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The Guardian: Scary Things to Happen to Europe If Putin Takes Aleppo

What scary things those might be we are never clearly told

Of all the reactions to the ongoing Syrian-Russian North Aleppo offensive perhaps none has been more entertaining, or more bizarre, than the one from the pen of Natalie Nougayrède writing for The Guardian. Do yourself a favor and read the peace "What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe’s future" along with comments from yours truly.

If Aleppo falls, Syria’s vicious war will take a whole new turn, one with far-reaching consequences not just for the region but for Europe too.

<figcaption>'If Putin Will Have Aleppo He Will Have Europe'</figcaption>
'If Putin Will Have Aleppo He Will Have Europe'

Hear this. Europe's fate will be decided at Aleppo! As goes Aleppo so goes Europe!

The latest government assault on the besieged northern Syrian city, which has caused tens of thousands more people to flee in recent days, is also a defining moment for relations between the west and Russia, whose airforce is playing a key role.

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Government "assault" on a "besieged city". Russian air force "playing a key role". – Nougayrède letting lose those Pavlov's dogs of war.

The defeat of anti-Assad rebels who have partially controlled the city since 2012 would leave nothing on the ground in Syria but Assad’s regime and Islamic State.

Oh and what a shame that would be to see the eradication of Jabhat al-Nusra and its coalition partners in the (aptly named) Army of Conquest and their kindred spirits in the Army of Islam and Ansar al-Sharia.

And all hope of a negotiated settlement involving the Syrian opposition will vanish. This has been a longstanding Russian objective – it was at the heart of Moscow’s decision to intervene militarily four months ago.

Yes those evil Russkies, they intervened just as much to thwart the Stalinist ISIS, as they did to rout the Trotskyist Al-Qaeda and the Menshevik Ahrar ash-Sham.

It is hardly a coincidence that the bombardment of Aleppo, a symbol of the 2011 anti-Assad revolution, started just as peace talks were being attempted in Geneva. Predictably, the talks soon faltered.

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Yupp, the Russian-Syrian Aleppo offensive was started specifically to sabotage Geneva peace talks. That's really fresh because Russian intervention is the only reason Geneva peace talks were even held. Prior to September 2015 real talks were impossible because the US and its entourage backed the rebels in their demand that Assad capitulates as a precondition to "talking" to him. 

Also never mind that nobody expected the talks to amount to anything anyway – including Britain's premier Middle East reporter.

Russian military escalation in support of the Syrian army was meant to sabotage any possibility that a genuine Syrian opposition might have its say on the future of the country.

And who represents this "genuine Syrian opposition"? The Salafist Ahrar ash-Sham which represented it at Geneva on the insistence of Saudi Arabia? The Jabhat al-Nusra which is its ally in the Army of Conquest and which started out as ISIS' (then ISI) Syrian branch before switching loyalties over to Ayman al-Zawahiri – that beacon of enlightenment and liberalism in Tora Bora?

Truth is that the possibility that a non-crazy Syrian opposition might have a say on the country's future was destroyed when White House allowed Saudia Arabia and the CIA to funnel weapons into Syria that consistently ended up with the most radical elements of the rebellion.

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Also it did not help that US' "Assad must go" maximalism precluded talks between Assad and the opposition early on, when the non-insane rebels still held some sway and when Assad was seemingly panicking and willing to try to appease them.

It was meant to thwart any plans the west and the UN had officially laid out. And it entirely contradicted Moscow’s stated commitment to a political process to end the war.

The aftershocks will be felt far and wide. If there is one thing Europeans have learned in 2015, it is that they cannot be shielded from the effects of conflict in the Middle East.

Be afraid. Moscow will send aftershocks from the Middle East towards you against which there is no shield.

And if there is one thing they learned from the Ukraine conflict in 2014, it is that Russia can hardly be considered Europe’s friend. It is a revisionist power capable of military aggression.

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Whoah. Of course it is West which intended to topple the sitting government of Syria, and Moscow which has acted to prop it up – yet it is Russia which is the revisionist power?

In fact, as the fate of Aleppo hangs in the balance, these events have – as no other perhaps since the beginning of the war – highlighted the connections between the Syrian tragedy and the strategic weakening of Europe and the west in general.

This spillover effect is something Moscow has not only paid close attention to, but also in effect fuelled.

The spread of instability fits perfectly with Russia’s goal of seeking dominance by exploiting the hesitations and contradictions of those it identifies as adversaries.

First of all this is insane. Russia neither seeks nor is capable of any sort of "dominance" whether in Syria or in Europe. At most Moscow can soothe a mess created by the West here and there and pick up a few prestige points along the way.

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In Syria itself Russian intervention was only made possible by US declaring open season on ISIS first. After doing that but failing to pursue the anti-ISIS fight wholeheartedly it could seethe with rage but it could hardly physically prevent Russia from picking up what Washington itself had proclaimed a worthy cause the year before.

