This post was going to be about the Syrian civil war and its place in a wider strategic context. I was going to look at a variety of issues involving Shia/Sunni rivalry, the Kurdish question, the global war on terror, Daesh and the disparate groups fighting the civil war. Three thousand words in and several weeks later I realised that I just wasn’t going to have the time to do such a piece justice. Therefore I have narrowed the scope significantly (this still comes in at around 5000 words) in order to consider if we have entered a new Cold War. There is a lot of discussion around whether the Syrian civil war is a proxy conflict in a new Cold War between Russia and the West. These discussions are occurring against the backdrop of an international system that has gone through several shocks and changes since 2008; the global economic crisis, the surges followed by the winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, the war in Libya, the Syrian civil war, the ‘defeat’ of Al Qaeda and the rise of Daesh.
In the Far East the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is demonstrating its will and capability to act on the world stage which is causing consternation to other nations in the region such as Japan, whilst at the same time North Korea continues to develop nuclear and ballistic missile technology in defiance of countless UN resolutions. A resurgent Russia, shown by its moves in Georgia, the Crimea, the Ukraine as well as alleged operations in the cyber domain, is now more active on the international stage than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately I believe we are in, or at the very least heading for, a situation far more dangerous than the Cold War. It is highly likely the international system is moving towards another period of Great Power rivalry similar to what was seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
According to the Penguin Dictionary of International Relations (I kid you not) the term Cold War was popularised by Walter Lippmann after being coined by the American journalist H.B. Swope and was used to denote the state of high tension that existed between the Soviet Union dominated communist bloc (The East) and the US dominated democracies of The West. It was largely an ideological conflict between international communism on one side and liberal democratic free market capitalism on the other. It was characterised by a massive arms race, both conventional and nuclear, and attempts to destabilise opposing regimes around the globe through a variety of methods which often flared up into ‘hot’ proxy wars. The overarching characteristic was the alignment of interests and domination by a single major power on both sides, either through a common fear of destruction (the West) or through occupation and oppression (the East).
It was a period of nearly forty years where the world held its breath in anticipation of a nuclear apocalypse, but arguably that same threat also granted a semblance of order and stability on the bipolar international system. Both sides realised a nuclear war could not be won and through the clearest expression of the security dilemma responded in kind to each other’s weapons development. The ultimate Mexican Standoff was formalised in the highly appropriate acronym MAD which stands for Mutually Assured Destruction. In other words if either side let’s fly with their nukes the whole world (or at least the Northern Hemisphere) burns. Therefore, for the most part, actions taken by the major powers had to be carefully thought out, relatively speaking, in order not to cross any red lines and end the world through a miscalculation. That being said there were a couple of moments where nuclear war became a very real possibility. The most famous is probably the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and perhaps less well known but possibly scarier is Exercise Able Archer where a misunderstanding of the situation at hand led us precariously close to war.
Proxy conflicts with opposing sides backed by East and West erupted all through the period with the Korean War (1950 – 53), the Vietnam War (1954 – 75) and the Arab – Israeli conflicts (1948, 1949 – 67, 1967-73) being three of the more well known. Following its policy of containment the US (and by association the West) got into bed with some very shady governments in an effort to stop the spread of Communism. It seemed brutal right wing dictatorships such as those in South America and in several South East Asian countries were far more preferable than the Communist or socialist alternative. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), although a nuclear power itself and a communist one party state, had a very limited ability to influence the global situation due to being mostly inward looking and lacking much in the way of power projection capabilities. However the thawing of relations between China and the US on the back of increased hostility between China and the USSR did help shift the strategic balance somewhat.
In spite of the many similarities described above to the current geopolitical situation I would argue that we are not entering a new Cold War. I think the term is very useful in describing a period of our history that affected not only global security but also many cultural and societal aspects for many of the nations involved. However I do not think the term is useful in categorising the current state of affairs. The international system is no longer bipolar and dominated by the US and the Soviet Union. Although the post-Cold War period was largely uni polar in nature dominated as it was by the US I suggest that this is no longer so. Although the US maintains a quantitative and qualitative edge in many key areas useful in measuring power on the international stage, such as conventional military capability and economic strength, the gap between it and some nation states is closing to the point where US dominance is eroding.
