Russian President Vladimir Putin has well and truly checkmated the United States and its Middle Eastern allies who triggered the Syrian crisis in February 2011.
Russia by launching airstrikes on Wednesday against what it described as terrorist targets in Syria sent a non-nonsense message to the US and its allies: If you mess around in my backyard, which includes Ukraine, I will mess around in areas that you regard as your domain. The war in Ukraine is one of the key factors that pushed Putin on Wednesday to execute his master putsch or his Tai Otoshi body slam, to use a term from his favourite sport Judo.
Syria was relatively a peaceful country till February 2011, despite the one-party sham democracy. Following their success in overthrowing the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, the over-ambitious Middle Eastern powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Israel turned their focus on a regime change in Syria with the ultimate objective being weakening Iran. This was because the Bashar al-Assad regime was a key link in the Shiite Crescent which extends from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon’s southern region dominated by the pro-Iranian militia group Hezbollah, which has vowed to give a fitting response to Israel if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked. If Assad, who is from Syria’s minority Alawite community, is ousted, Shite-Muslim Iran will lose its regional clout, the Sunni-Muslim states thought.
There is another important reason why the oil and gas exporting countries in the region want Assad out: He had rejected a Saudi-Qatar proposal for a pipeline that would take oil and gas to Europe via Syria and Turkey. The project had a geostrategic significance vis-à-vis the Ukrainian conflict: Punishing Russia. If the Middle Eastern oil and gas through this pipeline glut the European market, Russia, which is the main supplier of oil and gas to Europe would lose its market share and could even be plunged into an economic crisis of regime-change proportions. So protecting the Assad regime is vital for Russia to survive economically. This probably explains why Putin decided to intervene militarily in Syria, though he cited national security factors such as the return to Russia of hundreds of its citizens now fighting along with ISIS and other terror groups in Syria.
Wednesday’s developments came at lightning speed. No sooner had the Russian parliament given the nod than the Russian aircraft were in action giving little time for the US to respond. The last time, the Russians gave a shock of this nature to the Americans was, probably, when they took the lead in the space race by sending Uri Gagarin to space in 1961.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Wednesday. Putin said the only way to fight terrorists in Syria was to act preemptively. Reuters
The shock apart, the US was not unaware of the Russian buildup in recent weeks and months in Syria, but felt little reason to panic. Russia has a small naval port at Tartus in Syria – not far from a US military base in Turkey. The naval port is used by small Russian vessels carrying light weapons to Syria. Recently the Russians expanded the base to accommodate larger warships and built an airbase at Latakia, just north of Tartus.
Yet, many analysts thought that Russia would not dare to get militarily involved in the Middle East while it was being hit by crippling western economic sanctions for its intervention in Ukraine.
But when the unexpected happened, the US had no option other than welcoming, albeit cautiously, the Russian air strikes. Perhaps, for the first time since World War II, the US and the Russians are supposed to be fighting a common enemy – this time, ISIS.
But by yesterday, the US began to grumble, saying the Russians were not attacking ISIS; instead, they were killing civilians and providing air cover to the Syrian military to fight the so-called moderate rebels. But the ground reality is that the moderate rebels exist no more. If they do, they only act as a cover to facilitate arms and money transfers to ISIS or as a spent force.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is now facing a military force which means real business. The US and its allies have launched more than 7,100 air attacks on ISIS targets since September last year with little success. This raises the question whether the US is serious about eliminating ISIS. After all, it took less than a month for the US forces to defeat Saddam Hussein’s million-strong Army and bring Iraq under US control in 2003.
The entry of Russia with its SU-25 ground attack aircraft, SU-30 M multi-role fighters and Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters at a time when Assad’s forces have faced a series of setbacks once again underscores the urgent need for a solution to the Syrian crisis which has rendered half of Syria’s 24 million population refugees -- 4 million people have left the country while 8 million have been internally displaced.
It is heartening to note that President Obama, despite his country’s complicity – or connivance -- in the Syrian disaster, said this week that he was ready to work with Iran and Russia to find a solution to the crisis. Analysts who heard him say this probably had to rub their eyes in disbelief. Aren’t they on the opposite sides in the Syrian conflict? Russia and Iran want a solution with Assad remaining in power, but the Americans say there is no role for Assad. Can there be a compromise?
The Saudis are smarting over Obama’s statement and the thaw in US-Iran ties. Saudi Arabia yesterday demanded that Russia stop its airstrikes in Syria, saying the strikes had caused civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia crying about Syrian casualties is the height of irony. It was only a few days ago that they stood accused of killing 131 civilians during a bombing raid on a wedding party in Yemen; Can Saudi Arabia talk about civilian deaths when it is one of the countries which triggered the Syrian conflict that has seen more than 250,000 Syrian deaths so far?
Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict has tilted the balance in favour of Assad. The way forward is a dialogue between the US and Russia and restoration of the status quo ante. The US must not think Assad is a problem. He is part of the solution. In the early days of the crisis, he offered solution after solution. He even brought in constitutional reforms to hold multiparty elections and limit the presidential office to two seven-year terms. But the opposition parties obeying their Gulf masters did not take up the challenge. The result: a tragedy of epic proportions.