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Russian De-Escalation in Syria and the Future Shape of the Middle East

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Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle-East after the failure of the policy initiated in 2009 of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in order to isolate and destroy Hezbollah, was grasped by the Iranians with both hands. They were quick to reinforce Assad as their guarantee of their link with Hezbollah’s territories in Southern Lebanon. Qasim Suleimani, the supreme commander of Iranian strategy in the Arab world, visited Moscow covertly in August 2015. He studied the possibilities with the Russians of redressing the situation in Syria, and this Vladimir Putin quickly saw as an opportunity to reinforce the Russian navy base in Tartus, as well as acquire a new airbase near Latakia.

The DAESH/ISIL threat was used by Putin as an excuse for the prospective intervention to give to the Americans and Europeans, who were in no position to put up resistance to the idea. Russia decided on its action under the guise of joining the ‘fight against terror’ full-time and the US, facing the contradictions inherent in its policies in the Middle-East, had no choice but to welcome the idea.

The collapse of US foreign policy in the Middle-East

A US plan had been in place for régime change in Syria ever since 2006, in order to break the Iran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis by proxy, with the help of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in fomenting sectarian divisions in the country (Assange 2015: 267). Hezbollah was a central piece of Iran’s strategy of asymmetric warfare across the region, and a prime example of Iran’s cultivation of ideologically-motivated militias, of which the Houthis in Yemen and the Badr brigades in Iraq would be other examples, to extend its influence. Hezbollah had demonstrated itself to be a formidable opponent against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War, launching thousands of rockets into Israel territory during the conflict and surviving a ferocious air attack by what was supposed to be one of the world’s most powerful air forces.

By the time Barak Obama became President in 2009 and Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State, the policy was formally articulated to topple Assad and install a régime in his place, using jihadi forces. When Hillary Clinton was revealed by WikiLeaks saying that donors in Saudi Arabia constituted the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide (Wikileaks Embassy Cables: 30Dec2009), this was not to be a prelude for dismantling these connections, but for gaining control of them to serve the new Obama doctrine of achieving the same imperial aims which had eluded G W Bush II, only this time by proxy (DOD Aug2012).

In 2009, Inderjeet Parmar predicted that Obama’s foreign policy wouldn’t differ much from that of G W Bush, irrespective of his much-vaunted vocal opposition to the Iraq War and his Senate vote against the ‘Petraeus surge’ in 2004. Parmar wrote that the liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party’s Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) – often known as Clinton’s think tank – were at one with neo-conservatives from the Iraq War onwards, and  demanded that America “rally the forces of freedom and democracy around the world to defeat [the] new menace and build a better world” (Parmar 2009: 4).

But just as the democracy-promotion myth would be shown up to be the malformed abortion that it was under Bush when Hamas won their elections in Gaza 2006, US policy in Syria would soon have face up to the fact that the Muslim Brothers would become a major player in the Syrian National Congress (SNC), the Syrian opposition group established in Istanbul in 2012. It was Hillary Clinton who killed off any chance of making a success of the SNC because of her outright opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, calling the it a waste of time and a mere ‘talking-shop’. The U.S. State Department’s policy opposition to the freely and fairly elected Egyptian Muslim Brothers would also later become clear (House Foreign Affairs Committee 29Oct2013), consistent with Jason Browlee’s assessment of overall US policy against the Muslim Brothers of “keeping critics of their [U.S.] Middle-eastern policies out of power” (Brownlee 2012: 10).

Once again, the Emperor had no clothes. Democracy and freedom was clearly not the principle on which the US could conduct itself abroad in any systematic way. These contradictions would short-circuit spectacularly with the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013, when Obama showed himself unwilling to act even on his own red lines with respect to Assad’s crimes, now that the US had become conflicted over the need for his removal. And there is little doubt that it was Assad who committed this war crime, if one follows UN Chief Weapons Inspector Ake Sellstrom’s arguments. Israeli army sources had reported at the time that Assad’s forces had launched the heinous attack, although the irony always is with Israeli reports that they are rarely believed. Seymour Hersh, however, subsequently reported that the finger of blame should have been pointed at Turkish Intelligence, but Hersh’s single source method of reporting seems to have let him down.

