Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 30 May-6 June

The sheer visibility of turnout, the resolution, and zeal with which Syrians voted in Syria’s Presidential elections have both taken western audiences by surprise, and shocked them (see here for the hard-line, pro-intervention Washington Post’s photos, and their impact on a normally unsympathetic journal).  Never mind the statistics, the visibility of the crowds flocking to Syrian embassies and to the Lebanon-Syria border (despite illegal threats from the Lebanese Minister to strip any who voted of their refugee status) conveys a powerful meaning: It is one that stands in marked contrast to the visible popular disengagement seen at the recent Egyptian polls: as the Post’s correspondent tweeted: “In Egypt, they are extending the polls because  no one is voting. Syria embassy in Lebanon may extend voting because too many are”.

Noted Lebanese commentator, Mohammad Ballout wrote, “Damascus scored a political victory by the mere fact that thousands of Syrians, in the war’s fourth year, went to the polling stations despite a regional and international anti-Syria war managed by Washington, Paris, Riyadh, Doha, Istanbul and Amman… It’s obvious that organising the election would not have been possible had the Syrian army not regained the initiative on the ground over the span of nearly two years after [its] retreat toward urban centres.”  It is also striking how little the opposition campaign (supported by western intelligence services) failed to deter Syrians from voting – even in Aleppo, where violence intended to spoil participation was greatest . (Thousands of Aleppans from the opposition held areas migrated to the western parts of the city to vote).

Syrians plainly voted against the insurgents; they voted against the external campaign of intervention to overthrow their society – and they cast their ballot in favour of a return to human security and the normalisation of life.  It is, to paraphrase the Israeli rhetoric, the placing of a major ‘fact on the ground’.  Western states may turn a blind eye to the diplomatic telescope, calling it a ‘farce’, but what conflicts elsewhere tell us is that the ‘steam’ of an insurgency escapes, as if air from a ruptured balloon, when the insurgents internalise the fact that they are not going to prevail. We should expect a shift in attitude to emerge from the internal opposition in the wake of the vote.  The jihadists can simply redeploy the focus of their campaign: they can fade in Syria and silently emerge elsewhere in their extensive jihadist theatre that now stretches from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Caucuses, Yemen and down into Africa. They rarely fight set battles, but simply regroup elsewhere.

None of this, however, is likely to change the western narrative on Syria for the time being. They will stay with denial, and continued attrition (albeit one that they know cannot succeed, but which will bring further loss of life to innocent Syrians). See, for example, the British FM Hague’s emotively heightened tirade against the elections.  America and Europe are too heavily invested in that narrative to drop it so easily – in spite of the kite being flown of a prospective move towards dealing with President Assad, which former senior US State Department official Leslie Gelb says is being discussed within the Administration.  Hawks, such as Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Turks and the Fred Hof-military interventionist lobby in America still hanker after military escalation, but all the signs suggest that Obama’s West Point reference to increased US support for the Syrian opposition is being matched by his determination to slow it down to a snail’s pace – his proposals are ‘for examination’ of further arms to the opposition, not a decision for action.

In Europe, the very visibility of support handed to President Assad is contributing to the deep sense of strategic failing and crisis, within the EU. The Syrian election outcome follows hard on the heels of the mishandled Ukraine crisis.  This was a crisis which broke upon an unprepared European leadership out of the hubristic misjudgement of the limits of EU ‘soft power’ committed by the (neo-con, Czech) EU Enlargement Commissioner. (An intended East European settling of accounts with Russia, aided and abetted by the deep vein of historic Polish resentment in part due to their former rule of parts of Ukraine).

The extraordinary intransigence of the Commissioner, who led the negotiation, and who refused any concession to Yanukovych, left his helpless prey no choice but to refuse – thus propelling the EU (with absolutely no prior strategic preparedness) into a needless confrontation with another great European power – and with one on which it is energy dependent too.  The Ukraine crisis has provoked some deep internal introspection about the nature of the European ‘project’: whether it is consistent for the EU to keep talking ‘hard ball’, when its capacities amounts to nothing more than ‘walking the walk’ of consensual ‘soft ball’.  It is here that the Syrian election outcome intersects with the Ukrainian debacle (the mismatch between declarations versus real capacities, leading to strategic failures).

The foreign policy failings have compounded the shock of the adverse EU parliamentary election verdict on the Union’s economic policies. The EU crisis is now existentially affecting domestic electoral prospects of the governments in UK and France, and is articulated now in the bitter contention over whether or not Jean-Claude Juncker, the unrepentant icon of an assertive, Federal, authoritarian Europeanism – i.e. symbol of what many see as the shortcomings of the European Project – should become the next President of the Commission.

In just about all realms of activity the EU does not know how to act – though many European officials see only too clearly the depths of the problem. The EU does not know what to do about its weakening economies. And it is baffled to the point of paralysis about how to manage its relations with Russia, China, Ukraine, Syria, the Palestinians and Iran. European political leaders are just coasting along in this ‘void’ – on the momentum generated by the engines of ‘narratives’ already long in place, and long-since failing. America is not much different in this respect: It cannot be otherwise. It was its narratives that the EU ‘centre’ parties so whole-heartedly embraced in the 1970s and 1980s.  It too, is baffled by what to do about its many challenges.

But Russia and China do know what to do. They are coming together to jointly defend themselves from what they perceive as the passive-aggressiveness directed towards them from America and its European allies.  As the Chinese chief of defence staff said, the allies do not want trouble; they are not looking for trouble, but if they face such, they are able to make it, too.