Secondly, why don't we talk about those "hesitations and contradictions" of US and its western allies in Syria? What kind of an insane, callous and irresponsible policy is it to simultaneously run two parallel interventions in a foreign sovereign country pursuing two mutually opposing goals?

How can US simultaneously use jihadis to dislodge Syria's Baathist government and simultaneously clean Syria of jihadi ISIS and Al-Qaeda? What sane purpose can it possibly have to, at the same time bomb ISIS, and funnel material into Syria which ends up with other jihadis?

By bombing some of Assad's enemies but equipping others (directly or via Saudis), US acts like the owner who props up both football teams on the field.

Clearly the practical effects of such policies must cancel each other out – except for the destruction and chaos arising from them which ends up added on top of each other. 

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Either of these policies would have been imperial, aggressive and destructive. Both combined at the same time are insane and do nothing but fan the flames and help keep Syria in a perpetual state of war.  

Aleppo will define much of what happens next. A defeat for Syrian opposition forces would further empower Isis in the myth that it is the sole defender of Sunni Muslims – as it terrorises the population under its control.

There are many tragic ironies here, not least that western strategy against Isis has officially depended on building up local Syrian opposition ground forces so that they might one day push the jihadi insurgency out of its stronghold in Raqqa.

If the very people that were meant to be counted on to do that job as foot soldiers now end up surrounded and crushed in Aleppo, who will the west turn to? 

Russia has all along claimed it was fighting Isis – but in Aleppo it is helping to destroy those Syrian groups that have in the past proved to be efficient against Isis.

If there were ever any doubts about Russia’s objectives in Syria, events around Aleppo will surely have cleared them.

And who are these opposition ground forces that could be built up to dislodge "the jihadi insurgency" from its "Raqqa stronghold"? The reader is left to wonder again.

Would these be the jihadi Al-Nusra and jihadi Ars-Sham? And would it be such an improvement to have the jihadi Army of Conquest dislodge ISIS and turn Raqqa into a jihadi stronghold of their own?

Perhaps to Nougayrède it would be, seeing how she throughout the article only singles out ISIS as worth opposing, but does not say a word about any of the other groups which dominate the rest of the rebellion and share ISIS' fundamentalist and ultra-sectarian vision and ideology but squabble over tactics.

Vladimir Putin has duplicated in Syria the strategy he applied to Chechnya: full military onslaught on populated areas so rebels are destroyed or forced out. There is a long history of links – going back to the Soviet era – between the Syrian power structure and Russian intelligence.

Just as Putin’s regime physically eliminated those in Chechnya who might have been interlocutors for a negotiated peace settlement, Assad has conflated all political opposition with “terrorism”.

And as there was never any settlement in Chechnya (only full-on war and destruction until the Kremlin put its own Chechen leader in place), in Putin’s view there can be no settlement in Syria with the opposition.

Whatever the Russian approach in Chechnya it is clear Russian approach in Syria has been far more nuanced and less judgy – as it befits a foreign player. Russians have no desire to talk to and legitimize Al-Qaeda and groups coalescing with it, but they've never demonized anti-Assad opposition as a whole.

On the contrary, they have actively played up their ties to and battlefield support for some parts of what they deem "the democratic opposition". That is to say Russians are the only foreign player in Syria which has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with all anti-jihadi forces, whether they are affiliated with the government or the rebellion.

So it is not Russia which picks and chooses between good and bad anti-jihadis – but EU and the US (and laughably the likes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey – the chief sponsors of the other side).

Also, as a side note, the Kurdish YPG, while not actively fighting Damascus, is technically also a rebel formation and it is the Russians who have the most straightforward relationship to the Kurds on the account of not being beholden to Turkey. 

Additionally, Nougayrède isn't quite right about Russia's strategy in Chechnya either. Had Russia truly pursued the approach described by her it might still be fighting that war. 

In fact Russia refused to negotiate with either Chechen Islamists or Nationalists but it did leave them with an open way to switch sides and come back into the fold under conditions that were attractive enough that many indeed took up the offer.

A chunk of Chechen rebels was essentially bought off in a deal where they were made the future leaders of autonomous Chechnya to be rebuilt with Russian money in return for keeping the peace, rooting out jihadis and demonstrating unquestionable loyalty to Moscow. 

It was a scheme very similar to the later US 'Sunni Awakening' ploy in Iraq but pursued much more comprehensively. It resulted in Chechnya in the hands of former anti-Moscow rebels like the Kadyrov and the Yamadayev clan – to the seething rage of the few Chechen commanders like Said-Magomed Kakiyev who had fought the insurgency with the Russians all along.

Russia’s strategic objectives go much further, however. Putin wants to reassert Russian power in the Middle East, but it is Europe that he really has in mind. The defining moment came in 2013, when Barack Obama gave up on airstrikes against Assad’s military bases after chemical weapons were used.

