rebels, then not arming them, then arming them again; “no boots on the ground’ first - and now boots on the ground. Does Washington have a clear idea of what it wants to achieve in Syria?

EL: Neither the Trump administration or its enemies want to send an American army to Syria. The American involvement in Muslim world is already too large. Too much is being done in Afghanistan, in Iraq, there’s no appetite for sending an army to Syria. That’s very clear, very clear indeed. Russian policy appears to be to try and preserve the        Assad regime as long as possible, and they’re able to do it to a degree. The Americans do not have a policy of sending an army to remove Assad regime. So this thing will continue for God knows how long. It’s a crisis that, in a way, is simply a very violent expression of a more general crisis, which is present throughout the Muslim world. No country in the Muslim world is in a state of political equilibrium.

SS: Tell me something, in your opinion: does America really care that much about Assad and the fate of his government - and therefore Syria as a whole? - or is it all about Iran and Iran’s presence in Syria for them? The White House of course says it’s about Islamic State… but which one of the two, do you think, is the most important thing for the U.S.?

EL: As for Iran, the Obama Administration negotiated a nuclear agreement and was very optimistic to be able to proceed from the nuclear agreement to improve relations with Iran. The Iranians didn’t want that, and that’s why immediately after signing the nuclear agreement they sent little boats in the Persian Gulf to threaten big American ships. Of course, nothing happened. The Iranians are talkers, they’re not doers. If they try to do it, they, of course, will fail. So, the Americans are not exactly obsessed with Iranian military power in Syria. The country that is interested in that is Israel, and every time Iranians send some Iranian general within 50 km of Israeli border to try out some missile, the Israelis kill him, and they are perfectly able and willing and capable of killing them all if they approach again, as they’ve done several times in specific incidents. But the Americans do not have a policy of fighting a war with Iran. They don’t have the policy of becoming friends with Iran, which was the previous Obama administration, but there’s no war plan.

SS: ISIS is shrinking under pressure from all sides in Syria and Iraq, but at the same time it’s popping up in other places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Afghanistan - is it going to live beyond the Syrian operation? Is it even possible to eradicate it?

EL: The Daulat-ul-Islamia had a territorial existence, in Raqqa, which is, of course, the ancient capital of jihadism, going back to 8th century. They captured Mosul. They had territory. But they are not primarily a territorial movement, they’re a global movement. Wherever Muslims are, some of them hear the call. Most Muslim, of course, go about their business. They are not particularly peaceful, but they are busy, they’re taxi drivers, or whatever they are, but the ones who are listening to the Islamic call, will hear Daulat-ul-Islamia whose doctrine, by the way, is identical to the doctrine which is the state religion of Qatar and Saudi Arabia - the Islam of Ibn Tammya  and it is identical to the doctrine of Al-Qaeda and identical to the doctrine of Boko Haram and others. So yes, you will not see the end of violence, just because they lose their territory.

SS: Previously you said the best strategy for the US in Syria is not to take sides, but instead bolster whoever’s losing, so that nobody wins. But how is a long war in Syria in Washington’s interest - the war is causing instability in the region, the spread of terrorism, the migrant crisis, how’s that beneficial for America?

EL: My recommendation related to the beginning of the story, not to what happened later. The beginning of the story is, there was a fight between the Assad regime, strategically aligned with Iran, therefore not an ally or even neutral, regarding to the U.S., but an enemy entity, and Al-Qaeda. The fight starts between Assad regime and Al-Qaeda, as it was, namely.. whatever you want to call it  - wahhabists, followers of Ibn Tammya, takfiris, any name you want to give them - but the fight was between violent, extremist, anti-American muslims, and anti-American, Iranian-Assad regime. So, therefore, the U.S. had only enemies in Syria, at the beginning. In that fight, the U.S. had to be neutral. American policy in Syria has been a rather minimalist policy, and it remains a minimalist policy, so I think Russian policy is more interesting, because Russian policy appears to want to secure a kind of Mediterranean garden, from Latakia down to Tartus, along the coast, where there is Russian naval base, Russian airbase, and the idea of Russia having a Mediterranean garden there is not something intolerable to the world. Unfortunately, it involves supporting Assad, and Assad is really bad.

SS: Yeah, I think Russia doesn’t support Assad personally, I think Russia supports the official Damascus, and if it came down to it - who knows, maybe Russia could trade Assad for someone else, from official Damascus. I think for Russia having Libya as an example of someone who was overthrown and having disarray in the country and having Saddam Hussein, who was also a dictator, but after he got hanged, everything went downhill from there. I think those two example were very vivid for Russia, but Russia is much closer to those countries than the U.S.. It prefers to support the official Damascus rather than undefined rebels who we don’t really know where they’re going to lead the country to.

