Saturday, 19 September 2015

France's Civilising Mission in Syria and the Evil Russian Bear

'... the message that Vladimir Putin has been sending out as he prepares to take the stage at the UN general assembly later this month: let’s all ally ourselves with Bashar al-Assad – the Syrian president may be a murderous thug, but we shouldn’t let that stand in our way'.
Natalie Nougayrède urges 'the West', as supremely represented by France and its civilising mission at home and abroad not to play Putin's cynical power game in Syria after he intervened to supply Damascus with weapons and Russian military personnel, as well as strengthening air bases on the Eastern Mediterranean.
On the contrary, the West should have taken the moral high ground by bombing Assad's state and military in 2013 and so enable ISIS to roam freely across Damascus and murdering hundreds of thousands of Alawites and Christians because, when France acts, it does so for the loftiest of all intentions.
While claiming Putin's diplomatic intervention in 2013 allowed Obama to "wriggle out of commitment to air strikes" against Assad, after a chemical weapons attack that has not been conclusively proved as the work of Syrian state forces, Nougayrède then sententiously cautions and chides the reading public,
'...let’s put aside naive and wishful thinking. There is no credible sign that Putin is ready to overthrow or replace Assad. Nor was there ever a serious Russian intention to do so, at any point. In the summer of 2012, when the big powers met in Geneva to discuss a Syrian national unity government, Russia made sure that this would not entail Assad’s departure. Russia has consistently shielded the Syrian president – not out of any love for him, but because, after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, he represents Russia’s last foothold in the Middle East: and its best chance to demonstrate western fickleness'.
Western 'lack of resolve' and 'Syria fatigue' may well be surprising. Since 2012 President Hollande seems to have had a remarkable amount of energy in clinching lucrative arms deals with Qatar as a way of ingratiating himself with the gas rich emirate, securing LNG supplies, investments in French housing and infrastructure.
The French embrace of the Gulf state that has, along with Saudi Arabia bankrolled Sunni jihadists, as they butcher and crucify their way through Syria, may not be clear as a humanitarian stance before rest of the world. After all, the call 'Assad must go' was led by Qatar and France in the 2012 Friends of Syria Group.
Convened by Nicolas Sarkozy, a would-be new Napoleon, the 'Friends of Syria' was backed by other states whose record of 'democracy promotion' is not so apparent, most notably Saudi Arabia whose Wahhabi state is a decadent version of the ferocious and militant 'Islamic State' emerging in Syria and Iraq.
The idea that Russia's attempt to shore up Assad is causing the Gulf states to fund groups such as Al Nusra and groups affiliated to Al Qaida is not borne out by facts. The Gulf states and France had geopolitical agendas of their own in demanding 'Assad must go', such as the prospect of a Qatar-Turkey pipeline.
Russia's decision to prop up Assad has no comparisons to Kissinger's use of the Khmer Rouge as a “counterweight” to North Vietnam. If anything, it has more in common with Turkey's President Erdogan's tacit and covert help for ISIS, the Islamist version of Pol Pot's revolutionaries, as a counterweight to the PKK Kurds.
But, of course, Nougayrède's selective moral outrage against Russia and Assad ignores what Turkey has been getting up to because it does not fit what can only be called a propaganda mould, in which Putin and Russia are clear evil and France stands out as a potential beacon of "our values" in the world.
For, after all, Turkey is also in NATO and another 'Friend of Syria'. So Erdogan's shady role in Syria has to be downplayed or ignored and put into the Orwellian memory hole while Russia's attempt to bolster Assad is regarded as the height of cynical Kissinger style, Cold War realpolitik.
This is convenient when the aim is to pretend that there is a New Cold War that Russia has started so as to use the moral impetus of the NATO and Western cause against totalitarianism as part of an uplifting propaganda drive that screens out all mention of Western energy geopolitics and interests.
Either the Qatari or the Iranian pipeline would have traversed Iraq and then Syria; it is not just who would get one built but the need to block the other in getting one and so both asserting their regional influence from the Persian Gulf through to the Eastern Mediterranean.
No war, not least a conflict as complicated as Syria's war, is ever only about just one thing such as oil or pipelines. But the geopolitics of energy flows is absolutely crucial in  understanding the stakes in Syria as far as the interests of the competing regional and global powers are actually concerned.
