Grinding towards peace in the Middle East as America looks inward - II
by Omar Kassem on 09 Feb 2017 3 Comments

Russia was embattled as a result of US and European sanctions; the economy was reeling from a declining oil price, and suffering from obstacles erected in the way of Russian gas supplies to Europe in Ukraine and Bulgaria. When Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani travelled to Moscow to relay a call for help from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in August 2015, a decision was taken to establish a substantial military presence in Syria around the existing ex-Soviet naval base in Tartus, Latakia.

The collapse in relations between the US and its most important NATO ally in the region, over the question of the safe zone, gave Putin a window to expand Tartus and to build a new airbase at Khmeimim, close-by. The world may have been focusing on Syria and Assad, but it was really Turkey that was now in play.


At the very time that the PKK launched its war in Turkey, Putin, by now installed at Tartus and Khmeimim, decided to add to the pressure on Erdogan, by focusing airstrikes on Turcoman Syrian rebels, traditionally under Turkish protection, whilst claiming that the purpose of the Russian mission was to destroy ISIS. After military action that involved numerous incursions into Turkish airspace, the notorious downing of the Russian fighter-jet occurred on 24th November.


This allowed Putin to stage a loud and dramatic pantomime that conjured up visions of WWIII, succeeding thus in cowing NATO and the US. As the world held its breath, Russia dramatically increased its Syrian capability, while slapping crippling economic sanctions on Turkey. Putin had fully expected a Turkish air defence response to happen at some point, as long as he kept the incursions into Turkish airspace going on for long enough. But Turkey would eventually have to apologise for something that had been in its right to do, and when Putin asked for a scalp, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu took the fall.


It is unlikely that the massive gains to Russia from the downed jet event were purely serendipitous. The Khmeimim airbase may have looked like protection for Assad, but together with the Gyumri airbase in Armenia, the new airbase had completed the encirclement of Turkey. The US may have added ex-Warsaw Pact countries to NATO since the 1990s, breaking Reagan’s promises to Gorbachev at Reykjavik, but Russia has now acquired a founder member of NATO, with its largest army, holding the most strategic geographic position in the alliance, as an ally.


And a willing ally at that. Turkey is formally the co-host of the Astana talks with Russia. Turkey, not Russia is the pivotal element in the new process. Its new economic and prospective military agreements with Russia are central to an Eastward-looking strategy that will restructure priorities in its old alliances with the US and Europe.


A new hard-line attitude in Turkey towards the Syrian problem is encapsulated in the building of a new ‘Great Wall’ along its border with Syria to stop uncontrolled traffic. With JITEM, the Gendarmerie responsible for Turkey’s security in the Southeast, and Turkish Intelligence (MIT), under the strict executive control of the President since the failure of the coup, Syria rebel groups will find it hard to bypass official policy. The smuggling routes from the north are now blocked, and Iran controls the territory to the south.


Groups like Fath el-Sham and ISIL will only survive if the US suddenly decides to supply them through its base in Syrian Kurdish territory. This seems unlikely under the prospective isolationism of a Trump administration (although the Pentagon and CIA have been known to disobey their leaders).


The rebel groups attending Astana are focused now largely on ceasefire compliance. There have been skirmishes with Assad’s régime over water supplies, and because the need the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia sees to consolidate its positions between Damascus and Lebanon. It is significant that these violations are being overlooked by a Turkish government determined that Astana bring a final end to the chaos on its southern borders.


The Great US-Iranian War, and the Syrian alliance with Iran


In 1996, neocons Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser proposed the ‘Clean Break’ strategy to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, to ditch the peace process and launch a pre-emptive series of strikes against it neighbours with, as an ultimate target, an invasion of Iraq. Enough neocons came to power under George W. Bush to make this policy a reality. The 2003 invasion of Iraq followed on the heels of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan prompted by 9/11.


US Provisional Authority Head in Baghdad, Paul Bremer’s De-Baathification and his dissolution of the Iraqi military, provided one of the ingredients for the disaster that engulfed the world.


The other ingredient was chucked into the pot by Bush himself in his January 29th 2002 State of the Union address, when he classed Iran as a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’. Senior State Department official Ryan Crocker, who was actively cooperating with the Iranian Quds Force leader Suleimani in planning the early Afghan campaign against the Taliban at the time, remembers the instant volte-face the Iranians made upon hearing the speech.


