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Syria: Birth of a new US-Russian connection

Paper No. 5564                                         Dated 19-Sept-2013

Guest Column by Kumar David

The dramatic topic a few weeks ago was whether Obama would strike Syria but the next surprising development was that the US and Russia were close to agreeing on a UN Security Council resolution to strip Syria of its chemical weapons and use force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if Syria fails to obey; a 180 degrees turn by both.

By the time this piece is published we will know whether a deal has been clinched and what the actual text says. Of course there will be no end of bickering between the Great Powers (US and Russia) before any action is taken if Bashir al-Assad plays tricks. But for sure a new arrangement of global power politics is taking shape and this is a good thing. It is happening because both the US and Russia are in tight corners (not of the same, but of different types) and it is in the interest of both to work out a modus vivendi.

There are two problems facing America, one is colossal, the other very serious. The global economic crisis that exploded in 2008 is dragging on; there have been ups and downs but never a real recovery. Most in depth analysts expect a second collapse, worse than the first, in the next few years. Marxists would say that global capitalism is in a systemic crisis, but there is no need to quote them. The majority of main stream economists are downright pessimistic about the future prospects of the global economy. This is the colossal problem. Its impact on the subject of this essay is that America does not have the resources to overcome crucial global strategic problems unilaterally (Iraq and Afghanistan proved that); it needs to network with others to keep the world in order. It needs Russian collaboration in the Middle East and Japan, India and Australia as partners in Asia-Pacific.

The very serious matter I referred to is that US policy in the Middle East has been in shambles since 9-11. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan failed; the former a complete disaster. Worse, America is and has been backing all the wrong horses from the Shah of Iran to Hosni Mubarak; it failed to capitalise on the Arab Spring and Libya and has made no progress on Palestine. Its friends still are dictators like the Saudi Monarchy and Gulf State autocrats. Above all, the vital issue whose outcome will shape the future, the United States’ relationship with Islam, has still to be worked out. Unless it squares its relationship with 25% of the world’s population (1.7 billion people) the US will remain a stunted superpower. This is a vital long term issue that warrants a separate essay on its own, so I will say no more here.

In the context of Syria what this weakness of the US, compared to the period just after the fall of the Soviet Union means, is that it cannot sort out the Syrian imbroglio unilaterally with only tepid support from its European allies and its last remaining Middle East client states. It has to recognise Russia is a major power here, and to accept the reality that Iran is the most important regional player.

Russia is in even sorrier straits. One could argue that it is no longer a great power because its economy is in the doldrums and its military is shrivelled up and rusted, but this is going too far. It is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, eighth largest economy and has a vast nuclear capability whose delivery potential no one in his right mind would want to put to the test. It is also the largest country by area (the second largest Canada is little more than half its size) but only the ninth largest by population (145 million). Russia has the largest natural resources in the world considering energy, minerals and metals, and timber; about $75 trillion, compared to $45 trillion in the US which comes second. Russia is a potentially rich and powerful country, potentially a rival superpower, but reduced to a state of ruin. To reverse this sorry state is one of Putin’s ambitions.

This is not something that can be done by a simple diplomatic game plan in the Middle East and the UN. It is a huge game that will take decades and one that is beyond the ability of Putin’s kleptocratic oligarchy to achieve. But every diplomatic victory, everything that enhances Russia’s global profile, helps. Russia has no clout anymore in Asia, Africa and South and Central America. In the Middle East alone it has influence. Putin is keen to conserve it and build on this remaining strength. These few introductory opening paragraphs offer a broad and general background to help understand the remainder of this essay.

Obama’s unintended game plan

The American game plan is the most crucial. Obama has two trivial concerns; covering up for inaction for two years and salvaging personal credibility after Assad defied his “thin red-line”; but these are of peripheral importance. The real stuff is the strategic options Obama has opened. The imperative of American foreign policy is to keep the credibility of the United States as “world leader” in good repair. This requires a re-evaluation of American foreign policy in the Middle East, just as the Obama-pivot signalled an overhaul of foreign and military policy in Asia. Obama has unintentionally kicked-off a major discourse to reposition US Middle East policy. When he shifted the Syrian intervention issue to Congress as a deft move to get himself out of hot water, he unleashed a wholesale debate in the media, in Congress and among scholars about long-term policy perspectives in respect not only of Syria but the whole Middle East.  Whether to attack, when to attack, what to attack, are details that will be phased into a strategically oriented game plan. This is the approach that Senator John McCain has been pushing for months; Obama is now a late convert.

