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October 04th 2015 print

Christopher Carr

Russia’s Greater Game

Putin swears his forces are in Syria to pound ISIS, even as initial reports suggest it is rebel factions opposed to his client Assad that are the targets. There is method in Moscow's display of muscle: Unlike Obama, the Russians are declaring that their allies will not be abandoned

putin assadWhat is Russia’s game plan in the Middle East? When we analyse Russian policy, we start from the obvious and then delve into the realm of speculation. We cannot accept all of Moscow’s pronouncements at face value. Instead, Russian aims have to be understood on several levels.

Obviously, the preservation of the Assad regime in what is left of Syria is a continuation of the longstanding client relationship, going back to Soviet times. Russia has critical physical assets to defend, especially its naval base. But, in addition, Putin’s Russia sees opportunity to regain what was lost during the preceding four decades, and to achieve what the old Soviet Union never accomplished — the total extinguishing of American and Western influence in the Middle East.

Putin practices a brutal realpolitik. Contrary to muddled thinking by all too many so-called experts in the West, realpolitik does not entail the cynical abandonment of allies. On the contrary, fidelity to allies is the cornerstone of any great power’s credibility. The Assad regime seemed to be on the point of collapse. The United States and its European allies nursed the naïve hope that Russia might be induced to abandon an old client. They failed to understand that Russian support for a vulnerable ally sends a powerful signal in a region where power, not goodwill, is the guiding principle. By contrast, what signal is Obama sending with his increasingly uncertain support for Israel? What signal did he send by his abandonment of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and de facto embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood?

On one level, Western suspicions about Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war are valid. Contrary to Putin’s claim that he is waging war against the Islamic State, it appears pretty clear from news reports that, so far, Russian operations are in the Western area of Syria against anti-Assad  rebels, who have received support from the United States, not the Islamic State. In parenthesis, we might observe that any distinction between the Sunni fighters of the so-called Free Syrian Army and fighters for the Islamic State is blurry, to say the least. Anti-Assad rebels have the unfortunate habit of trading Western hostages with the Islamic State. Whatever, any  claim by Vladimir Putin that he is dedicated to the destruction of the Islamic State may be seen mostly as reinforcement of a contrary lack of American and Western resolve.

I suggest that Russia’s aims in the Middle East are twofold.

She is seeking a Russian hegemon, not a region dominated by either Iran or the Sunni version of Islam. Divide and conquer makes more sense than the notion that Russia would facilitate the rise of a fanatical theocratic nuclear power over which it would lose control. Iran’s possession of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles would pose a challenge not only to Washington and Europe, but also to Moscow. Rather, Russia’s show of cooperation with Iran’s nuclear programme is a foil, designed to underscore American weakness vis a vis its Middle East allies. The lack of American action against Iran’s nuclear facilities and, moreover, American efforts to sabotage Israeli countermeasures, have been compounded by the nuclear deal with Iran. Perceived treachery to allies is not simply an abstract moral failing, but, above all, an abdication of power.

It should hardly surprise that Russia would welcome for all the wrong reasons the nuclear deal with Iran. If Obama is prepared to disregard America’s closest ally, Israel, which enjoys majority support in the United States, what strength can be placed on American commitment to other allies in, say, Eastern Europe? Not well understood is that American support for Israel is not simply optional but essential if the US is to retain any influence in the Middle East. Yes, the likes of Saudi Arabia may publicly aspire to the elimination of the Jewish state in the longer term. In the shorter term, any weakening of ties with Israel sends the message to Arab allies that the United States is weak and unreliable. The price for American pursuit of imaginary goodwill  may be high indeed.

 

 

 

 

Comments [6]

  1. gardner.peter.d says:

    I don’t know the details of the ground disposition of forces but perhaps that which, ‘appears pretty clear from news reports that, so far, Russian operations are in the Western area of Syria against anti-Assad rebels, who have received support from the United States, not the Islamic State.’ is simply a military operation to secure his flanks and protect his own forces. It is not necessarily indicative of political aims.

  2. gardner.peter.d says:

    Impossible to predict what will happen but just suppose Russia, Iran and Syria succeed and confine ISIL to Iraq or force ISIL to seek other routes towards Turkey via Mosul or towards Israel via Jordan. What will the West do then? What will Saudi Arabia do? What will Iran do? The West no longer seems to ‘do’ long term strategy. Clearly Putin still does.

  3. en passant says:

