Russia, Syria and the French humiliation

Text of the previous note, kindly translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia.

One of the most striking facts to emerge from the latest session of the Valdai Club in September 2013 is the profound difference in apprehending foreign affairs between some western countries (such as France, Great-Britain and the United States) and Russia, itself supported by the emerging countries. Let’s make no mistakes. If Russia took a very strong stance on the Syrian question, it was with the backing of China, India, and many other countries, from Brazil to the South African Republic. To present this stance as the defense of one dictatorship (Syria) by another (Russia) is a caricature which dishonors those who are holding it up to us. Nobody would dare to state that Brazil, India and the South African Republic are dictatorships. And still, these countries back the Russian position. We must therefore consider this question, keeping our eyes clear of all propaganda.


The question of proliferation.

What is involved in fact? The intervention of Sergey Lavrov, the Russian minister of Foreign Affairs at the Valdai Club, was most instructive in this regard. An essential problem is the one of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A regime of non-proliferation, or at least one of controlled proliferation, constitutes evidently an international “public good.” However, over the past twenty years, technical know-how and capacities, be they in the nuclear or  chemical domain or the one of balistic vectors, have diffused broadly. And yet, the number of proliferating countries has remained relatively limited. One of them (the South African Republic) has even renounced the nuclear armament which it had secretly acquired. Others remain unapologetic proliferators (Pakistan and India), others are « discreet » or « bashful » proliferators, such as Israel but also, to a lesser degree, Syria and North Korea. Iran might well joint them in the years to come. The question must then be asked, about why the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has spread so little. The main reason is the system of collective security represented by the United Nations and the Security Council. One may criticize the United Nations on many points. But what is being offered in their place is far worse.

What then would be the consequences of the policies promoted by some countries with the goal of circumventing the United Nations and the Security Council? We must at this point understand the logic of unilateralism such as it was defended by the United States at the occasion of the Iraqi crisis of 2002-2003. We are dealing here with the circumventing of the international system by a major power, not by a minor one. Such a move represents an implicit threat to a very large number of countries. It constitutes evidently a strong incitation to the acquisition, and the upgrading of, weapons of mass destruction. It goes without saying that imitation also plays a major role. If, in one region of the world, one country acquires this type of weapons, the pressure will be on for his neighbors to do the same. We have seen this logic at work in the Middle East, where the build-up of a nuclear arsenal by Israel has encouraged the other countries to develop equivalent weapons (gases). Presently, the main reproach one can make to Iran is that the lack of transparency in his nuclear program will incite Saudi Arabia, and maybe even the Gulf monarchies, to develop a program of the same nature. This only restates the problematic which I have developed in my book Le Nouveau XXIème Siècle[1], where I defended the idea of an international statute of the proliferator, ensuring collective control over this type of countries. If we take up the question of the role of the United Nations in this context, we can only take note of the fact that all attempts at circumvention which we have known in the past twenty years have led to reinforcing the tendencies to proliferation. From this point of view, we must acknowledge the existence of an important paradox.  The United States and their allies threaten to circumvent the United Nations in order to confront the problem of proliferation, but in so doing, they encourage other countries to proliferate. The constitution of an international system of rules is alone able to deal with this problem. And its creation implies that it will not be allowed to be used by some against others, whence the importance of the veto right in the Security Council. Let’s mention here that the latter has been used massively by the United States, as well as by the USSR and by Russia, since the creation of the United Nations.


The ineffectiveness of a military solution.

Let’s go back to the problem of the situation in Syria. French-American bombings can either be limited, or have as their objective the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. But they cannot be both things at once. Indeed, the elimination of weapons possessed by a legal government (leaving unanswered the question of the elimination of weapons of the same type in the possession of the rebellion) would imply a systematic bombing of all potential sites of storage and production of said weapons. Units equipped with such weapons would also have to be destroyed. Let’s remark that, from this point of view, a partial elimination of such weapons would only increase the danger in Syria, because it would entail the destruction of the chain of command controlling these weapons and would lead to a decentralization of the decision to use them. One would therefore need a prolonged bombing campaign in order to have some chance of eliminating these weapons. There is probably no alternative therefore to the Russian proposal of eliminating these weapons by the means of diplomacy. On the other hand, if one puts oneself in the situation of symbolic bombings (as a “punishment” of the regime, according to the terminology being used) such bombings would have no effect on the capacity of the regime to use these weapons.

One can see that the options at disposal are in fact very limited. To wave the threat of force in case of a non-respect of the Geneva accord doesn’t make much sense in the context. Besides the fact that this idea will hit upon, and continue to hit upon a determined opposition from Russia which is opposed in principle to all formulas implying an automatic use of force, such a usage would bring us back to the dilemma exposed above: either bombings which will be inefficient for being merely symbolic, or bombings which will have a certain measure of efficiency, but with the risk of precipitating a decentralized usage of the very weapons one is seeking to eliminate.