The quick reaction of the Russians, anxious to protect Assad, and offering to defuse the situation by having Assad surrender his arsenal of chemical weapons, should have told us everything we needed to know at the time about the real culprit. Obama was off the hook, thanks to Putin.

The Iran Nuclear Deal

On invading Iraq, G. W. Bush had threatened Iran and Syria that they were next on his list.  Both countries understandably then backed the Sunni insurgency which scuppered the US army’s occupation. This lead to David Petraeus’ call for the 2004 surge (which Obama voted against), which eventually only succeeded through the payment of massive bribes to the Sunni tribes. As Dexter Filkins would later report in the New Yorker Magazine in 2013, Qasim Suleimani actively organised Sunni jihadi groups that became al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Assad régime in Damascus also became a staging post for European jihadis travelling to Iraq. It should hardly have been surprising when Hassan Abboud, the leader of the jihadi group Ahrar el-Sham in Syria, up until he was killed in September 2014, accused the Iranians of having created DEASH/ISIL. Assad himself would militarise the 2011 Arab Spring by releasing incarcerated jihadis from Sednaya prison into the swelling crowds of protesters.

Iran’s strategy for survival against US threats using asymmetric warfare didn’t rely only on the creation of militias around the Arab World with ideological fealty to the Iranian régime, which harked back to the policies of Shah Ismail I Safavi against the Ottomans in the 1500s. It also clearly promoted groups with opposite ideologies, as and when they were needed in order to destabilise the US hegemon’s grip on the region. Iran thus didn’t rely only on its control of the Straights of Hormuz, on developing ballistic technology, and on creating a ‘nuclear problem’, to dissuade the US from military action against it, but actually also posed a serious region-wide threat through its octopus-like presence across the region.

Clearly, Iranian policy succeeded, which is why by March 2013 Obama had begun conducting secret negotiations with Iran in order to unwind the ‘nuclear problem’. The current shape of the Middle-East can be said to have resulted in large measure from Iran’s strategy during the years of siege. Iran in its new phase, on the other hand, faces the entirely new problem of how to deal with the consequences of its actions, in the face of Saudi Arabian reaction.

The Iran deal set a course for US-Russian relations prior to the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, which was difficult if not impossible to change. The Russians were crucial to Obama’s plans to manage Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material and central, therefore, to achieving a deal with Iran. This deal was intended by Obama to be the final legacy of his second term in office. In any event, whatever other problems such as Ukraine there might have arisen in US-Russia relations, both powers always have had the common interest of working to monopolise nuclear power and to control its proliferation. Russia entered Syria confident that the US couldn’t object.

The Russian interest in Syria

The Russian interest in Syria is entirely a matter of energy policy, which required developing a strong military presence in Syria. The Tartus naval base would need to be complemented with the new Latakia airbase whilst, in order to fully reinforce the new air capacity for the long term, the airbase would need to be equipped with its state of the art S-400 air defence system. This would give it unquestioned air superiority in the region.

However, the S-300 and the S-400 have been the subject of much diplomatic manoeuvring by the US and Israel over the years. It would have been difficult to justify transferring this system to Syria in normal circumstances, and some kind of military escalation on the conventional front would be necessary to provide the grounds for such a move. The constant incursions into Turkish airspace by Russian warplanes during October/November 2015, together with ferocious airstrikes against Turcoman tribesmen seem to have been devised to solicit a reaction from the Turks and thus enable Russia to act as it wished. The result sought was forthcoming when the Turks downed a Russian warplane on November 24, during yet another incursion into Turkish airspace.

No other possible explanation exists for Russia engaging in intensive activity military activity in western Syria right on the Turkish border, 350 km away from Raqqa, the Syrian base of DAESH/ISIL, the ostensible target of the Russian campaign if Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was to be believed. Putin thus sacrificed a Russian warplane to achieve his military strategy. Claims that the warplane hadn’t violated airspace were discredited and finally put to rest in the course of Putin’s theatrics over the downed jet’s black box. The withdrawal now of the majority of Russian forces on the basis of ‘mission accomplished’, leaving behind re-equipped naval and air bases in Northern Syria, without a dent having being made in  DAESH/ISIL forces in Northern Syria, presents us with an overwhelming circumstantial confirmation of the narrow Russian objectives in Syria described here.

