It pains me to say this but just this once in the Middle East, Putin may be right.
There’s been international condemnation of Russian military attacks on the Syrian opposition. France, Germany, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US all came out to say that Russia hitting targets that aren’t ISIS will fuel radicalisation.
On the surface of it, these concerns seem well-founded; surely hitting groups that have been deemed ‘moderate’, isn’t a great way of creating a liberal, stable Syria? But, as with so much in the Middle East, scratch the surface and you find it just isn’t that simple.
One of the clues to this complexity was that Jordan – a key ally in the anti-ISIS coalition – didn’t put its name to the ‘Russia you’re being naughty’ statement. Which is odd because it’s arguable that Jordan has more reason than many coalition partners to be deeply concerned about the potential ISIS threat on its doorstep.
You may remember that Jordanian military action against ISIS positions in Syria began last September and escalated at the beginning of this year, following the shocking murder of one of their airmen, Muath al-Kasasbeh.
Amman remains deeply concerned about ISIS, which has previously said that it sees Jordan’s King Abdullah as an enemy of Islam, has called for his execution, and has threatened to create jihad in Jordan. Within Jordan, there has been noted popular support for the ‘Syrian revolution’ and ousting of president Bashar Al-Assad. There’s also worry about the internal stresses caused by the influx of Syrian refugees coming into Jordan across its northern border.
And yet, Jordan didn’t join in to condemn Russian military action.
Granted, the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and Russia’s ROSATOM, the state-run atomic energy corporation, have this year agreed to develop Jordan’s first nuclear energy plant. So it’s conceivable that Jordan may not want to ‘rock the boat’. But could it also be because Jordan realised earlier than the other allies that the premise of the war in Syria is flawed?
Lt General Simon Mayall, British defence senior advisor on the Middle East (2011-15) was recently asked if Russian declared support for Assad came about because of a vacuum of US or Western power in the region. His answer was ‘yes.’
Which surprised me, because it doesn’t accord to Russia enough strategic understanding nor tactical gamesmanship ability. It is, afterall, a nation that knows all about chess-playing and the importance of the long game.
The dialogue of the anti-Assad coalition doesn’t help establish its strategic vision; there is disagreement on what would be the best outcome for Syria. There also seems to be willful ignorance of the fact that removing Assad will create a vacuum in which ISIS will flourish. Look at what happened when the West created two previous vacuums in the Middle East – Iraq and Libya. We saw the destruction of the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia in both nations, the hardening of sectarian divisions and the rise of militant Islamist groups.
And there’s a rush to create another ‘sinkhole’ in the Middle East? Really?
By contrast, the Russians have realised that it’s important to try to keep the Assad infrastructure in place for as long as possible to avoid this outcome. This isn’t about ‘liking’ Assad; Putin doesn’t do Facebook politics. He may even recognise privately that Assad’s day in power is done.
But Russia knows enough about the facts on the ground to see that the opposition to Assad won’t survive long term against heavily-funded militant groups and meddling neighbours. It isn’t shoring up the Assad regime because of a perceived power vacuum, but precisely to avoid that outcome. There is not ‘one’ opposition to Assad, but myriad organisations with diverse political and religious agendas, some of which are no less abhorrent to western thinking than those of ISIS. Put the ‘opposition’ in power and you guarantee chaos and slaughter.
Yes, alright, Putin’s not an altruist. His job is to protect Russian interests in the region – like their key naval facility in the Syrain port of Tartous, which is Russia’s only Mediterranean base for its Black Sea fleet. And sure, Putin has other interests, like keeping Russian forces at the air base in Latakia – in Assad’s Shia Alawite stronghold. There’s also its historic relationship with Iran to consider – the staunchest regional supporter of the Assad regime.
But for all these reasons, it’s a mistake to see Russian military intervention in Syria as the ‘military solution’ that President Obama recently called it. It’s also wrong to discount it as undesirable.
Russia’s intervention is calculated to facilitate a political solution that hinges around engagement with key regional players such as Iran. Again, Russia knows that the success and failure of a so-called ‘political solution’ doesn’t hinge on buy-in to a Disney style right-versus-wrong scenario. It’s a delicate balance of regional power brokering and internal trade-offs and stand-offs. None of which necessarily make for stability. Which brings me to my final point.
Unlike Russia, the West is hampered in its strategic vision for Syria because of its need to engage with ‘stable’ regimes. The same need that drove it for decades to engage with Saddam Hussein and with Colonel Gaddafi.
It has failed to see that political stability is not indigenous to the Middle East except in dictatorship or the rare examples of benevolent oligarchy. Yet the US and the UK and their allies persist in their quest to remove such a dictator because his means of doing business is incompatible with Western democratic ideals.
C’mon people. It’s just embarrassing that Putin is the only one in the region not getting F for foreign policy right now.
© gvons 2015