John Mearsheimer writing in 2005 equated the neocon and Bush doctrines, calling them “Wilsonianism with teeth”: a combination of liberal internationalism with and belief in the power of military action. He argued that the fatal flaw in this doctrine was a belief in “bandwagoning” logic. This logic held that the mere threat of attack from a military as powerful as that of the US would cause any opposition ‘… to throw up its hands and jump on the American bandwagon…’. Mearsheimer held instead with “realist“ thinking, which believed instead in a “balancing” world, where every action begets a reaction.


When it became clear that Syria and Iran would “be next” after Iraq, Suleimani helped Assad turn Damascus into “Grand Central Station” for international jihadis travelling to fight US forces in Iraq. Mahmoud Abu al-Qaqaa became Assad’s chief recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Then, from AQI, would eventually emerge, from the confines of the US military detention facility at Camp Bucca, the ISIS phenomenon, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his coterie of Baathist officers.


But, Syria and Iran had become allies much earlier, right after the March 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and the Iranian Revolution of the same year. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had felt betrayed by Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat, who never followed through on Camp David promises to the Palestinians. For Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, the alliance would be deeply ideological. Syria was the vital link with the Shi’a of Southern Lebanon, whose theologians had been central to the Safavi conversion of Iran to Twelver Shiism some centuries before.


Syria assisted Iran during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88). After the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982, the two countries carried out the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings together. Using Lebanese Hezbollah suicide bombers 541 US Marines and 58 French servicemen were killed in two simultaneous attacks deemed by FBI forensics to have been the ‘... biggest non-nuclear explosion since World War II...’


During the 2003-2011 US-Iraq War, Syria and Iran were no longer mobilising Shi’a fighters (such as Hezbollah) against a common enemy but, as Crocker reported, were actually helping the Sunni insurgency against the US occupation. Suleimani went so far as organising jihadis belonging to AQI for ‘… attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia… under Iranian protection…’.


When the Assad régime came under pressure from protests during the Arab Spring in 2011, it would be of little surprise that cooperation would unfold between Damascus and Tehran along similar lines.


Assad saw the protests as an opportunity for the Saudi King Abdullah (since deceased), to unseat him. At daggers drawn since the assassination of Lebanese president Rafik Hariri, a strong Saudi ally (in fact, a Saudi citizen), the relationship between the two became bitter, after Assad had called Abdullah a “half-man“, a particularly galling Arabic insult, for his criticism of Hezbollah’s aggressive stance towards Israel in 2006.


After the 2006 Lebanese War, the Egyptian and Saudi embassies in Damascus came to be used by the US to foment sectarian unrest against Assad and the Alawites. When the 2011 protests erupted, Assad’s expectations and his violent overreaction justified the Saudi régime in its desire for overt interference in Syrian affairs, while Turkey all the time pressed for conciliation. It was at this point, between August and October 2011, that Assad released a number of militant jihadis from Sednaya Prison, who had been arrested upon their return from Iraq. He presented this as an olive branch to his opposition, although actually there was never to be any release of the peaceful protesters (including many public intellectuals) in detention.


The move was intended to divide and rule the opposition. The militants released by Assad became the leaders of the most important Sunni rebel groups. Zahran Alloush led Jaysh al-Islam, Hassan Abboud, Ahrar el-Sham, and Amr Abu Atheer al-Absi would turn into one of the more unhinged ISIS leaders (he was the group’s main kidnapper). Al-Absi joined Jabhat al-Nusra, founded at the turn of 2011/2012 by AQI, which had by then become Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The idea was to expand its reach into Syria (so ISI becomes ISIS). Where al-Nusra’s leader, al-Julani then broke with ISIS, al-Absi remained faithful. Assad’s accommodation over the Syrian oil and gas fields with different rebel groups over time, guaranteeing both a sales outlet and the protection of the Syrian air force was an important part of the régime’s divide and rule tactics.


The régime’s survival would ultimately be underpinned by the Quds force, however, with the help of an increasing number of Shi’a militias brought over by Suleimani from Iraq. The Quds force itself lost a good of number of its high ranking officers in Syria, including Suleimani’s own deputy, Hossein Hamadani. According to al-Jazeera’s research, rescuing Assad cost Iran upwards of $175bn over five years.


The views expressed by the author are personal; he can be reached via his website

(To be concluded …)

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