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The war in Syria has reached a tipping point. The humanitarian crisis has worsened as the Syrian regime has begun taking back lost territory. Last week, Washington and Moscow helped their proxies in Syria negotiate a cease-fire. But with that accord unlikely to alter much on the ground, the time has come for the United States, Europe, and the Saudi-led Gulf countries to take back the initiative from Russia, contain Turkey, and stabilize the conflict.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the United States and its allies have three options, and none of them are good. They could attempt to implement the loophole-ridden cease-fire accord; allow Russia to continue bombing “terrorist groups,” that is, the opposition forces; or take more direct military action against the Syrian military, for which there is zero public appetite. But there is a fourth option, and it could work: putting a no-fly zone back on the table, which would not only support the joint interests of Western and Gulf allies but also prove viable on the ground.
Turkey will be critical for getting to an eventual endgame in Syria, but at this point it needs to be contained itself. Turkey has been shelling Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia forces for a week. Presumably in retaliation, a YPG operative allegedly launched Wednesday’s major terrorist attack in Ankara. Now Turkey is on the verge of a highly destabilizing escalation. The country legitimately needs the United States to press the YPG to back off, and a safe zone abutting the Turkish border just north of Aleppo and west of Kobani would be one way to do it. It would provide Turkey with a buffer from the fighting, something that it has called for. Turkey might then acquiesce to U.S. pressure to cease attacking the YPG beyond the confines of the zone.
Not only is a safe zone still viable at this point, it is also necessary, given the 300,000 Syrians starving in Aleppo, Russia’s highly intensified bombing unlikely to end soon, and Syrian forces within 15 miles of the Turkish border. The zone should be policed by NATO in the air, guarded by Turkish troops on the ground, and operated by the EU—with the UN coordinating the opposition. NATO is already mounting a maritime refugee operation in the Mediterranean, something that Germany, France, and Turkey have called for.
There would be several immediate effects of a safe zone. First, it would forestall Syria’s military operations nearby. Second, additional NATO aircraft in Syrian airspace would push Russia to stay clear from the area and back off of its bombing campaign. Third, Turkey would be soothed and could, presumably, be pushed into easing off the YPG as the YPG modulates its behavior—an additional expected effect. Meanwhile, the area would provide some refuge to civilians and give the opposition space to regroup. Finally, it would likely head off a Saudi incursion in Syria, which it has threatened.
The United States and its Western allies need to act fast to ensure that the YPG does not defect to Russia—which would be another coup for Russia. (It invited the YPG to take up its current positions and has promised it a Kurdish zone in northern Syria.) In fact, if the West doesn’t take this step now, it will miss an opportunity to change the dynamics of the conflict in other ways. If Saudi Arabia were to send in ground troops, it would cause Russia to up the ante in order to maintain its leverage. It would also lead Iran, which had recently scaled back its involvement, to go all in. And a full-scale regional conflagration would likely result, with Turkey destabilized and incapable of heading off a fresh wave of refugees headed into Europe—further destabilization of the EU would be an additional Russia coup.
The only thing that Russia fears at present is NATO’s active involvement in the conflict (as indicated by its mild response to Turkey shooting down its fighter). Thus, NATO’s monitoring of a safe zone would be an important step toward putting Russia back on its heels. Meanwhile, this plan would allow Turkey to stabilize its border, give it the protection it seeks from Russia, and cause it to end its shelling of the YPG. In turn, the plan would prevent a deeper and uncontained Turkish army thrust into Syria, while giving the West and its Gulf allies the benefit of Turkey’s ground-based military operations in protection of the zone.
Another benefit of the safe zone is that it could bring EU influence more firmly to bear. The EU has vast experience in post-conflict stability operations, from Kosovo to Ukraine and Mali to Somalia. It is more than capable of organizing and carrying out the ground component of installing a safe zone, and doing so would give Europe the opportunity to take a more forthright step in addressing the refugee situation at home. The Gulf-based allies have been looking to their Western counterparts to take a decisive step against the Syrian regime, and so they would likely join the air policing operation and contribute funds to the operation of the safe zone on the ground.
If the safe zone is successful, momentum for the diplomacy track will pick back up. It stalled when Russia-enabled Syrian forces started making progress on the ground. Progress with the safe zone will put pressure on Russia to lean on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to participate, because it will persuade both Russia and the regime that the Western and Gulf-based allies are making a sustained play that will likely be a decisive step toward an endgame in Syria.
Turkey, too, given a position in the vanguard of the stability operation—and with its own troops operating in Syria—would be more likely to join diplomatic talks once they get going again, perhaps softening its opposition to PYD participation somewhat.
Despite how thoroughly fraught the crisis has become, there have been some good signs. Iran and Saudi Arabia have not allowed their heightened rivalry to prevent UN talks; the United States and Russia have coordinated on sponsoring the talks, starting with a UN Security Council resolution; the Syrian opposition has gotten more organized; Russia has indicated its openness to giving refuge to Assad; multiple small-scale cease-fires have already been helpful; Iran has moderated its assistance to Syrian forces; and the UN has remained fully engaged.
But there are still major complications to the diplomacy track, with the Assad regime dragging its feet due to success on the battlefield—including retaking significant swaths of territory in the west with the help of Russian airstrikes and emboldened Shia militias. The most viable way for getting the talks restarted is to put the discussion of building a safe zone and the UN talks on separate tracks and to proceed directly with installation of the former. As the zone gets up and running, it will pressure Russia and Assad to not only participate in the UN talks but at long last arrive ready to deal.
To be sure, the international community will still have a hard time avoiding the day-after problem. In Libya, the world powers failed to follow up the NATO air operation with a post-conflict stability operation, a decision that touched off a crisis in Mali and gradually allowed Libya to fall back into disarray. As applied in Syria, the safe zone would allow the talks to get moving again and would likely lead to a sturdier diplomatic resolution of some sort. The United Nations would then need to mount what would be, in all likelihood, the largest peacekeeping operation in history, which could merge with the EU stability operation and be air policed by the Gulf allies and NATO. Eventually, if the operation is successful, the allies could turn their attention in full to the Islamic State (ISIS).
All this will require a concerted effort, but without a viable safe zone in place there are precious few plausible options left to consider. Already, numerous opportunities have been missed, most crucially early on, when the Free Syrian Army could have been successful with a modicum of Western assistance—well before ISIS came into existence and filled the sizable security vacuum in eastern Syria and western Iraq. To seize the initiative from Russia and the Syrian regime and contain and help Turkey, Western and Gulf allies need to act now. Without their creation of a safe zone, the UN talks will have little realistic chance of resolving this seemingly endless conflict, whose continuation could deepen the humanitarian disaster and lead to a seriously destabilizing all-out regional war.