Monday, 23 November 2015

Obama outplayed: France moves in

Over the last two years, the world has entered a new phase in its history which is much more unstable than before. Various major players are competing to fill the gap left by Obama's idealistic and isolationist approach. One of these is the Islamic State (IS). The attack on Friday 13 November 2015 in Paris has activated the French to lead the effort against IS as well as stabilizing the balance-of-power in the Syrian conflict after Russia became militarily involved.

With the IS attack in Paris on Friday 13 November 2015, the peoples of the Western world were rudely awakened to the reality that they have entered a totally new world. This was not merely a spectacular attack by a distant enemy; it signalled a new phase in the international political landscape. The old world - which was (for the most part) stable, peaceful, prosperous and largely predictable (except for so-called "failed states" at the edge of civilization), has changed in less than two years into one that is exactly the opposite, namely unstable, full of conflict, insecure and very unpredictable. And this is not yet the full extent of what can be expected. If history is our guide, we can expect that this new multi-polar world would go through a period of intense upheaval and conflict before the waters calm down again.

Less than two years ago, on 2 February 2014, I wrote that we are entering a new phase in world history in which the stable political landscape that we knew for decades has begun to disintegrate. That was before Russia invaded the Crimea in Ukraine and before ISIL became a major player. I wrote: "Although the world is not yet in the precarious situation of being unstable, it is changing fast and the signs are clear that a new phase in the political history of the world has begun. There is a sense that the playing field has opened up and that opportunities are presenting themselves. The other important players (other than the US) sense that the Great Recession has damaged the financial power of the West and with it its ability to project power. And they are preparing strategies to assert themselves in ways unthinkable a few years ago." [1]

One of the main reasons for this dramatic change is the position of the Obama administration. US President Obama's foreign policy can be summarized in two motto's: 1) Work towards enforcing a rule-based international order with negotiation as the basic tool 2) Use military force with extreme caution and then only hesitatingly when there is overwhelming pressure to do so (that is, excluding the US drone program). This is exactly the opposite of the Bush-doctrine. With this unilateral idealist and isolationist approach, the US has effectively created a wide-open geopolitical space (especially in the Middle East) in which many powerful role-players are competing for power and influence.

It is in this political space that Russia, Iran, China, IS and now also France and its EU partners are stepping into. The enemies of the West know that this window of opportunity might close when Obama leaves the White House. And they are moving fast. As the only Western power willing to confront this situation, France is becoming an important champion of Western interests in this new world - taking up a role which has for decades been reserved for the US as the leader of the Western world.

The major players in the new geopolitical power-game

All the major powers have made significant geopolitical moves over the last two years. The first substantial move in this regard was a Russian one: On 27 February 2014, Russia occupied the Crimea which belonged to Ukraine. In this context, the Russians introduced a new method of war, namely the "hybrid war" which involves many aspects which are designed to mislead the enemy. Then, at the beginning of March 2014, Russia instigated insurrections with eventual Russian military support in the Donbas areas of eastern Ukraine. On 30 September 2015 Russia also became militarily involved in the conflict in Syria. In all these cases the Russians have acted to secure their own geopolitical interests, especially their ability to project power beyond their immediate homeland (from their naval bases in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol and the Syrian port city of Tartus).

Other important players followed the Russian example. Since 2014 China began to aggressively extend its control in the South China Sea (which it claims as its own), turning seven reefs into artificial islands. In less than two years China has reclaimed more than eight square kilometres (ninety football fields), building three airstrips. As with the Russian actions, the speed and scale of this undertaking have surprised all the other players in the region. Since the beginning of 2015, Iran has also dramatically increased its tactical and military support for its allies: the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiites and the Houthis in Yemen (see [2] for a detailed discussion). There are more than a thousand Iranian soldiers fighting alongside Assad's forces and Iranian warplanes accompany Russian bombers over the Syrian skies. In Yemen, Iran's covert involvement in support of the Houthis prompted Saudi-Arabia to lead a nine-nation coalition in a military campaign to stop the spread of the Iranian influence in their neighbourhood.

Iranian warplanes accompanying Russian bombers over Syria
The projections of power by these major players stretch from Ukraine, through the Middle East to the South China Sea. In all these areas they (Russia-Iran-China, which might have entered into a secret military alliance) are trying to expand their geopolitical position at the expense of other countries which belong to the Western sphere of influence. These conflicting interests are especially intense in the context of the Syrian Civil War. The reason for this is simple: if the Syrian rebellion is successful, Russia would lose its last footprint in the Middle East and Iran's influence in the Middle East would decrease dramatically. This is why I said shortly after the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring that the conflict would escalate to involve other countries due to the fact that Russia would stand with the Assad regime [3]. Now many countries are directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. On the one hand, there are Russia, Iran, Hezbollah; to counter their influence the US (CIA), Saudi-Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others have started training moderate (and not-so-moderate) rebel groups who fight against the Assad regime and provide them with weaponry.

