3 April 2017, London, United Kingdom – The Guardian – How would Brexit fit into Britain’s plans to defend its Continental outpost, Gibraltar? Sir Michael Fallon, UK defence secretary, during a television talk show said that Gibraltar would be defended as were the Falkland Islands back in 1982. There was no equivocation.
This statement reflected the realities of this British colony, which has already voted twice in favour of (in 1967 & 2002 by referendum) remaining with Britain rather than rejoining Spain.
Gibraltar is arguably the jewel in the crown of what remains of Britain’s overseas territories. In the 313 years of British control, London’s possession of this small strategic outpost also meant it exercised control over the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic. This fact prevented European powers, namely France and Spain, from being able to join its Atlantic and Mediterranean naval squadrons.
As recently as World War II, British control over Gibraltar also prevented concentration of Axis (Italian, German and Vichy French) naval power in either the Mediterranean or Atlantic theatres, while keeping this vital gateway open to Allied shipping. Similarly, during the Cold War, Soviet warships from the Black Sea fleet could not freely exit from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, effectively blocking Moscow’s freedom of navigation.
The loss of Gibraltar would be the loss of a vital strategic asset that has shaped British naval strategy for over three centuries. The territory is, however, still contested by its former owner, Spain, largely because of its strategic value. Would the EU actively back Spanish claims to Gibraltar, especially were it to ignite a short war between Britain and Spain? A lot would depend on the degree of acrimony between London and Brussels over the next couple of years of UK-EU negotiations.
4 April 2017, Washington D.C., United States – CNN – In a statement to the Financial Times, Trump exclaimed that if China does not assist the United States with regard to North Korea, “it won’t be good for anyone”.
Coming some 24 hours after Trump said that the US was prepared to ‘go it alone’ over North Korea, the amount of ominous talk prior to Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s trip to Trump’s Florida Mar-a-Lago retreat, may well have been all bluster. Or, it could have been ‘positioning’. The Kim dynasty needs to be restrained but it is obvious that the Chinese like the status quo. Beijing, in spite of its professed antipathy towards North Korea, still uses Pyongyang as a strategic buffer against US, South Korean and Japanese influence in East Asia. The loss of North Korea would alter the balance of power against China.
Therefore, unilateral military action by the Americans towards North Korea would be resisted by the Chinese. So tough talk by Trump may well have set up the Xi-Trump meeting as part of a grand bargain between his administration and the Chinese politburo.
What would this look like?
Well, considering Trump’s domestic political problems, it would have to be dramatic and guarantee him a strategic win that could be turned into public goodwill. Hypothetically, it might take the following shape. The United States, using cruise missiles, drones and stealth bombers, takes out all of North Korea’s known nuclear and chemical weapons installations and ballistic missile research and development facilities. Its allies, South Korea and Japan be restrained from undertaking anything other than defensive moves in case of North Korean strikes against them. For its part, China would enter North Korea with ground forces and drive into Pyongyang to conduct a decapitation of the North Korean leadership, occupying the country indefinitely.
America wins by having landed a significant military blow against an old foe; China wins by seizing strategically significant territory while ridding the world of a rancid regime.
While such Sino-American cooperation is highly speculative, it would signal an entirely different approach to dealing with Asian security. It would prevent a Sino-American war over North Korea and pave the way toward a fundamentally different relationship between Washington and Beijing. It would also signal to Russia that China can be pulled away from its orbit and therefore cannot always be relied upon as a partner.
6 April 2017, Canberra, Australia – Sydney Morning Herald – In the wake of the Syrian chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhun, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that she supports an increase in pressure on Russia and Iran to bring an end to the Syrian civil war.
Her statement is of the kind one would expect from a Western government in full moral outrage over the gas attack in Syria, however, it is lacking in detail.
Indeed there is currently little that Australia can do to promote increased pressure on Moscow and Tehran.
Both Russia and Iran as well as their local and foreign proxies are committed to support Bashar al-Assad. From his stronghold in Damascus, Assad facilitates Iran to stretch its strategic reach all the way from the western border of Iran, through its de facto sphere of influence in Iraq, to the Syrian Mediterranean coast.
This is critically important in its ongoing confrontation with Saudi-back state and non-state forces. Suffering from its own Islamic insurgency (largely Saudi-backed) in the Caucuses, Russia sees the Iranian theocracy as a force for order in the Middle East. If they get access to Russian weapons, Iran becomes a useful ally in keeping Saudi-backed groups under control. Furthermore, if both Shia and Sunni are busy fighting each other, this limits their capacities to turn against others.
Whatever the Australian government may wished to happen, it is too far away and too small a player in the Middle East Area of Operations to have a strategic influence on how diplomacy is played out. However, Russia and Iran are playing for high stakes. The West cannot expect to control the behaviour of Russia and Iran in Syria with threats of punishment alone, this can only be achieved if Moscow feels the combined weight of international diplomacy decisively shift away from it.
7 April 2017, Washington D.C., United States – CNN – Some 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on the Al Shayrat airfield in Syria, the place reputed to be where the Syrian Arab Air Force launched a chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun in the rebel-held province of Idlib.
This action was seen as decisive in some quarters and ‘a convenient distraction’ in others.
What is sure is that this missile strike may well be the opening gambit of another complex and futile campaign in the Middle East. This prospect is all the more dangerous since there are Russian and Iranian forces on the ground in the Syrian civil war, as well as a small group of US military advisers.
The Syrian civil war is confounding due to its many different actors, foreign and local. To the outside observer there are no clear lines – no good guys and bad guys.
Not all of the more capable rebel groups are groups that could form a legitimate post-Assad government in Damascus. One would also have to wonder what would happen to the Alawite minority and their collaborators, many of them Christian, Druze and even some Sunnis, should a rebel group dethrone the Assad regime. In a culture of vendetta, the prospect for a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy seems highly unlikely.
Nonetheless, many have said that Trump’s strike against the Syrian military was limited and proportional. If it stays that way, then perhaps it was justified. However, wars in the Middle East tend to escalate and even the most judicious action can become something far greater.