Russia back on the front line

Some “quick off the cuff notes” by Arthur Dent in response to The Australian’s Tom Switzer who wrote an article on 30 September titled ‘Russia back on the front line’. The notes were originally published at Strange Times. I’m running Arthur’s notes first, followed by Tom Switzer’s article.

****

1. Vivid demonstration that realists live in a parallel universe with a different “reality”. Switzer is actually quite clear that he wants to go back to the old US policy of backing the autocracies and tyrants against their people to maintain the region as a backward swamp (originally for cheap oil and anti-communism then contention with Soviet imperialism and “security” – especally Israeli security in occupying more and more territory and then sheer inertia and blind stupidity of an entire generation of the foreign policy establishment who had devoted their careers to it and persisted with it long after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the end of cheap oil and the failure of the war for Greater Israel having made Israel a strategic albatross hanging around the US neck rather than a US base in the region (the only regional power that could not join the coalition liberating Kuwait from Baathist Iraq and who had to be told their planes would be shot down if they pretended to be part of it by sending any into coalition airspace).

2. In Switzer’s alternate universe, the problem in the Ukraine is “.. the widespread Western failure to recognise an old truth of geopolitics: that a great power fights tooth and nail to protect vital security interests in its near abroad”.

In our universe there is no such Western failure. No Western government is even allowing the Ukrainian government to buy weapons to defend itself against the Russian bullying because they understand with total clarity that they have no power to confront Russian bullying behaviour in that part of the world. The facts Switzer recites about that from lessons about geopolitics drummed into him more than half a century ago are totally obvious to every policy maker and ignored only by the usual shouters.

3. In Switzer’s alternative universe “Putin fears that if Bashar al­Assad’s regime falls, Russia’s presence in western Syria and its strategic military bases on the Mediterranean will be gone.” and “Russia’s navy and advanced anti­aircraft missile systems are based along the Mediterranean. It’s likely to deploy ground troops to the eastern coast.”

In fact Russia’s navy in the Meditarranean is about the size of the US army in the Ukraine. If the Russians were imbeciles attempting what Switzer imagines they are going to do in Syria and Obama was indeed as inept and vacillating as he has successfully convinced pretty well everybody he has always been then the British, French and Turks would have both vital national interests in their near abroad and the capability to act that would compel them to stop the nonsense immediately without waiting a day longer for Obama to stop dithering.

By now Turkey would have closed the Dardanelles (not of course as a hostile act towards that deeply respected partner and Mediterranean Great Power, the Tsar of all the Russias, but simply because they were too busy dealing with the problem of two million refugees having been driven out of Syria by the Assad regime to remember to keep it open).

A few hours sailing time later, the British would have announced that their are command mines laid at Gibraltar that are currently turned on but will be turned off at the approach of any ship that is known not to be assisting anyone forcing millions of Syrians to flee Syria to Europe. Naturally this too would not be a hostile act against anybody but merely a precaution against the possible arrival of the Daesh navy, just as the Russian air to air and surface to air missiles at Latakia are to protect them from the Daesh air force. Naturally the ships of a Meditarranean Great Power like Russia would not be subject to compulsory inspection and the mines would be respecfully turned off as they went about their entirely legitmate business and if any ships of any nation were accidentally sunk by a mine that had failed to remain turned off then Her Majesty’s Government would of course pay full compensation as required by international law etc etc.

All available British and French forces would move as rapidly as possible to the British sovereign base in Cyprus not as a hostile act against anybody but merely as friendly observers of the joint naval exercises that had been announced nearby by the navies of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. After those exercises were completed they would be happy to assist their partners the Russians in returning to Vladivostok via the Suez canal without any danger of becoming subject to inspection by any Arab Gulf states wanting to check whether they were helping any notorious Syrian war criminals to escape as Britain and France are rather in favour of any assistance their Russian partners might be willing to give to Syrian war criminals leaving Damascus right now and don’t really care where they end up as long as they don’t stay in Syria.

4. In Switzer’s alternate universe Putin “has sent tanks, warships, fighter jets and troops to bolster the regime, which has faced a troop shortage and loss of towns as it seeks to maintain Alawite rule over an overwhelming Sunni majority”. Pretty well everbody agrees with Switzer about that, perhaps because those who know better have no reason not to want everybody to think that at the moment.

