Systemic corruption does not deserve our tacit consent

The 19th century British politician, Lord Acton, averred that ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Over the last 150 or so years, this axiom on the link between power and corruption has proven time and again to be a highly perceptive comment on the darker side of human nature. From Nixon to Castro to Mugabe, there are countless instances of world leaders who subordinated the well-being of their people to the fulfilment their own self-interest. And while corruption is a widespread phenomenon, ranging from public service to private enterprise, from an individual to an international scale, it is at its most indefensible when committed by those acting in an official capacity for personal gain. Fostering a lack of accountability, transparency and good faith in government, corruption represents one of the single biggest threats to the well-being of a country.

When corruption is systemic, and corrupt practices are rewarded with wealth, power and impunity, then people are drawn into public service for the wrong reasons. Indeed, if there is a culture of impunity, then corruption represents a low-risk, high-reward means of advancing both you career standing and your personal fortune.

The numbers bear witness to the predominance of corruption throughout the world. Some sixty countries in the world are plagued by systemic corruption.  China and India, countries with populations of over a billion, are constantly battling systemic corruption.

Corruption is so inexcusable that it ought to be addressed head-on with comprehensive reform. And governments recognise that. And that is far less likely to be forthcoming if the common man and woman think that the personal motives of ruling officials are being prioritised over their own wellbeing. Which explains why it is very common for countries to task specialised anti-corruption committees with addressing the issue. However, when the problem is so entrenched and all-pervasive, these committees often merely act as a smokescreen. Take the example of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, who admitted having run a state-sponsored doping program for Russian athletes. Or Mishan Al-Jabourri, the head of the Iraqi anti-corruption committee, who brazenly admitted in February of last year that ‘everybody is corrupt, from the top to the bottom, including me’. It is disheartening that those tasked with rooting out corruption are engaged in the very same malpractices. Further, it shows that governments are often content with merely being seen to address corruption, rather than doing so in practice.

So what can realistically be done? It is plainly clear that this is a deeply rooted and highly complex problem, a problem whose exact character varies from country to country, but whose defining traits are universal. Effective reforms are reliant on political will. It is imperative that key political actors display credible intent to attack corruption at a systemic level. Those very same people who have acquired power and money in an imperfect system must be willing to use their influence to foster a new, meritocratic culture from the top down. On the other hand, there is the risk that the powerful in society, those with an incentive to maintain the status quo, will mobilise powerful forces to protect their own vested interests. Indeed, countless reformers with the most honourable intentions have failed out of an inability to neutralise resistance. Investigative bodies must be entirely independent and free from interference by the government or the judiciary system.

Corruption is something about which we cannot afford, in good conscience, to be defeatist. Corruption runs contrary to all that is humanly decent. It undermines democracy, it precludes meritocracy and it allows the few to steal from the many. Any attempt to fight corruption, however imperfect, is better than none.

Get Real on Russia

Russia hates the West and the West hates Russia. Or so it seems much of the time. All that Russian dastardliness over Ukraine for a start. From a Russian perspective, places like Ukraine and Syria have always fallen within their hegemony, and we in the West are trying to muscle in on their patch. Which is of course true. We are doing just that.

In regard to Russia the scales are reversed. There is far too much emphasis on Russia’s hegemonic misdeeds which are minor in comparison to those of the West (e.g. the catastrophic Anglo-French promotion of war in Libya despite Russian misgivings).

And meanwhile human rights abuses in Russia are almost utterly ignored.

In Russia it is now a crime to “Deny Traditional Family Values” (an anti-gay measure). In Russia, any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment is no longer a crime. And now there are murmurs about a proposed draconian anti-abortion law to appease the Orthodox Church. We need constructive dialogue with Russia. It is in their interest and it is in our interest.

