Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Syria – Putin’s geopolitical coup

It’s the stuff of an Orwellian political satire. 

A sovereign nation is faced with a massive insurrection that is largely orchestrated by hostile outside forces who bring in thousands of foreign fighters. Third parties who don’t like the government of that nation arm and train other rebel groups but they also feel threatened by the principal usurper, so those rebels are supposed to take on both at once.

Meantimes yet more obstreperous rabbles spring up and by now everyone is fighting everyone else (when they’re not deserting or defecting, which there’s an awful lot of). The third parties then start bombing the main rebel force on the sovereign nation’s soil without so much as a by-your-leave.  The government of that hard-pressed country asks its friends to come and help out. They do, and the scoundrels arming some of the rebels and conducting illegal bombing raids on that country’s territory cry foul and claim that the friends who were invited in are out of order and are exacerbating the situation! A meeting of all actors in this farce except the aggrieved party is then held and – unsurprisingly – achieves just about nothing except cementing the friend’s position as principal power-broker.

I am, of course, talking about the fiasco in Syria – or rather, the fiasco that has been, but has now been taken in hand by the ‘friends’ in the preceding plot summary, viz the Russians.

For a comic interlude, add a bill of half a billion US dollars to arm and train 15,000 rebels who are supposed to take on both the Syrian army and ISIS, of whom 14,995 or 14,996 (they weren’t sure) are captured before the fun even starts or desert or defect, leaving four or five blokes to complete the gigantean task. I almost laughed myself into a hernia when reading about it and picturing all those red faces in the Pentagon.

Let’s have a closer look at some of the characters in this black comedy. ISIS was the brainchild of the Sunni elites in the Gulf – no secrets there – and its creation was a strategic move in the Sunni vs Shia struggle with a view to weakening the Shia Crescent by taking Damascus out of the picture and doing so right on Teheran’s doorstep. But as in Mary Shelley’s story about a bionic fellow cobbled together by a mad genius called Frankenstein, the monster that was created went its own way and turned on its master in the process.

Now believe it or not, but it’s strictly illegal in international law to support a rebellion in another sovereign nation, whether foreign fighters are involved or not. The actions of the West in aiding and abetting rebels whose explicit aim is toppling the Syrian government have been wholly out of order. Believe it or not yet again, but it’s also illegal to invade someone else’s airspace with military aircraft and start biffing high explosives around, no matter whom it’s at.

It is perfectly legal for a State facing an uprising to ask its friends for assistance, as long as that assistance doesn’t amount to a take-over, or the assister is bolstering a puppet government which it pulls the strings of. Syria is no satellite of Russia, and the government there has every right in international law to ask Moscow to lend a hand in putting down an insurrection or a series of insurrections, which in this instance invokes groups other than ISIS who likewise seek to overthrow the Syrian State. Washington accusing Moscow of illicit intervention in Syria was truly the pot calling the kettle black.

This is all old hat, surely – something  to do with  national sovereignty and territorial integrity and that sort of quaint stuff that’s been around since the Peace of Westphalia 1648. No, not so according to Marc Weller, professor of international law at Cambridge, who is trying to make the case that the US helping Baghdad against ISIS is kosher but Russia helping Damascus against ISIS isn’t. This is the same fellow who made it into the news earlier on by claiming that once a government loses control over a given chunk of territory it effectively becomes terra nullius and outsiders can do what they like in there. Both of these gems of wisdom are totally out of step with long-established maxims. But I guess it’s one way to get noticed.

Back to the real world. Owing to its strong strategic and economic ties with Saudi Arabia and their Gulf allies, the West in effect abandoned its neutrality vis-à-vis the internecine war within the Muslim world and sided with the Sunni camp. This faux pas may well have been inadvertent, but it nonetheless created a niche for counterbalancing foreign involvement on the Shia side that Moscow has now filled.

The presence of Teheran in Vienna was a diplomatic coup for the Russians. Moscow is now firmly in the driver’s seat and is heading with its regional allies towards a grand finale with respect to the Islamic State in which the Western coalition will likely play little part. Those 50 blokes the Pentagon is sending to northern Syria are face-savers rather than game-changers.

Of course, it isn’t philanthropy that is guiding Russian actions. The Soviet Union is gone, but the Kremlin as a geopolitical heavyweight is back. Moscow is capitalising on the shambles that Western foreign policy has created in the Middle East by re-establishing a solid military presence in the region that will long outlast the current mess. The Western ‘alliance’ is looking shakier by the day as the fracture lines between the US and its British lapdogs on the one hand, and Western Europe on the other, are starting to show with European senior politicians and diplomats increasingly advocating finding a way to accommodate the al-Assad regime.

The Yanks started making conciliatory noises at the eleventh hour about al-Assad hanging on during a period of transition (to what, pray tell?!), but the Saudis have made it clear they want al-Assad out, right now, full stop.  The Americans have painted themselves into a corner – regime change in Damascus was the name of their game from the outset and now their Sunni mates won’t allow them to backtrack.