Although one could call the Tartus/Latakia military objective narrow, an important strategic objective results from it in respect of Russian energy strategy.

Up until the Russian incursion into Syria, Turkey had gained an important strategic position in respect of energy supplies to Europe as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and the cancellation by the EU of the South Stream gas pipeline project to Europe through Bulgaria. Turkey was open to Russia’s idea of diverting South Stream through Turkey. However, Turkey was also building the Trans-Anatolian pipeline  (TANAP) to Azerbaijan through Georgia, which would supply Turkey and Europe with Caspian and Iranian gas. Furthermore, Syria and Southern Turkey provide the main routes for the supply of oil to the refinery hub at the port of Ceyhan, from Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG). These routes would be those that would also be used for any prospective land route for pipelines carrying Qatari gas. This would become a serious competitor for Russian gas to Europe, if supplied more cheaply overland, rather than by sea using the current LNG conversion system.

The recurrent Middle-eastern nightmare thus repeats itself, as Syrian civilians killed and wounded in Russian airstrikes since September 2015 have paid the price for a foreign power’s energy strategy. Russia has sought in the period up to the current disengagement to apply leverage to Turkish decision-making on energy flow to Europe, standing as it does now in the way of the close Turkish Qatari alliance becoming realised in the form of an overland gas pipeline, and even warning Israel over a possible rapprochement with Turkey, which would see yet another source of gas open up for Turkey. The Russian intent so to encircle Turkey was not only evident in its Syria policy, which included support for the Syrian-Kurdish (PYD) branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), plainly and actively involved in terrorist action in Turkey at the time, but also in openly reinforcing its Armenian  military base at Gyumri with a squadron of attack helicopters, to shadow the development of TANAP.

It is clear, however, that the energy trading hub that Turkey represents is only half the story. The current price of energy is a major problem and Russia’s economy is in recession as a result of a combination of EU sanctions, and the sharp drop in government revenues resulting from oil and gas prices.

It isn’t enough for Russia to ensure priority for its gas transfers through Turkey through its strong-arm tactics. It is also necessary for it to try to manage the energy markets in order to organise an orderly rise in prices, for which coming to an agreement with Saudi Arabia is an absolute necessity. The current disengagement in Syria was a foregone conclusion ever since energy negotiations began with Saudi Arabia in early February. Leaving Assad now to his own devices, although in a stronger position than had been, is a precursor to an important state visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose policy is unbendingly one of removing Assad from power. Russia’s disengagement was a condition of improving relations with Saudi Arabia.

The current oil and gas markets are clearly problematic for producers. Although downward price movements in these markets are traditionally reinforced by increased production as producers seek to capture more revenue, and although the US shale overhang will remain in place for decades to come to form a price ceiling for these markets, it is clear that Russia and Saudi Arabia see the possibility for collaboration on achieving a middle-of-the-road solution from their perspective within the shadow of the shale overhang somewhere around the $50-$60 p/b range. This is significant, as it would represent almost a doubling of current prices.

It is crucial for these calculations that Iranian energy production policy can now by influenced by Russia and that Iraq in turn can be influenced by Iran, contrary to the judgement of some analysts. Not only does the new regional political set-up permit a scenario where Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq cooperate, it makes eminent commercial sense for them to do so.

