Moscow wants to impose Mideast settlements on its own terms

Russia surmises that the United States is in state of weakness, hesitation, and decline

Raghida Dergham
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A week after the start of Russian military operations in Syria, where do the United States, the European Union, and the Arab nations stand? What is next?

Russia started its military operations under the banner of the war on terror, excluding only the Free Syrian Army from the “terror” designation. However, skepticism has accompanied the Russian air raids from day one, with Russia accused of targeting and almost focusing on the Syrian opposition rather than ISIS or al-Qaeda-affiliate al-Nusra Front.


Moscow did not need anyone to legitimize its military operations in the war on terror because from the outset it has – publicly – declared that one of the pillars of its military intervention is backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow did not want anyone to give it excuses or pretexts. It informed all those concerned that its strategic objective has two main parts: providing air cover for the regime’s ground forces, to prevent the collapse of Russia’s ally in Damascus and allow it to regain its strength. This is in order for the regime to be able to be a player in the Syrian future, at least in the event of agreed partition. And the second part is to eliminate Islamic terrorist groups in Syria to prevent it from extending to Russia in the five former Soviet Muslim “stan” republics along its border.

The relative Arab silence regarding Moscow’s military intervention in Syria has many implications, and so do the statements made including by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who implicitly blessed the Russian air raids on ISIS in Syria. But analyzing the Arab positions is not easy, especially as the stated positions continue to stress the need for Assad to step down while Russia continues to cling to him.

There are two main interpretations. One, the key Arab countries have implicitly agreed on the priority of rooting out ISIS, which poses an existential threat to them, even if the cost is strengthening the regime in Syria including allowing Assad to remain in power for some time. Two, the Arab countries have obtained an implicit agreement from Moscow and Washington that the regime should remain without Assad on the long run, but with Assad staying in the current stage.

The main problem in the second scenario has to do with the guarantees or so-called gentlemen’s agreement, that is, with trust. Trust is absent between all players, be they the Russians, Americans, Turks, or Arabs, while the political game continues over the bodies of Syrians and the ruins of their country.

Iran is not part of this trust game, however. Iran has been clear on not trusting anyone and in supporting Bashar al-Assad and his regime from the beginning, militarily and politically. Iran has thrown the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah into Syria, while refusing to approve the Geneva process, which calls for a transitional governing body with full powers because it undermines Assad’s grip on power.

Turkey and Europe are the most ambiguous on Syria these days. Turkey advanced then retreated, contributing to what the situation in Syria ultimately descended to.

Qatar and Turkey both wagered on propelling the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, which Russia took as a direct threat to its national security, despite the fact that the Brotherhood is classed as moderate compared to al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and ISIS, at least in Washington’s designation.

Narcissistic battles

Russia and Turkey – heirs to the Russian Tsars and the Soviet Union, and the Ottoman Empire respectively – have a history of mistrust and rivalry. They are both engaged in revanchist fantasies. However, their thinking goes beyond regional and global geopolitical roles to economic interests, including gas pipelines and energy exports to Europe and the Caucasus. Both nations are led by men who believe themselves history-makers, and it seems that Syria has become for them an arena for their narcissistic battles.

One of Turkey’s cards is its location along Syria’s border, and what this entails in terms of its influence over Syrian, Kurdish, and Iraq migration to Europe. Similarly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has incorporated migration into his Syria strategy, like Turkey’s Erdogan.

Another strength for Turkey is its membership of NATO. In other words, any Russian military missteps in Syria is a big concern for Moscow, and Ankara is aware of this. Therefore, a Russian-Turkish clash is unlikely. Moscow will play by the rules, and Ankara will not be able to drag NATO into the fray. In fact, Europe, like the United States, has no interest whatsoever in clashing with Russia in Syria, or intervening in Syria with or without Russia to begin with.

Germany is almost explicit in standing with Russia and Iran, and implicitly with the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah.
France is dithering, against its own interests not to mention those of Syria and its Arab partners. For example, French President Francois Hollande warned of an all-out war that Europe would not be immune and said, “We must act.” He speaks but does not act. He has not proposed a strategy, save for limited steps here and there, most of them in the “too little too late” category. For instance, France has proposed a draft resolution in the Security Council that is a year late against the use of barrel bombs. In short, France seems to speak out, against U.S. reluctance, but it eventually caves in, as it has done in the aftermath of the nuclear deal with Iran.