Although the US and Europe remain close friends and allies on many issues there are times where Europe will decide to act independently of, and in opposition to, US interests. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a prime example of this. Although the UK backed the US decision to invade, France and Germany were strongly against it. Their interests are mostly aligned but Europe is now far more comfortable in trying to chart its own path. Similarly Russia no longer dominates as it once did, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Warsaw Pact saw Russian influence shrink in on itself. This was exacerbated when many of those Warsaw Pact members joined NATO. Although it maintains a level of dominance in its’ near abroad and has particularly close ties with some countries such as Belarus it is no longer dominating one half of the international order.
There is also the rise of a number of other countries some of whom arguably have ambitions of regional dominance and others who have aspirations of becoming truly global powers. Iran and Saudi Arabia are certainly looking to be the dominant (local) power in the Middle East and given that they are often seen (or would like to be seen) as the respective leaders of the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam they arguably have more global aspirations in some respects. India is a rising power in terms of industrial and economic output and is also trying to develop a military with the capability to project power further afield and thereby extend its influence. However its primary security concerns will remain Pakistan/Kashmir and tensions with China. Japan has long been an industrial and economic heavyweight on the world stage, however increasing tensions with China and the continued worrying behaviour of North Korea has seen moves towards a more forceful foreign policy and controversially, a loosening of the shackles of its pacifist constitution. As with Europe its interests are largely aligned with those of the US but the changes described above could see Japan flexing a new spirit of independence in dealing with other nations, especially when it comes to preserving its national interest.
Bringing us neatly to the PRC…
As mentioned above China was a very different country during the Cold War. It was focused almost completely on domestic politics as the Communist Party embarked on a series of programmes such as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution designed to consolidate the rule of the party but which left hundreds of thousands dead. Although it was a communist state, relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated massively as the Cold War progressed which helped thaw its relations with the US. Its military was designed and organised purely for territorial defence with its navy nothing more than a coastal defence force. Its economy struggled for many years and its industrial output was weak and low tech. In 1979 a dispute with Vietnam resulted in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invading Vietnam and being defeated. As more progressive (comparatively speaking) elements came to power in China they started to make some much needed changes to the economy and to its relationships and interactions with the rest of the world. However it was the first Gulf War in 1991 that proved to be the biggest wakeup call in terms of military capability to the Chinese Politburo and a realisation of just how far behind the curve they actually were.
The militaries of the US, UK and France led the way in the defeat of the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait. They had spent the last 40 years developing the technology and tactics to engage with the Warsaw Pact armies on the inner German border and practically live on TV they demonstrated what they were capable of against a force that was equipped and organised along Warsaw Pact lines. This sparked a massive change for the PLA as they embarked on a plan to try and close the gap on the Western militaries. Over the next two decades they reorganised their land forces into smaller, more mobile formations, invested in (and copied) high performance combat aircraft from the Russians, developed (copied) their own Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) and began the process of turning the People’s Liberationa Army Navy (PLAN) into a true blue water navy with aspirations to be able to project power far outside its traditional sphere of influence. The move towards a more hybrid free market economic model enabled the PRC to engage powerfully on the global stage and is now the second biggest economy in the world and is projected to become the biggest by 2026. It has expanded its reach to markets in Africa and Asia in search of the resources it needs and has started to contribute to peace keeping operations internationally to raise its profile as a responsible actor on the world stage.
So the emergence of a multi-polar international system, albeit with the US at the head of the pack, with rising nations and the lack of two dominant opposing ideologies at a global level, would suggest that we are once more in a period of Great Power rivalry similar to the 19th and early 20th centuries. This situation was once known as the Great Game and directly led to a number of wars in that period including the First World War. In this environment states will act in opposition to each other, not out of differing ideologies, but simply to protect and advance their own interests whilst attempting to degrade the interests of any perceived opponents. A multi-polar system has inherently less stability than a bi-polar one due to the increased number of actors and variables that come into play when states are making decisions in an effort to maximise their own security. As mentioned in a bi-polar system the two powers largely cancel each other out through their dominance of the system and recognition that any direct move by either power could be destabilising to them as much as to their opponent. This cancelling out does not happen in a multi-polar system as there is greater potential variety in available actions and means of influence which results in greater chances for mistakes and miscalculations.
This characterises the current tensions between Russia and the West. In the first two decades following the end of the Cold War the Russian Federation was largely concerned with sorting out its own internal problems such as the breakaway republic of Chechnya, developing its own economy to cope in the post-communist world and struggling to find an identity that would replace the idea of the Soviet Bear. Military deployments dropped off as the military entered a period of decline in terms of investment in equipment, maintenance and training.
