Why Rus­sia is threat­en­ing the US in Syria

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Yes­ter­day the United States an­nounced that it was break­ing off talks with Rus­sia over im­ple­ment­ing a cease-fire agree­ment on Syria. Wash­ing­ton ac­cused Mos­cow of fail­ing to live up to its com­mit­ments in the Sept. 9 deal. It has been a year since Rus­sia in­ter­vened in Syria. Dur­ing that year, com­bat has con­tin­ued and in­ten­si­fied. Apart from sav­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime from hy­po­thet­i­cal de­feat, the Rus­sians have achieved noth­ing par­tic­u­larly de­ci­sive in Syria. The Rus­sians’ drama in Syria has come from deal­ing with the United States and, even more, with Turkey.

How­ever, the balance of power now ap­pears to be shift­ing in favour of As­sad and his Rus­sian sup­port­ers. A con­fronta­tion with the United States is no longer in­con­ceiv­able.

Syr­ian troops backed by Rus­sian air­power and spe­cial forces have been closing in on Aleppo, Syria’s sec­ond largest city and a strong­hold of the op­po­si­tion to what most still call the govern­ment of Syria. If Aleppo falls, the last ma­jor ur­ban area of Syria will be back in the hands of the As­sad regime. This is sig­nif­i­cant, but not as sig­nif­i­cant as it sounds as much of the non-ur­ban ar­eas are oc­cu­pied by the op­po­si­tion, in­clud­ing a sub­stan­tial amount con­trolled by the Is­lamic State (IS) and the Kurds.

The United States is for­mally op­posed to the sur­vival of the As­sad regime. Be­fore the Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion, it ap­peared to some that As­sad’s days were num­bered. The ap­pear­ance was murky as best. The op­po­si­tion to As­sad was poorly or­ga­nized and in po­lit­i­cal chaos. The ma­jor op­po­si­tion force op­er­at­ing in the coun­try was IS. The United States might be op­posed to As­sad, but had no in­ter­est in top­pling As­sad and leav­ing a vac­uum in Da­m­as­cus that IS might have filled. Too many play­ers wanted As­sad gone, but not at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment.

Why, then, did the Rus­sians in­ter­vene? Oil prices had col­lapsed and the econ­omy was stag­ger­ing. The sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine was not evolv­ing in Rus­sia’s favour. Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin had to demon­strate that de­spite the sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine, Rus­sia re­mained a sig­nif­i­cant power. In all coun­tries, a na­tional se­cu­rity cri­sis ral­lies the pub­lic for a while. Rus­sia is no dif­fer­ent, and de­ploy­ing Rus­sian air­craft in the Mid­dle East drove home the dif­fer­ence be­tween Putin’s govern­ment and its pre­de­ces­sors.

Na­tional pride is a se­ri­ous mat­ter. Putin politi­cian and used it.

is an ex­cel­lent

Putin also wanted to con­front the United States in an op­por­tune place. In his mind, the United States had engineered the fall of the pro-Rus­sian govern­ment in Kiev, had been in­stru­men­tal in block­ing an ef­fec­tive se­ces­sion­ist move­ment in East­ern Europe and was now build­ing up mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in Poland and Ro­ma­nia. From the Rus­sian point of view, this was begin­ning to look like the containment strat­egy that had ul­ti­mately stran­gled the Soviet Union. The Rus­sians had no sig­nif­i­cant counter in Europe for mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. So they had to try a strat­egy of in­di­rec­tion.

The Rus­sians wanted to achieve two things. They wanted to look good for their do­mes­tic au­di­ence and to chal­lenge the United States in a re­gion where it had a great deal at stake, but with­out be­ing forced to take ex­is­ten­tial risks. Through­out the Cold War, the Rus­sian counter to Amer­i­can containment was to cre­ate al­liances to the rear of the containment line. Out­side of Germany, the most im­por­tant point in that line was Turkey. Turkey con­trolled the Bosporus and naval ac­cess to the Mediter­ranean. Rus­sia could not over­whelm Turkey, al­though it made a num­ber of covert at­tempts to desta­bi­lize it. But Rus­sia could form re­la­tion­ships to Turkey’s south and in the east­ern Mediter­ranean. Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria were all part of a pro-Soviet al­liance sys­tem de­signed to counter containment from out­side the line the U.S. had drawn.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, be­ing pro-Soviet lost its mean­ing in the re­gion. In­deed, the Arab Spring in these coun­tries, which the West had fan­ta­sized was a ris­ing as in East­ern Europe in 1989, was in fact di­rected against the rem­nant of the Soviet al­liance sys­tem, driven pri­mar­ily by the ris­ing Mus­lim tide. The gov­ern­ments in these coun­tries were ram­shackle rem­nants of this sys­tem. They were sec­u­lar, in the sense that they were hos­tile to Mus­lim threats. They were so­cial­ist in a way that had once barely made sense and now no longer made any sense. But above all they were mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships. This is not to say these gov­ern­ments did not have sub­stan­tial sup­port in their coun­tries. The idea that they were lone tyrants gov­ern­ing an en­tire coun­try by fear was non­sense. They had strong sup­port from tribal, eth­nic, re­li­gious or other fac­tions. They sim­ply didn’t have enough sup­port to be able to avoid re­press­ing en­e­mies.