Another group that has been able to dramatically increase their projection of power on the world stage is the Islamic State (IS). Before 2014, ISIL (the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant), as it was known since April 2013 when the Islamic State of Iraq merged with the Al-Nuzra Front (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda), was just one of many military groups active in the Syrian conflict. But then, on 29 June 2014, they declared a world-wide caliphate and began a very aggressive effort towards territorial expansion which led to control over a large area stretching from Aleppo in Syria to the heartlands of central Iraq. Since then, satellite IS groups have been formed in Libya, Yemen, Egypt (in the Sinai Peninsula), Saudi-Arabia, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Caucasus and other countries. Over the last few weeks, they have claimed responsibility for attacks in Turkey, Yemen, Lebanon, the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai and the Paris attacks. 

The rise of IS is directly related to the power-game involving the other major players. Since the legal grounds for involvement on the side of the rebels in the Syrian conflict is restricted according to the principle of non-interference in a sovereign country without UN agreement, the existence of IS in that geographical area provides an entry point into that conflict without direct involvement against the Assad regime. As such, countries like the US who strongly support a rule-based international order (for example, against Russia's engagement in Ukraine), could establish a physical military presence in the area without directly engaging the Syrian regime - which would be important in case the Syrian Civil War evolves into a major war. The fight against IS provides various countries with a cover to promote their interests in the Syrian Civil War: the US, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar assist the rebel groups whereas Russia bombs Assad's enemies (during the first stage of their bombing campaign, 90% of their targets were other Syrian rebel groups than IS, some of which are supported by the US). 

The very existence of IS is in the interest of certain countries. In general, the geographical area that IS controls in Iraq and Syria effectively forms a buffer zone against Iran's military expansion in the region. This suits Sunni governments like Saudi-Arabia and Turkey well. Then, the fight against IS may also provide dictatorial regimes like that of Egyptian President Sisi and leaders with such tendencies like Turkish president Erdogan with excuses to eliminate or subdue their political opponents (Turkey's initial leniency towards IS was the reason why its conflict with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) flared up again - PKK cadres attacked security forces whom they believed allowed IS to plant bombs in Kurdish areas). Previously, in the fight against Al-Qaeda, the Pakistani military also secretly supported affiliated Islamist militants, which led to a low-point in its relations with the US. 

The main reason why countries like Russia, Iran, China and IS have been able to dramatically increase their geopolitical footprint over the last two years, is that they understood that the unilateral focus of the Obama administration on an idealist approach to world events, with an accompanying aversion in a realist approach which focuses on geopolitical concerns, has created an enormous geopolitical space which other strong players can occupy without serious consequences. Even Obama recognized this when he made a humiliating policy reversal in June 2014, ordering US troops back to Iraq.

Of special concern for the West (apart from the IS threat) is Russia's involvement in Syria which has dramatically disrupted the balance of power in the Syrian conflict. And the hands of the US are tied due to the Obama approach. Even in the face of the about 250 000 war dead, most of which are civilians of which about 90% have been killed by Assad's indiscriminate bombing! Then there is the Iran-factor. The lifting of sanctions against Iran early in 2016 (in accordance with the negotiated agreement with the P5+1 to dismantle their nuclear capacity) would release up to $100 billion to that country, which is of great concern for its opponents in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi-Arabia.

France enters the game

Until the 13 November 2015 attack in Paris, the French involvement in the Syrian conflict was quite moderate. The reason for this is that France, with all the Western countries, accepted the leadership role of the US in such matters. This has now changed. France is the only other Western country with the ability to step into the gap that the US has left on the Near Eastern scene. They are the only major player that can come to the rescue of Western interests in the Middle East. (Britain, which has previously been a major military player, has recently become a very untrustworthy partner in this regard). France is a staunch supporter of the moderate Syrian rebels and is one of a few countries (including the US and Britain) who recognize the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC) as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the context of the Syrian Civil War.

There can be no doubt that the 13 November 2015 attack in Paris has galvanized the French in a manner very similar to that in which the 11 September 2001 attack activated the US into action against Al-Qaeda. Comparisons have been made between the speeches given by George W. Bush and Francois Hollande after the attacks as well as the wording of the resolutions tabled shortly afterwards at the UN security council. The response of the US was primarily a military one - they activated article 5 for the first time in NATO's history. The French responded differently: they activated the collective defence article 42.7 in the EU's Lisbon treaty. Although France has a lot of experience in such matters - they were recently militarily involved in stabilizing both the Central African Republic as well as Mali, where they fought with the government against Islamist militants (the attack on the luxury Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali's capital Bamako which came shortly after the Paris attack, might have been an effort to discredit the French involvement there and make it harder to reach its goal in the Syrian context) - they previously struggled to get the rest of the EU on board with them. 