For my part I’ll just end by saying that Switzer and others should remember what Kissinger said the word would go out about another Great Power:

“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal”

****

Tom Switzer’s piece from The Australian (30 September 2015):

Since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine 18 months ago, the West has indulged in the rhetoric of moral indignation, punished Moscow with economic sanctions and treated Vladimir Putin as a pariah in world affairs. “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters,” President
Barack Obama declared in January. “That’s how America leads — not with bluster but with persistent, steady resolve.”

Somebody forgot to tell the Russian President. Putin’s address to the UN General Assembly this week, following his lightning military deployment to Syria, marks Russia’s resurgence on the global stage. The Russians, far from being marginalised in international relations, are playing a weak hand rather skilfully and are being allowed to do so because of considerable ineptitude and vacillation on the part of the Obama administration.

The upshot is that Washington will have to take the Kremlin far more seriously in the future. This is not just because Putin’s support for the embattled Assad regime will help degrade and destroy Islamic State jihadists in a four ­year civil war that has claimed nearly 250,000 lives and displaced more than nine million people. Rather, Russia’s intervention in Syria shows how rational Moscow’s concerns over Western policy in the Middle East are, and that the Obama administration had better start treating it like the great power it still is.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Moscow voluntarily jettisoned the Warsaw Pact and acquiesced in the expansion of NATO and the EU on to the frontiers of the former Soviet Union. But the limits of Russia’s post ­Cold War retreat have been evident since the Western ­backed coup against a pro-Russian ally in Kiev in February last year. Putin has played hardball to protect what Russia has deemed as its sphere of influence in the Baltics long before Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin appeared on the scene. And in the Middle East it is determined to protect what it perceives as its vital interests.

Putin fears that if Bashar al­Assad’s regime falls, Russia’s presence in western Syria and its strategic military bases on the Mediterranean will be gone. That is why he has sent tanks, warships, fighter jets and troops to bolster the regime, which has faced a troop shortage and loss of towns as it seeks to maintain Alawite rule over an overwhelming Sunni majority.

And by reaching an understanding with Syria as well as Iraq and Iran to share intelligence about Islamic State, Putin is positioning Russia again as a key player in the Middle East, and one that is
more willing than the West to defeat Sunni jihadists. In the process, he has exposed the shortcomings of the White House’s policy towards Syria.

Until recently, the prevailing wisdom held that the Assad regime — the nemesis of Sunni militants was on the verge of collapse, an outcome that Washington, London and Canberra had enthusiastically encouraged for much of the past four years. And although Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop now recognise that Assad must be part of any negotiated political
solution, the Obama administration continues to insist that any resolution of the conflict must lead to the exit of the dictator.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warns Russia’s continued support for Assad “risks exacerbating and extending the conflict” and will undermine “our shared goal of fighting extremism”. British Chancellor George Osborne goes so far as to say the West’s aim should to be to defeat both Assad and Islamic State. But given Washington’s futile attempts to destroy the Sunni jihadist network
during the past year, most seasoned observers of the Syrian crisis are entitled to think that such strategies are manifest madness.

The consequences of removing Assad would be dire. The regime would collapse and its Alawite army would crumble. Sunni jihadists such as Islamic State and al­Qa’ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al­Nusra, also known as al­Nusra Front, would exploit the security vacuum and dominate all of Syria. The ethnic minorities — the Alawites, Shi’ites and Syrian Christians — would be massacred. And there would be the flight of millions more refugees into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

If we are to avoid these horrific outcomes, Russia will have to play a central and positive role. It has had significant influence in Damascus during the past half century; indeed, many Syrian
military officers have received training in Moscow. Russia’s navy and advanced anti­aircraft missile systems are based along the Mediterranean. It’s likely to deploy ground troops to the eastern coast. And Moscow has recognised that notwithstanding Assad’s brutal conduct, his regime is fighting the jihadists that Western leaders repeatedly say pose a grave and present danger to the world.

Obama says the US would work with any nation to end the fighting in Syria. But to engage Russia, the West needs to change its policy approach substantially. Alas, the prevailing Russophobia in
Washington and Brussels remains a serious obstacle in the path of reaching accommodation with Moscow.

The problem in Ukraine is not related to a revival of the Soviet empire, as some hyperventilating politicians and pundits argue. The problem is the widespread Western failure to recognise an old
truth of geopolitics: that a great power fights tooth and nail to protect vital security interests in its near abroad. Take Ukraine: it is a conduit for Russian exports to Europe and covers a huge terrain
that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most Crimeans are glad to be part of the country they called home from Catherine’s rule to that of Nikita Khrushchev.

