Written exclusively for SouthFront by J.Hawk
I wrote this text some time ago in order to capture the conflict’s Big Picture and, especially, the coincidence and clash of interests of all the major participants. The whole slew of recent events, including the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai, the Paris terror attacks, and the shoot-down of the Russian Su-24 bomber over Syria by Turkish fighters, have made these relationships stand out in starker relief, but they also served to realign them. Therefore it is time to revisit this text and provide a few updates.
A fading hegemonic power, it has managed to undermine its relationship with the EU due to the Ukraine crisis and now the Middle East refugee crisis that is being blamed squarely on US policies and which the US is plainly refusing to address.
US and Turkey might be allies too, but Turkey is clearly pursuing its own foreign policy whose focus involves the suppression one of the major beneficiaries of US invasion of Iraq, namely the Kurds.
Likewise the US and Saudi Arabia are allies, except when it comes to the question of oil prices where the virtual oil “price war” has damaged the finances of Saudi Arabia and threatens to destroy the nascent US fracking industry. While both countries would like to see the Assad regime go, US-trained “moderate rebels” tend to face greater threats from “moderate rebels” supported by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states than from Assad’s forces.
US and Iran remain at odds, in spite of the Iranian nuclear deal which does not seem to have brought about a significant change in the relationship.
Israel might want to see the Assad regime go and be replaced by a stronger Sunni presence in Syria in order to sever the Hezbollah-Iran connection, which explains why Israel seems utterly unconcerned about the Islamic State (which in turn is kind enough not to demand “death to Israel!”). But the US-Iran nuclear deal has damaged the relations with the US to a significant degree.
US continues to view Russia as a competitor and even as a target of its expansionistic plans, and yet it is clear that the US is incapable of carrying out its policies to a successful conclusion anywhere in the world, not in Ukraine, not in the Middle East, not in Afghanistan. And that in the absence (except in Ukraine) of active Russian countervailing efforts.
November 2015 Update: The US policy remains largely unchanged, and we do not know how the intra-administration conflict between the moderates (headed by the Secretary of State John Kerry) and the neocons (whose include VP Joe Biden and SecDef Ash Carter which makes that faction the stronger of the two) will play itself out. On the one hand, Kerry has been meeting with Lavrov in Vienna in order to hash out a peace plan for Syria, and the two have made considerable progress in that respect. This, however, gives the neocons an incentive to sabotage progress in any way they can, and the fact that the US, officially, at any rate, has backed Turkey in its most recent provocation suggests that Erdogan had the ahead-of-time green light from that faction of the administration. To a certain extent (but no more than that–Turkey is a far more powerful and independent political actor than Ukraine), there are similarities here to the US support of Poroshenko and his own “moderate rebels” sporting neo-Nazi regalia. However, the neocons have all but lost in Ukraine, pretty much because Russia has made it clear Kiev would never prevail against Novorossia through the use of military force. Something similar is unfolding in Syria. Russian support has facilitated considerable gains on the ground by the Syrian military, which means that the neocons are gradually losing their “boots on the ground” in the form of “moderate” and not-so-moderate rebels fighting against the Syrian government. Plus, there’s the question of the US-EU relationship, which is being strained by the fact that the EU is increasingly forced to face all the “externalities” of the irresponsible and highly aggressive US foreign policy.
The EU has become something of a “sick man of Europe” (and, by extension, the rest of the world). It is a de-facto US military protectorate, incapable of affecting events in the states around its periphery, yet it is resentful at the US inability and/or unwillingness to deal with the refugee crisis and its destructive meddling in Ukraine (hence the US-free Normandy Four and Minsk formats).
Likewise EU’s relationship with Turkey is strained due to the latter’s desire to pressure the EU by opening the refugee floodgates presumably in the hopes of supporting Turkey’s own designs on the region.
The sanctions war with Russia is another problem for the EU, yet it is Russia which is most likely to take EU’s concerns and interests into account, more so than the US or Turkey.
November 2015 Update: The Paris terror attacks, in particular, have served to close much of the gap between Russia and the EU, which is now facing the choice of accepting either the US-Saudi-Turkish-Qatari Syria endgame (overthrow Assad first, then take care of ISIS-maybe…) or the Russian one (negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis, with Assad one of the parties to the negotiations, and with ISIS being enemy number 1). Russia’s immovable presence in Syria has made its proposed solution more attractive, especially since even the Obama administration now felt compelled to do something about ISIS in the near term, which objectively si good for Assad, since all attacks on ISIS weaken the anti-Assad coalition as a whole. Whether this results in closer Russia-EU relations is another question. it is evident that there is an effort to drive a wedge between Russia and the EU, now that Ukraine has stopped being that wedge (or at least as much of a wedge), and the Su-24 shoot-down incident may have been intended at raising tensions and forcing the Europeans (most of whom are NATO members and therefore official Turkish allies) to rally to Ankara’s aid.
This country is stuck in a two-front land war in both Syria and Yemen which is going badly on both fronts and which is straining the country’s budget. The budget is also being hammered by another two-front war, the oil price one, against both Russia and the US. And Saudi Arabia is considerably more dependent on oil revenue than the US or even Russia, even though its oil is by far the cheapest to extract. Its main concern is to establish itself as the regional hegemon, folding the Gulf States under its wing and isolating Iran. Syria is of interest because it would break the Lebanon-Iraq-Iran Shia belt and provide access for pipelines to Turkey and then Europe that would compete with Russian natural gas supplies. However, considering that many Gulf States maintain their own proxy armies in Syria which compete with Saudi Arabia, the Saudi level of control over the region is far from total.
November 2015 Update: Not much has changed on this front in the last few months, with possible exception of reports that Saudi Arabia is supplying US-made TOW anti-tank missiles to the al-Nusra and other affiliated organizations.