    The USA has a long history of abandoning allies, but I thought they had learnt. Then came the speech at Cairo University that Mubarak was the USA’s greatest friend in the M.E. Israel? Never heard of it and Obama did not visit it. A mere 4-months later Obama had abandoned Mubarak and was calling on him o step down. The Position of the US was expressed perfectly in the quote )I cannot find the source) that: “The USA is that most grotesque irrelevance: an impotent enemy and an unreliable friend”. I am not ignoring history, nor am I ignoring the current, ineffective Poodle-in-Chief. The USA has changed its spots from a great leader of the civilised world to a PC, apologetic (does anyone want to see again photos and videos of the bowing and apologising Prezzie poodle and the lying denials of Lady Hillary Macbeth as a reminder?), bumbling, indecisive, declining, near bankrupt directionless mass of Gimme! Gimme! voters? Can anyone still view the USA as the home of the tough frontier spirit of innovation, inventiveness, self-made entrepreneurs and principled politicians who would stand up (eventually) for civilisation, Truth, Justice and the American Way? That’s a tough one …
    Sorry,, but AS-WAS is history and that USA is now gone, voted out by the Socialists dependent on handouts.
    ISIS convoys, full of supplies drive down a bare road to Ramadi in daylight. 40 Toyota vehicles (supplied by the CIA) loaded with everything for their front line needs. A drone is overhead, F-22′s are nearby, but the convoy is unmolested once again. In the back of each truck is a Niqab clad figure (male or female – who can tell?) but the Obama rule is no bombing if there is a RISK of collateral damage, civilian casualties or women or children in the vicinity. Three guesses how ISIS now goes to war? Take as many more guesses if you need to …
    A week after arriving in Syria Putin took out the main ISIS HQ and killed ‘hundreds’. This is war and Putin does not fight with his hands tied. Take the family with you to the frontline for protection and you will all go to heaven together. It was reported that the RAAF flew 36 missions and dropped NINE bombs. That is not war, that is endangering pilots and equipment. Oh! The Russians were good enough to politely inform the USA an hour before they sent your CIA trained ‘rebels’ to Hell. They did not ask the Poodle’s or Kerry’s permission, they just spelt out what they were going to do – as they did in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine. Bears see poodles as a snack, not a threat to be taken seriously. Maybe the Poodle could frighten the Russians by drawing another Pink Line they cannot cross … or what?
    ” a ‘disinterested Russia’ doing good things in the Mideast is a myth.” Hmm, tell me the good things that the USA has done since Zuckerberg initiated the Arab Spring in Egypt and the USA turned on “…our greatest friend in the region” and almost brought Egypt undone. As I quoted from an article by Tim Lynch:
    ‘”If Hitler invaded hell,” Churchill said in 1941, “I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Russian diplomacy is today replete with much warmer references towards the regime in Damascus. Putin has an obvious interest in the maintenance of autocrats, not their removal as per the terms of an American “social experiment” (his description of post-Cold War US democratisation efforts).’
    In case I have not been clear, I regard the Prezzie Poodle’s geopolitical views as an insult to every other mildly deranged tyrant (and that is what he is as there is no Constitution, Court or Congress that will deny his will). American democracy is a flawed and dying beast without teeth as they have long since deferred to Presidential dictates, right or wrong. American Royalty such as Hillary demonstrate that.
    I correspond with a wide range of contacts, including people in Syria, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar and Algeria. Bush and Bremner tried to impose the ‘American Democracy’ on Iraq and guaranteed an uprising and the deaths of many fine Western Allied soldiers. Enter the poodle, who declares victory and leaves behind chaos to add to the endless series of American political, diplomatic and strategic failures. It was a good thing when the USA displaced Russia as the main player in the M.E., but thanks to naivety and the Poodle’s Agenda whatever good was done has long since been undone. Now that the Bear is replacing the Poodle, so be it.
    Someone has to take a stand and in a fight, Bears always beat Poodles

  4. Bill Martin says:

    The alarmingly rapid decline of American power and prestige, in military, economic as well as in a moral sense, under the most incompetent of all presidents, is indisputable. Putin naturally seizes every opportunity to turn this shameful situation to Russia’s advantage. In the case of the Syrian situation, his obvious strategy is to assist the Assad regime to regain control over the country by first defeating its lesser opponents and finally ISIS. Most military analysts agree that ISIS can not be destroyed without an effective “boots on the ground” campaign. Putin’s aim is to anable the Assad regime to fulfil that requirement, supplemented by Russian boots if necessary. That scenario makes a lot more sense than anything Obama or any other western leader has proposed, civilian casualties notwithstanding, which is far too late to worry about now. In addition to the credit of being instrumental in eliminating ISIS, Russia would also cement its influential status in the Middle East as well as demonstrating being a steadfast ally of its friends. All of which once was the exclusive domain of the USA.

    • PT says:

      Better Russian hegemony than some new Caliphate! Obama shows uselessness of the new left style “foreign policy” and it’s utter hypocrisy! The Americans were foolish to try and replace British and French influence in the Middle East with their own (when they had such strong influence they could use the latter two as proxies). America cannot ultimately abandon Israel – and the Arabs know it. But things are as they are. I don’t like Assade. But the failure to produce a liberal, stable state in Iraq or in the “Arab Spring” surely should indicate he’s not likely to be replaced by something better. At the least, that should be enough to count against supporting his Opponents! Abbott mentioned there were no “good guys”, and he was right. Shows how “informed” those who hated him actually are!

      • acarroll says:

        A quick look at history would show anyone with half a brain the folly of trying to install Western style democracy (origin: homogenous ethno states) onto multi-ethnic, sectarian states. Those states can only ever be ruled by emperors (despots).

        America’s decline in terms of its democratic institutions, principles, morality, innovation etc goes hand in glove with its changing demographics. If Trump’s popularity is anything to go by, it’s clear that those demographic changes forced on the people who’s ancestors built that once great country are extremely unpopular.