Monday, 5 October 2015

Syria: Enter Russia and Britain as Global Players

Russia's dramatic military intervention in Syria has been met with anger by leading politicians in the West for wrong footing them and, through bombing non-ISIS targets, put them in the position of having to laud the efforts against ISIS while whining about the targeting of 'moderate rebel' militias as well.

The use of the terms 'moderate' and 'extreme' Islamist groups has, in practice, become interchangeable with those Sunni jihadi groups in Syria that are on the side of the West's allies in the Middle East ( Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states ) and those such as ISIS which are not ( the 'extremists').

Despite the Obama administration's denials, the differences between the US and Russia over Syria are part of a Great Game of geopolitical chess. Putin's move is no mere 'mistake' in his being overzealous to take on ISIS along with the rest of the 'international community' but adding other jihadi groups as targets.

Groups that were barely mentioned in British newspapers until Russian fighter jets started bombing them have suddenly come under the spotlight and are, in fact, not greatly 'less extreme' than ISIS: they are jihadi movements that depend upon the Gulf States for the finance and weapons they compete for.

The Russian airstrikes, which started on September 30th 2015, may well be condemned by powers such as Turkey's Erdogan as 'a grave mistake. Yet the straying of a Russian MIG into Turkish airspace, used by NATO to reaffirm its solidarity with Ankara, is not going to pit it against Moscow directly.

Turkey ultimately depends upon Russian gas imports. If it were to openly advocate a unified Sunni war effort in Syria and give direct military aid, Russia would simply threaten to cut off its energy supply in winter so Turkey cannot afford to confront Moscow too much no matter how much the West might like it.

NATO's Jen Stoltenberg has appeared like a lit up cyborg trying to exploit the MIG incursion to ratchet up the threat level from Russia because it bolsters the role of his organisation and its need to demonstrate its 'credibility'. The power game requires the incident is portrayed as a threat not an accident.

Of course, Russian air strikes over Syria put the Western Powers in a quandary as they have no legal authority to launch their air strikes as they do in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi state. Putin has consequently made much of the fact that his air strikes are at the invitation of the Syrian sovereign state.

The fact the West does not recognise Assad as legitimate is a clear double standard. When Assad's forces are accused of having used chemical weapons, the focus is on Syria's responsibility as a sovereign state as opposed to the use of chemical weapons by Islamic State and jihadi groups backed by Western allies.

In fact, Russia's air strikes, using ISIS as a pretext to advance its own geopolitical interests in the Middle East in bombing both ISIS and other Sunni jihadist militias threatening Assad held areas, simply mirrors what Turkey did in using ISIS as a justification for using air power to bomb the Kurdish PKK militias in Syria and Iraq.

In pursuing a geopolitical fantasy about there being a 'third force' between Assad and ISIS, despite all evidence to the contrary that there is an effective "moderate" Islamist force on the ground in Syria, the Western powers have opened up the space for Russia to enter decisively to roll back the Sunni jihadists.

The outrage from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and largely powerless Sunni politicians aligned with Turkey and Qatar is fuelled not only by Russia having propped up Assad's forces north of Latakia against the onslaught of Sunni insurgent forces. It is due to the gas deal between Damascus and Moscow.

On September 22 2015 it was reported Russia's SoyuzNefteGaz started drilling for oil in Latakia’s Qenenas district some eight days before the region was threatened by Sunni jihadists. This followed on from a December 2013 gas deal for offshore gas drilling that back then infuriated the Syrian SNC.

The danger with the unifying of all the various Sunni militia groups is that the Western Powers, especially Britain and France, would see an opportunity to rally behind them in alignment with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to effectively draw Russia in further just as the Soviet Union was after 1978 in Afghanistan.

To use Russian involvement in Syria as an opportunity for the Western Powers to pull Russia into a full scale war, as it was between 1979 and 1989 as a means to divert it and put a strain on its economy, would be insane. But the West may not be able to prevent the Gulf states increasing their supply of weapons.

After all, Saudi Arabia is under pressure from ISIS in Yemen and, increasingly, with low oil prices the capacity to buy off internal discontent is diminishing: a straightforward war of all the Sunni militias against Iranian backed Hezbollah and Assad along with Russia could well prove too tempting.

Obama would appear to have played down the idea of a straightforward proxy war between the US and Russia over Syria even if Senator McCain is spoiling for a reinvigorated New Cold War Two. Turkey would seem more preoccupied with the looming threat of war with Kurdish militias than with Russia.

President Erdogan's war against the PKK in Syria and Iraq has triggered off a full scale insurgency in South-East Turkey in which Turkish jet fighters are strafing Kurdish areas. Meanwhile Britain has issued 37 arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia since it launched its war on the Houthis in Yemen.

Given that Britain and the Western powers have been prepared to ignore the warmongering excesses of two of its staunchest allies in the Middle East, it is hardly surprising that Russia has decided the West has evidently vacated any moral high ground it may have had to assert its geopolitical interests too.

Britain and France demanded Assad had to go back in 2012 because of lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Qatar: the latter is also an important source of liquefied natural gas, inward investment into two ailing European service sector economies and crucial for infrastructure projects.

The other big interest at stake is the proposed Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline that was scuppered when Assad rejected it before the Arab Uprisings of 2011 in favour of a pipeline that would link Iran, Shi'ite dominated Iraq and Syria and pipe gas from the very same South pars gas field Iran shares with Qatar to the EU.

Both Russia and Iran have a clear interest in blocking any possibility of such a land pipeline energy route linking the Eastern Mediterranean with the Persian Gulf. For Iran it would mean its rival Qatar would have a way of avoiding tanker routes going through the Iranian controlled Straits of Hormuz.