Congress and President will rally together and work out a unity-consensus. Obama has in effect put aside his thin red line, Congress has become bipartisan, both work to keep US “world leadership” intact. When America’s basic interests are at stake Republicans and Democrats, President and Congress, come together. Hot-shot, one-night stands are of passing relevance; any missiles Obama may or lob later this month are but the opening salvo in a wider drama about what action and policy orientation is appropriate on a big scale over a sustained period.

Putin’s diplomatic success

Russia needs to shed its obstreperous image if it is to rebuild its international image and status. Putin has used the present situation cleverly. It was the threat of US military action that forced Assad to surrender his chemical weapons (whose very existence he had previously denied) and compelled Putin to intervene since he did not want to standby impotently and watch his ally suffer a humiliating attack. America will keep the threat of forces on the table until the elimination of the weapons is complete. Nevertheless Russia played its cards cleverly and showed itself interested in a reasonable solution of an international crisis. Putin scored points and even won admiration in the US as a decisive leader while Obama was seen as a vacillator. Assad may not mind losing his chemical weapons since to use them again would incur an attack that will destroy his state and army. The American public and media are impressionistic and superficial so Putin will win much credit if the diplomatic initiative to rid Syria of chemical weapons works out. The truth is of course more complex, as I have hinted in the previous discussion of American strategic considerations.

The most likely short-term outcome is that Assad's chemical weapons will be confiscated but his military will not be mauled and his regime will survive for the time being. This is in Assad’s and Putin's interests. Meantime America will claim that it was its threat of force that achieved the capitulation. In the next stage however, I think the US will arm and encourage the Syrian rebels with the intention of overthrowing the Assad regime. My guess is that this will succeed but after a longer period than most observers, including I had previously anticipated. At the same time the US does not want to completely destroy the Syrian army or administration (see the chaos in Iraq and Libya) because of fears that Al-Qaeda or other anti-American extremists will seize control of the country.

The Syrian Opposition

The opposition consists of dozens of organisations which it has been difficult to bring under a common political structure. The situation is chaotic and fluid as alliances change, new movements emerge, old ones wind up. There are five entities to use as a frame of reference; the National Coalition Council (NCC), Supreme Joint Military Command (SJMC), Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and Jabat al-Nusra (JaN). The NCC is the political leadership to which most organisations except SIF and JaN owe allegiance; it is secular, democratic in words and an umbrella liberation alliance, but riddled by leadership conflicts.

The SJMC is the command structure of fighting units, including a large number of deserters from the Syrian Army. Technically the SJMC falls under the NCC; actually the SJMC is the source of power, not the other way round. This is not the CCP and Mao leading the forces of the Chinese Revolution (the forerunner of the PLA); in communist organisations the hegemony of the political leadership is uncontested. The most important element in the SJMC is the Free Syrian Army, the largest force in the opposition, but it has neither the tight structure nor combat ability of the Islamists. The moderately Islamist SLF too is technically under the SJMC, but since it is an aggregation of hundreds of units arranged in 20 loosely knit brigades, there is not much control the SJMC can exert.

The two Islamist forces (SIF and JaN) stand outside the NCC and the SJMC, ideologically and militarily. The SIF consists of conservative Salafists who would like to see a religious content in a post-Assad state, but thankfully they are more Syrian nationalist than religious zealots calling for a global Islamic confederation or caliphate. The nigger in the woodpile is the JaN, an al-Qaeda affiliated secretive organisation, which despite its small size, is a formidable fighting force. There is tension between JaN and others who are under pressure to distance themselves from JaN in exchange for US support. It’s all very complicated, but welcome to the real world!