Meanwhile it was extraordinary to hear British Premier Theresa May accusing Russia of interference in Western elections the other day in her Mansion House speech. We in the West were past masters at interfering in Soviet elections back in the day. We had a whole disinformation department established by my late father’s friend Lord Mayhew. It was called the IRD, or the Information Research Department. It was disbanded by Lord Owen during his tenure as Foreign Secretary in 1977. But that didn’t stop us interfering in the last Russian elections – or that at least is the Russian perception. Nor does it stop us from putting ruthless pressure on Russia even at the most petty level, such as the recent moves to freeze the Russia Today bank account in the UK by the National Westminster Bank.

We need to be wiser and less petty and work together with Russia to build a safer world. Our petty politics should end. Another Cold War serves nobody.

Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia

Freedom of expression is an essential cornerstone of any democratic society. Constructive dialogue is only achieved when ideas of all types, however unfavourable, are discussed and valued. In a modern democracy, ideas are communicated in three main domains – through traditional media outlets, in public demonstrations and over the internet. In Russia, the opportunity for free expression is being thwarted in all three arenas of dialogue.

Under Putin government legislation has seen the content of mainstream media become dispiritingly predictable. Fines and penalties are levied on media not conforming to the Kremlin’s political narrative. As a result, independent outlets have either closed down due to lack of funds or been forced into self-censorship. The remaining mainstream media companies are either state controlled or funded by government loyalists, effectively silencing the voice of the opposition.

During the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, for example, the RIA media company would often quote Alexei Navalny, the anti-government candidate, in its campaign news reports. Needless to say Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, directly contacted the agency’s editor-in-chief warning her that a state news agency must not work against the state’s own interests by promoting the opposition.

However, the internet has presented Putin’s opposition with a new platform to challenge the government. At the end of 2011, mass anti-government protests were organised through social media, highlighting the effectiveness of the internet as a tool for political mobilisation. In response to these demonstrations, the government introduced new legislation allowing them to censor and block internet content and in recent times has introduced significant restrictions on online speech.

Online space for the public debate of sensitive issues, such as Syria, Ukraine and LGBT rights, has begun to shrink and people have even been arrested for blogging their views. In the same way that media companies were forced into self-censorship, members of the public have become increasingly insecure about limits of acceptable speech. Combine this with the spate of arrests at the recent nationwide anti-corruption protests and it becomes clear that the opportunity for public dialogue is being stifled in all spheres.

Putin’s brand of authoritarianism treats freedom of expression not as a right but as an impediment. This ‘we-know-best’ policing of anti-government ideas reflects the insecurity of Putin’s government. 20th-century political history tells you that fear mongering and the suppression of dialogue are the foundations on which oppressive political regimes are built. The Russian people must be granted their right to receive and spread all types of information.

 

The Immolation of the West?

There are persistent claims in the media that amount to a picture of a possible combined ‘Sunni’ intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is said that Saudi Arabia is considering an armed incursion. Turkey is frequently tipped to engage and then nothing happens. Lord Howell of Guildford asked a most interesting question in the House of Lords which concluded:

Could she [the Minister responsible] just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.

The Minister gave no clear reply. We may note a related question on British engagement in the region in the House of Commons which received the following answer from Penny Mordaunt Minister of State, Minister for the Armed Forces:

We have deployed a small number of military personnel serving as liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to provide insight into Saudi operations. They remain under UK command and control. These liaison officers are not involved in the targeting process – whether it be the selection, decision making or directing. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”

Something is up and Parliament seems unclear precisely what. But British military personnel are already involved in one or more regional conflicts without a very clear mandate. Is mission creep already in danger of setting in? Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more clear that the US is disinclined to intervene directly despite fairly aggressive lobbying from the Syrian Opposition in Washington (which also has strong links to the High Tory element in Parliament and Government).

We can speculate and speculate but anything we say may well result in egg on our faces when the facts are known, Nevertheless, what seems to be happening is two-fold. First, an appreciation that the Russian intervention is not going to result in the fall of Assad at the hands of the rebels and, second, that the drive outwards from Damascus could, if unchecked, destroy the ‘moderate’ Opposition and send waves of refugees into Turkey and thence to Europe and south into Jordan. Jordan is the forgotten nation here and its stability is a major concern of certainly the British.

