Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

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.

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.]

 

 

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.

Russia’s Game in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt
Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt

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.

Bennett on Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine

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: