Friday, 5 May 2017

The Great Game Over Syria : State of Play May 2017.

Syria is a strategic piece on the Grand Chessboard that is the Middle East. No Great Power has any moral high ground in this sordid struggle for geopolitical supremacy and Putin is simply more logical, though yet still ruthless, in pursuing Russia's interests and those of the Assad client state than the Western Powers.

Having aligned with Assad to defeat Western and Gulf State backed jihadists in east Aleppo, those rebranded, according to use value as 'moderate rebel' assets, Russia is now prepared to negotiate Syria's fate from a position of strategic strength and because Putin realises ending the war in partnership with the US means fewer lives lost.

Putin's advocacy of safe area in Syria's north is an invitation to cooperate through international and transnational agencies and to appear as a humanitarian leader into the deal. Should the US and Britain prioritise the Saudi alliance and scupper Putin's plans, then it would downgrade their position as humanitarian actors.

The purpose of Trump's missile strikes was to shame Russia to the table after the jihadists were crushed by Assad's state and Russian forces. It rebranded Trump as a fearless humanitarian who really cared about dead gassed children who could use that to say 'the US is back' and ready to avenge the east Aleppo humiliation.

The media image of gassed dead children asset was a welcome propaganda coup for the Trump administration. It had seen a danger that the primacy of US vital strategic interests over Syria's fate and as a credible enforcing power for its client Saudi Arabia would be degraded as the Gulf state's geopolitical assets were swept away.

Putin has now found a middle way between the US using humanitarian pretexts as a way to muscle back in to prolonging the war in Syria and getting dragged in to a clash that would benefit none of the Great Powers. Trump is also able to claim his missile strikes helped bring about a peace offer from Putin and honour is satisfied.

How the Great Game over Syria Evolved.

For the Western Powers, the prime interest was squaring circles in aligning behind absolutist Sunni Gulf States and Erdogan's neo-Ottoman strategy of 'Democracy Promotion' after the Arab Revolts of 2011. This is known in the public diplomacy game as 'Democratic Geopolitics' and it means geopolitical ends first, democracy as a means.

As regards Syria, Assad had to go because he stood in the way of Qatar and Turkey's strategy to promote Sunni forces to counter the danger of Shia dominance in Iraq, potentially very much permanently aligned with Iran after US withdrawal in 2011. A Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline had also been planned.

Russia saw its ability to shore up Assad as a means to retain its ability to preserve its stakes in the scramble for oil and gas wealth in the Eastern Mediterranean, discovered in 2010. By blocking the Qatar-Turkey scheme, Russia also wanted to keep its control over east-west energy supplies and not have its importance downgraded.

At first, only having Assad as client to preserve the Russian port of Tarsous and the exclusive right to develop Syria's offshore gas reserves mattered. This naturally infuriated the Turkish based Syrian National Council  and ensured a chorus of shrill denunciation from the Western Powers as deep 'Friends of Syria'.

Russia needed to balance the danger of alienating Turkey through military intervention should Assad be in danger of falling. Relations between Putin and Erdogan have waxed warm and cold according to their calculus of interests in connection to the relative fluctuating fortunes of their players on the ground in Syria

Syria is the cockpit of what is essential a geopolitical struggle, but its a war ratcheted up by the vying for control over resources from the Eastern Mediterranean up through to the Black Sea region. Ukraine is also about the reach of military power, between Russia and NATO, in a resource rich strategic zone.

The resource interests, pipeline routes and geopolitical interests cannot be mentioned openly by any of the Great Powers as their real interests. This is very much a problem of presentation in Western democracies where the public is required to believe various humanitarian fictions as the animating principle of their foreign policy.

Russia's public diplomacy tends to emphasise protecting Orthodox Christians from jihadists; Turkey used protecting fellow Sunnis from an evil Assad despot; the Western powers have chosen to weaponise the usual tired history about Britain and the US prioritising standing up for democracy vs dictatorships.

Of all these pretexts, Russia's is at least slightly less disingenuous and contorted that the West's because there isn't such a vast disproportion between the pathetic rhetoric of 'democracy promotion' and the reality of aligning with states such as Saudi Arabia and its backing of entirely mythical 'moderates' on the battlefield.

There were no 'moderate rebels' after 2013, when the Free Syria Army was hijacked by Gulf backed jihadists. The West's claim was as mendacious as if Thatcher had claimed the Afghan mujahedeen in Afghanistan were more than 'freedom fighters' but actually secular liberal democrats and international minded trade unionists.

The Western Powers have become trapped within an absurdist rhetoric on the one hand and a naïve form of wish thinking on the other that their cause was always more than merely about promoting strategic interests in alignment with Saudi Arabia or Qatar. They also believed democracy promotion would be easy.

The game plan for the Western Powers now is to somehow retain the Assad state while being seen to be credible in getting Assad 'to go'. This way the West could claim it achieved something after pursuing a policy that only helped ratchet up the slaughter long before Russia intervened to protect their blood stained client.

For the truth is Russia was never going to just let Assad 'go' and, after 2013-14, Putin realised he could intervene in order to upgrade Russia's bargaining hand over the fate of Ukraine, through covert backing for pro-Russian militias in the east of the country and his direct incorporation of gas rich Crimea.

Putin's humanitarian safe zone initiative is once more about quid pro quo bargaining over Syria being interconnected with Ukraine. Detaching parts of Syria for the Sunnis would also realign him more  towards the process of repairing relations with Turkey while Germany fears Erdogan's use again of the migrant card.

A Russo-Turkish realignment over Syria would push the Western Powers towards the prospects of bargaining a partition and that would mean Putin could, de facto, get acceptance of the annexation of Crimea and creation of a safe zone in Donbass and even get a deal with the US and Italy over the fate of Libya.

A northern Syria partitioned into demilitarised zones would have humanitarian benefits but also they would lessen Russian fears of a Great Power being able to route a gas pipeline through it and it could be followed by a similar set up for Rojava and Kurdish regions of Syria: complete independence would be out of the question.

Russia could use the fall out from the chemical gas attack as one card in its dealings with Assad, for if he refused to rein in his military to fit in with Russia's Great Power ambitions or to give the US and Britain another pretext to militarily intervene, Russia would drawdown support. Russia made plain its support for Assad is 'not unconditional'

If the Western Powers kept at their failed liberal democracy agenda, then Erdogan and Putin would have every interest in opening the floodgates to more migrants and refugees entering the Balkans and Central Europe, thus further destabilising the EU and leading to hatred for Merkel and Germany to their east and south.

Erdogan, of course, has used the terrorist pretext to ramp up his power base and creation of an illiberal Turkish state with him as strongman. Lectures from Western politicians would have clear consequences over his control over the Turkish border, as well as his ability to play the Islamophobia card.

As the EU fractures and disintegrates, the bargaining hand of strongmen like Putin and Erdogan , though their interests can clash, has increased as their role as east-west energy hubs and regional powers rises. The Western Powers only have their own stupidity, hypocrisy, greed and lack of realism to blame.

Indeed, with Le Pen poised to win the Presidency in France and Britain entering Brexit, the oil and gas dependent states of Europe have every interest in accepting their limitations as Great Powers. They can no longer meddle in the domestic affairs of other states without it affecting them as blowback.

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