MIDDLE EAST DOSSIER: A Complicated US-Russia Power Game in Syria

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Picture credit: IIran ReviewBy Reza Hojjat Shamami*

TEHRAN - Without a doubt, during these days that the international community is grappling with the Syria crisis, a new sensitive and determining chapter is being opened for the international world order. Of course, the ongoing developments inside Syria do not constitute the main reason for this situation, but it is more a result of a complicated power game, especially between the United States and Russia.


As a result, continuation of this trend can lead to the stabilization or change of the existing structure of international world system. Since August 21, when a chemical weapons attack was carried out in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, the type of position taken by the American officials as well as some of their allies such as the UK, has practically pushed the world to the brink of a new war in the Middle East.

This is especially true since the US President Barack Obama had already warned in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons was Washington’s red line in Syria developments. Here, the red line is quite clear in meaning and no other wise interpretation can be offered for it except for the United States readiness to attack Syria. This attack, however, has not taken place yet and one may even claim that the intensity of propaganda in favor of such attack has somehow decreased compared to the early propaganda onslaught against Damascus.

Syria crisis: Reflection of dormant ideologies waiting their chance

What is currently going on in Syria is a result of developments whose early phases sparked in the concluding days of 2009. At that time, those developments came to be known as the “Arab Spring” in international media, while Iran considered them as the “Islamic Awakening.” Up to March 2011, Syria had largely stayed away from the wave of political developments which swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen like a game of domino, but it was finally engulfed by the conflagration.

The difference, however, was that from the standpoint of American politicians, the quality and perspective of developments in Syria was quite different from what other countries believed to be the case. Syria was a country opposing the US policies and the crisis in that country should have been taken advantage of in a different manner in order to both control and manage the ongoing developments in the region, and create a rift in the anti-American alliance which had taken shape in the Middle East.

The kind of positions taken on the Syria unrest by regional countries that were allies to the United States such as Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, as well as certain mistakes committed by the government of [the incumbent Syrian President] Bashar Assad, helped the crisis in Syria to run deep.

As a result, about 30 months after the beginning of developments in the Arab country, there is no clear way to get out of the existing dire situation. Therefore, Syria has turned into a Gordian knot for the world and is now serving as gravitational center of international developments which take place among big powers. Apart from developments which have taken place in the past few years and the type of roles played by various players, Syria has currently turned into a haven for fundamentalist ideologies which have been lying low for the past few decades, and here exists the real threat. A quick review of the composition of opposition groups in Syria will prove that, at least, three different groups are currently involved in the Syria conflict.

The first group consists of the Free Syrian Army and other groups that are close to Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and are also supported by the United States, the European Union, Turkey, and Qatar. They represent the minimum degree of what the West pursues in Syria. Of course, among these groups there are streaks of Salafi ideas which cannot be separated from the whole groups due to intensity and depth of the ongoing developments in the Arab country.

The second group represents Salafi tendencies, and is trusted and supported by the government of Saudi Arabia, while the third group, whose networked organization is much more dangerous, is actually affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

Out of these three groups, the Arabic-Egyptian network of the Muslim Brotherhood has been active in politics for more than 80 years and its targets are not only the countries in the Middle East, but also other countries outside this critical region. It is noteworthy that the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria came into being about one decade after the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On the other hand, Salafi tendencies have been on the rise in various countries of the Middle East since the Saudi royal house snatched the power in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi government started to increase its economic clout. There have been many occasions in which even the United States has been targeting the positions of Salafi extremists in other countries, including in Africa.

This issue is also a matter of dispute and point of difference between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but has drawn less attention despite the fact that the gap between the two sides in this regard is quite profound. It has been due to a host of common grounds existing between the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as the silence they have generally observed with regard to their differences that such a deep rift between Washington and Riyadh has largely gone unnoticed.

The third group, which represents the mainstay of the aforesaid political and religious radicalism and is actually a reaction to the Western liberalism, is affiliated to Al-Qaeda, which has established a nearly global network with its roots running deep in some Islamic countries of the Middle East.

There is a sort of reproduced relationship between the Al-Qaeda network and the United States. Washington has traditionally stood for the liberalistic ideas and during the Cold War and even after it, it has regularly taken a radical and even eliminatory approach to Communism followed by the political Islam. Not only according to clear admission of the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this group was created by the United States during the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, but the radical liberal approach taken by the United States to the Islamic world, has in fact paved the way for the reproduction of such fundamentalism.

Therefore, what we are currently seeing in Syria has been created by an interlink of these three groups which, when taken into account along with their offshoots, form about 50 armed groups, which makes it very difficult to fight them in the battlefield. In the meantime, the behavior and demands of the Kurdish population in Syria and other regional countries should not be ignored.

US in doubt and horror for accepting change!

The United States is one of the most important and the most influential players in Syria developments and it has a large battery of instruments and reasons to play such a role. Following the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria, the foreign policy and military orientations of the United States have been leaning toward military strike on Syria. This issue was proclaimed by US politicians through US propaganda machine in such a way that the world public opinion has so far accepted the necessity of a military strike on Syria, though not its legitimacy. After a few days, however, Washington showed a meaningful withdrawal from its previous position. To discuss the main reason behind the United States early withdrawal a few issues should be taken into consideration.