The solution may be to use armed force to hold enclaves that stop border movements (and retain some bargaining position for the opposition) and also act as barriers to ISIS – but to secure these enclaves may require sovereign nations to invade another sovereign country which may then turn the business into a war of national liberation and pull in the countervailing regional powers, trigger opportunistic revolts amongst minorities within the primary invading powers and lead the superpowers into a confrontation that neither wants. The problem of Ukraine and the Baltic States lies behind this in a world where everything is connected.

It is, of course, an utter mess. The secrecy of the British Executive in relation to its own Parliament under conditions where many Britons have deeply negative feelings towards the two Sunni regional powers is a sign of its political weakness. The Government does not have the historic consensus on foreign policy to rely on – quite the contrary, although divided the Labour Opposition is led by a man who is suspicious of NATO, prefers dialogue to armed intervention under almost all conceivable conditions and is a known critic of the human rights record of just about everyone.

There are a number of things to consider here other than the obvious fact that, despite Kerry’s sterling work, Russia and, more indirectly, Iran hold all the cards in Syria. The ultimate fear in the White House is that the Sunni states intervene, ‘blow it’ and, in responding, Russia triggers a proto-global conflict by ‘accident’ that results in domestic protests in the West that would make Vietnam look like a picnic. Bear in mind that the New Hampshire Primary has now badly frightened the Washington Establishment – we have two lead candidates who oppose the consensus and many of whose supporters would rather vote for the other than for an Establishment alternative within their own Party.

This utter mess could even be presented as the fifteen year history of a reversal – the blundering attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East has resulted in conditions that threaten liberal democracy at home, initially from a security state mentality and now from reactive revolutionary populisms.

Given the hysteria about terrorism and refugees and the rise of the new left-wing and national populist movements, a major destabilising crisis involving overseas armed engagement would actually destabilise Europe and even perhaps (though less certainly) the US and split the Alliance – what a prize for Mr. Putin! Note the reluctance of the UK Government actually to do anything publicly that would be effective in Syria (using its air power) despite winning a vote. The contentious vote that almost split the Opposition now looks as if it was designed only to cause some political mayhem domestically and to re-establish the principle that the Government could do what it willed.

The truth is that the Western public is deeply divided. It is unlikely to go to war willingly to defend Muslim obscurantism no matter how moderate the Islamists (and it will turn on its own Governments if it is pushed too far). Worse for the old elite, the psychological operation to demonise Russia and give NATO the latitude for action are falling rather flat except amongst the High Tory and Atlanticist Labour converted. Social media scrutiny is creating a substantial minority ready to take a resistance view of the matter and the mass of the population simply do not care but know they are not going to die for a bit of East European black earth or Middle Eastern desert. Short of an instant nuclear exchange, Putin holds a lot of the propaganda cards which he can then turn to his benefit in Europe and especially in destabilising both France (where he has been courting the NF) and Germany (where Russia has always had friends in high places).

In terms of the consequences of a civilised settlement in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may actually be part of the problem for the West, more than Iran and Russia (neither of which actually wants to go to the brink). That is, I believe, understood by policymakers and is a situation that will continue until Obama is replaced (over a year away) but only if his successor is not an outlier like Sanders or Trump, both of whom express some radical new views about America’s interests.

As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s attitude to Al-Assad is partly a matter of calculated interest and partly a matter of ‘honour’ that goes back to the assassination of Hariri, their primary agent in the Levant. Killing their regional man requires a remorseless vengeance that cannot end – this is politics but politics that is also personal in a world where the clientage systems of tradition matter. The personal is the political. Honour (no longer an issue in Western rational minds) remains live in Saudi minds.

This is not fully understood by many outside analysts. They dismiss it as ‘irrational’ or something that can be negotiated away but it cannot be so because it has its own inner logic. Saudi networks of allegiance are based on a feudal commitment to service in return for protection. The Saudis failed to protect their man because of ‘treachery’. They must avenge him to show that they will do so in other such cases and that their service providers need not go elsewhere if things get wobbly.