In the West, defence budgets fluctuated up and down but there was a near continuous investment in new technology and new capabilities. Perhaps more importantly the Western militaries amassed a large amount of practical experience in that time either through training or through deployments overseas into conflict zones. NATO, the organisation set up specifically to repel a Soviet led invasion of Western Europe controversially expanded its membership to include many ex-members of the Warsaw Pact. Even more controversially the admittance of the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia caused even more discontent from the Russians as these states were once members of the Soviet Union and resulted in NATO now reaching the Russian border.
It is prudent at this point to discuss potential drivers for Russia and its views on certain things. Is it as some would suggest a dangerous threat to the rest of Europe and those who live in its ‘near abroad’? Or is it acting out of fear of the West which has expanded its military alliance up to its borders and whose members have frequently interfered militarily in the affairs of states that it disagrees with? More simply put is Russia trying to be a big power on the block or is it responding naturally to the security dilemma? It is more likely to be a combination of both. There is no doubt that Russia under Putin is trying to recover its status as a Great Power. It is no secret that he considers the end of the Soviet Union to be a great tragedy for the Russians. It can be seen from his actions in the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine (which is an ethnic Russian majority area) that he wishes to increase Russian power and influence. On the flip side the Russians have a good cultural memory in regard to their history and that history has many occurrences of war (cold or hot) originating in its west and with members of that alliance; France, Germany, Britain and Turkey. There is a strong argument to suggest that the failure of the West to decisively engage with Russia in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and to bring them more into the fold has contributed to the situation the system is now in.
The decisions from Russia and the US led coalition to intervene militarily in the Syrian Civil War has brought us to the point where one miscalculation could lead to the opposing forces engage in an actual shooting war. There already has been conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member (although one arguably using a different playbook to the rest of the alliance at times). The shooting down of a Russian aircraft by a Turkish aircraft caused the world to take a sharp intake of breath as this was the first recorded conflict between Russia and a NATO member. This incident demonstrates the high risks of operating in such a complex environment where there are competing forces operating in all areas of a non-deconflicted battle-space.
The risky behaviour was further exacerbated in September 2016 when a coalition airstrike destroyed a position containing Syrian government forces. The coalition apologised and stated that they believed they were attacking a position held by Daesh or other radical Islamist groups. Whether the coalition did indeed make a mistake or if they “accidentally” targeted the Syrian forces in of itself is a low to medium risk. However if there had been Russian advisers at the position and they had been killed or injured we could now be in a whole different world of hurt. It is highly likely that if Russia had taken more casualties from NATO (in addition to the Turkish incident) it would have taken a much harder line going forward. The idea of a coalition imposed No Fly or No Bomb zone almost guarantees either a deliberate engagement or at best a miscalculation that could result in Russian or coalition casualties. If that does happen the chances of retribution, even in a limited form, could see the two sides move closer to a state of general war.
Western (US) prevarication in the opening period of the civil war coupled with President Obama’s pivot to the Far East either gave the impression that the mid east, or specifically Syria, was no longer a high priority for the US or that they did not have a coherent strategy for the region. This perhaps gave rise to a perception of dilly dallying or flat out incompetence, either way Russia saw an opening that would give it several advantages and took it. In conjunction with alleged cyber operations against Estonia and the US Presidential election, Russia is utilising various levers of power to exert influence in its own favour. Its intervention in Syria is enabling Russia test new (for it) capabilities such as sea launched cruise missiles, BUYAN-M corvettes and the SU-34 FULLBACK aircraft as well as regenerating older capabilities such as strategic bomber aircraft (TU-160 BLACKJACK).
[ SU-34 FULLBACK and TU-160 BLACKJACK]
The deployment gives Russian personnel much needed operational experience as reports of their performance in Georgia was less than flattering. It safeguards their naval facility in Tartus, the only Russian permanent presence in the Mediterranean as well as propping up a regime that has proved a fairly lucrative customer for Russian defence exports. Providing support for the Assad regime provides a route for Russian influence into the region, through a country that borders NATO, if of course they are successful in the war. Finally the deployment is also being used by Moscow to demonstrate to the rest of the world, but particularly the US, that it is once again a Great Power, able to exert all manner of influence overseas and to demand a level of respect it feels is due.
Although China’s drivers, expressed through the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), are largely US focused in one way or another, the US is not the only nation-state of potential concern. India, Japan and the littoral states of the South China Sea (SCS) are all potential security concerns for a variety of reasons. Competition for resources, trade markets and the Sea Lines Of Communication (SLOC) that supply them is on the increase which causes tensions to rise. The PRC’s desire to be recognised as a Great Power, especially in a military sense, has great potential to cause anxiety and conflict throughout the region.
The PRC, like any nation state, has what it considers vital national interests that lie outside of its borders. This inevitably brings states into the position of having conflicts of interest with one another. These can range from minor disagreements solved through discussion and negotiation to bigger issues that have potential to flare up into a military conflict. Competing territorial claims over the SCS between the PRC, Vietnam, Indonesia, The Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan has already led to limited and localised clashes between fisherman and maritime authorities of the various nations. The PRC lays claim to the entire SCS which would give it sovereignty over not only the SLOCs up to the Straits of Malacca but also over groups of islands such as the Spratlys and the Paracels. Control of these groups would enable the PRC to strengthen its control over the local maritime environment by building forward bases as they have been seen to be doing over the last couple of years. Furthermore it would give the PRC control over the natural resources in the area. With an expanding economy it is vital for the PRC to ensure it has access to natural resources and foreign markets. This requires development of the PLAN so that it can dominate the areas in which it operates and deter or overwhelm potential adversaries.
[One of the Spratly Islands being developed by the PRC]
The Sino-Indian relationship has been fraught with problems over the years, including the Sino-Indian Border Conflict in 1962. Although improvements have been made, there is still tension, rivalry and conflict potential. One of India’s apparent reasons for developing nuclear weapons was the potential threat posed by China. China’s relationship with Pakistan, including arms deals and support to their nuclear programme, has not helped to ease tensions. China is concerned that India wishes to become a regional hegemon something that India also suspects of China. Continued disputes over the border regions of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh/South Tibet, although currently at a very low level could easily flare if tensions increased. India is also very well placed to interdict Chinese SLOCs through the Indian Ocean. India is undergoing a revitalisation of its navy which would make the Indians second only to the USN in the Indian Ocean. This adds a further dimension for the need to develop advanced capabilities for the PLAN.
Sino-Japanese relations have a long history of hostility, dating back to the end of the 19th century. The root of the current bad feeling towards the Japanese is their actions during the invasion and subsequent war of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the most notorious event being the massacre of Nanjing in 1937. Relations with Japan present a tricky proposition for the CCP. Public sentiment is often reported as being more anti-Japanese than anti-American. The PRC is also wary of the US-Japanese alliance and sees it as part of a US containment strategy directed at China. China is also not convinced that Japan would remain uninvolved should the Taiwan situation devolve into conflict. A clear indicator of a Japanese intent to be a more forceful power would be an amendment of its pacifist constitution which prevents the deployment of military forces in most situations.
Preparing for a military confrontation with the US is perhaps the most daunting of all the security challenges that face the PRC. The power projection capabilities of the US military are unparalleled and are supported by its system of alliances and bases around the world. In the medium term the potential for conflict could rise if China’s increase in economic and military power continues. Even though the CCP maintains that its intentions are peaceful, other nations are likely to be wary and increase their own capabilities in response as per the security dilemma.
An expanding economy with a big reliance on exports demands that access routes to foreign markets remain secure and that new sources of diminishing natural resources are exploited and controlled. Inter-state rivalry and tension still remain as features of the international system. As developing powers emerge, such as India and China, the potential risk for conflict, of varying degrees of intensity, increases. Any nation seeking Great Power status needs the ability to secure its wide range of vital national interests around the globe. Since 1987 the PLAN has held aspirations to become a blue water navy with a global reach. This consists of a three stage plan based around the concept of two island chains. The first reaches from the southernmost tip of Japan, stretches south to the east of Taiwan and the west of the Philippines and forms an approximate border around the SCS. The second stretches from south of Tokyo down to Papua, Indonesia. The three phases are: (1) Sea control power within its coastal waters and a limited area denial capability out to the first island chain by the 2010 – 2020 timeframe, (2) exercising maritime influence beyond the second island chain by 2020 and (3) becoming a naval power capable of making its presence felt globally by 2050.
[Map denoting the island chains at the heart of the PLAN strategy]
Militarily resolving the PRC’s claim to the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the SCS, and enforcing its sovereignty over the SCS would present its own set of challenges. The Paracel Islands lie approximately 300km south east of the Chinese island of Hainan and are claimed by the PRC, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Spratly Islands lie approximately 900km south east of Hainan Island and are claimed by the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Although on friendly terms with the nations involved, it is unknown whether the US would intervene militarily in these disputes unless as part of some UN or coalition peacekeeping force. However if the shooting had not actually started, it may deploy naval platforms in the hope that a show of force would be enough to keep the peace. Depending on the US level of commitment this could leave the PRC in a position of only needing to defeat or deter the states mentioned above whom also claim sovereignty over the islands.