Its economy is also considerable trouble, and the country is trying to position itself as the gateway between Europe and the Middle East. For that reason it is somewhat interested in heating up the Ukraine crisis, but only to the point that Russian pipelines run through Turkey as opposed to Ukraine. If joined by similar pipelines from the Middle East, Turkey becomes Europe’s energy hub.
Secondly, Turkey’s big regional concern are the Kurds, which incidentally pits them against the US who have historically favored them against the Sunni and even the Shia, to the point of (partially) arming them in the Syria conflict. Which only resulted in Turkish airstrikes on the US-armed Kurds.
November 2015 Update: This country has arguably suffered the worst decline in fortunes, between the Vienna talks whose goal is to craft a peace plan for Syria and which have enjoyed considerable success, and the Paris attacks which drew all manner of unwanted attention to ISIS, so much so that Western countries now many have no choice but to engage in fighting it more directly, and not just for show. Furthermore, Russia’s air operation in Syria and military aid to the Assad government have resulted in Turkey-supported rebels gradually losing ground and suffering heavy casualties in manpower and materiel, and Russian strikes against ISIS oil infrastructure are arguably the heaviest blow that entity has suffered so far. It may be that Erdogan’s election success has emboldened him to attempt something truly desperate, but the end result so far has been the alienation of Russia and a growing concern in the EU that Erdogan is not to be trusted with EU’s security. Moreover, Erdogan’s desperate actions will carry a severe cost to Turkey’s economy by endangering its firms access to Russian markets and depriving Turkey of Russian tourist revenue.
Its current main and, really, only international concern is Iran and its support for Hezbollah which in turn controls major parts of Lebanon and is capable of existing Israeli military advances. It makes it a de-facto ally of Saudi Arabia. Its relations with Turkey are more strained, and even the relationship with the US does not appear as cordial as it once was.
Opportunities for Russia
Russia’s biggest opportunity resides in US weakness or, specifically, its inability to fulfill the role of the hegemonic (or maybe imperial) power capable of controlling its vassals and clients and resolving conflicts among them. Syria revealed the conflicts and contradictions among them in far greater relief than Ukraine, if only because the conflicts are more fundamental and the number of actors involved greater. The conflicting interests of the major players and the US inability to resolve these conflicts that has been made evident by the Syria conflict likewise illustrates while “isolating Russia” was always a fool’s errand. Russia not simply too important an actor to isolate, it offers to provide that which the US has been failing to provide in the last decade. Even some of the closer US clients are beginning to lose confidence in the US ability to maintain order in the Middle East and therefore might view Russia as, if not a substitute, then at least a supplement to US influence.
When it comes to taking advantage of the fragmenting Pax Americana, (which might be more appropriately called Bellum Americanum, as it is war, not peace, that the US is promoting) Russia’s “best bets” are EU and Iran. The EU badly wants the refugee crisis to end and therefore might jump on whatever conflict resolution that Russia comes up with. EU’s willingness to chart a course separate from the US was already evident during the Minsk Accords, and it is likely to become even more so in the future. The EU is also interested in a better relationship with Iran, with Russia being ideally positioned to bring them together. Moreover, the Russia-Syria-Iraq-Iran alliance which appears to be emerging represents the best hope for Europe’s not only energy security but also plain security from instability fomented by US policies.
Turkey and Israel are likely to be less susceptible to Russian approaches, though even there is potential for progress. Israel simply has to be convinced that Russia represents a better option for Israel, when it comes to influencing Iranian actions, than the clumsy and ineffectual US with its provocative policies. Turkey will require its cut of the oil/gas action, it does not care as much where the gas comes from, though Erdogan might be resistant to the idea of Russia having influence over so much of the energy transiting through Turkey. The cooperation between Russia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, which (aside from Russia) happen to be the main countries where Kurds reside also should make it easier to address Turkey’s concern about its own “Kurdish problem.”
US, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States are the hard cases. The US is simply not ready to treat Russia as an equal partner, though at the same time it also proved unwilling to risk a military confrontation–not in Ukraine, not in Syria. Clearly impressed with Russia’s power, it might be persuaded to achieve a “sphere of influence” agreement with Russia which would also conveniently address the issue of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states would be the big losers, and it’s difficult to see how it could be otherwise–Russia is not going to sacrifice its relations with Iran for the sake of Saudi Arabia. Therefore the Saudis might have to content themselves with being energy suppliers to North America, while leaving Europe to Russia, Iran, and Iraq.
Can it work? There is no reason why it shouldn’t. Russia’s stock has risen enormously in recent days. It has proven to be a power to be reckoned with, as it combines political restraint and decisiveness with an understanding how to properly apply military force. That makes it a very credible ally and protector, in contrast to the erratic and incompetent US policy that has left everyone dissatisfied. One thing is certain: Sergey Lavrov has his work cut out for him!
November 2015 Update: The down side of the recent events is the deterioration of relations with Turkey, and at the moment it does not appear the relationship can be quickly restored. Still, there are recent reports that Erdogan claimed Turkish air force did not know it was shooting down a Russian Su-24, which is a ludicrous statement to make–except if one considers that perhaps he wants to ratchet down the level of tension and limit the costs to Turkey, which have to be considerable. Still, it is not in Russia’s interests to escalate the situation, for Turkey could to considerable harm to Russia’s effort to maintain presence in Syria, for example by closing the Bosphorus to Russian Navy ships.
At the same time, EU has grown more open to the Russian ideas on Syria, in part because of the internal pressure by Euroskeptic parties which is forcing the current leaders to “do something”, even if it means jumping on the Russian bandwagon. There are forces which are trying to derail this rapprochement, and the Su-24 shoot-down is likely to have thad that as one of its goals.