Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 23 – 30 August 2013

Conflicts Forum

  • “It’s … as if US leaders have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing in the past decade: They want to topple foreign leaders they regard as adversaries, without even making the most basic calculations of the consequences.  An intervention in Syria will only enlarge the area of instability in the Middle East and expand the scope of terrorist activity. I am at a complete loss to understand what the US thinks it is doing”.  This is the view of Alexei Pushkov, chair of the Russian State Duma’s international affairs committee.  It is a view which we believe closely mirror’s Putin’s conviction that since 2003, western states have been affected by a ‘strategic incoherence’: in that they are prone to launch into military conflict without any clear assessment of its possible consequences.
  • This comment is written in advance of any US military action in Syria, should such intervention occur (there seems to be some walking back of the prospect of an imminent attack at this time, because of a complete lack of popular support – at least in the US, and in the UK a lack both of popular and parliamentary support – and for the long shadow cast by the illegalities associated with Iraq in 2003.)  Until this point however, it had seemed that the US was utterly bent onlobbing some cruise missiles into Syria, and that the debate in Washington centered solely on whether to make it a token strike (at some target of lesser strategic importance); or, alternatively, a strike intended to substantively to degrade Syria’s military capabilities: This second course of action – were it to be selected – of course, would go a long way to determining President Assad’s response.  A direct strike at Syria’s military infrastructure would almost certainly draw a Syrian response, whereas a token strike just might be absorbed.  Ostensibly then, whilst the public declared aim is to articulate a ‘civilizational’ point about western values, Jeff Feltman (a former State Department official who is now UN Assistant Secretary General – and a well known adversary of Iran) suggested a rather different additional objective to his Iranian interlocutors during the former’s visit to Tehran. He said (and here he seems to speak for the US, rather than the UN) that there must be established some sort of ‘balance of strength’ between President Assad’s forces, and the armed insurgents. (From the US perspective, a military weakening of Assad is essential to their hopes of  ‘transitioning’ – an euphemism for the emptying out of President Assad’s prerogative of executive powers.)  In short, Feltman suggested to the Iranians that were Iran were to stand aloof and play possum, whilst the US ‘evened up the playing field’ through the expected US military intervention – that there then might be a ‘reward’ for Iran in any subsequent political process (Geneva II).  In other words Iran was being ‘advised’ to acquiesce to an outcome engineered to US interests, in return for some undefined inclusion in implementing the US design. We know from past experience that notions to ‘limit’ attacks – that is, to confine them to tokenism – generally have a shelf-life counted in minutes: there are always (good) military reasons to be made for more substantive action (degrading risks of response), and Feltman laid out in Tehran the political reasons – in addition to the military ones – for more extensive stikes.
  • The precise consequences from lobbing cruise missiles can never be foreseen, and although always – before the event – such interventions are assumed to be quick and painless, it seldom turns out that way in practice. But a few thoughts may be drawn:  Firstly, any attack by a foreign power will coalesce support around the symbols of the state – even by those who are politically dissident. In short, US military action will strengthen President Assad, and will tend to cast the supporters of foreign intervention as mere tools of a foreign aggressor wreaking destruction on the homeland. In Syria, any such attack is likely to exacerbate instability and by its inherently polarizing effect, will make political solutions less reachable, as schisms deepen. It is hardly likely to hasten a Geneva II – unless the US is ready to go as far as the complete destruction of Syria’s state power.
  • Externally, it is very clear that American military intervention – should it occur – will aggravate the regional geo-strategic tensions.  On the one side, Russia, China, Iran and Iraq will be negatively disposed to the US aim of weakening Assad.  Russia has already made it clear that, although it will not directly intervene, it intends to be as unhelpful as possible to this US initiative. (President Obama is due to attend a G20 summit in Moscow on Tuesday, a prospect which seems to have thrown a spanner into the military works – at least for the moment).  Although we doubt that Iran will seek to escalate the conflict to a regional level, it is likely that Iran and Russia will, in the wake of an American attack, increase its direct military and political support to Syria.  In short, there is no mood in Russia, China and Iran to give the US an ‘easy win’. The geo-strategic divide with the West will deepen. It will – and already is -pushing China, Russia and Iran closer together – something that will directly impact into the P5+1 structure for negotiating a solution to Iran’s nuclear ‘file’.  Indeed, it is possible that it will fracture the already tense relations within the P5+1. So too will the regional divide be set to worsen – particularly in light of the Saudi attempt to reinstate ‘Mubarakism’ in Egypt, to whip up the clamour against Assad, and to detabilise Lebanon and Iraq.  Many in the region see Saudi policy guided by Prince Bandar as overreaching itself, and riding for a fall (though at present it may appear to be successful).  So divisions are set to sharpen.