EL: Yeah, listen. The idea that overthrowing dictators is a mistake is a very sensible idea. It doesn’t surprise… I’m not particularly bothered by this. I testified before the U.S. Senate against the Iraq war in 2003. I did say that if you remove Saddam Hussein, you get anarchy, civil war and not democracy - I was… Not only I, by the way, but the Secretary of Defence, Mr. Gates, was against the attack on Gaddafi, in Libya, believing… The Americans actually listened to the Italians, and the Italians said: “If you remove Gaddafi, you don’t get democracy, you get a hundred tribes fighting each other for ever.” And that’s what we have in Libya. So, in other words, what we have discovered between Moscow and Washington, we have learned something: in Muslim world, you either have dictatorship or anarchy. Therefore, I don’t think there’s interest in removing any more dictators. The problem in Syria is that Assad makes it hard, hard to be hypocritical.

SS: You told me back in 2011 that real politics is in the Pacific and not in the Middle East. It’s now 2017, it’s been 6 years since the war in Syria broke out, Russia and U.S.-led coalition of more than a dozen countries are fighting ISIL there. Do you still have the opinion that the Middle East is not that significant?

EL: Listen - we have a total of… we have a few thousand troops which are doing mainly training and support - few thousand troops. We have an airbase in Qatar, ironically, with aircraft, but nothing compared to what we have in the Pacific. In the Pacific we have the engagement of the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Army is not engaged in these wars. We have a few thousand soldiers, that’s all. The U.S. Air Force is not engaged in these wars, they have a few aircraft. But the U.S. Navy is very largely engaged in the Pacific, they are there, active, moving, both in the North Pacific, between Japan and Korea and in the South, in Western Pacific, in South China Sea, all the way through, and so… If you look at where the American action is, it’s about 90% in the Pacific. But the difference in the Pacific is that there it’s a question of pushing and counter-pushing, as opposed to shooting. It’s true that the small American presence in the Middle East involves shooting, but is very small indeed. Right now, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs is actually in Afghanistan, and they are planning to send 4,000 more troops. There were many more there, they reduced them, they want to send 4,000, in a probable hopeless effort, but 4,000 troops. And 4,000 is fewer than there are Americans aboard a single aircraft carrier.

SS: I get your point. So, in the Pacific, with no signs of the crisis around South China sea resolving, how serious can it get?  Since both China and the U.S. are dependent on each other for trade, a military standoff could be serious – can either party afford to use force?

EL: No, there’s no question of force. It’s called “pushing” and “counter pushing”. At the present moment, as we speak, the Chinese government is still in a course of putting pressure on North Korea. When Xi Jinping came to Florida, Trump said to him: “No more talk, no more negotiations, no more 6-power talk, 18-power talks or other diplomatic nonsense: you squeeze the North Koreans until they really do change their thing” - and as you know, at that time, when they met, the North Koreans were getting ready for a nuclear test #5. They stopped, they didn’t do a nuclear test. At the present moment, China is putting an effort to squeeze North Korea. I was there last week, actually, at the border, Dandong, the border between China and North Korea, and every businessman Dandong is complaining bitterly that suddenly everything stopped. So, at this moment, therefore, as the Trump administration made it very clear, saying “we are waiting on the South China sea issue, because you’re making a real effort on North Korea”. If they don’t succeed in North Korea, then the South China sea will be prominent. But this is a long term engagement of two countries that have complicated relations between them in regards to strategy, and a lot of other relations which have nothing to do with strategy. Also, there are other things going on in China - which are of great interest for  the U.S., and of them is is a very definite increase of the rule of law. Very definite increase in the rule of law. These days, when the Chinese police arrests you, they take you in front of the judge. Judges don’t just say - “Okay, five years, go away”, they now ask question and so… Chinese society is changing.

SS:S oon after Donald Trump’s election, you wrote in an article in Foreign Policy that you don’t see the president’s policies as reckless or radical. How do you see it now - is it full of balance and common sense, or it’s the other way?

EL: I was hoping you would raise that - because in that article, I wrote that Trump really wanted to make an agreement with Putin, Russian government. He really wanted to make an agreement. And the agreement was to resolve the ongoing Ukraine issue, to come to a joint policy on Syria, a resolution in Ukraine, removal of sanctions, and everything else. What happened, unfortunately, Trump offered this in public. He made that declaration in public, saying “I want to do this”, and there was no answer from Moscow. I myself went to Moscow and I went to talk to Kremlin advisors, and I said: “How come you’re not answering? Here, President of the U.S. sends you a letter saying let’s be friends, and there’s no answer!”. Actually there was some action going on, technical escalation in Syria. This love offer, this love letter never got an answer.

SS: That’s so strange because we here in Russia got the feeling, when he was getting elected, that the love story was from both sides, because I don’t know which advisors you spoke to, behind the scenes, but here, out in the public, the officials made very clear that they’re very much pro-Trump - in the beginning. But anyways…

EL: When I wrote the article, the simple idea was: let’s be friends, let’s sit down, let’s work it out, and they got nothing from the Russian side. Nothing at all. There was no response and there was no offer of any kind. When I went and asked, I said: “How come you’re not doing it” answer - “We don’t want to do it”.

SS: I’ll take your word for it. It’s very hard to believe in that. Mr. Luttwak, thank you for this interesting insight. Pleasure talking to you,  as usual. We were talking to Edward Luttwak. We were talking about America’s military strategy in the context of numerous challenges U.S. is facing with Edward Luttwak, military and foreign policy advisor to presidents and ministers all over the world. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.