We have also detected a rising Saudi nationalism in the Saudi middle classes – analogous to being British and relating that Britishness to allegiance to the Crown (rather than to the People au Corbyn). A certain degree of militarism and swaggering goes with the territory as it did at the equivalent stage of development in European proto-nationalism. But it is sincere and growing stronger. The primitive view that Saudis are primitives is worse than insulting. It is wrong. It is a highly sophisticated political culture with close links to the British Royal Family and an intimate understanding of power and of how it is held and maintained.

Saudi nationalism rather than simpler reliance on feudal relations is a natural development that is culturally transformative if risky. Many Saudis respond to it.  It has also become a political necessity that binds the old tribal interests with the rising middle classes in a common destiny and it helps to explain a strategy of assertive and disruptive intervention across the region. One’s eyes should turn not north but south to Yemen where this is expressing itself most forcibly and where Western claims about ‘right conduct’ are dismissed when necessary.

For example, the Saudis (and Emiratis) need access to Assab Port to maintain their war in Yemen yet Assab Port is held by a pariah government (Eritrea) as far as the West is concerned. Given the criticality of Ethiopia to the anti-Islamist struggle, the West’s instinct is to retain Eritrea as a pariah (while seeking to bring it into the fold on its terms like Burma or Cuba) yet the Saudis have had the Eritrean President to Riyadh twice late last year and have integrated into their anti-terrorist alliance. The riots and killings in Oromia last week cannot be disconnected from Ethiopian fears of Muslim revolt and the Horn of Africa adds another line to the ever-expanding zone of conflict that now stretches to the Arctic.

The West clearly supports Yemen’s Government against the Houthis (as the Minister for Armed Services’ answer testifies) but no one seriously considers this a serious part of the ‘war on terrorism’ as opposed to a regional strategic play between the Saudi and Iranian networks where the Saudis clearly resent the fact that the West, in the person of Obama but also institutionally in Europe, has shifted towards an obvious and collaborative respect for Iranian aspirations.

Saudi concerns about the Iranians are thus so great that they are quite prepared to destabilise Western anti-Sunni Islamist strategies – not only in Syria but in the Horn of Africa. It is as if the Saudis have said to themselves that they will make themselves troublesome so that the West will have to mollify them by agreeing to their demands, perhaps without realising that the big picture does not allow that. But what is this fearsome big picture? It is one in which the Middle East is only one part of a great whole.

The potential danger of all these instabilities is horrendous. Saudi Arabia is a potentially unstable feudal polity moving towards a modernisation strategy that reminds one of the age of Stolypin under the Tsars. It is countering not merely the strategic interests of the West by default but it may be taking on more than it can administratively handle. And yet it feels it has no alternative. The model may not be Russia and revolution (as so many anti-Saudi liberals assume) but the United Kingdom in the Age of Castlereagh.

Even worse, it has perhaps not understood that the depth of resentment against the Kingdom within the West that was mollified in association with Western Governments after 9/11 has recurred with a vengeance under extremely unstable political conditions – the quite weird situation in the US political cycle with Trump and Sanders, deep concerns in Europe about Saudi involvement in mosque-building, human rights and Islamic migration and, above all, growing perception that, if not backing ISIS, the Kingdom may be backing some dark forces of its own in Greater Syria.

So, Saudi actions in this context are critical. If it enters into the Syrian morasse, with or without Turkey, Egyptian and ‘secret’ British support, and things go wrong, these things that go wrong can go wrong all the way down that fissure that leads to the Arctic, through a basket case of a Ukraine to the Balts who treat Russians as second class citizens. For the first time since the era of Nixon, Western peoples will be faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange (and not just on the terms of the BBC’s ridiculous war games) and may not take it lying down. Senator Kerry, if he was reported correctly in his outburst to a Syrian NGO activist (“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”) on Saturday subconsciously revealed the truth of the matter – getting this wrong is an existential question now. The end game could be the immolation of the West if we have many more blunders.