Oh wait, Barack Obama was going to launch airstrakes in 2013? Well that doesn't sound very peaceable. So who was really interested in asserting power?

It's also cute how the article uses passive tense to avoid mentioning who used those chemical weapons. It has since become known it was the anti-Assad rebels who used the Sarin gas in a false flag attack meant to provide cover for US intervention in Syria against the Damascus government.

This encouraged Putin to test western resolve further away, on the European continent. Putin was certainly caught off guard by the Ukrainian Maidan popular uprising but he swiftly moved to restore dominance through use of force, including the annexation of territory. 

He calculated – rightly – that his hybrid war in Ukraine could not be prevented by the west. Russian policies in Ukraine have as a result shaken the pillars of Europe’s post-cold-war security order – which Putin would like to see rewritten to Russia’s advantage.

What are these "pillars" of "Europe's security order" if we may ask? We are not told. The article keeps using poetic euphemisms ("aftershocks", "spillover effect", "dominance", "far reaching consequences", "genuine Syrian opposition") without explanation as to what real world phenomena these may refer to so that it is more difficult to pin down and call to account.

Also how is "Europe's post-cold-war security order" different from that during the Cold War? It is true that during the Cold War the West had some respect for Moscow but has since decided it can do just about anything, and anywhere and Russia simply has to take it. Of course that isn't a "security order" of any kind, it's dangerous triumphalism which Russia would indeed like to see end. 

Russian takeover of Crimea may indeed be seen as a warning shot across the bow of Western triumphalism – one that came 14 long years after Putin took over in Moscow, but only a few days after EU had played a pivotal role in underwriting a violent overthrow of the legal president in Russia's neighbor and ethnic cousin Ukraine that took that divided country to the brink of civil war.

Likewise, Russian military involvement in Syria has put Nato in a bind, with one of its key members right on the frontline. Turkey’s relations with Russia have been on the brink for months. Now Moscow has openly warned Turkey against sending forces into Syria to defend Aleppo. How the Turkish leader will choose to react is another western headache.

All this is happening at a time when European governments are desperate to win Ankara’s cooperation on the refugee problem. If Turkey now turns into a troublemaker for Nato on its Middle Eastern flank, that serves Russian interests.

So in other words it is not really Russia which is the problem here but Erdogan's unpredictability and intransigence, and the fact EU is so closely allied to such a character. But hey, let's be mad at Russia.

Similarly, if Europe sees a new exodus of refugees, Russia will stand to benefit. The refugee crisis has sowed deep divisions on the continent and it has helped populist rightwing parties flourish – many of which are Moscow’s political allies against the EU as a project. 

The refugee crisis has put key EU institutions under strain; it has heightened the danger of Brexit (which Moscow would welcome); and it has severely weakened Angela Merkel, the architect of European sanctions against Russia.

Oh wait, did you say that Western nation-breaking across Asia and Africa has finally caught up with the EU which is now paying a small price for it with the refugee influx? Well how is that Moscow's fault?

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that Putin had all this worked out from the start. He has been led by events as much as he has wanted to control them.

Russia is not responsible for the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, nor does it have its hand in everything that happens in Ukraine. But the way Russia has cynically played its pawns should send more alarm bells ringing in the west and in the UN than is the case now.

Translation: We can't really pin this on Putin or 'cynical' Russia but be afraid anyways – may your 'alarm bells' go off.

Putin likes to cast himself as a man of order, but his policies have brought more chaos, and Europe is set to pay an increasing price. Getting the Russian regime to act otherwise will require more than wishful thinking.

A truly bizarre spin. EU Europe shot itself in the foot by helping US explode Libya and Syria. If anything Libya where the West ignored Moscow's warnings completely has been engulfed by even greater chaos.

By staving off US intervention in Syria in 2013 and intervening to prop up failing Assad in 2015 Moscow has in fact done a huge favor to the EU. Doing so has prevented the Syrian state from spiraling into complete non-existence and the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS filling the void over as had happened in NATO-'liberated' Libya. Certainly had this taken place the number of refugees knocking on EU doors would have been even higher.

Essentially Putin had saved the West from its own stupidity, but it's safe to say no thanks will be forthcoming.

Aleppo is an unfolding human tragedy. But it is necessary to connect the dots between the plight of this city, Europe’s future, and how Russia hovers over both.

The takeaway: Russia "hovers over Europe's future". We're never clearly told how that is so and what Russia may do to Europe that's so bad, but we know it's "no friend to Europe" and is "capable of military aggression" and there's eery music playing in the background – so we better be afraid. You know, "spillover" and "aftershocks". Whoah! Scary!

So there you have it. When the Baathist attempt on Aleppo comes The Guardian wants you to root for Al Qaeda to rebuke it and keep Europe safe. Hail Bin Laden! Hail Sieg! As goes Stalingrad...uhm Aleppo... so goes Europe!

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