The jihadi movements are effectively funded by dysfunctional Gulf states as they turn a blind eye to it and so give their tacit assent to it. Geopolitical interests aside, for Saudi Arabia in particular it is ever more important to divert internal discontent with a rentier regime outwards towards the Shi'ites and Iran.
The difficulty is that, apart from antagonising Shia Saudis living in some of the main oil producing regions towards the borders with Bahrain, it conjures up the competition from ISIS which is going to exploit Sunni Shi'ite enmities to ratchet up their apocalyptic end-time jihad across the region.
However, religious identity politics is connected to regional power political rivalries between Iran and the Gulf states as well as with Turkey as Erdogan attempts to play 'diaspora politics' in using Sunni Arabs and Turkic peoples in Central Asia and Western China as counters in a geopolitical great game.
The pursuit of power is interconnected with the control of energy flows and pipeline routes not only because of worldwide rapid industrialisation in developing nations. It is also one formidable tool in coercing adversaries diplomatically by threatening their economies if they grow too assertive.
Prating gasbags such as Edward Lucas, in his abysmal The New Cold War, are always ready lambast Russia for doing this, as it indeed does. Yet it is not only Russia but the US and Western powers that are prepared to 'wield the oil weapon' as a form of reconfiguring Great Power relations for their own benefit.
Naturally French politicians and columnists for Le Monde would identify their cause to overthrow evil autocrats with that of all humanity because 'we are the world' and France's identity is bound up with the liberation of certain worthy oppressed peoples everywhere where there exist much coveted resources.
But, in reality, France operates as a state much like many others with pretensions to global power such as Russia, especially in being at the forefront of vying for lucrative bilateral arms ties that enhance their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East where once it rivaled Britain for influence.
Consequently, windbag columnists are apt to project onto other powers such as Russia all the evils that their own state is engaged in doing constantly because it makes them feel good and because they are willingly blind to what France does as a 'Global Player' as they want to believe it is 'better' than Russia.
Hypocrisy is probably an unavoidable part of global power politics. Yet there comes a time when the inability to look in the mirror and see that what France has done is not greatly different from Russia with its constant rival vying for arms deals with General Sisi in Egypt and supporting his new 'war on terror'.
So, despite Nougayrède's earnest entreaties to not play Putin's Great Game in Syria, France is already playing that game in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb and Levant as no less of a player itself. Putin's move is just one more in a general geostrategic game of chess on the regional and global chessboard.
France's geopolitical ambitions in bombing ISIS and removing Assad to expedite a reassertion of its power in its former mandate land of Syria are apiece with the solid backing for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in using lethally destructive air power to crush the Shi'ite Houthis in neignbouring Yemen.
The reason, apart from oil and weapons deals, is preventing the prospect that Iran could assert decisive influence over the strategic chokepoint of Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Suez Canal ( and the new one supported by France ) with the Persian Gulf, in addition to the Straits of Hormuz.
However, the Saudi air strikes are killing thousands of civilians and involve the use of cluster munitions which are a savage way of killing civilians that very much rival Assad's deadly barrel bombs in Syria. However, Nougayrède appears to have been curiously very silent about these atrocities for some reason.
In May 2015, Hollande jetted into Riyadh to sign a $7 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia as part of its utmost commitment to a renewed 'war on terror'. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubei made plain that Paris had a special and mutually beneficial partnership with the Saudis against the Iranian threat.
“We have common views with regard to the challenges in the region today with Syria, Yemen, Iraq, terrorism ‎and of course Iran’s nuclear program, and there are very large commercial and military ties between our two countries.”
At the Summit between France and Saudi Arabia, where transport, energy and military sales were all up for grabs, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, chimed “We sense the new [Saudi] team’s desire to move quickly.......We’re working on 20 projects, which may represent several billion euros.”

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