Give it a few months and the Islamic State will be wiped off the face of the map, and a confident and assertive Teheran will be gloating over the restoration of a strengthened Shia Crescent including a reinvigorated regime in Damascus. ISIS metastases in Yemen and Libya will represent an ‘Islamic State in exile’ but there is a poetic justice in this in that Yemen is smack on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep (the chickens coming home to roost), while Libya is Europe’s growing thorn in the side (being entirely of their making through the elimination of Khaddafi). The Yanks will have egg all over their faces and will find themselves increasingly sidelined by their European allies in matters pertaining to Middle East policy. The celebratory vodka will be flowing in the Kremlin over a job well done in more ways than one.

And some writer somewhere will have released a book with a title along the lines of “How the West Screwed Up in the Middle East and Ushered in Cold War 2”. Stay tuned for the next exciting instalment as we enter a new phase in world history.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek  BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is at the American University of Beirut and is a regular contributor to Breaking Views on political and social issues. Feedback welcome at .


Brian said...

It is Orwellian, but also a tragedy for its future.
Yes Obama has made the greatest mess one can imagine, he placed his own popularity as a retiring peace loving President ahead the reality of the situation. By wanting al-Assad out (probably succumbing to a popular demand) the Obama administration totally misjudged the situation. He also misjudged the E.U. with its “sitting on the fence Middle Eastern policy”
ISIS is backed by the Saudis; they are the friends of the West!!! If you believe that for the long term, you will believe anything. This power struggle for the Middle East as Barend states, has shown mainly that the West is divided, and that the United Nations is an impotent organisation in crucial world affairs.
As a matter of interest what would a Republican President in the White House have done anything different? But then it is very easy to criticize and jump into the realms of conjecture.
Just what will happen to Syria after the hullabaloo and the fighting that has left a nation devoid of thousands of its citizens who have the ability to rebuild the state .Leaving those left to accepted Islamic terrorism and constant civil war as a part of their existence.
If as Barend implies, this is a Sunni vs Shia civil war it will never be over, and we should welcome it, for if they are fighting among themselves the initial danger to the West decreases; with a proviso that if Israel is attacked then the West must defend it.
One of maxims either political or military regarding any Civil War is to avoid participation until the winner emerges. Not I grant that this idea holds much water in New Zealand with our desire to involve ourselves in the world’s humanitarian concerns.
The late Barbara W. Tuchman summed it up well in her book “The March of Folly” with her comment that “Governments continue the pursuit of policies contrary to self-interest”.

Unknown said...

Good rave Brian. We must get together sometime to sort out the world over a few beers. Can´t agree on Israel when they have always been the thorn in the side of peace in the region. Anyway, as they have got a shit load of nukes why are we worried about them.The other nations in the middle east have that worry. I am hopeful that at last the west is waking up to the fact that the US and Israel are the biggest trouble makers in the world and they are not going to put up with it any more. Ironic that Putin is leading the charge. To smart by far for the US.What a great snooker. Oh you are fighting Isis we will come and help you out. Great humour.He is the only real leader of a nation at the moment with most of the western democracies being run by sycophants and puppets thanks to ignorant apathetic naive electorates , including our own.I hope Key´s Gestapo is taking note of our blogs.What Europe should have done is get some big cruise ships ,pick up all the refugees and drop them on the US coast and let the nation that caused the problem sort them out.Lot cheaper than putting them up in Europe.

Brian said...

Not so much as a rave Peter as a hope...Which as they say "Springs Eternal". As for sorting out this world. Wow! what with human beings in charge spare me please. In defending Israel, remember that it is a buffer state, and if it should go down the West has no springboard in the Middle East!

Yes great idea to get together with one rather strategic alteration. I only drink 15 year old and upwards Single Malt Whisky from the Isle of Islay. Experience comes with age, especially so with whisky.

Charles said...

I would compute that less than 4% of the American population are aware of what is really going on in Syria. The analysis is right on the button but we must not forget that that the CIA trained and armed most of these terrorist groups. This country along with Israel are the most dangerous, thuggish and ruthless in the world. As American dreams of hegemony go down the drain with their dollar, I fear a last insolent act to take everyone else with them. We entered WW3 some time ago with unjustified sanctions on Russia. This could well manifest itself into a full-on nuclear war. Turkey is unpopular with its NATO partners and is probably not going to drag western European neighbours into a war with Russia should Russia decide to deal with this pimple of a country, buying oil from the insurgents, training them and allowing them to plan their despicable acts on Syria. I cannot believe the stupidity of shooting down a Russian aircraft without warning. The US and its allies France and Britain have no lawful right to be in Syria while the Russians do have. The US wanted Syria's president gone because he favored an oil line that the Americans did not favour. Pretty much simple as that. Why did Iraq need to be illegally invaded? a plan to introduce a gold standard currency in opposition to the petrodollar. We can't allow that to happen can we? Halliburton, a disgusting conglomerate makes billions 'rebuilding' what the US destroyed. The UN is a sick joke and toothless since it is housed in America. International law? Forget it. I wrote to Key stating that NZ did not need any of these opportunists claiming to be refugees coming to NZ and suggested most strongly they all be packed off to America for the instigators of all of this carnage to deal with. I did not receive an answer, predictably. It is most gratifying to read this material from those of you who felt strongly enough to comment. All is not lost.