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.
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.
John Bond of Moral ReArmament (a.k.a. Initiatives of Change) talks with Charles Bennett of the European Atlantic Group on Greece, Australia and the Ukraine
For Russia, the Middle East has historically been a region of strategic and economic importance. Russia is seen as an alternative to the Western ideological framework, granting it a special status in the area. Apart from being a consistent alternate power, Russia’s objectives and policies in the Middle East have always changed depending on its relationship with the Western powers.
In March 2012 Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency as a different figure. Seemingly more anti-Western and disappointed by the failure of Obama’s RESET policy, the Libyan crisis of 2011 and the ongoing sanctions on Iran, he is more confrontational, unpredictable and assertive in his actions with the West. Interestingly enough, this was not the case under Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, which focused on fostering relations with the West and as a result took a more hands-off approach in the Middle East. The current U-turn originates in what Putin sees as covert Western involvement in the Arab Spring of 2011, reminiscent of the colour revolutions that were inspired by the West in post-Soviet republics. For Putin, these red flags suggest that Russia’s presence in the Middle East is necessary to protect vital spheres of influence and sustain Russia’s image as a great power. For this reason, the world faces a reinvigorated return of Russia in the Middle East, albeit a confused return.
To contextualize Russia’s aims, one needs to look no further than the paramount diplomatic issue facing the country. The current crisis in Ukraine consumes almost all of Moscow’s financial, military and political capital away from the Middle East, justifying the lost long-term objective in the region. Rather than envisaging a definitive goal for Russia’s interest in the area, the agenda seems to jump from crisis to crisis. Looking at Russia’s cooperation with the Middle East on an individual basis, a pattern of cautious engagement starts to appear.
Russia’s relations with the GCC countries is one that avoids politicization. Instead of condemning various monarchies on their human rights record and lack of democratic progress, Russia takes a pragmatic stance. It vehemently believes in non-interference in internal affairs and taking a position on these issues would be an unusual precedent. Establishing democracy in Qatar or Saudi Arabia is not important. In fact, this would almost certainly be disadvantageous to Russia.
In Riyadh, those on the upper echelons of power are loyal to the U.S.-Saudi alliance so the recent secretive deals between high-ranking Russian and Saudi officials seem out of place. Putin and the Deputy Crown Prince, a less pro-Washington figure in the Saudi leadership, met in St. Petersburg in June 2015, indicating King Salman’s change of policy with Russia. There are unconfirmed talks of investing in the construction of nuclear power plants, increasing arms sales, and negotiating oil prices. This is understandable, considering the fact that the current Saudi leadership is disillusioned with Obama’s policy in the Middle East, especially regarding Iran, and thus aims at cementing bilateral ties with the Russian leadership. The Saudi objective is to dissuade Putin from his unwavering support of Assad, whereas Putin’s is to reduce Saudi’s overwhelming influential oil production, in order to spike global oil prices. Although Russia takes advantage of its position as an alternative power when cracks appear between Arab countries and the U.S., the recent Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, puts Russia in an awkward position.
Russia’s key concern over Yemen is Saudi Arabia undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen without prior authorization. Apart from lucrative trade deals and opportunism, Russia is keen on maintaining the international world order and makes enormous use of the UNSC for political leverage. In a sign of dissatisfaction, Russia abstained in a vote on UNSC Resolution 2216, a vote that Saudi Arabia heavily lobbied Russia for, which called for a withdrawal of Houthis from Sanaa. With the situation in Yemen rapidly deteriorating and the recent rise of ISIS fighters, Moscow’s concern for the Gulf area is uncommonly high. Comments from the Russian Foreign Ministry echo a need for all Yemeni political forces to start a “full-fledged national dialogue under the auspices of the UN”. The nature of the situation means that Russia is intent on keeping third-party players strictly outside the political resolution.
Concerning Iran, Russia plays a balancing act due to its cordial ties with Israel. Under Putin, the current relations with Tehran suggest a positive step towards reintegrating Iran into the international arena. This is demonstrated by Russia’s decision to lift the ban on a weapons trade deal with Iran after making progress on the P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear programme. The sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles goes back to 2010, but was temporarily halted due to intense lobbying by Israel and the West. Although Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, emphasizes the defensive nature of the deal, the missile system can be used to shoot down jets and other missiles, increasing Iran’s capacity to subdue a threat to its nuclear facilities. This is a concern for Israel, which has been the most vocal advocate against the Iran nuclear deal and has warned of sanctions relief as a chance for Iran to engage in ‘sanctions for arms’. Another factor that Russia has in mind when dealing with Shia Iran is that twenty percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, of which ninety percent are Sunni. Keeping a delicate balance of not frustrating one side too much is a long-standing talent that Russia holds.
