Saturday, September 19, 2015

Russia, the United States and the Middle East – the Subtext

The double-slam of the U.S. failure to protect minority Sunni rights against Shiite anger when it imposed a “democratically-elected” government on Iraq plus the devastating, never-ending regional drought very much linked to global climate change have decimated American political credibility, crushed its willingness to get involved in what most believe would be another losing ground war in the Middle East and tied its hands as a credible peace-maker anywhere in that area. Russia has stood by, smiling at our diplomatic gaffes and our slow, lingering defeats in every major conflict since the Korean War.
When they could, Russia mounted a conciliatory presence in the six-party negotiations that resulted in an accord that, if implemented, could de-escalate tensions generated from fears of regional nuclear holocaust. But even the wiliest of negotiators would never trust Iran to be on the up-and-up, and the most savvy analysts believe that slowing Iran down – particularly given the growing anti-religious-extreme beliefs of the vast majority of Iranians – might just give it time to mellow and join the world as a more moderate nation-state with too much to lose to start another war.
The Soviet Union fell hard after its devastating defeat at the hands of the Mujahedeen in its own Afghan War (1979-89). Russia (the Soviet replacement state) has been licking its wounds ever since, yearning for the days when its influence in the Middle East kept the United States at bay. But as the United States seems to have lost its stomach for Middle Eastern conflict – relegating its military support to training, equipment and itself deploying only antiseptic drone and attacks from the air – Russia has been slowly reinforcing its presence in the area.
The United States, torn between a strong desire to contain the genuine terror-threat of ISIS and its rather dramatic unwillingness to engage at any level that really would make a difference, is secretly looking at how the Russians, malevolent antagonists to American policies almost everywhere, might still be useful in supplying the force needed to turn the tide against ISIS. We don’t talk about this for obvious reasons, but trust me, allowing Russians to mobilize within this conflict zone might actually have a modicum of tacit U.S. support. Huh? Aren’t we really engaged against Russia in a surrogate shooting war (see my September 8th blog)? Complexity compounds in this enigmatic region.
First, you have to understand the differences between the Russian perspective and the approach adopted by the United States and her allies. Having faced the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the same radicals who later “blew back” on the West (remember 9/11) after victory, Russia remains deeply mistrustful of supporting any rebellious group against incumbents. Russians point to the failures where the Arab Spring displaced brutal but stabilizing dictators with unstable religious zealots. They see the radicals aligned against the Bashir Assad regime in Syria as actual or nascent supporters of ISIS. With Iran’s military power and oil reserves, with a highly-educated population, southern neighbor, Iran, is also a prized Russian relationship. No matter how repressive the incumbent regime might be, Russians (with Chinese acquiescence) are uniformly supportive of regional incumbents. Human rights succumb to pragmatism every time. Today, to Russia, “rebels” equal “terrorists.” Always.
On the other side of this great philosophical divide is the new-found American opposition to anti-democratic, repressive regimes. The United States, while yet to take up direct arms against either Damascus or Tehran, has prioritized supporting groups who want majority rule. We are voicing strong negative opinions as Russia ships state-of-the-art arms, from jets to tanks (like the T-90 shown above) to missiles, to Assad and his cronies… all under the guise of reinforcing an incumbent against ISIS, but also supplying Assad with the arms to repress his own native rebellion.
“Pentagon officials said that the Russian weapons and equipment that had arrived suggested that the Kremlin’s plan is to turn the airfield south of Latakia in western Syria into a major hub that could be used to bring in military supplies for the government of President Bashar al-Assad. It might also serve as a staging area for airstrikes in support of Syrian government forces.” New York Times, September 14th. But Assad cannot exist if ISIS keeps growing, so this double-edged sword may be soon swinging violently in both directions, against rebels and against ISIS.
American policy-makers see Russia on the wrong side of history – again (their Afghan war was also waged in support of a brutal incumbency) – and feel that Russia would far more effective in a focused containment effort aimed only against ISIS. The Obama administration is fully committed to toppling Assad and other similar repressive regimes until the mantra of protecting “human rights” and nascent democratic movements.
To understand how Russia and the United States differ in their approach, I will turn to the writings of Huffington Post (September 12th) columnist, Raghida Dergham, also a Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs and is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for L. A. Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine.
“There is a view that holds that US diplomacy is indifferent to any Russian gains in the Middle East, which the United States has arguably decided to forsake, with the exception of what its alliance with Israel requires. This view holds that the United States has decided to do so following the discovery of large reserves of oil in its territories, and its decision to pivot east towards China and its neighbors.
“The other view believes the United States has provisionally stepped back from its leadership position to relieve itself of blame and responsibility, and at the same time implicate Russia in crises, bloody conflicts, and the quagmires of civil, religious, and sectarian wars.
“Regardless of which view is correct, Russia seems determined to fight several battles across the Middle East. Some of the battles intend to restore Russia's prestige and vindicate Moscow against having been excluded and insulted -- as Moscow believes -- in the wake of the Arab Spring, others to implement its vision for the Middle East and its influence and interests there.
“In a concept note entitled ‘Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Settlement of Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and Countering the Terrorist Threat in the Region,’ Russia has told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon it intends to convene a session for the Security Council at the level of ministers on September 30. According to the Russian document, submitted by Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the aim of the ministerial session to be chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is to adopt a presidential Security Council statement that stresses the urgent need to take action to resolve and prevent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and identify possible additional steps to address terrorist threats in the region.
“The Russian approach is essentially based on linking conflicts in the Middle East to terrorism…The issues mentioned by the Russian document begin with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Russian document points out that failure to reach a solution to the conflict boosts radicalization in the Arab street, and creates favorable conditions for the spread of terrorist ideas.”
ISIS is infinitely more dangerous that we have come to believe. And as my August 27th blog documents (My Lie Can Beat Up Your Lie), our analysts have overstated our victories and unstated our stinging defeats at the hands of these murderous extremists. ISIS will spread terror wherever it can, including attacks within Western nations, even the United States. As migrant pour into Europe, a very small number are probably ISIS operatives. While we cannot turn our backs on the misery that has driven the migrations, the dangers are equally obvious. One can only hope that the migrants, who fear ISIS as much as anyone, will turn in those they believe are ISIS-sympathizers.
We need Russia as much as we should fear Russian intentions.  But if Americans are unwilling to take up direct arms on the ground, and as it is painfully obvious, Iraq is a joke without massive Iranian involvement (as Turkey uses the ISIS struggle to kill off Kurds), Russia may be the decider. Think this really isn’t happening? Think again. “The White House said on [September 14th] that the United States wants to see Russia take on ‘more constructive engagement’ with the international coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Syria, rather than build up its military presence there.
“White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he did not have an update on whether or when President Barack Obama would call Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue… ‘When our team and most importantly when the president determines that it would advance our interests to have a conversation with President Putin, then he'll pick up the phone and try to set up that call,’ Earnest told reporters at a briefing.” Reuters, September 14th. Want more? “U.S. President Barack Obama believes that holding military talks with Russia on Syria is an important next step and hopes they will take place very shortly, Secretary of State John Kerry said on [September 18th].” Reuters, September 18th. We’re not willing to join ground action, but we desperately need someone powerful to join the fight? But perhaps beggars can’t be choosers. I am sure there will be some pretty strong negative reactions from that long-bench of GOP presidential candidates.
But wait… there’s even more! “Defense chiefs from the United States and Russia held their first direct talks in more than a year [on Sept. 18th], discussing the multiple conflicts in Syria and ways to battle the Islamic State as part of possible wider contacts aimed at easing tensions… The talks between Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, announced by the Pentagon, follow weeks of growing concern in Washington over Moscow’s military role with Syria’s government, a key Kremlin ally.
“The two officials ‘agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-ISIL campaign,’ Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said, using an acronym for the Islamic State…It was the first time Carter spoke with Shoygu since Carter took office in February, and the first call between any U.S. defense secretary and the Russian minister since August 2014.” Washington Post, September 18th. Somebody’s gotta do it.
We are mired in the aftermath of failed American military and diplomatic policy, reliant on the least trustworthy nations on earth and faced with a litany of Hobson’s choices. What would you tell our leaders to do?

I’m Peter Dekom, and with our will-to-fight and political credibility at an all-time low, despite the campaign rhetoric, we are going to have to make some nasty choices down the line, with bad long-term ramifications no matter what we do.

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