[Tim Pendry is Chairman of TPPR – www.tppr.co.uk and http://blog.tppr.co.uk – but only writes on the Next Century Foundation blog in a personal capacity. He welcomes criticism.]

 

 

On the downing of the Russian warplane

We at the Next Century Foundation are gravely concerned over the recent downing of a Russian warplane by the Turkish military. We condemn such actions as unnecessary escalations of tension, and remain, as ever, committed to the diplomatic resolution of conflict.

We are also saddened by the execution of the pilot who bailed out of the jet. The execution of all prisoners of war by all sides is a feature of the conflict in Syria and is against every code of honour in war ever conceived.

Jet

Dialogue and Division: The Revitalisation of Cold War politics in the Middle East?

In what seems to be a huge U-turn in policy, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated yesterday that Russia’s increasing military force within Syria was self-protecting. This statement comes after weeks of increasing Russian military build-up in Syria. Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday confirmed Russia’s stake in Syria, with Putin stating: “our main goal is to protect the Syrian state”. This meeting also shows the ever-increasing role of Russia in the region’s politics. Prior to the talks between the US and Russia that came to an end yesterday the old Cold War politics which beset the Middle East during the 1960s had begun to rear their divisive head. As a result, the humanitarian crisis in Syria had been sidelined by Superpower politics. All such divisions must either be set aside or dealt with, so that dialogue between the US and Russia remains focused on the refugee issue at hand.

Just as Nasser had done during the 1960s, Assad has successfully kept both Russia and the US at his beck and call. And as of yesterday it seemed that the US had completed a U-turn on its views towards Assad. The Syrian President has successfully manipulated Superpower politics to safeguard his rule. Moreover, it seems certain that Russia will continue to ensure Assad’s survival.

Assad’s clever control over Syria’s relations with Russia are most obvious in light of UN. Like Nasser, he has successfully controlled the global influence of Putin’s leadership. Russia has continually vetoed UN sanctions against President Assad. It seems that Russian sponsorship is working completely in Assad’s favour.

For well over half a century, Russia has supported Syria in its military ambitions. However, Putin’s current position on Syria must also be placed in the larger sphere of Russian foreign policy on the Ukraine. It is part and parcel of the larger Russian foreign policy plan to ensure that both Syrian and the Ukrainian interventions result in Russian glorification. So whilst, Obama and Kerry seem to be wandering around in circles, trying to decide the best solution for Syria, Putin has secured his strategy and his regional ties.

With Putin set to speak at the UN next week, his Syrian strategy may become even clearer. Regardless, consolidation of power in the region is the main card on the table. With the media already focusing in on this ‘new Cold War’, its damaging consequences for any Syrian decision are already obvious. At this vital point in time, the rivalries of the 1960s should be back-benched in order to secure peace. With both the US and Russia set to prioritise Superpower politics over the needs of the Syrian people, perhaps Kerry’s U-turn on Tuesday is the beginning of change.

Briton’s anger over US comments on Russia’s action in Syria

A British NCF interlocutor sent this comment to the NCF this morning. It is strongly worded but we thought we would place it on this blog regardless:

So the US is up in arms about Putin’s statement just now. Am I alone in hearing his (Putin’s) words and thinking how they make such sense. I think Russia has it right …. do the job the US coalition can’t. Go in, join whoever the **** is fighting Isis, presumably Asaad’s army, and do the job..

The US coalition has been bombing Isis for over a year now …. and how has that stopped the spread … and the flow of refugees. The West has caused this problem and continues to (inadvertently) fund it, supply it with arms etc etc …. so let Russia have a go … we are all one world. This worldwide threat needs to be put above geopolitics and the West’s obsession with deposing regimes leading to further chaos, displacement of people and heartache.

But no, if Russia goes in, the US will use it as an excuse to take us all into war. Doesn’t it make sense to try and eradicate this world threat first before deposing Asaad?

Just wondering.