From Moscow’s standpoint, the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, taken together with efforts to promote democracy, is akin to Moscow expanding military alliances into Central America. Some may respond by saying that Ukraine, however ethnically and politically divided it remains, has every right to join the West. But did communist Cuba have a right to seek political and military ties with the Soviet Union in 1962? Not from Washington’s perspective. Does Taiwan have a right to seek nationhood? Not from Beijing’s perspective.

This is a shame, but it is the way the world works, and always has. Not only does Putin know it, he calculates that a weak, inept and cautious Obama administration won’t push the issue despite the dire threats and warnings from congress and the Pentagon.

And so it was inevitable that the Russians would push back in the Baltics, first to secure the Crimean peninsula, the traditional home of the Russian Black Sea fleet (which Russian intelligence feared would become a NATO base), then to destabilise Ukraine with the aim of persuading Kiev’s anti ­Russian regime to protect the minority rights of ethnic Russians and maintain its status as a buffer state.

As for Syria, the problem here is not the Russians — or even Iran’s Shia crescent of Damascus, Baghdad, Hezbollah and the Yemeni rebels. After all, they’re committed to fighting Sunni jihadists. The problem is that US ­British aligned Sunni states — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs — have aided and abetted the Sunni rebellion that has morphed into Sunni jihadism.

Yet these reactionary regimes still have the temerity to call for Assad’s ouster. Following regime change, we’re told, a US­ led coalition of Arabs and Turks can create a peaceful and prosperous Syria.

Leave aside the fact Assad’s support stems not just from Moscow and Tehran but also from Syria’s military, political and business elites, including many urban Sunnis. Assad is a brutal tyrant. He
has used chemical weapons against his own people. And he has launched relentless barrel bombs in rebel areas. But he is more popular than ever in the one ­third of Syria his regime still controls
(which happens to be the major cities and the coastland). That is largely because many know his demise would lead to widespread ethnic cleansing.

The idea that Assad’s fall would lead to something approaching a peaceful transition of power is as delusional as the neo­conservative views about Iraq and Libya in 2003 and 2011 respectively. The
downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, it was onfidently asserted, would lead to viable democratic states. If anything, both post­Saddam Iraq and post­Gaddafi Libya are failed
states that have attracted terrorists like flies to a dying animal.

As in the case of Iraq, Syria is an artificial state and an ethnically divided society created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. In both nations the invasion and civil war, respectively, have unleashed centrifugal forces that are eroding political structures and borders that have prevailed since the end of World War I.

In Iraq, the 2003 invasion ended the nation’s sectarian imbalance between the minority Sunni and majority Shia communities. Ever since, the Shia have been more interested in seeking revenge against their former Sunni tormentors than in building a nation. The result: a Sunni insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of jihadist groups, including Islamic State.

In Syria, the Arab Spring in 2011 encouraged the Sunni majority to challenge and destroy the minority Alawite regime. The result: centrifugal forces that threaten the viability of Syria as we have known it for nearly a century.

As unfashionable as it is to acknowledge, partition is the likely outcome of the civil war. According to Joshua Landis, a veteran Syria observer and director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, many Syrians, and Alawites in particular, privately acknowledge that the prospect of outright military victory against the Sunni militants is highly unlikely and that it would be impossible to coexist with Sunni fanatics.

For Syria, partition would most likely mean an Alawite Shia state in the regime’s western heartland and a Sunni state to the southeast. Notwithstanding statements to the contrary, this is the emerging reality on the ground.

As long as the regime endures, it at least prevents Sunni jihadists from consolidating their hold over the whole nation and creating a strategic sanctuary along Syria’s coasts.

The moral and political problems posed by Syria’s civil war during the past four years have been real and extremely difficult ones. Assad heads a brutal regime that, according to The Washington Post, has killed about seven times as many people as Islamic State in the first six months of this year.

But the cold, hard reality is that if the US and its allies are serious about defeating the Sunni jihadists, and not merely determined to feel virtuous and moralistic, we will need to tone down our
anti­Russian bombast, restore a dialogue with Putin and recognise the madness of regime change in Damascus. And if that means accommodating Putin’s power play in the Middle East, so be it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s