Syrian War Ends West’s Dominance of Middle East
Three weeks and five days into the Russian military operations in Syria, Moscow has achieved the objective of compelling the major external players involved to rethink their established stance on the crisis. Unsurprisingly, new fault lines have appeared in Middle East politics. Last week witnessed a surge diplomatic activity to cope with the new fault lines.
First, of course, much as the United States dislikes the Russian military role in Syria, Washington and Moscow concluded a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday regarding the ground rules guiding the aircraft of the two countries operating in the Syrian skies so that no untoward incidents occur. In political terms, Washington is coming to terms with a Russian presence in Syria for a foreseeable future. (By the way, an analysis by FT concludes that Russia can easily sustain the financial costs of the military operations in Syria.)
This, in turn, has intensified the US-Russian diplomatic exchanges on Syria. The US Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Vienna on Friday at a meeting that also included the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to discuss the various approaches to bringing together the Syrian parties to peace talks.
Kerry disclosed that the discussions may continue in a wider format (possibly including Iran, Egypt and Jordan as well) next Friday, which suggests that there was sufficient meat in the discussions in Vienna to be followed up without delay. Put differently, some sort of coordinated US-Russian moves on Syria in the coming days or weeks cannot be ruled out.
The Russians are of course eager to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the US, which is apparent from President Vladimir Putin’s extensive remarks on Syria while addressing the Valdai Club in Sochi on Thursday. His audience, which was predominantly American, was left in no doubt that he was actually addressing his US counterpart Barack Obama, while putting in perspective his dramatic move to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow on Tuesday night as part of a multi-vector approach to bring about proximity between and amongst the warring Syrian parties, excluding the terrorist groups. (See my dispatch from Sochi, Russia, Iran hold common views on Syria.)
Putin disclosed that he advised Assad to “establish working contacts” with the Free Syrian Army [FSA], which comprises CIA-trained rebel groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, thus signifying a remarkable flexibility (or pragmatic or shift or whatever you may call it) in Moscow’s stance hitherto, which used to be that there is nothing like a ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition and FSA is a mythical creature of western propaganda.
Putin further announced that Moscow favors parliamentary and presidential elections in Syria as well as constitutional reforms in Syria. In sum, Russia would have no objections to a ‘regime change’ in Syria provided that is orderly and constitutional and through a democratic process. The only caveat is that any transition or long term settlement ought to be ‘inclusive’, reflecting the aspirations of all of Syria’s religious and ethnic groups. To be sure, Putin expects Obama to reciprocate by allowing US-Russia coordinated moves on Syrian peace process.
Meanwhile, after the talks in Vienna, Lavrov telephoned Kerry from Moscow on Saturday – evidently, with further ideas about how to move forward. Interestingly, on Sunday, both Lavrov and Kerry also touched base with their respective allies – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lavrov briefed his Iranian counterpart on the talks in Vienna while Kerry made a sudden trip to Saudi Arabia to meet King Salman. Whether these were calibrated moves is hard to say but they seem to complement each other. Both Washington and Moscow want Iran to come in and be a full participant in the next round of discussions, but both know it is a problematic issue due to internal opposition within the Iranian regime regarding any sort of talks involving the US as well as due to the acute Saudi hostility towards the idea.
Meanwhile, Egypt and Jordan have edged closer to Moscow. Russia and Jordan have agreed, in fact, to set up a coordination centre to cooperate on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State. This is a signal diplomatic achievement for Moscow since Jordan has been the ‘frontline’ state from where the ‘regime change’ agenda was being pushed into Syria by the US and its allies. In effect, Jordan has pulled out of the enterprise to overthrow Assad.
As for Egypt, it has spoken in favor of the Russian operations in Syria and has stated that the fight against terrorism ought to be the top priority, and, furthermore, that Syria’s unity and stability is of utmost concern. Egypt’s stance has displeased Saudi Arabia, which explains the hurried trip by Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir to Cairo on Sunday. It appears that Al-Jubeircould not persuade Egypt to fall in line with the Saudi approach, which continues to be fixated on the pre-requisite that Assad must be removed from power and that in any peace process that comes first.
Indeed, if Jordan and Egypt ‘defect’ from the Saudi camp, that will badly isolate Riyadh in the regional line-up. Nonetheless, Moscow’s best hope still will be that Saudi Arabia changes course on own accord. Prima facie, Saudi Arabia sticks to a hard line, but all empirical evidence shows that such a course is unsustainable. Saudi Arabia is overstretched in the war in Yemen; the IMF has just warned that Saudi Arabia may run out of money within 5 years unless it spends prudently; without doubt, there is growing disaffection within the country; and, it is an open secret that King Salman’s rule is resented by powerful quarters within the royal family.
The Russian diplomacy has met with masterly success in fostering friendly relations with Jordan and Egypt through the recent years. But, the underlying reality is that all three are stakeholders in the fight against the IS. In all this, however, Turkey remains the wild card – critical of both the US and Russia for aligning with the Syrian Kurds; keeping an ambivalent stance on the extremist groups operating in Syria; and, calling for ‘regime change’ in Syria. Until such time as the turbulence in Turkish domestic politics settles down – parliamentary elections are due next Sunday – and a new government is formed and new policies evolve, the US and Russia would have no option but to sidestep Turkey as a meaningful interlocutor.
Turkey is badly isolated in the region and has an acute sense of vulnerability over the Kurdish issue, which is of an existential nature too. The good thing is that Turkey is unlikely to press ahead as a lone ranger in Syria. It may ultimately choose to safeguard its core concerns and vital interests, where the prevention of any autonomous Syrian Kurdish entity taking shape along its border regions becomes the top priority.
The Turks know the West is not going to get involved in Syria. They also have a healthy respect for Russian power, which is embedded deep within their historical consciousness. Above all, Turkey is a divided house today and there is no consensus on such crucial issues as Syria. The sharp polarization will continue so long as President Recep Erdogan remains in power.
One of the main outcomes of the Syrian civil war in regional politics could be that Turkey has been destabilized. It has become a pale shadow of the flourishing democracy and the role model for the Muslim Middile East that it used to be until recently. (See an insightful analysis of ailing Turkey, Old Demons in New Faces? The ‘Deep State’ meets Erdogan’s ‘New Turkey’ in the Huffington Post.)
It is a matter of time before Russia receives request from the established government in Baghdad to support it in the fight against the Islamic State. The US-led war against the IS is proving a dismal failure. Baghdad feels exasperated and despite the arm-twisting by Washington not to bring Russia onto the Iraqi theatre, things may well be moving in that direction already. Egypt, Syria, Iraq — they form the throbbing heart of ‘Arabism’ in the Middle East’s modern history. In overall terms, therefore, the curtain seems to be coming down on the century-old western dominance of the Middle East.
Ambassador M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
Reprinted with permission from Indian Punchline blog.