U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2013.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2013.

THE FOLLOWING COMES TO US FROM A SENIOR BOARD MEMBER OF THE NCF:

INTRODUCTION & COMMENT: Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia expressed surprise at receiving a call last Saturday from Secretary of State John Kerry warning Moscow not to expand its military role in Syria. Minister Lavrov said that Washington should be aware that Russia has always supported President al-Asad and supplied him with weapons and other assistance.

Of course, it is Washington’s view that Russia’s continued support to the Asad government has actually fostered the growth of ISIS inside Syria and made the situation worse. The State Department spokesman yesterday stated that, ”If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Asad.”

This argument makes little sense. The Syrian government is currently fighting on three fronts. What good would its collapse do us and the broader international interest if Asad is deposed and the subsequent vacuum is filled by the current opposition?

The three main fronts of conflict are as follows —

  1. Almost forty percent of the country is under the control of Islamists fighting for the Islamic State or ISIL as the administration insists in calling it (ISIS or Da’ish are much preferred terms). The bulk of IS fighters are non-Syrian, and their cause is so horrific and abhorrent that no modern, civilized government should be against any force which is keeping them out of Damascus — even if it is the current government’s.
  2. A second front in the south is composed largely of groups of the former Free Syria Army, the Nusra Front — al-Qa’ida’s core group in Syria — and other Islamists and secularists of varying stripe and seriousness.
  3. Meanwhile, it is the the third front in the north which is now bearing down on the Alawi heartland of Latakia where the Russians are basing their new presence. The opposition to al-Asad here is led by the jaysh al-fatah or “army of conquest.” This grouping brings together the Nusra Front (again, al-Qa’ida), other Salafist, and a few secularist groups which are armed, funded, and supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Most of these fighters are believed to be Syrian.

Now, the latter three countries are allegedly allies of the U.S. Note that the strongest member of their ‘army of conquest’ is the Nusrah Front — or “al-Qa’ida” which still considers the USA to be its number one enemy (after Israel perhaps) and one which the U.S. still regularly targets with drone strikes when an opportunity affords itself — especially in Afghanistan and in embattled Yemen.

This is the ‘army’ which recently detained the 50 or so men whom the U.S. had trained to fight the IS — at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. It is also the army which is now within artillery or at least rocket range of Latakia whose 1.5 million pre-war population has now doubled to more than twice that number with frightened Syrian refugees who are fleeing the Islamist onslaught.
It would seem that, during their recent bilaterals about Syria, Secretary Kerry either wasn’t listening to the points made by his Russian counterpart about a potential problem in Syria if Asad is deposed without an acceptable Plan B or that he simply and naively believes the Saudis and the Turks who tell him that these Islamists really aren’t all that bad.

U.S. and western policy towards Syria has been both feckless and ineffective since the first years of the Arab Spring when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. This rather than Benghazi, is her Achilles heel in terms of negligent policy.

The U.S. has never been able to see the forest for the trees on Syria. We have given only the most modest support to UN efforts to introduce a cease-fire, have given in to blatant, biased accounts which have pilloried Bashar while ignoring the equally abhorrent policies of his foes, and have turned a blind eye to calls for a robust UN-sponsored role which might have preserved a government in Syria, started a process of genuine political reform from within, and set the stage for an efficient handling of the unfolding humananitarian catastrophe which has now spread far beyond Syria’s borders and is knocking at Europe’s — but not Arabia’s — doors.

Can matters be turned around? Yes, possibly, but only in partnership with Russia which, in this instance, has had a policy worth listening to and emulating since the start of this war. It is not that the Russians have better Arabists. It is perhaps more the case that their government listens more intently to its specialists than does our own. However, given the record of this administration on Middle East policy, one should not hold one’s breath.

Quite rightly, we don’t trust the Russians. But, perhaps, in this one instance of common cause, we should find a way for some wiggle room and develop and try to implement a policy which will not put an Islamist government in Damascus — moderate or otherwise — which seems to be the desired result of President Erdogan, King Salman, and the Amir of Qatar. End Introduction and Comment.

