America Enters the ''Old Middle East''
03 November 2015
By Eyad Abu Shakra
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 naďve 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.
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.
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
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.
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 US
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.
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
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!
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been
with the newspaper since 1978.