Pichon places the Syrian war within an international context in flux. As he notes early on, the Syrian crisis has been both catalytic for and revelatory of an unprecedented upset of the world order. In this sense, it is much more than a mere extension of the Arab uprisings. The West is seen as gawking at this turmoil in a state of paralysis, trapped in both actions and words. The impression is ineluctable that the contours of this new order elude it. Russia and China stand at antipodal vantage points: they view this novel order as an opportunity to do away with the scourge of unilateralism. And while Europe fails to come up with a lucid analysis on chaos ‘a few hours flight’ from the continent’s heart, it engages in a peculiar sort of intellectual mendacity: it opposes Russia because the latter refuses to conform to its post-historic, post-tragic vision of the world. In light of this, Russia’s use of force in the Syrian conflict is shocking; for almost three decades, war has been a western perquisite.
This state of affairs is not without its upside: for Europe, the opportunity presents itself for a redefinition of its strategic role and its self-conceptualization. It is not explicitly stated, but Pichon also hints at the need for a rethink of the transatlantic relationship. He exhorts France to stop having eyes only for Washington and to reflect deeper on regional dynamics. If not, even if seemingly bordering on hyperbole, the country is deemed to run the risk of becoming the ‘last neoconservative capital of the Western world’. The Occident is not spared either: Pichon castigates the excessive moralization of Russian backing of the Syrian regime, the inability to learn from past mistakes, and the complete severance of all communication channels with the Syrian regime, with the exception of the Czech Republic, the only country that still has an embassy in Damascus.
Pichon is level-headed enough to tread a fine line vis-à-vis a very complex issue; his criticism is that of a clear-eyed, rational thinker who states the obvious and takes it as the analysis’ starting point. Moral judgements are eschewed in favour of a clearly articulated pragmatism. Thus, Russian efforts in Syria are seen as an attempt to avoid another Libya (in the end a good thing for Europe too). He marvels at French illusions of promoting ‘local structures of governance’ as late as 2017 or at notions of supporting reconstruction only in rebel-held zones.
The author devotes an entire chapter to Russia and Iran. Although not explicitly stated, it is evident that he does so in order to shed some light on the actions of the Syrian regime’s most important backers. Russian actions are viewed through a double prism: the keenness to avoid the repetition of a Libyan scenario and as an opportunity to project and put its military might to the test. For Putin, the Syrian crisis has been a qualitative leap: it has been an ideal occasion for testing the efficiency of new military technology while ensuring a major role for Russia in the remodelling of the Near East. And all that against the background of seeking to guarantee the country’s access to the Mediterranean’s hot waters and ports. Putin’s strategy in Syria is paid a subtle compliment: apart from being the only actor able to talk to everyone, Russia’s Syria policy amounts to a coherent strategy with clear objectives and appropriate means to attain them. Like Russia, and in light of the nuclear deal, Iran is also seeking to upgrade its regional and international role. Interestingly enough however, the author finds no place for theories of a ‘Shiite arc’; Iran’s project has stronger political overtones. And this notion is further strengthened by another idea: that late into his term President Obama aimed to use a rehabilitated Iran to counterbalance what are seen as the decreasingly reliable Gulf Sunni powers.
In possibly the book’s most trenchant chapter, Pichon returns to the question of France’s Middle East policy. The latter is placed in a continuum dating back to de Gaulle’s ‘Arab policy’. Far from a coherent strategy, the ‘Arab policy’ was rather one of ‘catching up’ with the Arab world between the 1956 and 1967 wars. In the same vein, France’s Middle East policy today is painted as a ‘succession of often symbolic initiatives’. And when some substance can indeed be found, it is more often than not due to pecuniary motives. Turning a blind eye to Qatar’s support for radical Islamists abroad, France has become a hub of Qatari Foreign Direct Investment. In May 2015, former President François Hollande was the guest of honour at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit, in recognition of his support for the oil monarchies’ stance vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program, talks on Bashar al-Assad’s future and the exclusion of Iran from negotiations on the Syrian conflict. Behind France’s foreign policy alignments, Pichon discerns the role of a neoconservative lobby that attaches great value to the maintenance of France’s nuclear deterrence (and by extension to Iran’s non-proliferation too).
The book concludes with a discussion of the next day after the defeat of ISIS. Pichon pointedly reminds that this defeat is only the beginning. The pressing questions remain with equal force: first, what to do with returning fighters. Second, how to engage with countries responsible for inflating Wahhabism/Salafism in the region. The author prioritizes Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Finally, the contours of Syria’s future reconfiguration remain an enigma; in light of its territorial cantonization and emergent dynamics, the author pronounces Baathism dead. American policy, a ‘total failure’ under Obama, is far from predictable. Yet it’s the past and the present that shed light on the future. More for the layman than the scholar, Pichon’s book is a good summation of how we got to the present state of affairs. If ever there was a war for nothing, Syria could very well be its epitome.
For our interview with the author follow this link Interview with Frédéric Pichon, Syrie, une guerre pour rien (Les Éditions du Cerf, 2017).