The “Great Game” being played in the Middle East, with Syria and Iraq as the center rings, bears a superficial similarity to the power political maneuverings of the dominant European states in their African and Asian periphery during the 19th century.
There is a somewhat closer resemblance to the Spanish civil war in the mix of multiple local parties, external powers and ideological militancy.
Yet, what we are witnessing today is quite different in some crucial respects — adding to our confusion in trying to make sense of the plot. Complexity and confusion reinforce each other. That is true for the actors themselves.
One gets the distinct impression that most of the leaders involved in this imbroglio don’t know that they’re doing. The obvious exceptions are the Islamic State and al-Qaeda/al-Nusra.
They gain advantage from the others’ flaws, errors and failures, which is contorted by their general flailing about.
One could add Assad to the category of the knowing and witting. Among external parties, Putin stands out as the one rational actor with his feet on the ground and his head on his shoulders. The rest seem bereft of clear judgment and steady policy.
A comedy of amateurish actors
1. United States
The United States overshadows all others in terms of its potential influence, readiness to engage by various means and the diversity of links it has with other protagonists.
Alas, Washington, would-be script-writer and casting director, has entangled itself in those multiple lines of connection.
The obscurity of its objectives, beyond the fantastic expectation that everybody else will conform to, the twists and turns of American thinking (and actions), has compounded its intrinsic dilemma.
That is one of squaring circles, reconciling the irreconcilable and experimenting with combustible mixes of “hard” and “soft” power.
It hasn’t helped that no one in Washington has seemed to be in charge. The Trump administration’s maxim seems to be this: When you don’t know where you’re going, any — and all — routes will get you there. So try them all — simultaneously.
The United States wants:
- Assad out
- the Islamic State crushed
- prevent al-Qaeda & Assoc. from coming to power in Damascus
- keep Saudi Arabia and its young turbo-charged de facto leader Mohammed bin-Salman happy and smiling in its direction
- keep Tayyip Recep Erdogan happy and smiling in its direction
- curb Iranian influence throughout the region and wishes for the death of the Islamic Republic
- satisfy all of Israel’s desires
- keep its bases in the Persian Gulf, plus new ones in Iraq and Syria and
- teach Putin a lesson that will force him to crawl back into his lair instead of making believe that it’s 1973.
2. Saudi Arabia
The Saudi leadership, too, has placed itself in a seemingly impossible position. Since the American invasion of Iraq, which it staunchly opposed, the KAS has lost its composure – making one mistake after another. Under the sway of the Crown Prince, Riyadh now is following a reckless go-for-broke strategy.
Saudi behavior, which has never recovered from the American stupidity of invading Iraq, has become uncharacteristically compulsive and edgy.
There is acute awareness of its vulnerability to the destructive forces that itself, as well as others, have set loose across the region.
The royal family has always perceived three potential threats to its rule. They are:
- A challenge from Islamist fundamentalists to its legitimacy as protector of the Holy Sites — a legitimacy anchored by its alliance with the wahhabi clerical establishment
- Secular democracy and
- Hostile external parties, e.g. Saddam’s Iraq. Since 2003, Shi’ite Iran has supplanted Saddam and added a religious dimension to its challenge.
The Saudis’ ambitious agenda in Syria should be understood in this context. The list of items is as long as the American one. The KAS wants to:
- topple Assad
- break the “Shi’ite crescent” running from Tehran through Syria to Hezbullah
- isolate the IRI
- reduce Yemen to the status of a vassal state
- GCC members to acknowledge its hegemony in the Gulf — and especially to bring a maverick Qatar to heal
- establish a tacit coalition with Erdogan in promoting Sunni regional interests while, at the same time, contain his ambition to revive Ottoman power
- have the United States stop its meddling in internal Arab politics by promoting democracy and cultivating Islamists unbeholden to Riyadh like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
- have the United States hang around militarily so that it can come to the KAS’ rescue if necessary — as in 1991
- maintain cordial relations with Israel, so as to buttress its political influence in Washington and lobbying for a confrontation with the mullahs in Tehran and
- co-opt takfiri radicals, so as to neutralize the fundamentalist challenge to its legitimacy while reining in those groups like the Islamic State who are hostile to it and an instigator of unrest at home.