Iran would be deprived of a major strategic advantage over its Gulf rival while the Western Powers and Turkey would have a major source of gas that would reduce the dependence of both upon Russia while removing from Moscow's grasp a vital strategic naval and military outpost in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2010 has led to a revival of old style Great Power politics in the region over pipeline routes and alliances that bolster or downgrade the respective powers of each contending state that is vying for influence and control.

Russia regards it as essential that it retains its position as a Mediterranean power so that it can interpose itself as a vital force capable of 'protecting' energy supply routes from Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and Syria and using its power to increase its ability to control energy flows and clinch oil and gas deals.

Britain and France are as hostile to Russia reasserting power in its traditional sphere of influence as they were at the time of the Crimean War ( 1853 –1856 ) which, as with the Syria conflict in 2015, is also connected with French and British fears of Russian dominance over the Black Sea region and the Near East.

The double standard is that Britain and France maintain they have the exclusive right as beneficent liberal Western powers and so shall determine the outcome of the war in Syria against nasty Putin while, in fact, all three Great Powers with global pretensions are playing a similar geopolitical game.

Britain's Foolish and Dangerous Game .

Both PM Cameron and President Hollande must know that the jihadi militias targeted in Russian air strikes are not "moderate" rebels but bloodthirsty fanatics such as those in Al Nusra who are itching to slaughter Alawis, Christians and others they regard as collectively responsible for supporting Assad.

Cameron's hypocritical guff about the 'butcher Assad', as if al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Fateh were somehow heroic 'rebels', has remained largely unchallenged by politicians and much of the media in Britain. News channels have omitted to mention that al-Nusra is affiliated with Al Qaida.

The claim in the liberal Guardian newspaper that Russia was attacking 'less extreme' groups rather than ISIS gave the game away and recycled the official British government line as opposed to the actual truth that Russia is striking both the jihadists loyal to the Gulf states and ISIS simultaneously as though one.

Russia's entrance into Syria does raise the stakes and could push the US into backing a regional peace settlement if the other Western Powers stopped being so stubborn in clinging to a failed strategy in Syria out of self righteousness and the inability to accept a Syria in which events are not determined by them alone.

As regards Britain, this seems unlikely because pushing relentlessly towards RAF strikes in Syria on ISIS and aligning with the Gulf states unconditionally is seen as part of a way to foil both Russia and discredit internal opposition to the foreign policy presented by the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Cameron is still smarting from his House of Commons defeat in 2013 for air strikes against Assad. By going to Parliament a second time, he could get Britain back at the forefront of a war against ISIS, avenge his humiliation and reassert his authority by getting Labour MPs to vote against their leader.

Just as Turkey launched air strikes on the Kurdish PKK in Syria partly as a means of fighting 'enemies within', so too is the push for air strikes against ISIS regarded as a way of forcing Corbyn's opposition and thus portraying him and his supporters in a sinister way as a national 'security threat'.

Cameron wants Britain involved in air strikes against ISIS as a way of placating Saudi Arabia which wants the Western Powers to do its dirty work against the Sunni jihadists that threaten it. As Putin is lambasted for supporting Assad, so Britain increased its arms exports to Riyadh to support the Saudis.

In fact, the main obstacle to peace in Syria, after Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is Britain for standing together so closely with the Gulf states while PM Cameron unctuously talks of Assad staying for six months after a peace deal while at the same time demanding he be put on trial for war crimes.

These demands make it all the more unlikely that Assad would want to compromise at all with any Sunni opposition given the record of those removed after Western backed rebel forces has been to be given politicised trials and shot, as with Saddam, or butchered in public, as was Gaddafi of Libya.

More than President Obama, PM Cameron on September 9th used the usual 'tough' and 'decisive' messianic pose to demand  'hard military force' to deal with both Assad and ISIS while ignoring the fact that the CIA trained 'third force' of Division 30 had crumbled and its leader defecting to Al Qaida.

However, more than just the war on ISIS is at stake. Clearly, Britain's contribution to air strikes that have not shown any sign of defeating ISIS are about restoring its role as a Global Player and a reliable ally of powers such as Saudi Arabia which have become increasingly hostile to Russia.

As Riyadh becomes more paranoid about Iranian backed Shia threats to Sunni ascendency in Iraq and across the region, the question is going to arise concerning how far Britain and France, as well as the US, are going to follow the Saudis in what they do against Russia if it threatens all out war in Syria.

The Chechen Connection.

Russia's War against jihadists is connected to the security of its borders to the south. Chechen ISIS fighters have been present in the region north of Latakia, no doubt hungering for revenge not only against Assad's Alawite state but also against Russia and Putin in order to avenge the defeat in the Chechnya War.

Turkey until 2014 had relatively open borders so as to allow the flow of jihadists down from the Caucasus through Turkey into Syria. The Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia is known to be an area where Sunni jihadists are indoctrinated and used, it is thought, by Georgia's security services as 'assets'.

Part of this dangerous 'strategy' is concerned with using directing these jihadi 'assets' against Russia should it appear to menace Georgia again after the 2008 war. On the other hand, Georgian-Chechen jihadists are useful in engaging with Russia's ally Assad in Syria as part of their own proxy war against Moscow.

This explains why Moscow has been issuing official statements about their inability to prevent Russian militias, battle hardened in Eastern Ukraine and Chechnya from travelling south towards Syria. Moscow's position is that whatever cynical tricks Western allies try on, Russia would match them.

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