Nick Cohen Is Wrong About Syria And ‘Realism’ – OpEd


Nick Cohen, one of my favorite writers, wrote about the Syrian Refugee crisis recently, and opined, that future generations will blame our Realism in dealing with the refugee crisis. In this instance, however he suffers from a notable disadvantage, of being wrong.

Needless to say, as a researcher of foreign policy and realism, I find this argument of Western Realism a bit oversimplified. Studying the Western response deeply and empirically, one would notice, that the policy of the West to deal with the Syrian crisis was neither Realism, nor Liberal Interventionism. It has been one of shabby half-hearted indifference.

First of all, I don’t want to go into the details of policy frameworks, partly because I have written about it before, and partly because better men have commented on it, and I don’t want to add on to the literature. However, I feel compelled to point out, that an actual realist policy for Syria would be markedly different from the one we are observing presently.

First of all, Realism is amoral and solely based on State interest. However the first fallacy of this line of thought is that the West is not acting to deal with the Syria crisis as a single block. We see a Realist Britain and some specific East European countries, trying to maintain an offshore balancer role, an inward looking and isolationist America busy with Hillary’s email skulduggery and an insufferable Donald Trump and his twitter hordes, and a terribly liberal Germany and Sweden, now facing a shocking reality check about their own demographic unrest.

A Realist policy for Syria therefore would actually be somewhat like this.

1. Form a no-fly zone in northern Levantine sea coast, to carve out an area, which can house genuine refugees.

2. Train the fighting age men and boys (almost 70 percent according to a startling UNHCR report), and send them back to fight ISIS. Accept the women, children and war infirm, the genuine refugees, rather than the economic migrants. That’s what India did during the 1971 war against Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

3. During the 1815 Barbary wars, a joint naval British-Dutch taskforce, under Lord Edward Pellew negotiated with the Algerian human traffickers with “shots and nothing but shots”. It bombed and destroyed the human trafficking network. There’s a lesson for the policy makers for Syria while dealing with overcrowded boats carrying refugees to Europe.

4. European navies with their overwhelming superiority should put up a Mediterranean blockade similar to the Second World War.

5. Help the Kurds to carve out a state of their own. The old boundaries from the Sykes-Picot agreement are invalid, and it would be prudent to accept that and make policies based on new facts in the ground. Give the Peshmerga weapons to battle it out with the ISIS. The Kurdish forces are the most modern, egalitarian and secular fighting force in the entire Middle East. They are an asset to the West.

6. Finally, keep an eye on Russia and Iran, but don’t try to stop them. This is the Middle East’s version of the Thirty years war going on. Having Russia and Iran try and balance the Middle East will have its own advantages. There will be an opportunity to study Iranian and Russian forces in actual combat and COIN operations, even if they get bogged down, without direct loss of money and manpower for the West. As Kenneth Waltz wrote before his death, power begs to balance itself. If Russia and Iran balances against the Wahhabi forces, Jihadists and Islamists, at the cost of their money and lives, nothing wrong in that.

However, as we can see, this is not what the West is doing, obviously. In place of an actual Realist grand-strategy, we are caught winging it, with heavy rhetoric about saving human lives, and stopping the war, and having a democratic middle east, while being simultaneously completely ambivalent to the ground realities.

Now, I write these policies as a researcher of Realism, being detached from my emotional considerations. I know I might be colored heartless for that, but this is a purely academic discussion. I feel horrible seeing the photo of Aylan Kurdi as much as the next man with conscience and sanity. But drafting policy is not an emotional job. It is not activism. It is prudence, pragmatism, logic and reasoning, and a clear assessment of goals and capabilities. Hopefully foreign policy mavens or commentators keep that in mind.

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. He spends way too much time on Twitter, @MrMaitra

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