In Syria, the US attempts at regime change hit a brick wall for a number of reasons that were either ignored or difficult to foresee by the Obama administration when the decision was first made to foment chaos in a previously mostly placid Syria. The following such issues that were either overlooked or ignored at the time:
1. Unlike Libya which in early 2011 was abandoned by its long time Russian partner, Russia had a strategically located naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus. Whilst the base had been neglected for many decades, the fact is that Russia had it and as Russia has always had the strategic necessity of maintaining a warm water base outside of the Black Sea, it eventually dawned on policy makers in Moscow that in order to protect the naval base at Tartus, the Russian armed forces would have to secure stability in Syria.
2. The US clearly underestimated Iran’s ability to simultaneously negotiate the JCPOA with the Obama administration and mobilise its armed constituents in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon against forces of regime change in Syria. Whilst the JCPOA was signed in 2015, throughout the negotiation process, Iran was giving top class combat training to both Syrian soldiers and mostly Shi’a Arab volunteers from Syria, Lebanon and Iraq who ended up proving their merit in battle more effectively than militants backed by Washington.
3. The US furthermore underestimated that whist Turkey is a member of NATO, under the leadership of President Erdoğan, Turkey’s foreign policy has become incredibly independent of any bloc or partner nation. As such, the more time progressed, the more Turkey and the US reached in impasse over Syria. By passively facilitating the attempted FETO coup against Turkey in 2016 whilst simultaneously arming and funding the YPG/PKK in north-eastern Syria, Obama was relying on Erdoğan to fall or become weakened, instead Erdoğan became stronger and more determined than ever and as such stood up to Obama’s antics before ultimately seeing Obama off.
4. The US under Obama discarded the fact that due to the extreme anti-Islamic sentiments among the US right that was quietly surging in America before Donald Trump gave the modern right-wing a front line voice, the optics of the war in Syria turned the American right anti-war as they began to see the battle in Syria as one of a European looking secular leader (Assad) against the forces of political Islam.
Donald Trump quite rightly identified some of these issues when he inherited Obama’s war in Syria. This is one of the reasons why Trump has not instructed US troops to attack Iranian assets in Syria whilst Trump has also effectively refrained from challenging Russia in Syria in any significant way. Trump has also at long last compromised with Turkey on a win-win basis in respect of north-eastern Syria. At the same time, by telling his right wing supporters that in pulling out of Syria he has kept an election promise, his credibility among those who strangely linked Assad with the American anti-Islamic right feel validated by the US President that they continue to support.
And yet throughout Trump’s passive facilitation of Turkey, Iran and Russia’s growing role in Syria, he was accused by his domestic critics of being a “puppet” of the Russian government whilst Trump continues to be investigated by Robert Mueller in respect of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
For someone like Trump who is clearly a prideful person who wants himself and his nation to be top dog – this simply wouldn’t do. Thus, rather than meddle in a Middle East that is increasingly looking to the non-Arab powers of western Eurasia for strategic leadership, Trump went back to good old fashioned meddling against classic leftist governments in Latin America.
Compared to occupying Iraq, occupying Afghanistan, managing post-Gaddafi Libya and trying to counter multiple powers in Syria – overthrowing a left wing Latin American government is a proverbial walk in the park for an American military-intelligence complex that has been overthrowing leftist Latin American governments for over a century.
But whilst Trump will be able to appeal to the still strong right-wing anti-communist base in the USA by proclaiming himself an enemy of socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, there is a far more important psychological and geopolitical aspect to Trump meddling in Venezuela.
In respect of Syria, many official and many semi-official voices in Russian politics have accurately taken credit for preserving the rule of Bashar al-Assad, even though on the record, Russian officials are careful to point out that their mandate in Syria was to fight terror groups rather than to prop up the son of the USSR’s old friend Hafez al-Assad. But in reality, official and semi-official Russian media outlets are quick to point out that Russia more or less saved Assad from either being toppled or killed and for most in Russia, this is seen as an accomplishment of which to be proud.
But it is at this point where the folly of pride might effect Russia in respect of Venezuela as much as it effected Obama’s USA in respect of Syria. Just today, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that it does not require an investigation by Robert Mueller to determine that the US is openly meddling in Venezuela’s affairs by recognising a self-proclaimed “president” as Venezuela’s head of state. Although this is both a witty and accurate statement, there is a subtext that exposes something that Russia would ostensibly want ignored.
While Lavrov is clearly a clever man, by linking Venezuela with Mueller, he has actually fallen into the trap that Trump has set for him. Donald Trump is keenly aware that no foreign power, including Russia or China can realistically save Maduro from the US military, CIA or other hybrid coup methods including a Syria style insurgency and this is why Trump wants to prove in Venezuela that he is both able to destroy a Russian partner in the way Obama could not do in Syria (hence Trump is the opposite of a Russian puppet), whilst also showing that under Trump, the US is optically more powerful than it was under Obama. This is a clear triple whammy for Trump. By doing to Venezuela what many of his predecessors had so easily done to other Latin American countries, the US President gets to ‘show Putin who is top dog’, ‘show Mueller that whilst Obama could not defeat a Russian partner – Trump can’ and lastly, Trump gets to prove to his base that unlike Obama, he can accomplish his goals.
While geography and a Russian naval base was on Assad’s side in respect of luring Russia into the Syria conflict, for Maduro, everything is working against him whilst precedent shows that more often than not, whatever the US wants in Latin America – the US gets in Latin America.
Because of this, Russians proclaiming the end of the era of US regime change and those in the media who echoed these claims, spoke far too soon. Whilst the US can cause a lot of havoc in the geographically distant Middle East, even in the age of a Syria conflict that demonstrate the fact that US regime change operations have their limits in the Middle East, the same is not true of Russia or China in respect of Latin America. In Latin America, Russia and China cannot do much militarily without risking a nuclear world war that no one wants.
Thus, while the US has weakened a Syria that bent but did not break and while the US successfully fomented regime change in Ukraine – a country literally named for being on Russia’s borderlands, no one and nothing can save the Venezuelan government unless unity among Venezuela’s own armed forces can somehow convince the US to put on the brakes. In other words, the US can still meddle more easily in nations near to the borders of China and Russia, than Russia or China can realistically defend a partner in the Americas.
In this sense, Trump has been able to restore his pride by demonstrating that far from being “Putin’s puppet”, he has embarrassed those who claimed that he was, whilst simultaneously embarrassing those who claimed that because of Putin’s relationship with Bashar al-Assad, the era of US led regime change is over. Such people did not count on Latin American leftests being too military and economically weak to defend against the United States and they also did not count on Trump being no one’s puppet but that of his own ego.
Whilst Russian leaders are walking a fine-line between supporting their Venezuelan partner with strong rhetoric and setting themselves up for embarrassment, China has by contrast been far more rhetorically mild in its support for its Venezuelan partner.
Perhaps this is because China knows something that most in Russia are reticent to admit – Maduro has the odds stacked against him and China is very self-aware of its own limitations in respect of throwing him a lifeline. Russia by contrast has relied too much on the legacy of Syria to realise that there is nothing any military power can do to stop the USA in its vast western hemisphere. In this sense, Cuba was the exception which continues to prove the rule.
This is not to say that illegal regime change is ever good, it is clearly always wrong. But this does not negate the reality that in some cases, illegal regime change is unstoppable.