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Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

The New Bipolar World Has Arrived

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The United States, the lone superpower, has presented two draft resolutions to the UN Security Council on the North Korea problem and Syrian conflict respectively (here and here) – based on the understanding it reached through two water-tight bilateral consultative processes with two ‘half-superpowers’ – China and Russia. Now, don’t two halves make a wholesome one? Welcome to the new ‘bipolar’ world order.

Just as Beijing would have been taken by surprise at the US-Russian deal on Syria, which came out of the blue last Sunday, Moscow would take note that Washington and Beijing simply set out the road map on North Korea sanctions without taking Russia into confidence. But neither China nor Russia can complain because the lone superpower managed to make each feel special its own way.

A Russian diplomat in New York has promptly promised to study the draft resolution on North Korea sanctions. Beijing took a little extra time — almost two days — to issue a statement welcoming the US-Russian deal on Syria. The foreign ministers of Russia and China are not known to have spoken to each other even once during this past eventful one-week period although both claim to "co-ordinate" their foreign policy moves, while both nonetheless clocked several hours with their American counterpart.

It will be a signal achievement of the US diplomacy if it has succeeded in inserting itself laterally into the much-vaunted Sino-Russian entente. At any rate, Washington has brilliantly capitalized on the intense craving felt in Moscow and Beijing for somehow engendering an uplift in their respective ties with the US.
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Turkey Flexes Muscle in Syria

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The Turkish army has continued for the second day the shelling of the positions of the Syrian Kurdish militia across the border, demanding that the latter withdraw from the territories they’ve gained lately in the northern Aleppo province, especially the strategic military base of Menagh, which is vital to the supply lines from Turkey for the Syrian rebel groups.

But the Kurdish fighters are defiant and have rejected the Turkish demand. In turn, they have warned that they will resist any Turkish incursion. The Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim told Reuters that the Turkish army will find “the entire Syrian people confronting them”.

The latest reports suggest that the Kurdish militia, with Russian air cover, are encircling another strategic town of Tal Rifat close to the Turkish border. To be sure, Ankara faces a frontal challenge from the Kurdish militia who have rubbished its ‘red lines’ to the west of Euphrates and are now steadily advancing to take control of the territories straddling the Turkish border.

The Turkish objective will be to carve out a buffer zone inside Syria, which it has long advocated, ostensibly to provide for refugee camps for people fleeing the conflict zone, but in reality to gain control of the border territories and prevent the Syrian Kurds from gaining access to them.
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Syrian War Ends West’s Dominance of Middle East

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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.
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Turkey’s ‘Bear Trap’ Option in Syria

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The two incidents involving Turkey and the Russian aircraft operating in northern Syria on successive days in the weekend throw into bold relief the single most crucial template of the Syrian conflict in the coming months. Turkey happens to be the only regional power that could actually create a “quagmire” for Russia in Syria – similar to the role Pakistan performed in the eighties vis-à-vis the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Like in the case of Pakistan (which started nurturing Islamist groups in Afghanistan as far back as the early seventies, much before the Soviet intervention), Turkey too has a 3-4 year old nexus with the extremist groups in Syria (including the Islamic State). These Islamist groups hold the potential to be transformed as the famous “Peshawar Seven” of the Afghan jihad in the eighties – provided, of course, Turkish President Recep Erdogan chooses to follow the audacious footsteps of the Pakistani dictator Gen. Zi ul-Haq.

Will he, or won’t he? That is the question that Moscow will be keenly testing out in the weeks and months ahead. Consider the following.

An unnamed Turkish official bragged on Friday that the country’s radar system had “locked on” the Russian aircraft operating in northern Syria. If so, no doubt, it was an unfriendly — and needlessly provocative — act by Turkey.
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Russia Exposes US Hidden Agenda in Syria

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The Syrian refugee problem was maturing slowly steadily and would have provided the perfect pretext for a US-led ‘humanitarian intervention’ in that country. But Russia is there first and the best-laid American plan may have gone awry.

The US Middle East policies have been fixated obsessively on ‘regime change’ in Syria for at least a decade ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (The original neocon agenda had envisaged regime changes in Iraq, Iran and Syria, but it got derailed as the killing fields in Iraq began dictating the geopolitics.)

It stands to reason that the Russian intelligence has caught on to the US diabolical plot to create a fait accompli in Syria on the ground. Washington’s Faustian deal with Turkey and President Barack Obama’s authorization for air strikes in Syria (including against government forces), the haste with which Britain and Australia joined the US bombing mission on Syria, NATO statements, the behind-the-scenes undercutting by the US of Moscow’s robust efforts to kickstart an intra-Syrian peace process – the tell-tale signs on the politico-military plane were there aplenty.
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Obama Inherits Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni War

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The US-backed Saudi military intervention in Yemen is entering a dangerous phase. Clearly, the Saudi air attacks, guided by US intelligence and logistics support, have not had any worthwhile impact so far on the Houthi campaign to seize control of southern Yemeni port city of Aden. But it is Pakistan that may have dealt a lethal blow to the US-Saudi campaign today.