For this reason, it must have been embarrassing for the French president when Putin revealed he had proposed to him a “creative” formula for collaboration between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces against ISIS. Putin revealed this to embarrass Hollande, and Hollande denied because this proposal is ludicrous.

Britain has its own style but its real policy is no secret, and is part of Washington’s policy. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is suggesting empowering both regime forces and the Free Syrian Army, much like Hollande has done. Perhaps this is the new European formula, most probably with Washington’s blessing.

China has its own calculus. It is allied to Russia in the Middle East and will not interfere unnecessarily with Russian strategy. Since Chinese-Arab economic ties are fine, Beijing has no reason to end its self-dissociation from the events of the Arab region.

Meanwhile, the United States appears as though in a state of “schizophrenia” on the surface, but its long-term strategy is very coherent. The contradiction has given rise to may interpretations and theories.

Weakness, hesitation, and decline

Russia surmises that the United States is in state of weakness, hesitation, and decline. This, Moscow believes, has created an opportunity for Russia with an administration seemingly having decided not to engage in but to withdraw from Middle Eastern conflicts.

It does not concern Russia much when U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says Washington is not prepared to cooperate with Russia in Syria, as long as the U.S. agrees to “de-confliction” measures over Syria’s airspace where both nations’ warplanes are operating. It does not concern Russia either when the U.S. says Russia’s policy in Syria is tragically flawed, as long as Washington as signaled that it will not do anything about it. It is clear to Moscow that Washington has given it a green light to operate in Syria, despite all public denunciations.

Russia has historic opportunity to carve out a new political role in the Middle East via Syria. It is building an alliance in the Middle East led by Russia. Russia wants to lead political settlements to the crises of the Middle East on Russian terms, starting, for example, by maintaining the Assad regime in power contrary to all U.S., European, and Arab claims that it is impossible to rehabilitate the “butcher” of Damascus.

Regardless of whether the endgame is to exclude Assad or let him remain president of a part of partitioned Syria, Moscow wants to the Syrian regime to be a partner in the Syrian future. Russia is empowering the regime to be a strong card in its future negotiations with Washington and European and Arab capitals. In reality, no one but the Kremlin knows whether the Russian strategy is to strengthen Assad to save his regime without him, or whether it really intends to cling on to Assad.

Clearly today, Putin has informed all those concerned that Russia considers the Syrian airspace to be open to its plane, based on a “legitimate” request from the “legitimate” Syrian government. In truth, the U.S.-Russian agreement over Syria’s chemical weapons officially legitimized the Syrian government, despite Barack Obama and others’ official terminology.

Clearly, Moscow wants the U.S.-led international coalition fighting ISIS to recognize that Russia has the legitimate command of Syria’s airspace, and that Russia dictates the rules of engagement. In effect, this is a major shift in geopolitical relations in the Middle East, starting with Syria.

Yet Moscow will not stop at Syria. It wants to expand its operations and role to Iraq, under the guise of the war on ISIS. It is now waiting for the expected official invitation from Baghdad to do so.

Russia surmises that the United States is in state of weakness, hesitation, and decline

Raghida Dergham

Washington will probably oblige, because it does not want to be involved directly in the region, and because the countries of the region will ask for Russian help as long as the U.S. is averse to engagement.

Thus Moscow will succeed in building the alliance it is seeking, comprising Iraq, Russia, Iran, and Syria. The U.S. does not mind, because it does not want to lead in the Middle East. But the question here is this: Is the U.S. deferring to Russia because of the Obama administration’s strategy of non-engagement? Or is part of a long-term U.S. strategy to delegate leadership to Russia in an area that is prime to become a quagmire?

There are two opinions on this. One sees that Syria will be Russia’s second Afghanistan and Iran’s Vietnam. Another says that in the past, there were powers mobilizing against communism, including the U.S., but today, no one is mobilizing against Russia, and that therefore, Russia has little to fear.

On the other hand, the lack of control over groups like ISIS and its ilk could prove that another Afghanistan is indeed in the offing, and a worse one at that.

We shall see.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 9, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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