The French approach is much more sophisticated than that of the US. Whereas the US has struggled to develop a coherent approach - they either have too much focus on military involvement or too little; they have either a too unilateral approach (only in the framework of NATO) or tried to merely train and support local partners (without any direct combat involvement) - the French have been able to combine all of these, namely local partners, restricted "boots on the ground" and a good balance between diplomatic and military engagement. The refugee crisis recently forced other EU countries like Germany too also contemplate deeper involvement - even with a military dimension - in unstable regions in its neighbourhood. We might in future see that the EU develops a more substantial coordinated military approach to secure its own backyard. Such an approach would combine the soft power for which the EU is known, with the restricted use of hard power.

The UN resolution that the French tabled after the Paris attack, which was accepted on 20 November 2015, may provide the legal framework not merely for more intensive involvement against IS, but also more generally in Syria. The reason is that the permission of the Assad regime is not required for such intervention, which calls "upon member states that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures ... on the territory under the control of ISIL ... in Syria and Iraq." This may allow the anti-Assad forces led by France and the US to establish boots on the ground in Syria (at first only special forces). At the same time, France would try to restrict the Russian attacks on the moderate opposition by involving them in some manner in the fight against IS (the US and its EU partners are also actively trying to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, which would isolate Iran in its support for Syrian President Assad).

The resolution also targets the Al-Nusra Front which has broken ranks with IS. This may allow countries that back the Syrian rebels to more openly do so, also with air support (ostensibly in their fight against both IS and Al-Nusra) - which would necessarily also mean that they are better equipped to fight the Assad-regime. On the other hand, the resolution may allow Russia and Iran to target those Islamist groups supported by Saudi-Arabia and Qatar that fights alongside Al-Nusra. The outcome may be an escalation in the Syrian conflict, which in turn may lead to a full-blown proxy war between the two opposing alliances - especially when the IS threat is reduced in the area.

In my view, the Syrian conflict may eventually escalate into another major war (see [4]). At this stage, there are renewed efforts to kick-start a negotiated transition process but the main stumbling block, namely the future role of Syrian President Assad, has not been removed. Although there is currently a lot of talk about a grand coalition against IS, the fault-line between the opponents and supporters of the Assad regime, between the Sunni-countries led by Saudi-Arabia and Shiite Iran, between the Western-backed alliance and Russia-Iran-Assad alliance, may become more accentuated once IS has been degraded to a more manageable threat.  

For now, France has found a way to stabilize the balance-of-power in the Syrian conflict but when the sanctions against Iran are lifted in 2016, the conflict may intensify further. Although IS may pose a threat for decades to come, its ability to strike again in the EU has already been severely restricted through a substantial upgrading of the Schengen zone in the EU as well as improved information-intelligence sharing between EU countries (some even speak of the eventual formation of an EU intelligence agency).


Over the last two years, our world has become a very unstable place where major players compete in the geopolitical space created by the Obama doctrine. As such IS is just one such player and it would be wrong to think that this common threat would bring about a substantial alliance between all the other role players. Although IS is definitely a major threat to the stability of the world, the larger geopolitical game poses an even greater threat - namely that of a major war, even another world war. Again, it would be wrong to see the actions of France after the attack in Paris merely in the context of IS; rather, the acceptance of the UN resolution that France tabled, actually allows the various players in the Syrian conflict to more openly support the opposing groups. Whereas the military involvement of Russia in the Syrian conflict has upset the balance-of-power in that conflict, the French actions may allow the Western nations to effectively counter the Russian actions.

In my view, the dramatic escalation of instability on the world scene over the last two years is only the beginning. As I previously suggested from my geopolitical analysis of world events [1], we are entering another phase in world history - a war phase, that will bring enormous upheaval. In the same manner that the Vietnam War gradually escalated into a major war, I foresee that the same could happen in the Syrian conflict. Russia, Iran and China might try to maximize their geopolitical gains before president Obama depart; he would leave it to his successor in the White House to clean up his mess

[1] Click on The pursuit of geopolitical power in an emerging multi-polar world
[2] Click on A New Iranian Empire is rising
[3] On 5 December 2011. Oorlogswolke begin oor die Midde Ooste saampak.
[4] Click on Is A Third World War Brewing?

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.


  1. The author completely ignores the part that the Western powers played in overthrowing the government of Ukraine.

    Also, the author also comments that the Obama administration focuses on negotiations. However, he failed to mention that the Obama administration doesn't know how to negotiate, either domenstically, or abroad.