The country’s parliament has unanimously called for Pakistan staying neutral in the Yemen conflict except in the highly improbable eventuality of Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity being violated. In operative terms, this means that Pakistan will not join any ground attacks on Yemen. Which in turn means that the Saudi intervention will be severely cramped, since military experts and analysts doubt the efficacy of the Saudis achieving any worthwhile results through the air attacks alone.

Without Pakistan, the much-touted Saudi “coalition” becomes a macabre joke. Read a Guardian report, here, on the actual composition of the Saudis’ so-called coalition. It is out of the question that Egypt’s Field marshal Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi has forgotten that Egypt under Nasser once burnt its fingers very badly in Yemen.
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US/Afghan Pact: Permanent Occupation

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Writing on the subject of “foreign troops” a few months ago, the well known Guardian columnist and editor Seumas Milne observed, “It’s almost never discussed in the political mainstream. But thousands of foreign troops have now been stationed in Britain for more than 70 years. There’s been nothing like it since the Norman invasion. With the 15-month Dutch occupation of London in 1688-89 a distant competitor, there has been no precedent since 1066 for the presence of American forces in a string of military bases for the better part of a century.” 

The case of Germany where American bases were established following World War II is even more curious. Forty-two US military installations still exist in Germany 70 years after the war ended and even after the “enemy” vanished —  the Soviet Union. 

This is also the most intriguing question that no one is prepared to answer regarding the US-Afghan pact, known popularly as the Bilateral Security Agreement or the BSA, which was signed in Kabul on September 30. What explains the long-term military presence of a superpower on foreign soil?
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Afghanistan Faces Uncertain Future

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Afghanistan has witnessed two major events in the most recent weeks. One is the assumption of office by Ashraf Ghani as the next president of the country, succeeding Hamid Karzai. The second has been the signing of the two “back-to-back” security pacts between Afghanistan on the one hand and the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] on the other. 

Both developments are of historical importance in their own ways. Ghani’s presidency signifies a rare peaceful transition of power in the ebb and flow of Afghan history. 

As for the second, Afghanistan has been invaded and occupied before in its tumultuous history dating back to Alexander the Great – the last famous occupation followed the British invasion in the 19th century – but never before has that country had to agree to foreign military presence on its soil in such an open-ended fashion. 

Equally, for the first time in its history, Afghanistan is taking help from a foreign military alliance. Indeed, the subplot here is also that the foreign military presence is not of a regional character, but is “extra-regional” drawn from countries from a faraway region which is tens of thousands miles away from South or Central Asia and have had no shared history or culture with Afghanistan.
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US Slouches Toward Syria, Again...

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The Americans have a habit of first naming their imminent war before the troops march out and it will be interesting to see how this one is going to be christened. There seems some ambiguity about the war ahead in Iraq and Syria – what it is really going to be as it gathers momentum. That probably explains the shyness in naming it. 

What began as "humanitarian intervention" in Iraq has since spread from Kurdistan to Baghdad to Anbar and in the past forty-eight hours or so reached Syria with the US president having given approval for sustained air reconnaissance missions in its airspace. 

So far, the US’s intervention in Iraq has been episodic but it produced some gains. These gains have been far from consolidated or irreversible, but are important enough. Humanitarian aid has apparently reached the beleaguered Yazidi community on Mount Sinjar and some areas lost to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Lebanon [ISIL] in northern Iraq – Gwer, Makhmour and the Mosul Dam – have been retaken by the Kurdish forces with the help of US air strikes. An ISIL advance toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil has been stalled for the present.
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Obama's Skewed Policy Priorities in Middle East

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The US State Department has maintained that continuity rather than change in the American policy is what should be expected in the aftermath of the killing of photojournalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria early this week. 

The State Department’s media briefings insisted that there has been an “ongoing policy initiative”, an “ongoing effort” on the part of Washington to meet the ISIL threat and “we will continue doing what we’re doing in Iraq.” So, on Wednesday, the US military took an additional 14 air strikes around the Mosul Dam. 

Second, the US reserves the right to take action against Foley’s killer and won’t be “ruling anything in or out” – including military operations inside Syria. That is to say, the “principles that guide” will be the same that guided earlier occasions of a similar kind such as in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. 

Third, the Syrian regime remains a "pariah," no matter its hostility towards the ISIL, insofar as the US cannot forget that Damascus “allowed this group to flourish” and “facilitated their movement to Iraq.” Therefore, the US would rather focus on building “capable partners” in Iraq and among the “moderate opposition” in Syria that can take on the ISIL and will continue to seek the replacement of President Bashar al-Assad.
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