Thursday, September 24, 2015
Is the USA being pushed out of the Syria conflict?
It's intriguing to watch developments in the conflict in Syria. It looks to me as if the USA is being deliberately shut out of any role in resolving the conflict there by the other parties involved.
For a start, Russia's President Putin is acting decisively to bolster the central government of President Assad and fight the ISIS Caliphate that's taken over much of the country. It's early days yet, but I won't be surprised to see Russian forces heavily involved in re-training the battered, demoralized Syrian armed forces, manning some of their more technologically advanced equipment such as fighter aircraft, and perhaps commanding joint operations against the fundamentalists. This not only guarantees Russia access to a Mediterranean port (Latakia); it also boosts Russia's presence in a strategically important part of the world, one where the USA has already effectively abdicated its responsibilities.
Russia also has an opportunity to strike at Saudi Arabian interests in the Arab world. The Saudis have been trying to get rid of Assad for years, and helped to foment and support the revolt against his government. That, in turn, gave rise to ISIS, which is today the bête noir of Saudi Arabia, second only to Iran. By supporting Assad against ISIS, Moscow delivers a not-so-diplomatic slap in the face to Riyadh.
What's more, Iran has been a strong supporter of President Assad. Iran also supports Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon, and has committed thousands of its fighters to the (very unpopular) war in Syria. By helping Assad directly, Russia gains 'street cred' with Iran and (to a lesser extent) Hezbollah, giving it added influence in the volatile Middle East - and reducing the US's influence accordingly.
Also of very great interest is Israel's position in all this. Israel would, I'm sure, rather have a weakened Assad in power in Syria than a strong, united ISIS, which would undoubtedly pose a threat to the Jewish state. It's also been delighted to see thousands of Hezbollah fighters stream into Syria, instead of confronting Israel on its northern border. This has drastically reduced Hezbollah's ability to threaten Israel, and to support Hamas, its fellow militants in Gaza.
The Israeli prime minister has already met with President Putin. I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. Both men are practitioners of realpolitik. They're hard-assed, unscrupulous men who'll do whatever it takes to make things happen as they want them to happen. On the face of it, one would expect Israel to be opposed to Russian involvement in Syria, particularly because a strengthened Syria might offer a more meaningful threat to Israel in due course: but if the right approach were taken, one that saw Russia keeping Hezbollah and Iran focused on the fight against ISIS in Syria rather than turning their combined arms against Israel, that's very much in Jerusalem's interest. Also, Russia knows full well that Israel is strong enough militarily to crush its expeditionary force in Syria if it wants to. By discussing its actions with Israel and obtaining at least a tacit go-ahead from Jerusalem, it removes a major risk to the success of its operations in Syria - and, again, reduces US influence in the Jewish state, which apparently has gone about the negotiations without so much as a phone call to the USA.
This also affects Jordan. Israel has been supplying it with weapons and intelligence, to help it in the fight against ISIS. Since the burning to death of one of its pilots in January, Jordan has been white-hot with rage against the Caliphate, and is perhaps its most vicious enemy in the region. Now Jordan's aligned with Israeli and Russian interests, and also with those of Iran and Hezbollah. Suddenly the position of the Palestinians in the West Bank - surrounded as they are by Israel on one side, and Jordan on the other - looks rather more precarious. They can no longer rely on supply routes through Jordan if they decide to confront Israel in a big way.
Israel now finds itself in a strange situation vis-a-vis Iran as well. Russia is cosying up to Iran by supplying it with arms, and is also acting in concert with it against ISIS. Iran is a vehement, vocal enemy of Israel: but if it's working with Russia, the latter's interests are definitely to keep the peace in the Middle East until the threat from ISIS is nullified. That may put a damper on Iranian efforts against Israel, and on Israel's plans to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power. (Indeed, Russia may apply influence of its own to persuade the mullahs in Teheran to pull back from that objective - at least for now.)
Meanwhile, Egypt is coming up on the radar. Its present government doesn't trust the USA any further than it can throw it. It's buying French Rafale fighters to augment its US-supplied F-16's, and has announced interest in buying Russian MiG-35's and helicopters. It's also buying (with Saudi Arabian finance) the two Mistral class amphibious assault ships that Russia had ordered from France, but which were affected by European sanctions after the Ukraine situation got out of hand. Russia has apparently agreed to the sale, and will either transfer its special equipment on board the ships, or will remove it prior to transfer. By doing so, and offering its fighters and helicopters, it's restoring a relationship with Egypt that's been pretty parlous for a long time - very much to Moscow's advantage in the region. Egypt is also tightly controlling its border with Gaza and acting against Islamist influence in its own society, including against Bedouin radicals in Sinai - all of which helps Israel.
(As an aside, Saudi Arabia's willingness to finance Egypt's purchase of former Russian ships from France - there's an international cartel for you! - has interesting implications of its own. The Saudis aren't real happy with the Russians right now, particularly over Syria and Iran. However, those amphibious assault ships might come in very useful for Riyadh to combat Iranian influence in Yemen, along the Red Sea - including Sudan - and on the coast leading up to the Strait of Hormuz, all of which are most definitely areas where Iran is challenging Saudi influence. Could this finance deal lead to Egyptian ships and sailors carrying Saudi and Gulf States soldiers on joint missions against Iranian-backed local forces? Who knows? It's an intriguing thought.)
The entire map of 'influence' in the Middle East is in a state of flux right now. Almost anything can happen. It's impossible to predict from day to day who's going to do what, with which, to whom, in alliance with any other. Worse, from a US point of view, is that we have almost no influence left in the region. We've squandered it with most of our former Arab allies by supporting the ill-fated pie-in-the-sky liberal-wet-dream 'Arab Spring' uprisings and their consequences. That ignored realpolitik in favor of wishful thinking. We've also lost most of our influence with Israel through supporting the bone-headed nuclear deal with Iran, which Israel sees as an existential threat to its existence. A Syrian spokesman claimed today that there's a a 'tacit agreement' between the USA and Russia on ending the war there. If so, it can only be the Russians saying, "We're going to do this - and you can't stop us!", and the USA admitting, in so many words, that indeed, it can't.
This situation will bear very careful watching indeed.