Syria and the Great Middle East Game

It’s over! The great game to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean has been won economically by China which has gained access through Pakistan after it was lost through military adventures of Great Britain, Soviet Union and the United States. Now the great Middle East game has started with Russia’s entry in the region. Who will be the winners and who the losers are an answer for the future. Nonetheless an analysis of the game is warranted.

Hezbollah demonstrated its prowess against the Middle Eastern N-power of Israel backed by the sole global superpower in July 2006; it won. Iran has survived 15 years of crippling sanctions imposed by the US and Europe; it has won in a sense that it has been recognized by the US and its allies as a regional power. Iraq is managing a comeback with the help of Iran. Syria, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, has been fighting a civil war for over 4 years imposed upon it by Saudi Arabia and its allies among them the infamous Islamic State and NATO member Turkey supported by the US and Europe. This is a very strong alliance of Hezbollah-Syria-Iraq-Iran that Russia has accepted and willing to support.

In this article, I’ll refrain from using Shia and Sunni as it gives an ethnic connotation which is exactly what the US and Arab intentions are.

After an impasse with the West on the Ukraine issue, Russia has decided to become an active player in the great game. Putin, the master chess player has made the move into Syria after recognising the Iranian led alliance and the weakness of the Saudi led Arab alliance. Putin has calculated every possible move on the chess board and decided it is now the opportunity to repay the West for the humiliation it suffered in Afghanistan. The terrain and players in Middle East are significantly different than Afghanistan.

Some experts are of the opinion that Russia waited until the signing of the US-Iran N-deal before launching into a full support for Syria demonstrating another of Putin’s diplomatic and political savvy.

For one, the entire Islamic world had pitted their manpower and financial resources against the Soviets in Afghanistan backed by the US intelligence support. This time the Islamic world is splintered between the alliance backed by Iran and the Arab alliance supported by Saudi Arabia. Between the two Muslim alliances, the Iranian alliance has demonstrated that it is stronger without any external support. So Putin has taken his chances of supporting Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad and hence the Iran alliance.

Secondly, Russia has a strong strategic military and geopolitical interest in Syria due to the naval “Material-Technical Support Point” it has operated since 1971 on western Syria’s Mediterranean coastal city of Tartus. The facility is the Russian Navy’s only repair and replenishment point which provides the ability for Russian warships to make the trip to and from their Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits of Dardanelles, Marmara Sea and Bosphurus. Russia can ill afford to lose this facility.

Russian tactical group seen at Hmeimim aerodrome in Syria.
Russian tactical group seen at Hmeimim aerodrome in Syria.

There are now confirmed reports that Russia has built and is operating an air base on the Syrian Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, south of Tartus – an Assad Alawite bastion. Russia has some 34 fixed-wing aircraft based there – comprising 12 Su-25s, 12 Su-24M2s, four Su-30SMs, and six Su-34s.

The Latakia base has enabled the Russians to monitor and advise the Syrians about US air operations from the Turkish air base of Incirlik. The air base is also serving a warning to NATO not to engage in Syrian air space.

Thirdly, Putin has not only targeted the US and its allies in the Middle East for the humiliation in Afghanistan but it is now after an even greater prey. It is Saudi Arabia. If Russia’s support of the Iranian alliance can lead to their eventual victory over the Arab alliance then the US could be forced to abandon Saudi Arabia. China has already secured Eurasia through Iran and Pakistan and Russia’s success in the Middle East will secure peace not only in the Middle East but also in Eurasia and the rest of Asia.

Finally, the greatest threat that was posed to the Soviet Union is no longer that. Pakistan, the country that was the Soviet nemesis responsible for the debacle in Afghanistan is now a Sino-Russian ally. Moreover Pakistan, through its military establishment, has come to the understanding that it needs to eliminate the terrorist threats which has plagued the country for over two decades and no amount of political and financial bribery can sway it to support Arab alliance as evidenced by its refusal to Saudi Arabia to join the coalition against Yemen.

Rather than using the United Nations platform in September 2015 to declare support exclusively for Syria, Putin used the platform to declare Russia’s opposition to the Islamic State (IS) and invited the US to take the moral high ground to eliminate the evil of IS from the region.

The US and its Arab allies want Assad to give up power but so also does Russia and Iran but not under the circumstances of creating a power vacuum in Syria. The biggest threat from a vacuum under current circumstances would be far more devastating not only for Syria but also the entire region as it would enable the IS and the other anti-Assad and pro-Arab alliance groups to fan the flames of terrorism in the Muslim world. Terrorism is a business that has benefitted the western world but has damaged Muslims far more in terms of loss of lives. It is also the bogeyman that has demonized Islam through IS and Saudi Arabian Wahhabi versions.

The Syrian civil war has dragged on now for over 4 years. It is nothing like Libya and Iraq. There are too many players with vested interests and too much at stake for every player but Russia’s support is bound to be a game changer. In a rather interesting article published on Oriental Review titled “Russian Operation Hmeymim in Syria: Fuzes Activated”, the author Vladimir Kozin writes The Kremlin does not conceal the main aim of its military operation in Syria: to prepare the ground for offensive by the Syrian regular army and allied Syrian armed opposition forces who hope to regain control of IS-infested lands and restore peace and stability in the country. Further reading of Mr. Kozin’s article will help in understanding Russian intervention objectives in Syria.

 The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily coincide with one’s of the Editorial Board.

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.
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