Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Russian Geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the War in Syria

News that Russia's Vladimir Putin has sent military personnel and hardware to shore up President Assad in Syria has been met with concern by Western leaders. Russian ships laden with arms have passed through the Bosphorus and aircraft with humanitarian supplies have been flown out to Syria.

Putin is increasing his power in the Eastern Mediterranean and interposing himself as a potential third force between the Western states and the states of a region that has seen a scramble for gas since 2010. Needless to say, in Western 'public diplomacy' the energy agenda is seldom even mentioned as a factor.
Both Iran and Russia have a vital interest in propping up Assad to thwart one real aim of the geostrategy behind the Western and Syria National Council demand that 'Assad must go': to remove his and Russia's control over Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves in a deal clinched by Putin in December 2013.
The deal infuriated by the Syrian National Council, Turkey and the oily 'Friends of Syria' ( with friends like Saudi Arabia and Qatar pumping millions into the coffers of militant Sunni jihadists it is difficult to see how Syria would need enemies with friends like this ). They had hoped Assad would go quickly after 2011.
The idea Assad could be overthrown as Gaddafi was always unlikely. Syria, like Ukraine, occupies a strategic east-west gas and oil pipeline route. Russia would not want as a supply route linking the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean as this would undermine its use of control over energy flow to the EU.
Whereas in Libya neither China nor Russia nor Iran had vital interests if Gaddafi were toppled that could not be subsequently asserted under another ruler, in Syria if either Qatar or Iran built rival pipelines instead of the other they would enhance their power and status in the region and globally at each other's expense.
By helping Assad consolidate his rule of the regions abutting Lebanon and the Eastern Mediterranean coast, Russia and Iran could block off Qatar and Turkey's rival plans while they enhance their exports of gas via routes not exclusively under the control or complete influence of the West.
Evidently, for Iran these export routes are via the international maritime water ways from around the Persian Gulf via Egypt and the Suez Canal, routes it shares with the Gulf states. However, a pipeline overland linking the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean would vastly undermine Iran's power.
Iran controls part of the Straits of Hormuz already and could always close it and therefore throttle the global economy if it were pushed. This 'strategic trump card' is the one hard hand it holds still in place of nuclear weapons and would be greatly diminished had Assad been removed as the West anticipated.
The nuclear deal went ahead not due to the supposed nuclear threat Iran could have posed. It reflected Washington's acceptance that Iranian cooperation is needed so as to keep ISIS at bay in central Iraq. The possibility of Assad really 'going', as once anticipated by the West is also not on the cards in the short term.
Putin is now rubbing that in by giving Assad military assistance in much the same way Washington, and ferociously anti-Russian states like Poland, are giving Ukraine military help in the Donbass; except that everybody claims to hate ISIS while globally many states are not especially pro-Kiev.
After all, ISIS threatens global oil supplies not only to many Western economies present and future but also the East Asian economies, most obviously China's. ISIS has consolidated its hold over eastern Syria where most of its oil lies and in north west Iraq. The Western allies also have contradictory ambitions.
Russia's move to shore up Assad is part of his 'public diplomacy' in putting himself at the head of a counter terrorism drive against energy rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of whom undeniably can be said to sponsor 'terrorists' in the shape of jihadi militants. At the same time it increases his standing in Egypt.
Russia's arms export markets are one reason. The other his strategy to expose Western prating and double standards over Syria, as they had no problem in tacitly accepting Sisi as leader in Cairo after the 2013 coup and so, logically, there should be no reason not to accept Assad as a counter terrorist leader.
Russia wants to enhance its standing in Cyprus; fears of Turkey's belligerence over gas drilling is has ked Putin to emphasise Russia's role as an honest broker as Greece and Turkey, NATO members both, shift apart once more over Cyprus and Athens rebels against Germany over the euro and austerity policies.
The simple fact is the Cold War alliances are slowly disintegrating and becoming more complicated by the revival of older historical antagonisms; ethnic-sectarian enmities, nationalism and the revived role of religious allegiances as the two successor states created out of the Ottoman Empire-Iraq and Syria-crumble.
The reports of growing Russian military activity in Syria were troubling, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. “I am concerned about reports about increased Russian military presence in Syria,” Stoltenberg said. “That will not contribute to solving the conflict.”
What Stoltenberg means is that Russia's backing for Assad would not solve the conflict in the way NATO representatives such as himself would like in so far as he means the the 'right' rebels of Division 30 and others being shoved on the grand chessboard as counters to Russian influence in Syria.
The absurdity of NATO's position is clear; Putin is attacked for backing Assad while Turkey's Erdogan is backing Sunni jihadists in ever more desperate attempts to remove Assad'. Putin is denounced as a vile warmonger for backing the Donbass militias against Kiev, but not Erdogan's policy on Syria.
Turkey was less interested in ISIS losing than with the Kurdish PKK gaining ground in northern Syria ( Rojava ) and the Kurdish cause of independence setting off irredentist momentum within south-east Turkey. Increasingly paranoid about this he took a fatal gamble in starting to bomb PKK positions in Syria.
Erdogan's brinkmanship was about rallying Turkey behind him against domestic opponents, including the HPD, which backs more Kurdish autonomy after elections failed to give him a clear majority in the Turkish Parliament. A NATO state is backing forces in Syria that other members are actually fighting against.
NATO would seem no longer fit for purpose and Turkey is clearly no longer worthy of being a NATO member if were really were about 'democracy promotion' and defending 'the West' or 'our values'. A military organised to fight the Cold War has morphed into an organisation dedicated to advancing other goals.
One of the most important ambitions is energy security, though this is usually put out in 'public diplomacy' terms as a sort of interesting sideline NATO may well have to factor is as opposed to an essential geopolitical goal it had during its 'nation building' ventures in Kosovo and Afghanistan
Just as Erdogan is posing as neo-Ottoman champion of Sunni Muslims to project prestige and power in regions where pipeline ambitions are a vital influence, so too now is Putin championing the rights of diaspora Russians and Christian Orthodox believers in Syria. 50,000 Syrian Christians applied for asylum in Russia.
A report has revealed that Putin was praised in a letter sent to the Kremlin that called him a “powerful factor for global peace and stability”. The West was rounded on, apparently, for supporting terrorists whose aim is “to eliminate our presence in our homeland.” This has barely been mentioned in the West.

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