Already it is plain to see this shift happening. Strategic change towards Syria is being orchestrated – if America and Europe are paralysed by crisis – from Russia:  Russia has very clearly shifted away (if not yet disavowed) the Geneva format: Head of International Affairs Dept in the Russia Federation Assembly, Andrei Baklanov said recently: “compared with the period of convocation of the Geneva talks, our approach to selecting participants in the negotiating process has changed”.  In its stead, Russia is speaking about progressing the internal ‘reconciliation process’, a process that has been having an important impact within Syria. Russia has signalled its revised course too by immersing itself deeply in consultations with the internal opposition, and away from any engagement with the external opposition, the SNC. In brief, the Russian focus is now fixed upon shaping the internal political settlement, whilst Lavrov and Bogdanov pursue the regional understanding through bilateral diplomacy directly with Middle East states.

Other indications of Russia’s approach have been Russia and China’s stamping on the attempt to have the Security Council refer Syria to the ICC.  Russia also has made it clear that it will not accede to any attempts to force a Chapter 7 (i.e. mandatory) implementation of humanitarian corridors being opened to the opposition within Syria. Indeed, as a tell-tale indicator of the new mood, Russia, which is currently Chair of the UNSC, countered that it would make a cross-application to the Security Council by tabling a resolution to open humanitarian corridors to the affected civilians of Novorossia in Ukraine.  But perhaps more powerful was the last minute switch of the deputy Russia PM Dimitry Rogozin (responsible for the defense ministry and military orders) in place of Deputy FM Gennady Gatilov to head the Russian delegation to Damascus in a few weeks time. Rogozin is known as a hard-liner in respect to countering American hegemony.

This comes at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that the rapprochement between Russia and China is no mere rhetorical flourish. Little by little, small but significant actions in the fields of finance and security are being announced.  We see also other geo-strategic shifts that seem to be consolidating this move.  China has been touting a new security pact with Russia and Iran, and RIA Novosti is reporting that Russia is proposing to lift its embargo on weapons sales to Pakistan.

One well-qualified commentator suggests that this move presages a shift in the tectonic plates of the geopolitics of the region, with Russia and China siding with Pakistan versus a (more regionally isolated) India (being drawn into the American orbit). Significantly, we also see recent diplomatic initiatives to Russia coming from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (who has just sent Prince Saud al-Faisal to deliver a message concerning Syria to President Putin) and from Egypt, concerned that Egyptian jihadists are being trained in Syria. Both of these states have something in common with Russia in this new era (fears about Sunni radicalism and disenchantment of US and European foreign policies).

As the former Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill writes in an article entitled The End of the New World Order, “Americans do need to understand the challenge they are facing from a Russia that no longer seems interested in what the West has been offering for the last 25 years: special status with NATO, a privileged relationship with the European Union, and partnership in international diplomatic endeavors. All of these seem to be off the table for now”.  This is exactly right – and paradoxically it is Syria and Ukraine that have helped crystalise this shift.

All this re-positioning (and strengthening of the position of President Assad and of Iran) has given rise to somewhat extravagant language coming from one particular section of the al-Saud family, who have been in the vanguard of hostility towards Iran, and who are known to feel vulnerable to competition for power from other branches of the family. This current, (the lineage of Faisal), is trumpeting the arrival of Saudi Arabia into the western ‘void’, as the Arab power, as a world power, as a prospective major military power, as the defender of the Arab world from the ravages of the Arab ‘upheavals’, as the ‘giver’ of strategic vision to the Sunni Arab world, and as the guardian of Islam (see here).

These lofty aspirations are not shared by all in the ruling family – Other members object, arguing that the kingdom should return to its former discreet and purposefully ‘quietist’ regional profile.  They buttress their argument by pointing to the dangers now faced internally in the kingdom by the deliberate firing-up of radical Sunni Islam through the anti-Assad campaign. But because the more ‘alternative’ approach of military activism is well-articulated in English, and enjoys immediate access to western mainstream media, it receives considerable attention.  But it is, at bottom, fantasy.  Weapons alone do not make a military power or create a military ethos.  These take decades to create – if they can be done at all.

Saudi Arabia however plainly is acting in the Arab sphere. The kingdom as a whole (and not just one faction of the family) stands solidly behind Field Marshall Sisi. It is committed to the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region and in Europe too (viz. UK Premier Cameron’s enquiry into the MB in Britain), and Saudi, together with the UAE, is backing General Haftar’s attempt to copy the Sisi formula in Libya. But none of these campaigns imply that Saudi Arabia is destined for a visionary leadership or military role in the region.

All these initiatives are essentially reactive and defensive.  The language of the Faisal al-Saud faction with its obvious hype, smacks more of feelings of desperation, than resolve. Stripped of the rhetoric, these advocates simply wish to copy the Qatari model of using American and European trained ‘Special Forces’ or mercenaries as the nucleus through which to lever a ‘strongman’ into power.  This can hardly be a termed strategic vision: (What exactly is Field Marshal Sisi’s ‘vision’ for Egypt?). The reality is one of a GCC that is fragmenting, and increasingly is refusing Saudi leadership over many issues – including its adversity with Iran (see here for an account of what the Emir of Kuwait said in Tehran).  Saud al-Faisal may, for now, be able to undermine and weaken moves (by other factions of the family such as the invitation to Iranian FM Zariv to visit Saudi Arabia), but in the longer term, the ‘parallel (competing) track’ of Saudi overtures to Russia and China, may well prevail.

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