Obviously, the Saudi piles of chips spread across the table are as numerous as the American ones. Equally obvious, the KSA exhibits contradictions that are irresoluble and goals that are unreachable.
Only the extraordinary indulgence of Washington, which repeatedly reveals the United States as ready to subordinate its own interests to Saudi ones (and to set aside good sense), allows the Saudi Royals to pursue their numerous wil o’ wisps and to avoid hard choices.
Mr. Trump has just reassured them on that score. He, thereby, made plain that his noisy campaign threat to stick it to the Saudis was as empty as the minds of those gullible souls who eagerly bit on his emotional lure.
What does KSA foresee as an acceptable outcome in Syria? Ahrar al-Sham along with other clients in power. Chances of success? Zero.
Therefore? There is only vague speculation. It’s hard to know when even the Crown Prince probably is clueless as to what to do next.
Then there is Turkey – Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey. Here, too, we are in the realm of speculation. For the would-be Sultan’s attitude seems to change on a weekly basis:
- A year ago, his ambitions were aligned with those of the United States — however imperfectly.
- Then he accused Washington of fomenting the abortive coup d’etat.
- By November 2016, he was mending relations with Russia and cozying up to Putin — joining him at Astana I which excluded the Americans.
- Two weeks later, that relationship had gone sour and at the moment he is returning to purring at Trump’s door. Yet, tensions are taut due to basic disagreements over the Kurds’ role in Manbij and Raqqa.
These frantic moves, of course, are all tactical. So what does Erdogan see as his hard objectives?
Long wish lists are all the rage in the Middle East these days. Erdogan, at the start of his intervention in Syria as a sponsor and facilitator to both al-Nusra (with KSA) and the Islamic State (with Qatar), saw them as instruments to carve out a new Ottoman Turkish sphere of influence in Syria — perhaps Iraq, too.
Visions of Aleppo, and maybe Mosul, danced in his head. The constant objective has been to prevent a revival of the PKK and to denature Kurdish nationalism.
His soft approach of accommodation was working through 2014. Its very success, though, was creating peril for his AKP at the polls — threatening to deny Erdogan the power of a beefed-up Presidency that he covets.
So, Erdogan ruthlessly reversed course through orchestrated acts of violent provocation that he blamed on the Kurds. The predictable, and desired, polarization occurred, the PKK loomed again. Erdogan had his civil insurrection, and reaped the electoral gains.
That also provided an excuse for extending his crackdown on all opposition — the precursor to the massive purges he’s taken in the wake of the June 2016 officers’ revolt.
What has this meant for Turkey’s role in Syria? First, he wants to undercut the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, which threatens to create an autonomous Kurdish domain on Turkey’s border.
Yet, the YPG is America’s principal local ally in fighting the Islamic State. Second, Erdogan wants Assad gone, the end of Iranian/Shi’ite political dominance in Syria, and friends ensconced in Damascus.
Who are these friends? — al-Nusra, other associated Islamist groups, IS spin-offs, remnants of the Western backed Free Syrian Army (FSA)? None are reliable partners. None are likely to take power now that Assad, with Russian and Iranian backing, has gained the upper-hand.
Third, Erdogan wants Turkey to regain its position as a regional “great power” whose freedom of action is not constrained by the European Union or the United States.
With his dreams about a Syrian sphere of influence fading, his Iraqi ambitions history and his credibility in all capitals eroded, what options are left to him?
The obvious one is to concentrate on consolidating his position as the Potentate on the Bosporus. All external relations would be reduced to subordinate considerations. So, his role in the long Syrian end-game might well be limited to that of a disruptive meddler whose one fixed point of reference is the Kurds.
Iran’s involvement has been multi-faceted. It’s strategic perspective relatively simple. There is no evidence of a grand plan, no Iranian-led shi’ite hegemony in the works.
All of these outlandish goals ascribed to Khamenei by Washington and legions of commentators have no basis in fact. They fall in the category of scare-mongering designed to achieve other aims or to play to a domestic audience in need of a villain.
The evidence that we have, along with the logic of circumstances, points to these Iranian interests and purposes in Syria.