  • The least foreseeable aspect is that US actions are often considered as if they ‘stand alone’ — self-contained in their own action. This is an illusion.  In reality, the US action is likely to catalyse a series of unforeseeable responses.  In the present angry, fetid state of the Middle East, there are any number of other actors (some will be unknown to us) ready to use the US intervention as the platform from which to hurl their own ‘rocks’ into the regional cauldron.
  • Shortly before Feltman’s initiative in Tehran, the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar, three weeks ago, made an extraordinary (and related) proposal concerning Syria during a visit to President Putin, the details of which have been extensively leaked in Russia.  Bandar opened his presentation to Putin by saying that any agreement that the two might reach together would bind the Saudi Kingdom (that is, Bandar was claiming plenipotentiary powers delegated by the king) – and then added also that any agreement would be upheld by the United States, too.  Bandar was quite plain in suggesting that his ‘mission’ enjoyed a US ‘blessing’.  The gist of Bandar’s presentation firstly, was to underline that Russia and the Kingdom had shared interests: this focused on a common wish to weaken and undermine the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islam throughout the region.  Bandar suggested too a common interest in supporting the Egyptian junta – and hinted that the Saudis might underwrite financially a Russian arms sale to Egypt.  Then, notably, Bandar came to the core of the ‘deal’: he offered Russia a sweeping proposal jointly to control the global oil market pricing in alliance with Saudi Arabia, and to safeguard Russia’s gas contracts – but only if the Kremlin were to back away from the Assad regime in Syria.  Bandar reassured Putin that the resulting Syrian government (after Assad’s overthrow) would be completely under Saudi control, and therefore would respect Russian interests in Syria. What followed these ‘carrots’, were Bandar’s ‘sticks’:  one can only guess that Putin must have been outraged and amazed at Bandar’s extraordinary frankness:  He said that the Chechen movements that had so plagued Russia and Putin with their acts of violence had been under Saudi control from the outset.  Bandar added by way of illustration, that the Chechens operating in Syria were just such a ‘pressure tool’ mounted against Assad, and that he could switch the Chechens ‘on’ or ‘off’ at will.  Amazingly, Bandar then gave Putin an implicit threat that he held the power too to allow terrorists to undermine the winter Olympic Games due to be held at Sochi. ‘‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the Games are controlled by us”, Bandar said, according to the leaked reports.
  • It would be surprising if the Americans had consented to such blatant threats of terrorism, but if these detailed accounts of the discussion are accurate, it is not surprising that reports are circulating in the western press describing growing US worries about Saudi Arabia. In the region too, some see the kingdom overreaching itself and acting in a fraught and disturbed fashion. The US became uneasy when Saudi Arabia seemed to be advising General Sisi to resist strong US advice to the generals against any heavy-handed military repression of the Brotherhood, but then was more than a little shocked by the exceptionally tough language seemingly directed against Washington’s own condemnation of the coup by top Saudi officials, including King Abdullah, who declared that “[t]he kingdom stands … against all those who try to interfere with its [Egypt’s] domestic affairs” and charged that criticism of the army crackdown amounted to helping the “terrorists”.  More recently, bombing incidents in Lebanon, for the first time, have been directly attributed by Hizbullah to Saudi Arabia, following the apprehension of those alleged to have been responsible for the attacks.  The suggestion is that Saudi Arabia was trying embroil Hizbullah’s leadership in a severe domestic crisis – in order to undermine the movement’s ability to  fight in Syria.  Others commentators in Lebanon have noted that Saudi’s adamant refusal to contemplate any Hizbullah participation (of any sort) in any new government in Lebanon (in reprisal for Hizbullah’s role in Syria), effectively is condemning Lebanon to a long period of governmental void, precisely at a time of great instability and insecurity in the country.  If Bandar is both responsible for bringing the Chechens into Syria (who have both beheaded western journalists and massacred Kurds, Sunni sheikhs and Christians,  according to reports), and is now threatening the forthcoming winter Olympics with similar Chechen terrorism, then the US and Europe have due cause to be very worried indeed.


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