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“U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria” THE NEW YORK TIMES By Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt

9 September 2015

WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday moved to head off preparations for a suspected Russian military buildup in Syria as Bulgaria agreed to an appeal from the Obama administration to shut its airspace to Russian transport planes. The planes’ destination was the Syrian port city of Latakia.

The administration has also asked Greece to close its airspace to the Russian flights, Greek and American officials said, but Greece has not publicly responded to the request.

The apparent Russian military preparations and the Obama administration’s attempt to block them have escalated long-running tensions between the White House and the Kremlin. Although the United States and Russia agree that the Islamic State is a threat, the new dispute shows that they remain far apart on how best to combat the militant group and on the political future of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — divisions that are likely to be on display when President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin speak to the United Nations General Assembly this month.

The administration’s concerns were fueled last week by intelligence reports indicating that Russia appeared to be making preparations to deploy advisers and military personnel to an airfield south of Latakia and might also bring in aircraft and fly airstrikes from there.

Those preparations included the delivery of prefabricated housing for as many as 1,000 personnel and a portable air traffic control station to the airfield.

Over the weekend, two giant Russian Condor transport planes ferried more supplies and equipment from an air base in southern Russia across Iran and Iraq to Latakia, according to an American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was discussing intelligence reports.

A Russian troop transport plane, probably an Ilyushin model, also landed at the same airfield in Latakia over the weekend. That aircraft, which flew over Greece and Bulgaria, is believed to have carried Russian military personnel.

“They’re clearly establishing some sort of forward operating base,” the American official said.

There have also been unconfirmed sightings of Russian Spetsnaz special forces at the Syrian Naval Academy, officials said.

Providing a benign explanation for the operations, the Russian news media has suggested that the planes were carrying humanitarian assistance. That is the same rationale Russia used to explain convoys that are believed to have delivered military supplies to Ukrainian separatists and that Iran has used to fly arms to Damascus to support the Assad government.

Bulgarian officials said on Tuesday that they had closed their nation’s airspace to Russian transport planes through Sept. 24.

“The reason for the refusal is associated with incorrect information in the requests to fly over the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria regarding the purpose of the flights and the cargo,” Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

While Bulgaria’s move will block one of the major air routes from Russia to Greece, it does not fully resolve the issue since Russia may still be able to continue its flights over Iran and Iraq. There is also a route from Russia to Syria over Turkey, but Russians avoid Turkish airspace because they fear the Turks will force a Russian military plane to land, as they have in the past.

State Department officials declined to discuss publicly what requests have been made to foreign governments to close their airspace to Russian aircraft, citing the need to maintain the confidentiality of diplomatic communications. But the officials made clear they were pressing the issue.

“We have encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions of Russia’s increased military deployments to Syria,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.

At the least, the flights have highlighted the deepening differences between the United States and Russia over Syria. While the Obama administration has argued that Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown against his opponents fueled the sectarian passions that strengthened the Islamic State, the Russians still appear to see the Syrian president as a bulwark against extremists, at least for now.

Western officials say that Russia’s intentions are not entirely clear. Although Mr. Putin spoke in Vladivostok last week about the need to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Iran and the Syrian government appear to be the only potential members so far.

One possibility is that Russia is not only trying to support the Syrian government but is trying to expand its role inside Syria so it can influence the choice of a new Syrian government in case Mr. Assad is ousted. Another theory is that Russia is putting itself in a position to defend a rump state should Mr. Assad be driven from Damascus and find refuge in a stronghold near the coast. None of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.

On Saturday Mr. Kerry called Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and warned Russia not to expand its military role in Syria. On Monday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lavrov said that the Kremlin had long provided military assistance to the Syrian government in its fight against extremists and expressed surprise at Mr. Kerry’s warning.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Kirby repeated the criticism of Russia’s role.

“Russia is not a member of the coalition against ISIL, and what we’ve said is that their continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.” ###