First of all, President Barack Obama tried throughout his election campaign in late 2008 to introduce himself through a multilateral approach to international issues by distancing from the unilateral policies that the United States had pursued during the eight years that led to his election. Withdrawing the American troops from Iraq and the plan to do the same in Afghanistan by 2014 were telltale signs that he did not think about the continuation of those wars, let alone waging a new war.

The second reason is the Nobel Peace Prize which was conferred on him during early months of his presidential term due to the pacifist positions that he had taken. As a result, the general mental image of Obama is that of a president who thinks about international peace and calm more than anything else.

The next issue is about the differences and divides that have taken shape among big powers of the world. There are many signs that the international system and policies of governments have greatly changed since two decades ago. Apart from the approach taken by Russia and China to international developments, there are differences and gaps over these issues between the European countries and the United States. Germany has been constantly among less boisterous critics of the United States policies.

However, the most surprising turn of events which was witnessed in recent days in the thick of debates over a military strike on Syria was the behavior demonstrated by the UK, which has been known as an unquestioning ally of the United States during all its past wars. Although the conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron has been among the first political figures to encourage a war against Syria, he failed to convince the British parliament to lend its backing to such an attack.

A review of past history shows that since 1782, that is, when the Americans were engaged in a war of independence from the United Kingdom, the British parliament has backed all bills offered to it by the government to wage war on other countries. That trend, however, reached its end in the case of the United States war on Syria. It is interesting that even 10 ministers of Cameron’s Cabinet had voted negative for the bill.

Although the United States willingness for launching a military strike against Syria has not decreased yet, the UK parliament’s decisions shows that a lot of change is in the offing. It also proves that the overall structure of international system is changing and the world is getting out of a transitional period and entering a new period of stability. Of course, this process has been accompanied with a lot of tension and the people of Syria are bearing its brunt.

The kind of positions taken by the United States foreign and military policies, as well as the international conditions show that if the United States refrained from attacking Syria, it would be taken as Washington’s acceptance of a process of change, which will gradually lead the world toward a “new international order” in which Russia, China as well as their friends and allies will be playing an active role. Taking such an approach, at least by the incumbent US administration, will only mean this. However, by letting the Congress make the final decision, Obama is trying to make the Republicans a partner to the Syria crisis, so that, in case of possible failure he will have a potential way out.

Russia welcomes change!

During past centuries, Russia has proven itself as one of the influential powers in various areas. This issue has been clearly witnessed in various junctures of the Russian history under the rule of Communist and Tsarist governments as well as under the Russian empire. Therefore, the country has always enjoyed an international character and prestige and has been able to increase its power. Of course, the rise in the Russian power has seen periods of interruption in various historical junctures, which has been usually experienced by other countries as well. The 1990s was one of those junctures. Despite its weakening on international level, even in that juncture, Russia was seeking a way to regain its power and this happened in the 2000s with the election of Vladimir Putin as the Russian president.

Putin’s determination to restore Russia to power can be better seen since the beginning of his third term in office as the president of Russia which started in 2012 and is expected to continue up to 2024. During the early 1990s and in view of unrestrained unilateral approach taken by the former US President George W. Bush, which caused the United States to wage war against Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia refrained from taking a hostile stance on the US foreign policy.

At that time, necessary grounds for taking a clear position in the face of the United States were lacking in Russia. Putin even voted in favor the United Nations Security Council resolution for the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, though with certain amendments. However, Moscow also issued stern warnings in the face of NATO’s mistakes in Libya. Following the invasion of Libya, Russia found its way paved to achieve its ambitious goals such as reemerging as a superpower and playing its role in changing the existing structure of international political order.

As a result of the above developments, a certain kind of faceoff is now under way between the two power poles in Syria, which has been construed as the first step taken toward a new era of “warm peace” between Moscow and Washington. Under these circumstances, if the United States actually attacks Syria, it will prove that Washington is not willing for Russia to sway considerable power in international world system. By doing this, all Putin’s aspirations and efforts will be lost, at least, for many years to come. In this sense, however, an attack on Syria will be an attack on Russia and Russians have already indicated that they would not remain indifferent to such an assault.

However, if the United States refrained from attacking Syria, it would mean that Washington has not only accepted to allow Russia back into large-scale international political games, but has also given in to inevitable changes in international system and is ready for a step-by-step withdrawal from the leadership of the unipolar world. This issue has been already highlighted by the former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who has noted that through his behavior, Obama has caused the world to feel a leadership vacuum.

Of course, Putin is quite aware that his country is facing a lot of problems in its march toward its goals. The United States clandestine plans to bring about the collapse of the Russian Federation, as it did in the case of the Soviet Union; fomenting political and religious tensions both inside and along the borders of Russia; in addition to waging economic and security wars against Russia, are just a few problems that Russia will be facing in its endeavor to regain its power on an international level. Putin, however, seems to be determined to bring about “change,” which would be Obama’s original election motto coming true in the Kremlin. Therefore, forthcoming developments in international arena, especially in Syria, will make it clear in which direction the world will move in coming years.

*Reza Hojjat Shamami is member of the council of writers of Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS). This article is being reproduced by arrangement with Iran Review which carried it on September 7, 2013 with the headline Syria: First Litmus Test for US, Russia “Warm Peace”. The original article, translated by Iran Review appeared on IRAS. [IDN-InDepthNews – September 10, 2013]

Picture credit: Iran Review

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