In Tel Aviv, Russia’s relationship is more complex than the other Middle Eastern nations. This is partly due to the huge Russian émigré population. There are around one million Russian speakers in Israel, with direct economic and cultural ties to Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Russian ties range from military collaboration to oil supply contracts and visa-free agreements. In the scientific sphere, Russia has numerous nuclear, space and technological agreements that it does not have with other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, the countries are so closely linked that the Russian President and the Israeli Prime Minister have encrypted communication lines to guarantee no eavesdropping. With this in mind, Russia has a stronger cultural connection to Israel than it does to any other Middle Eastern country. Moscow is also hoping to establish a long-lasting friendship that will lessen Israel’s dependency on the United States. There is potential for this to happen, as Israel recently decided to cancel its drone sale to Ukraine in the midst of the crisis.
The situation with Assad differs greatly. The problem with Syria is that after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia neglected to support and continue the well-established links with the remaining pro-Russian political base. This was indicative during the leadership change from Hafez al-Assad to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, whereby now the Russian security services are hastily trying to revive those connections in order to cement Russia’s position in Syrian politics no matter the political outcome of the civil war. In terms of the Syrian war, Russia, along with Iran, continues to sell arms to Assad. Putin is intent on keeping Assad in power and sees no better alternative to him. A repeat of Libya, where a bloody power vacuum was created after the toppling of the regime, is a worst-case scenario for Russia, considering Syria’s proximity to its borders. Bearing in mind that there are 1,500-2000 Russian foreign fighters in Syria, of which 500 have declared allegiance to ISIS, the question of their potential return to Russia is of great seriousness. Russia’s priority in Syria is for stability in the area, in order to stem the draw for violent Jihadism, as well as allowing resources to be focused on more pressing issues, such as Ukraine. Russia takes an opportunistic stance with the war in Syria, whereby it advocates peace negotiations with all sides, whilst selling arms to Assad. It has capitalized on taking on the role of a peacekeeper. Some argue that the message sent from the Kremlin to the West is one that follows the line of ‘you need us for stability in the Middle East’, which serves as a warning against intensifying the situation in Ukraine. In fact, Russia has facilitated numerous forums, talks, and conferences between the Syrian leadership and the opposition.
In the hydrocarbon sphere, Russia’s policy remains the same. That is to maximize Russian revenue from natural resource extraction and deals. Although the region is a serious challenge to Russia’s dominance of the European energy market, Russia is intent on either minimizing Middle Eastern involvement, or if unable to do so, have a stake in Middle Eastern hydrocarbon enterprises in Europe. This has been demonstrated by the activity of Russian oil companies in Iraq. Lukoil continues to work in unstable provinces, regardless of the threat of terror. During the ISIS surge in the summer of 2014, BP and ExxonMobil evacuated their personnel, whereas the Russian plant had evacuation plans but continued to operate in the West Qurna Field. Russian arms producers have increased their revenues as well, with Iraq being one of the main importers of arms.
A key aim for Russia is avoiding international isolation, as is the current case with the U.S. and Europe. The Middle East provides space for this isolation to be offset, as seen in Russia’s increased agricultural trade with the region. This has mitigated the effects of the self-imposed food sanctions of August 2014 by replacing agricultural produce with imports from Iran, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. In return, Russia exports wheat, barley, and rye to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Except for agricultural produce, Russia is mostly known for its arms sales in the region. In 2013 Russian arms sales to Syria and Egypt totaled USD$1.5 billion. In a limited sense, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East can be described as Kalashnikov diplomacy. Its policy does not have a lot of capacity and lacks a long-term goal. Much of its policies are determined by the failure of policies by the West. Furthermore, the agenda lacks any clear objective in the region.
Looking at relations as a whole shows Russia’s willingness to work with anti-Western nations but its incapacity to fulfill its promises. Whether this is due to Russia not seeing the Middle East as a priority for its foreign policy or because of resource drainage in Ukraine, this predicament is here to stay. With this in mind, there is still a pattern that can be seen from Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. Firstly, Russia continues to reject military intervention by third-party players as a way to resolve internal political issues. Secondly, it supports the current borders and advocates for stability in the region. Finally, it continues to capitalize on the desire of Middle Eastern countries to have an alternative power to work with.
Russia has a relatively pragmatic and flexible foreign policy regarding the Middle East, where Russia is keen on working with countries willing to cooperate, whilst upholding ‘red lines’ on regime change. It has learned from the mistake of allowing the Libyan no-fly zone morph into a NATO campaign to overthrow the Gaddafi government. It is keen on maximizing its revenues from the region whilst providing stability to the area. However, Russia lacks a concrete plan in the Middle East and seems to be improvising policy as it goes. Although useful at times, it is unsustainable both for Russia’s aim of remaining a credible international power and for stability in the region.
Well, if you want a contrary view from an old soldier who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq and knows the ropes you could do no better than listen to Charles Bennett, Head of the European Atlantic Group. His perspective may disturb you however: