Why we got it wrong on Syria and Ukraine

This week has no shortage of grim anniversaries in terms of the news. The Syrian conflict has just entered its fifth year, and it’s been one year since Russia annexed Crimea, without anyone being able to stop said annexation. But dig a little deeper and both these crises seem to have common themes: our Western leaders badly misjudged both situations.

At the height of the Syrian civil war, with front-page headlines on how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was killing his own people, Western leaders repeated en masse that he had to go. But some, more foolishly, predicted that he actually would go. "I'm confident that Assad will go," said US President Barack Obama in March 2013. "It's not a question of if, but when."

Well, four years after the start of the Syrian uprising, and with 215,000 people killed, Assad is still there. Clearly, our Western leaders sorely underestimated the Syrian dictator, his grip on power and the importance of his allies. Needless to say, the decision not to intervene against the regime in September 2013 did not help. Today, the Islamic State group jihadists have gained so much ground that some politicians are now openly suggesting we talk to Assad, who has become the lesser evil. Such a scenario would have appeared implausible just a few years back.

The crisis in Ukraine is similar. Nobody foresaw that the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich a year ago would result in Russia annexing Crimea and invading the east of Ukraine (Moscow denies the latter). Last month, a damning report by Britain’s House of Lords EU committee claimed that Europe "sleepwalked" into the crisis in Ukraine. It accused the UK and EU of a "catastrophic misreading" of the mood in the Kremlin. This time, Western leaders completely failed to grasp Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, i.e. his stubborn refusal to “lose” Ukraine to the West. According to the report, the EU's relationship with Moscow had for too long been based on the "optimistic premise" that Russia was on a path to becoming a democratic country. That turned out to be a costly mistake. The conflict in Ukraine has now claimed over 6,000 lives and brought armed conflict to Europe’s doorstep.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The pair are close allies. Photos: AFP

To be fair, such excessive optimism is nothing new. At the outbreak of World War I, the belligerents on both sides actually believed that the war would be over in a matter of weeks. How wrong they were: it would drag on for over four years, wiping out almost an entire generation of young men. And let’s not forget perhaps the most flagrant example in history of us “getting it wrong”: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, after signing the Munich Agreement in 1938, declared that he had obtained “peace for our time”. We all know what happened less than a year later: Hitler invaded Poland, sparking the most deadly conflict the world has ever known.

There is a neat expression in English for this type of naïve, unjustified optimism. It is “wishful thinking”. In other words, we believe something because we want to believe it. The same principle applies whether we are dealing with dastardly dictators abroad or continuing to believe in a doomed relationship at home. In each case, it’s easy to be wise after the event.

Similarly, naivety is not confined to international relations. Remember all those pundits who proclaimed that the creation of the internet would end conflict and bring about world peace? Well, you guessed it, the opposite happened. The internet is a dream come true for extremists in general and Islamic extremists in particular.

In conclusion, Western naivety is no doubt partly to blame for us misreading the crises in Syria and Ukraine, and the protagonists in question. So what should our leaders do? Brush up on their Machiavelli? Well, that would probably be a good start. But let’s face it: wishful thinking is human nature. And yes, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
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It isn't about "wishful thinking" on the part of Obama...it is shear stupidity from a guy who is just a community organizer with no, NO, international experience and surrounds himself with advisors with NO international experience. He talks the talk but cannot walk the walk! But a well done article and right on point.
A succinct and accurate summary, Caroline. I'm happy to loan President Hollande my copy of "The Prince".
Yes, most of it was 'wishful thinking.' The US goal was to get rid of President Assad and then get rid of the Russian military base in Syria in order to balkanise the country so that Israel could later steal it piece by piece because its land borders would be very questionable. But of course, the Americans did not count on Putin coming back into power. Russia is the real reason Assad is still in power not Iran. The silly Americans have been sanctioning the wrong country for the past decade. And if Israel really is worried about nuclear weapons stopping its empire building scheme, well the Russians have enough nukes to take out the planet and they could definitely take out Dimona, Israel's nuclear weapons facility, which would be their first target. The rest of Israel would be Russia's 2nd target! Most of the English speaking west has been watching their American friends the way you watch a drunken chum repeatedly fall blindly into the gutter, you hope they will make it home safely but of course you don't say anything in case you make them annoyed.
Naïveté appears to be the hallmark of Hollande and Merkel when negotiating with Putin. Anouther term also comes to mind is gullible. They both stand in the way of NATO Countries who would help Ukraine while they pursue a peace Putin will not observe until he has Europe under his domination.
How true these conclusions are! Western naivety is deeply embedded in our character. That is why westerners have wishfully believed that Russia will become a democratic country. Let’s accept the fact that it cannot happen, Russian people have no experience with democracy. They would have to first be curious about democracy. Then they would have to conclude that democracy is better than autocracy, rather than dismissing it outright as some experimental “western whim”.
There is very important factor the West and, most importantly, protesters in Ukraine forgot or/and didn’t consider carefully; impact to security of Russia. Now that Crimea has been annexed, one should need to ask why Russia decided to annex Crimea instead of influencing Crimea as part of frozen conflict that it has been doing for last 20 years in Georgia and Moldavia; and which now Russia is trying in Eastern Ukraine. So the question everyone should have asked was what makes Crimea so important to Russia compare to other frozen conflict areas? The answer is that losing Crimea immediately affect Russia security. Historically Russia lacked one key military capability that limits its ability to depend; lack of warm port. Remember that one of compensations US offered to Russia to attack Japan during WWII was a warm port. By losing Crimea and with uncertainty in Syria (where Russia had a naval port), Russia is practically left with only one warm port Kaliningrad which is actually located between Lithuania and Poland, not in Russia. Moreover losing Crimea means the naval security gap in middle of Russia; remember that the main base of Russia’s black sea fleet is in Crimea and that there is no naval port available in black sea region of Russia which can house Black Sea fleet yet (the proposed new naval port at Novorossiysk is still incomplete and currently only hosts small number of ships). In other words, losing Crimea unexpectedly means Black Sea fleets suddenly finding itself no place to go; which translates to huge naval security gap for Russia in the middle of country. When we, in every country, elect a leader we expect him/her to their best and do whatever is necessary to protect the country’s security; Putin did.

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