The Middle East Facing the Unknown
26 November 2015
By Eyad Abu Shakra
There is no agreement yet among those following the Syrian situation as
regards what Washington thinks of Russia's direct involvement in combat. Most
comments and analyses seem closer to smart guesswork than reliable
Some among analysts see nothing new in Washington's virtual silent consent
pointing to its policy towards Syria for more than four years. These include
those who suggest that this silence may be partly attributed to some sort of
tacit agreement that gives Russia a free hand in Syria in return for Moscow's
acceptance of a Washington-run Iraq.
Others give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt; believing that
Washington is actually pulling Russia into a terrible quagmire which would
damage its standing, while relieving itself of its traditional enemy.
A third group of analysts reckon that in order that Iran's strident regional
ambitions are checked, and the fears of what remains of Middle Eastern
Christians and sectarian and ethnic minorities are put to rest, Washington
would be happy to commission Moscow to secure Bashar Al-Assad an honorable
exit while keeping in place the infrastructure of the Syrian state.
All these guesses deserve to be taken seriously, and why not? At least, they
make sense, although they are unethical and have got nothing to do with human
rights and the right of self-determination.
However, what worries many as far as the Russian airstrikes are concerned –
and contrary to Moscow's announcements – is that they are not targeting the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but rather 9 out 10 strikes are
targeting the areas controlled by moderate opposition groups, which are
supposed to be the international community's future partners in the expected
Syrian political settlement. What Russia's warplanes are doing so far, in
addition to aiding and providing air cover to the regime's land assault, has
been to weaken and defeat the acceptable alternative not ISIS, which is
exactly what Assad and Iran want. This reality proves false all Russia's
claims about its intentions in Syria; the last of such claims were made by
the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who, while denying ''helping
Assad,'' said that he still recognized him as Syria's ''legitimate
On the other hand, Russia is not the only active combatant in Syria. There is
also Iran, which is rumored to be preparing a massive land offensive aimed at
enabling the weak regime to retake the districts of northwestern Syria, lost
to the opposition in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.
Interesting to note here, in fact, was how Russian air strikes – particularly
in Aleppo province – were taking place against opposition areas at the same
time these same areas were coming under recurrent attacks by none other than
Furthermore, Russian heavy bombardment of Al-Ghab Plains (south of Idlib
province and northwest of Hama province), Jabal Al-Akrad (in northeast
Lattakia province) has nothing to do with fighting ISIS, but rather
protecting the eastern borders of Lattakia province, Assa's stronghold. The
same applies to the southern fronts, where Moscow and Tehran are doing their
utmost to defend the regime's headquarters and security facilities in the
capital, Damascus, and its environs.
Evidently, no one would like to see a political and security vacuum in Syria
similar to that of the post-Saddam Iraq, leading to endless disasters; and
sure enough, even the real opposition – not the regime's fabricated
opposition of Qadri Jameel and Ali Haydar – has a vested interest in
maintaining a bare minimum of the state's institutions, reassuring minorities
and preventing extremist forces from becoming part of the new decision-making
future authority. But it is also true that the international community is
neither talking to the Syrians in one voice, nor seriously subduing the
regime's killing machine and confronting Iran's blatantly sectarian and
militaristic regional project.
Iran is now behaving in both Syria and Lebanon exactly as it has been
behaving in Iraq, where it is now a de facto mandatory power and sponsor of
an armed demographic and sectarian subjugation intended not only to be
perpetuated, but also politically and constitutionally legitimized. It is now
exploiting the nuclear deal reached with the US and the West, the lifting of
international sanctions, and Turkey's preoccupation with its parliamentary
elections and Kurdish Problem, to cement its aforementioned mandate.
This highly unclear picture carries with it grave dangers throughout the
Middle East; and as the Obama administration enters its last 12 months in
office, one may claim that the Middle East Barack Obama first knew, as
president, seven years ago has become a totally different place. And as it
would be foolish to expect any changes in Washington's policies during the
next few months, what were – for a long time – regarded as ''unshakeable
constants'' in regional politics are diminishing by the day.
In all honesty, the roles of Egypt and Turkey may change; and some regional
groupings may in the near future lose their cohesion due to diverging
outlooks and differing short-term interests. As for the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict it is now gradually moving away from the safety of mutual
deterrence. It is now impossible to guarantee anything there, as people are
being stabbed and shot in the streets, against the background of horrendous
collusion by a Benjamin Netanyahu government hell bent on collective
punishment and provocative shoot-to-kill executions.
In the absence of honest dealing, the Middle East is indeed moving towards
the unknown. Thus, if Washington does not revise, and fast, its assessment of
the regional situation in the aftermath of the Iran – Russia deal under the
pretext of ''fighting terrorism'' through the so-called ''Baghdad information
center'', the repercussions will be catastrophic.
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been
with the newspaper since 1978.