Amid the fight against Isis, the nature of conflicts is becoming more unpredictable and a turning point in global affairs is on the horizon
We are facing a huge, potentially decisive, turning point, the most significant moment in global affairs since the end of the cold war.
The causes have been well rehearsed. Western powers, led by the US, weary of intervening after their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan – and Libya – are reluctant to commit themselves, even though their very interventions in the past provoked the crisis in the first place.
Vladimir Putin has filled the gap. Russia, and its Shia allies –Iraq, Iran and Syria – are sharing intelligence, plotting how to pursue their interests together.
The US and the UK, are on the back foot, frustrating their traditional Sunni Arab allies, notably Saudi Arabia (but no doubt hoping to indulge in schadenfreude when Russia gets bogged down and besieged by Syrian rebels).
Thinktanks are on fire. The Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) in its latest report, warns that in comparison to Putin’s decisive intervention in Syria, coalition forces are left sliding into a long-term strategy of “open-ended containment” of Islamic State (Isis), and that airstrikes are ineffective without meaningful ground support, including re-building Iraq’s security forces.
A Chatham House report – Russia, Syria and the West: Mutually Assured Frustration – considers Putin’s intentions, including basking in the “glory” of spearheading a supposedly anti-Isis international coalition.
In an important report, the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) looks at the Background to to Putin’s Actions in Syria and the UN: Russia’s New View of the U.S. and Western Strategy.
Rusi refers to Isis as Russia’s “convenient enemy”. But Putin, a firm believer in strong state power who has witnessed the consequences of authoritarian leaders being toppled by western bombing, presumably also harbours genuine concerns about the threat of Islamist extremists, especially on Russia’s southern flank.
An estimated 2,400 Russians have joined Isis, compared to some 750 from the UK. Russian airstrikes on their own are no more likely to destroy Isis than strikes by US or UK jets.
David Cameron, the UK prime minister, says Britain’s armed forces need more drones and special forces – not the “exquisite” platforms referred to by General Sir Nicholas Houghton, chief of the defence staff, in his first major speech in 2013.
The nature of future conflicts with both state and non-state enemies, and the kind of weapons that will be used, is spelled out in a new book by the perceptive and thoughtful counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.
Out of the Mountains, The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, is a warning of the vulnerability of what he calls “feral cities”, of coastal ones in particular, faced with hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, snipers, and bombings.
Kilcullen warns of the implications of the “democratisation of technology” (for example, the use of TV remote controls turned into triggers for roadside bombs) and “breaking down the classical distinctions between governments and individuals, between zones of war and zones of peace, between civilians and combatants, and therefore between traditional concepts such as ‘war’ and ‘crime’, or ‘domestic’ and ‘international’.”
Kilcullen points out that what is new about remotely piloted aircraft or drones, is not their airframes or their weapons but the communications systems that allows them to be controlled from the other side of the planet.
That, he says, has huge implications. If the armed drones are controlled by people living in Nevada or New York, can those places, deemed to be outside any war zone, be treated as being directly engaged in overseas conflicts?
Another threat, from cyber-attacks, is highlighted in a new Chatham House report. It warns that nuclear power plants around the world are harbouring a “culture of denial” about the risks of digital attacks. The nuclear industry is good at safety and physical security but, says Caroline Baylon, the report’s author, “they have barely grappled with cyber”.
Ironically, China – about to finance and even build nuclear reactors in Britain – is regarded by Britain’s security and intelligence agencies as the world’s most aggressive cyber-attackers. It is also the one big power keeping a back seat in the growing conflict in Syria and the wider Middle East.