  2. No one wants to repeat the same behavior,the next door neighbors should take thir turn,our country an monies hv been waisted an U.S.A has ride hoods an infastructre is deteriorated,schools caving in colleges failing police discrimination, unsafe foods,failed health insurance, trains an airports old,we need to build our country, this is our president is focus on,we h v the largest prison rate,we need to make law where ex prisoners should be Abel to fight in the wars,make a branch for ex felling so that we can combat the dirty guys an given a chance to pay our dudes am become prominent.

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  5. Thank you for an excellent essay and very interesting perspective. Please allow me, however, to differ with you on the following aspects: 1. You make several references to a so-called attack on Paris. It may only be semantics but for me that is too strong an assumption as the incident rather consisted of attacks in Paris than an attack, as if by a country, on Paris. Unless you consider IS as such. 2. Secondly you go out from the premise that IS was in fact responsible for these attacks. As far as I am concerned, and the whole episode smacked of a false flag operation, it could just as well have been the CIA, Mossad or even the French themselves. You yourself mentioned that the French are much more subtle and what could have given them a better excuse to actively (and legally I might add) get involved in Syria on the one hand and in the process exerting her influence in the Middle-East over that of the US, on the other. 3. You do not reconcile Obama's so-called passivity with the fact that the US was involved, directly or indirectly in wars in not less than seven countries during Obama's tenure in the White House. 4. You create the perception that Russia annexed the Crimea by force. May I remind you that more than 90% of the Crimean population voted for re-incorporation into the Russian Federation, restoring the status quo as it was before Nikita Kruschchev had it incorporated into the Ukraine when he was the leader of the Soviet Union. Not only the Donbass region with its majority Russian population, but the whole of the Ukraine naturally and historically falls within Russia's sphere of influence and it only stands to reason that any self-respecting country such as Russia, trying to regain it's international prestige, would protect it's people and it's interests and stand up to inappropriate American interference in that country since the Orange Revolution and in inter alia yet another transparent endeavor to isolate Russia. To mention the Ukraine in the same breath as the Middle-East, to negate the role the US played and still plays in the Ukraine and to create the perception that Russia is in fact at fault in this unsavory episode, is with all due respect unfair and not entirely correct. 5. You make mention of "... a geographical area that IS controls in Iraq and Iran...". I am under correction but as far as I know, IS controls not a single inch of Iranian territory. 6. You make several references to so-called "space" that is created by US foreign policy, creating the impression that physical space is relevant here. It may be semantics and please forgive me but I am of the opinion that "vacuum" would be a more appropriate and correct applicable term. 7. Lastly you conspicuously omit to make any mention of the pivotal and deeply destabilizing role Israel plays in the Middle-East.

    1. Evert, thanks for the detailed response. As you know, there are various narratives as to how we should understand world events. It seems to me that you are primarily speaking from the perspective found on RT. I am trying to give a perspective that is neither Russian nor US. It is merely an analysis which do not buy into all sorts of conspiracy theories. I agree that it should rather read attack "in Paris". I also agree the area that IS controls is in Iraq and Syria - the ref. to Iran should obviously be to Syria. Regarding Obama's doctrine, which is a major point of discussion in the essay, there can be no doubt that he made a serious effort to disengage from both Afghanistan and Iraq. This is definitely the most important aspect of the Obama doctrine, except obviously his focus on diplomacy.

  6. Die huidige internasionale magspel is inderdaad kompleks. Alliansies word saamgestel nie volgens een stel reëls en belange nie. En Putin buit dit die beste uit. NAVO is sterk gekant teen Russiese inmenging in Ukraine, maar hy het sy kaarte so mooi gespeel dat NAVO hom nou nodig het in Sirië in die stryd teen ISIS. Turkye is wel 'n NAVO lid, maar sy hele kultuur en belange lê op 'n ander vlak - vir hulle is die Koerdiese vraagstuk van nommer 1 belang. Hulle is baie bang vir die Koerde, terwyl hulle NAVO bondgenote juis sterk steun op die deelname van Koerdiese magte op die grond. Die afskiet van 'n Russiese vliegtuig het natuurlik hierdie botsende belange en verwikkeldheid duidelik blootgelê. Die opmars van radikale Islam is beslis een van die faktore in die geopolitieke magspel. In hierdie konteks het Putin dit reggekry om homself in die rol van verdediger van die Christendom te projekteer, terwyl hy terselftertyd nasionale ambisies nastreef in Oos Europa. Ek dink dus dat Putin "voorloop op punte" in die huidige internasionale boksgeveg... wie die uitklophoue teen wie gaan plant sal die tyd moet leer...

    1. Dagse Johannes. Ek stem absoluut saam. Putin is in 'n baie sterk posisie - hy is 'n slim en geslepe speler en hy het die Weste - veral vir Obama - heeltemal onkant gevang. Die Weste sal wel hergroepeer - maar dit gaan nie maklik wees om Putin weer in die spreekwoordelike boks terug te kry nie.