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 information.

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 president.''

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 ISIS!

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. 



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