The future shape of the Middle-East

The new phase will have crucial implications for political developments in the region, especially in regard to the Kurdish question. The head of steam that the PKK and YPD built up as a result of the possibilities for them to exploit the Syrian chaos to their advantage has not only clearly unsettled Turkey, but also Iran. Just as Turkey seeks to maintain the integrity of the Syrian state in order to avoid increasing secessionist demands by Turkish Kurds, Iran has always sought to maintain the integrity of the Iraqi state to avoid just such a fate with respect to its own Kurds. The Russian rapprochement with Iran culminating in the Syrian intervention is now strained because of Russian backing of the PKK/YPD in the context of its encirclement policy of Turkey, setting off processes which Iran views with horror.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has in fact formally pursued a policy of democratic pluralism ever since 2009, when the Kurdish language was accepted as an official language in the educational system, and Kurdish culture promoted across schools and universities with the launch of new degree courses. The Turkish political process also became wide open to Kurdish parties, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (HDP) in fact made substantial gains in the first of the two sets of parliamentary elections that took place in 2015 (June). This, however, did not stop the PKK from engaging in a series of violent acts of terror, and the HDP to publicly back these actions, with the aim of achieving an independent state under its rule in South-Eastern Turkey.

The PKK and the HDP are unlikely to succeed in their efforts. With the second set elections in 2015 (October), and after the PKK had aggressively re-launched its terror campaign, two million Kurdish voters instantly switched allegiance from the HDP to the AKP, with the AKP ending up with well over three times the number of Kurdish MPs than the HDP. What, therefore, will defeat extremism in Turkey is an open democratic system and a fast-growing liberal economy that seems to be able to absorb even millions of Syrian refugees into its cities (three-quarters of these refugees are housed in towns and cities and only a quarter in camps). This capacity is not necessarily available in Iran as its polity is currently constituted. Therefore, although Turkey is suffering terribly from the effects of the Syrian civil war, fomented originally by US foreign policy decisions and then exacerbated by US foreign policy indecision, it is a country which is more likely than Iran to return to a state of peaceful growth. Iran, faced now with its new opening, will have to deal with a whole host of problems that this will bring.

In addition, Iran has to deal with the Saudi Arabian reaction to the past policies of regional militia-promotion, no longer appropriate to the new phase. The Rouhani régime is particularly embarrassed by the recent fall from grace of Hezbollah on the Arab street, changing as it has done from Arab hero to regional pariah, as a result of its support of the Assad régime, and it role in the particularly gruesome siege of Madaya and the starving of its people.

Implicit in the Russian disengagement implicitly is an acceptance of the new difficulties that will begin to beset its Iranian ally. Continued intervention in Syria would also damage its own prospects for limiting the spread of DAESH/ISIL through a pro-Kurdish stance, as Sunni rebels began to threaten to make common cause with DAESH/ISIL against a coalition of Assad and Kurdish forces. The fluidity of the jihadi phenomenon means that such a policy will backfire on Russia itself as DAESH/ISIL enters Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Clearly supporting the integrity of all states in the region, especially Syria, and putting its weight behind a political solution, is seen by Russia now as the only way of eradicating the extremism.

Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the three powers that will determine the future of the region east of Suez, and all three are committed to the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia will clearly differ as to the nature of the régime that should rule in each capital, however. The likely result of this is likely a stalemate, with the situation de juro in each country showing a different de facto reality on the ground. This will not be to the disadvantage of those three powers, who will each have their clients and their spheres of influence, more than likely displacing the traditional influence of the US, UK and France, in Syria and Iraq.

In contrast with these prospects for the region east of Suez, great uncertainty will continue to cloud the future of Egypt and Libya. While Egypt was put under the rule of a strongman in order to protect Israeli interests, and democracy scuppered, like everything else in the region that the US has done in this century, the eventual outcome will be the opposite of what is intended. The descent of the country into economic and financial chaos, and the rise of extremism as a result of the persecution of moderates, could have consequences far worse than the experience in Syria so far unless the moderates return to power. There is no other option: all the ageing cadres surrounding the Egyptian régime have become as threadbare are the country itself, and could not possibly redress its economy.

The greatest disservice the US has done to its policy of dictator-promotion is to have completely discredited the military as a political and even as a technocratic actor on the Egyptian stage. It is only the arrogance of US and Israeli élites that makes them unable to see that the descent of Egypt on their watch into what can only be described as a circus, and a bloody one at that, will backfire on them.

Omar Kassem can be reached through his website at http://different-traditions.com/

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