Syria: The Price of Russia’s Support
The current churn in the Middle East provides fresh proof that the end of the multi-polar world is drawing nigh. The emerging geopolitical situation looks not so much multi-polar but as a world without poles, as the functions of policeman are performed dismally, no matter by whom.
America is growing weaker owing to a sea change in the world economy, the financial crisis and the spread of technologies (including military technology) to the countries formerly dominated by the West. The European Union, as an economic rival of the US, has proved vulnerable and is not a credible military force. Military casualties have become the NATO’s Achilles heel and the inevitable high cost of overseas military actions is, in a parliamentary system, an ideal instrument for wrecking any government coalition. There is no longer an ideological adversary as powerful as the former USSR, a role that neither Russia nor China, which are increasingly opening up and integrating into the world political and economic systems, fit. Attempts to mobilise the Western community against another “axis of evil,” therefore, hardly elicit a response that might even remotely approach the level of consolidation during the Cold War.
The key and secondary players
As a consequence, such figures in the Big Game that, as late as the beginning of the 20th century, were doomed to domination and dismemberment, such as Turkey, Iran and China, are pursuing independent policies and regaining their historical spheres of influence. The same holds for India, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, some Southeast Asian states and the Arab Middle East countries. The interests of these emerging countries depend less and less on the West. Rather, they are using the West, which needs alliances with the former colonies and satellites no less than the latter need Western investments, technologies and markets.
The mounting confrontation between the Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab Middle East, led by the conservative monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula that make up the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG), is pushing the region towards war. It may turn out to be a “war of attrition”, which is less dangerous for Iran than the blocking of the Hormuz Strait or Iran’s strike on the “Arab island”, which would inevitably provoke retaliation by the US and other NATO countries guaranteeing the security of the Arabian monarchies. In anticipation of that clash, the CCASG occupation force put down Shia protests in the Saudi Kingdom’s Eastern Province and in Bahrain.
Both once pro-Soviet circles and Western-leaning liberals suffered defeat in the struggle for power during the “Arab spring.” In Maghreb and Egypt (in the latter case, with the participation of the military junta), power is contested by the Muslim Brotherhood and their numerous clones, Salafites and traditionalists among whom Sufi orders are influential. The Arab monarchies are their main political patrons and sponsors, while the West is a potential partner and market. They show no interest in Russia.
The fall of the authoritarian regimes in North African countries has created not only a power vacuum but also a glut in the modern weapons market, including that for PZRK portable anti-aircraft missiles, PTRK anti-tank missiles, heavy mines, etc. This has ushered in a new stage of sabotage and terrorist warfare waged by Al-Qaeda Iraq, Al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb countries, the Somalian Al-Shabab, the Nigerian Boko Haram and similar Afghan-Pakistani groups from Jundallah in Baluchi to the Pashto Taliban. With rare exceptions such as the Syrian wing of the Palestinian Hamas movement, they share the ideas of opposing not only secular rulers, Shias and the West, but also Russia.
Jordan and Morocco, which maintain stable relations with Russia, have been invited to join the CCASG, but have serious domestic problems and depend on the support of the West and the Gulf monarchies much more than on relations with Moscow. The military junta in Mauritania relies on France and the US, although it has not joined the anti-Syrian bloc. Algeria traditionally stands apart, remaining the last secular autocracy in the Maghreb.
Paradoxically, the only stable border across which arms and fighters are not pouring into Syria is the one with Israel. Jerusalem, which is officially at war with Damascus, is interested in Syria’s stability. The break-up of Syria is sure to trigger a chain reaction in Lebanon, Jordan and on the West Bank.
Turkey plays a special role in the goings-on around Iran and Syria. In Syria, Turkey controls the formation of armed opposition in border areas, is organising reception of refugees on the Turkish territory, is supporting Assad’s opponents and, should such a decision be made, can deliver on Syria a strike that it has no chance of beating off. Alternately, Turkey might introduce a limited military force into northern Syria, by analogy with Iraq. That operation would be backed by the Arab world and would bring the NATO, of which Turkey is a member, into the game.
The UN’s role in the Syria-Iran crisis is technical: although, as Iraq has shown, the US does not need its approval to launch military operations, it is easier to secure the approval of military budgets by US Congress and European parliaments if there is a UN mandate for such operations. The UN system enables Russia and China to block Libya-type resolutions in the Security Council, but the importance of this should not be exaggerated. At the same time, support for the use of force is essential for the NATO, which experienced serious difficulties in coordinating the actions of the alliance’s members in Libya where even Germany, one of the key European states, played a passive and symbolical role.
What should Russia do?
Russia’s options regarding the situation around Syria and Iran are limited. It can dump Bashar al-Assad and support the defeat of Iran, which is what the liberals in Russia, the Arab monarchies and the West want, but which would be opposed by Turkey. But what is the point?
Moscow can side with Iran against the Arabs and the West, as the conservative patriotic bloc and the Iranian lobby want it. But there again, what is the point?
Finally, Russia may stay on its present course. Yet, while admitting that the country’s leadership knows best, one should have a clear idea why this course is best and what risks it entails.
Over the past 25 years, supporting the West has never brought Russia what it counted on or had been promised. The West does not see Moscow as an equal partner, as proved by the Libyan case, or rather, the losses suffered there by the Russian corporations, in spite of the country’s stance of positive neutrality at the UN. So, if somebody needs the Russian support in Syria and, especially, in Iran, that would come at a price. The price is measured not in finances but in the oft-proclaimed Russian geopolitical interests that have been ignored by the international community throughout the post-Soviet period.
The attempt to turn Moscow into a military-political ally of Tehran by setting it against the West is equally destructive for our country. Moscow’s current strategy enables Russia to save face and bide time not so much for Iran or Syria, but in its own interests. Washington’s dumping of its allies may be justified tactically in the short term, but strategically it is a failure that bears out the Arab saying: “It is dangerous to be America’s enemy, but it is twice as dangerous to be its friend.” Flirting with Islamists will not bring anything but another 9/11, although their sponsors in the Gulf monarchies are demonstrating how “the Arab tail wags the American dog.”
For Russia, neither the West, nor Turkey, nor Iran are allies, nor can they be. Their interests are at odds with ours, be they economic or religious dominance in the post-Soviet space, the laying of pipelines via Turkey bypassing Russia, the new division of the Caspian insisted on by Iran or the building of LNG plants by Qatar in the European centres to which Russian gas pipelines lead. The situation is dangerous and problematic, but it cannot be different in any case.
A strike on Iran or Syria, if it ever happens, will weaken those who launch it. Whether or not it happens, the building of pipelines competing with Russian projects will be put on hold. The threat to Sunni Islamists by Shia Islamists locks them in combat with each other, thus defusing the problem of radicalism inside Russia. Surely, considering the consequences for the US of supporting Al-Qaeda, Russia should not follow a similar suicidal path. The problem of refugees, who will head for Azerbaijan and Russia from Iran if it is attacked, is a problem of filtration and accommodation, which is not inseparable judging from Israel’s recent experience.
Finally, whether or not there is a regime change in Tehran is not Russia’s problem. Judging from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Middle East situation cannot be controlled from without.
Yevgeny Satanovsky is President of the Middle East Studies Institute.
The text is available at http://vpk-news.ru/articles/8598)