All the nations so far mentioned are claimants to either one or both groups of islands. It would be a huge error to assume that the other nations would co-operate with each other just to oppose the PRC. If the situation has devolved to the use of force, it is far more likely that each nation would seize any opportunity to gain an advantage over the other claimants. This is further complicated given that not all the nations lay claim to both island groups. It is unlikely that Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines would risk a conflict with the PRC over the Paracel Islands.
The PRC would currently struggle to achieve any of its security objectives that would bring it into a conventional conflict with the US. Although it has made many significant leaps forward it still lags a considerable distance behind the US. This is most apparent in the PRC’s C4ISTAR and power projection capabilities, however as it is developing its own capabilities which would assist in nullifying some of the US superiority in these areas such as its Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) and Anti Satellite (ASAT) programmes. In a situation where there is no firm commitment from the US on its desire to engage in a shooting war, then the PRC has the capability to be a dominant regional power. The fact that it is not at the same capability level of the US does not matter in every security challenge.
The 21st century is filled with uncertainty and the potential for conflict between nation-states, particularly as developing powers emerge such as India and China is still there. The expanding economies of these developing nations with a big reliance on exports demands that access routes to foreign markets remain secure and that new sources of diminishing natural resources are exploited and controlled. The PRC has realised that its security interests are wide ranging and are no longer limited to continental affairs and thus needs the capability to deal with these accordingly. The post-Cold War security situation on the world stage is massively complex with many inter-locking facets. It is arguably much more dangerous than during the Cold War purely because of the instability brought about by the myriad of threats that nations now face.
The US, and by proxy the West in general, had largely dominated the post-Cold War period with no one able or willing to seriously challenge them whenever they decided to act on the international stage, especially militarily. The last few years has seen that change however as Russia and China have both asserted themselves more forcefully in pursuit of their own interests which in some cases have clashed with those of the US. We are now living in a multi-polar world where nations other than the US or its allies are feeling emboldened to use their power to pursue their own interests often contrary to the norms and values that had been championed by the West since the end of the Cold War. Tensions continue to rise between those nations in different areas creating a more complex international system, one that contains increasingly advanced conventional weaponry, the addition of the cyber domain to the traditional theatres of war and perhaps more importantly one where nuclear stockpiles have not been reduced in any meaningful way to prevent the destruction of the world. We can add to this the challenges the established Western liberal democratic order has suffered recently and could continue to suffer in the near future with the final UK rejection of integration with the rest of Europe and the election of Trump to the US presidency. This creates further uncertainty on the world stage.
Although I have painted a rather gloomy picture here I don’t want everybody rushing to re-read the ‘duck n cover’ advice or buying up abandoned bomb shelters and stocking them up with non-perishable food stuffs and melee weapons. The world has always been a dangerous place and will continue to be so for a long time to come and for a lot of people they have been living happily ignorant of the dangers out there. What often happens is some event on the world stage will spark a few press reports that people read and assume that these incidents are the herald of the end of the world. I would suggest that if people had a better understanding of the ‘business as usual’ dangers we face it would help ameliorate the shock and fear generated when a media outlet starts talking about Russian war fleets heading for the UK. In the absence of a responsible press I will continue to do my part and try to bring some understanding to the world situation.
Even I don’t have all the answers however and nothing beats going away and finding things out for yourself. So go do that.
Knowledge beats fear. Mostly :-).
 Pg. 70, Evans, G & Newnham, J (1998), Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin, London
 The system was bi polar because it was dominated by two states of relatively equal power. A multi-polar system is dominated by several states which have power enough to affect change on the system. A uni-polar system is one where a single state dominates. It is arguable that the post-Cold War world was uni-polar, dominated as it was by the US.
 “The essence of the [security] dilemma is that the measures a state takes to increase its own security usually decrease the security of other state.” Mearsheimer, John J. (2001) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Norton, London
 Pg 145-6, Vadney T.E. (1992) “The World Since 1945”, Penguin, London
 MacMillan, D (2010), People’s Republic of China: Military Security Concerns & Modernisation in the 21st Century.
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 Zha, Daojiong, (2005), Comment: can China rise?, Review of International Relations, Vol. 31, pp. 775-785, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (Pg. 775)
 Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Accquistion, Reconaissance – C4ISTAR