In essence, they are defensive. That is to say, Teheran’s overriding concern is to foil the ambitions of others: the United States, the KSA, Turkey, the takfiri groups, Israel and their allies farther afield. This means, in effect, a restoration and maintenance of the status quo ante:
- the Ba’ath regime in power
- the Islamists at bay
- ties with and access to Hezbollah kept intact
- blocking the Saudi move to establish its hegemony over the Persian Gulf
- insofar as the Americans are concerned — ensuring, full implementation of all parts of the nuclear deal — and denying the hostile Trump administration the excuse for a military attack. All else is froth.
In this frame of reference, a working partnership with Russia is invaluable. Without Russian intervention, Syria would have been lost with untold consequences for both regional stability and Iranian interests.
They will not let anything disrupt that productive relationship. Whatever divergences in outlook as may exist between Teheran and Moscow, they pale by comparison with the mutual benefits.
As to Russia, there are no great mysteries as to objectives and the impact that it has made. In the Middle East, Putin stands head-and-shoulders above all other government leaders in clarity of strategic vision, diplomatic skill and probity. Moreover, he has been aided immeasurably by the bumbling of others — especially in Washington.
The broad strategic perspective of Putin, and the consensus among Kremlin elites that he represents, is known. He has delineated it with unprecedented clarity, detail and comprehensiveness in a series of speeches and public interviews. Our leaders studied ignoring of them is inexcusable and dangerous.
In a nutshell, Putin’s conception is composed of these features
- an international system of multiple powers who eschew violence among themselves in the interest of mutual economic gain and stability
- a recognition of each party’s particular interests
- consultation and multilateralism as its standard modus operandi
- an attenuation of the American plan for imposing its neoliberal design on the world and
- concerted programs to deal with common threats, e.g. terrorism.
In a previous world, one could have mistaken that agenda for an American one — no longer! Russia and the United States have reversed roles.
Specifically in Syria, Russia could not tolerate the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime on multiple grounds. One, it was an extension of the United States’ arrogation of a right to act unilaterally to topple national governments it disliked — whether by force or less kinetic means.
Two, the attitude thereby expressed was an unqualified belief that the American-led Western powers were dedicated to shaping the world in their preferred political image.
That was apiece with the push eastwards of NATO and the European Union in calculated disregard for Russian sensibilities, security concerns and the guarantees that it had received in 1990-1991.
In addition, Moscow was acutely worried about the installation of a takfiri government in Syria that would serve as a base of operations and inspiration to violent jihadis within Russia — the Caucasus and beyond.
Westerners find it too easy to forget that Russia has suffered more from Islamist terrorism than has the United States and the Europeans.
As Putin reiterates on every occasion, that state of affairs would not have been tolerated by Americans if the counterpart to Syria were located in Central America.
As to resolution and reconstitution in Syria, Moscow seems inclined to navigate the turbulent waters without a detailed road map in recognition that the topography will change in accordance with the preferences of other parties. What they will not abide is an autonomous territory controlled by takfiri groups.
Their own preference looks to be for keeping the country intact (no partition), a degree of decentralization, a regime constituted on the principle of national unity, and free elections. The timing and exact route to reach these ends remains vague.
The Russia perspective on Syria summarized here suggests that a strong pragmatic case exists for Washington to cooperate with Putin to find a formula that could bring a measure of stability to the country.
Any level-headed interpretation of the situation would focus on these elements:
- the failure of Washington to prevent violent jihadist groups from exploiting the rebellion against Assad to advance their own program hostile to the United States
- the absence of a countervailing force ideologically acceptable to us in the United States
- the threat posed to Russia by the expansion of terrorist groups that have Russian affiliates and that have recruited large numbers of fighters from Chechnya and elsewhere and
- the opportunity that Putin has opened to find a resolution that squares the circle of our opposing both Assad and the Salafists.
That attitude, though, would entail an agonizing reappraisal of the foundation stones of American policy set in place over the past five years.
It also would require modifying the prevailing view of Russia as an intrinsically aggressive state challenging the West from Ukraine to the Middle East, and Putin as a thug.
Finally, it would mean facing down Republican leaders and the neo-conservative/R2P alliance that agitates fiercely for escalating a confrontation with Moscow.
The Obama White House recoiled at the very thought of this, but at least promoted the narrative. Trump lacks the intellectual confidence and political fortitude to take the bold step.
Indeed, his principal advisers — Mathis, McMaster, Pompeo, Haley — have voiced overtly hostile views of Russian and Putin. Mathis explicitly has ruled out any substantial military collaboration in acting against terrorist organizations in Syria.