Sad­dam Hussein was taken down by the Amer­i­cans, who then dis­cov­ered that his sup­port­ers were car­ry­ing out an in­sur­gency against them. But in 2011, the other regimes came un­der at­tack: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Moam­mar Gad­hafi in Libya and As­sad in Syria. In Egypt, Mubarak fell but the army re­mained in­tact, so a mil­i­tary com­man­der re­placed him. In Libya, Gad­hafi was de­posed by Amer­i­can and Euro­pean in­ter­ven­tion, re­veal­ing that the up­ris­ing in Libya did not con­sist of peo­ple hun­ger­ing to turn Libya into Wis­con­sin. And in Syria, many in Wash­ing­ton con­fused the up­ris­ing as a pro-Western demo­cratic ris­ing against an op­pres­sive regime.

It turned out it was a ris­ing of peo­ple who hated As­sad, hated each other and pretty much hated the United States as well. The United States in­ter­vened covertly and then with air­power, but the day of the ju­bilee didn’t come. As­sad and his sup­port­ers, a sub­stan­tial mi­nor­ity in Syria called Alaw­ites, con­trolled the mil­i­tary and car­ried out mas­sive re­sis­tance against the op­po­si­tion. The United States said it sup­ported a sec­u­lar demo­cratic fac­tion, and not find­ing one, pre­tended there was one. The mess that en­sued has be­come the en­dur­ing re­al­ity of Syria.

Putin needed a lever against the United States. The pe­riod of in­tense con­flict in Iraq was a gift to Putin. He used that time to re­build Rus­sian power as well as pos­si­ble and to assert its pres­ence in the for­mer Soviet Union. He in­vaded Ge­or­gia, an Amer­i­can client state, know­ing that the United States lacked the force to re­spond, given Iraq and Afghanistan. If Amer­ica is bogged down in a con­flict in the Mid­dle East, it is un­able to act else­where. To the ex­tent that Rus­sia could get the U.S. bogged down in the Mid­dle East again, it would re­tain free­dom of ac­tion.

More im­por­tant, Putin needed a bar­gain­ing chip. He could not let Ukraine go, but at the very least had to ne­go­ti­ate its neu­tral­ity. Geopolitically, Ukraine is vi­tal to Rus­sia and neu­tral­ity is the least they could live with. The U.S. had no rea­son to ac­cept that neu­tral­ity, and the Euro­peans were in­clined the same way. If the Rus­sians could cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion some­where in which the Amer­i­cans needed Rus­sian help, the sit­u­a­tion around, and ul­ti­mately in, Rus­sia would be­come less hos­tile for Mos­cow.

As­sad was Rus­sia’s old ally. That meant noth­ing to Rus­sia. It had no real in­ter­est in sav­ing As­sad. At most it would get port fa­cil­i­ties in Latakia and an air base, but there was lit­tle the Rus­sians could do to ex­ploit the fa­cil­i­ties, which would be vul­ner­a­ble to the United States. More­over, Putin was in the KGB dur­ing the Rus­sian-Afghan war.

He had seen how a coun­try could get hope­lessly bogged down and sucked dry by in­ter­ven­ing in the Mus­lim world. He un­der­stood that he lacked the re­sources and na­tional in­ter­est for an ex­tended stay.

Wash­ing­ton was tran­si­tion­ing dur­ing this time from a hy­per-in­ter­ven­tion­ist strat­egy to a more dis­tant balance of power strat­egy. It is still tran­si­tion­ing. From Korea through Viet­nam, Kuwait, So­ma­lia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the U.S. strat­egy was to des­ig­nate a coun­try as sig­nif­i­cant, use aid, ad­vis­ers and covert forces to try to shift the sit­u­a­tion in a di­rec­tion the U.S. wanted, and fail­ing that, move to main force.

Dou­glas MacArthur had ar­gued against any fu­ture land

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.