As a matter of fact, these bombings would quickly entail engaging ground troops in Syria, never mind what governments are presently declaring. But a foreign intervention in a civil war is always a process with unforeseeable results. Moreover, a foreign occupation of Syria would extend necessarily over many years, without the slightest assurance that the result would be the one that seems to be called for: a democratic, pluralistic and secularized Syria. And neither France nor the United States have the purpose and means to such an intervention. One may well ask oneself, therefore, why there is such an agitation around this possible bombarding.


Morality and moralism.

Here again, we are confronted with the opposition between the position of Russia, backed by a large part of the world, and the American-French position. The Russian position may well look cynical and brutal. It certainly lacks the « human-rightist » glamor of the American-French position. But, assuredly, it is the one which has the best chance at working in the real world. The main reproach that can be made to Mr Fabius and to Mr Kerry is not so much that they confuse politics and morality, which is, at this level of reasoning, a minor problem; but that it leads them to a policy which is profoundly counter-productive from the point of view of the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, and of the control of proliferation, in Syria or elsewhere. Let’s make no mistake: behind Syria, many countries will come up, presenting us with the same problem. To consider the Syrian question as if it were isolated is a very deep mistake, one more in a whole series, it could be said.

And this is one of the main problems of the so-called « moral » posture which proves to be a contradiction in its own terms. Which then raises a central question: how did it come to acquire the importance it presently has among the French elites, particularly of the left? In 2003, at the time of the American aggression against Iraq, there was a consensus in considering that « neo-conservatism, » as defended by the Bush administration, constituted a danger for the whole world. Now, ten years later, it seems that it has triumphed. In fact, the question is more complex. “Neo-conservatism” has always had its defenders in France. But an important point here is to understand how it has come to digest a moral posture which emerged in the 1980s. We remember that towards the end of the first seven-year term of President Mitterrand, the idea had appeared of a “moral” generation within the French left. The emergence of such a generation matched the last retractions about any project of social transformation of which the socialist party was supposedly the carrier. It also tallied with the substitution of the European ideology to any ground-breaking transforming project. In the ten years intervening since 2003, this posture appears to have taken over all aspects of foreign policy. It has established a close relationship with “neo-conservatism.”

Let’s venture a hypothesis here. For a decade now in France, various governments in succession, whether from the left or from the right, have consented to important abandonments of sovereignty, from the Lisbon Treaty to the TSCG (Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance). Unable of thinking within the French given, leaders shed political reasoning for the benefit of moral terminology. For there exists a moralism of the right just as there exists a moralism of the left. And this moralism straight in boots is but the other side of the coin of bigoted militarism. Attributing to technical military solutions a political power which they don’t have is the first distinctive feature of any militarism, which consists not in the use of arms, but in the substitution of arms to politics. Europe here serves as a cop-out. But, as there is no such thing as a common foreign policy (and one can well see the British, the Germans, the French and the Italians diverging considerably on the Syrian affair) it is again easier to seek refuge in morality, rather than making politics. Add to this the ideological pressure of the « neo-cons » and we will understand how France has dangerously gone astray on the Syrian question.

No other solution but diplomatic.

Not that this civil war, in which some countries (Saudi-Arabia and Qatar especially) have immediately meddled is not horrible and bloody. It is so from all evidence, and from any way one looks at it. But to bring about an end of the fighting without ending up with the accession to power of people just as bloodthirsty as the present leaders of the Syrian regime is no easy matter. Imposing a cease-fire is quasi-impossible outside diplomatic means, except, again, if one is ready to invade the country. For we have no longer a confrontation with neatly separated camps. What we call the “regime” seems indeed to be a conglomerate of clans, just as the opposition is a conglomerate of groups, some of whom have swung over into pure banditry. A cease-fire would have to be imposed, in the absence of one being negotiated diplomatically.  This would mean the presence of tens of thousands of men on the terrain, which would be rapidly instrumentalized by either side.

A diplomatic solution is possible, provided that it is inclusive (all interested countries will need to be present) and that we understand that it will take time. In this regard, one must be wary of comparisons with Mali. As much as regards the size of the populations involved as political complexity, the Syrian conflict is of no common measure with the one in Mali. Any comparisons between the two are deeply misleading.

One must also measure the vastness of the negative examples left by the American military intervention in Iraq and the more recent French-British one in Libya. Those interventions presently limit the margins of manoeuvering in the Syrian question. Which is why there is no other issue to this conflict but a diplomatic one, and from this point of view the position of Russia is presently very strong. This diplomatic solution will have to be arrived at with the interlocutors such as they exist presently. To make the departure of Bachar-el-Assad a prerequisite is the surest way to bring the diplomatic solution to fail. Swallowing its pride, France will have to admit it. A little bit of thinking, a little bit of politics and less moralism at the beginning of this conflict would have spared us such a humiliation.

[1] Sapir J.,  Le Nouveau XXIè Siècle, le Seuil, Paris, 2008



Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s'est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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