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America enters the ‘Old Middle East

What does Russia want from what remains of Syria? Well, one thing is for sure: any bet that Moscow may be willing to implement the Geneva documents – even according to the interpretation of Vladimir Putin and his diplomatic “commissar” Sergey Lavrov – is naïve to say the least. The current political climate in the Middle East is not only suitable, but encouraging for Moscow to flex its muscles.

It is not every day that a president like Barack Obama occupies the White House; and, as long as Obama continues to make the alliance with Iran the focus of his “political legacy,” while his Republican opponents fail to come up with an alternative and meaningful Middle East policy, Washington’s room for maneuver in the region will be limited, and belatedly reactive.

Some claim that behind Obama’s insistence on securing the nuclear deal with Iran is a “carrot and stick” strategy. This means he is betting on improving the chances of a pragmatist “reformists” victory against the “conservative” Mullahs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leadership, and bartering Iran’s nuclear weapons with regional influence granted to it at the expense of its neighbors.

America’s inaction towards the Syrian uprising has been the green light that reassured Putin that he could do what he pleased.

Eyad Abu Shakra
Such a scenario is of course possible given the relatively large number of pro-Israel senators whom the White House managed to “convince” and win over, and the “satisfied” silence of Israel’s military and security establishment which – as reported recently – rejected more than once Benjamin Netanyahu’s prodding to attack Iran.

Reformist camp
If the reformist camp does manage to win – as Obama seems to believe it will – I reckon Moscow would have some sort of “arrangement” that would guarantee it enough influence near Russia’s southern borders and in the eastern Mediterranean.

Putin is a politician and former intelligence officer whose political identity matured in the thick of the Cold War and the East-West confrontation. He later witnessed the humiliation suffered by the defeated, and consequently fragmented, USSR at the hands of a jubilant and disrespectful West. Thus, as the slogans of “Socialism,” “Humanity,” and the “Right of self-determination” lectured to us by the old Pravda are today only entertained by imbeciles of the childish left and traded by “intelligence service Arabists,” one must realize that we are dealing with a “neo-Tsarist” Russia.

America’s inaction towards the Syrian uprising has been the green light that reassured Putin that he could do what he pleased, whether in Crimea or eastern Ukraine. Today, we are back at full circle; and, again, Washington is reiterating that it is only interested in reassuring Iran and Israel, even if the price is alienating Turkey and the Arabs.

Neo-Tsarist Russia will never forget the Middle East, where old Tsarist Russia had prominent consuls, monasteries, “seminars,” and “Muscovite” schools. And while France thought of itself as the guardian of Catholics and Maronites in the region, and Britain and later America became active in spreading Protestant institutions, Russia became the protector and guide of the Orthodox community in the Middle East.

Tsarist past
So, Putin’s Russia, now that socialism is a profitable commodity no more, is reverting to its Tsarist past, and why not? It is powerful enough not to seek approval, or permission, from anyone to fight the “political Islam” it has fought against for centuries throughout its vast lands and along its long borders extending from the Balkans, through the Caucasus, to central Asia.
There is also another side to the story, this time linked to Russia’s erstwhile tactical alliance with Iran. A few months ago a rumor began to spread that senior Iranian leaders informed a high-ranking Syrian regime official visiting the country that Iran “has paid and continues to pay a lot” in defending Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. They added that Iran needs as collateral lands they have already chosen inside Syria, valued close to their estimate of what Tehran has already spent on the conflict – $26 billion.

Upon his return, the Syrian official reported to Assad what he had heard in Tehran. Assad reacted to the Iranian message – so the rumor goes – by contacting a number of Syrian Christian notables and informing them bluntly that the Iranians “want to take over the country,” and that he was in no position to protect them; thus he may need to rely on Russia!

This rumor was published in the Middle East, but like most rumors no one is willing to own up or give credence to, it soon faded and disappeared. Still, the way Iran is managing the war in Syria through its Revolutionary Guards – including its sectarian Lebanese, Iraqi, and other Shi’ite militias – in Zabadani, the Qalamoun Mountains, Hauran, and northern Syria, and its central role in negotiations concerned with population exchange, confirms that it is fully in charge.

The ‘useful Syria’
Yes, Iran is now actually and effectively running the “useful Syria,” leaving Assad as a mere figurehead. This means that the pre-March 2011 Syria is finished and gone regardless of what happens to Assad and the skeleton of his moribund regime. It also means that if Turkey finds itself forced to pre-empt the establishment of an independent Kurdish entity along its southern border with Syria, extending from northern Iraq to Turkey’s Hatay Province, Russia may decide it wouldn’t be a good idea after all to relinquish its influence in Syria to Iran; more so if victorious Iran’s “reformists” become Washington’s allies.

In the meantime, Washington has just “discovered” that after being quite busy envisaging a “New Middle East” it seems to be looking the “Old Middle East” in the face!

In an assessment that is at odds with official Obama administration policy, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said recently at an industry conference that Iraq and Syria may have been permanently torn asunder by war and sectarian tensions, adding that “I’m having a tough time seeing it [Iraq and Syria] come back together.” On Iraq, Stewart said he was “wrestling with the idea that the Kurds will come back to a central government of Iraq,” suggesting he believed it was unlikely. On Syria, he said: “I can see a time in the future where Syria is fractured into two or three parts.” That is not the US goal, he said, but it’s looking increasingly likely.

CIA Director John Brennan, speaking on the same panel, meanwhile said: “Iraqis and Syrians now more often identify themselves by tribe or religious sect, rather than by their nationality . . . I think the Middle East is going to be seeing change over the coming decade or two that is going to make it look unlike it did.”

Brilliant “discoveries” indeed. Pity they do not surprise monitors of Washington’s policies anymore!

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept 16, 2015.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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