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Revealed: Russia’s Great Game in the Middle East

It was a bizarre turn of events at the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York on the 70th Anniversary of the world body.  President Obama gave a speech lambasting Putin’s Russia over its seizure of Crimea and  invasion of eastern Ukraine violating the country’s sovereignty. However, he paid court to Russia and China for supporting the  Iran nuclear pact unanimous approved  by the UN Security Council poised to release tens of billions in sequestered funds as of December 15, 2015. He  questioned Russia’s sudden military presence in western Syria building a military complex to bolster the Assad regime.  A regime that rained barrel bombs causing the deaths of 250,000. A regime ethnically cleansing the country’s Sunni population sending millions to displaced persons camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and hundreds of thousands in flight to the EU.  The President got warm applause over his rapprochement with Cuba.

Putin, when he had his turn at the rostrum accused the U.S., without naming it, of causing the rise of the Islamic State through its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan,  ultimately creating a Sunni supremacist Caliphate.  Following Putin Iranian President Rouhani  had his turn at the rostrum in the Assembly hall. He made the astounding proposal that an international alliance including Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq  combat terrorism in the Middle East.  A proposal that Rouhani  said should be confirmed in another Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action akin to the Iran nuclear pact.  He noted the nuclear pact  was  concluded  “without the impediment of the Zionist enterprise”, meaning Israel.  Witness  the cheek of President Rouhani   of Iran  suggesting  a new Shia alliance in the Middle East, plus Russia welcoming  the US to join in fighting Sunni Supremacist  Islamic State.

What was on display at the UN was the supplanting  of the U.S. in the new great game of the Middle East by  Russia.  It was enough to make one’s head spin with these sudden turns  of events. It made the U.S., look like a “JV team “struggling  to keep up.

The usually astute Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Washington, DC-based  Jewish Policy Center  was asked  by this writer during the September 27, 2015 Lisa Benson Show why  these developments occurred so suddenly.  She said that  Putin’s Russia like all great powers do when they are confronted by a vacuum, especially one that threatens its national  interests.  Thousands of Jihadists have left Chechnya, Dagestan, and Tartarstan in Russia attracted by the Salafist  Islamic doctrine of the Islamic State as a declared Caliphate.  Thus  Putin’s objective is to “bottle” up these Sunni Jihadists in Syria and Iraq.  Putin admitted as much in a CBS 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose  Sunday evening when he said:

More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory.

Watch the CBS 60 Minutes Charlie Rose interview with Russian President Putin:

When Lisa Benson asked Bryen about  where Iran’s proxy Hezbollah stood in these developments, she  replied  Hezbollah “had not been an efficient fighting force in Syria.  Further, she commented that Russian presence in Syria is meant to actually limit Hezbollah’s  involvement, perhaps  to a defensive role “in the Alawite enclave.”  Moreover, she noted  that Putin is not interested  in a war with Israel ,suggesting that the meeting with Netanyahu  in Moscow was  to coordinate means to avoid conflict. However, Bryen  noted  Putin has another interest in the region, “control over the flow of gas to Europe” being developing offshore in Israeli, Egyptian,  and Lebanese fields.  Bryen thinks there is ‘no evidence’ of Russian presence on the Syrian frontier on Israel’s Golan Heights.  Notwithstanding a spate of rocket and mortar attacks on the Golan responded to by the IDF this past weekend that Israeli Minister of Defense Ya’alon thinks were ordered by Iran.  We shall soon see whether Putin’s gamble pays off.  Or results in another graveyard  like Afghanistan  rout of the Soviet 40th Army in 1989.

We could see this  thunder clap about to occur in the run up to the UN General Assembly session.  We had the Russian announcement of  military aid and mission to be established in the Alawite bastion of Latakia province.  Included were  the building of expanded landing fields to accommodate Ilushin cargo aircraft  and squadrons of  Mig and Sukhoi fighters, transiting from Russia to Syria  via Iran and Iraqi airspace. Then there was the announcement of Black Sea fleet maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.  In late July, following the UN endorsement of the Iran deal, Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Commander  Qasem Soliemani in Moscow  met with Putin and  Russian Defense Minister Shogui. Those discussions were  ostensibly to expedite deliveries of Russian advanced air defense systems, but  in reality to plan for Russian direct involvement with Iranian forces . In May , we witnessed an alleged US ally, Iraqi Premier Haidar al-Abadi traveling to Moscow  to obtain additional fighter  deliveries to aid in the battle against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, President Obama had committed 3, 500 American military trainers to assist  the  Iraqi National Security forces  to recover Anbar province and  Mosul. Abadi, our alleged ally in the coalition against ISIS,   brought in Russian military advisors to link  up with   Soliemani  directing  Iraqi Shia militia forces.

The unkindest  cut of all was the announcement  on the eve of the UN General Assembly of a joint intelligence and security operations center in Baghdad sharing  information among Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

There was  also evidence that the U.S. led coalition strategy in Syria and Iraq “defeating and degrading” ISIS had collapsed.  That was reflected  in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by CENTCOM commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin who told Senators that  the $500 million program to train Syrian opposition fighters had failed ignominiously. We had spent $40 million training and equipping 60 candidates, who signed waivers that they were to fight ISIS, not Assad. 40 of those surrendered their weapons and joined Al Qaeda affiliate jabhat al Nusra.    If that wasn’t  enough, we had the roiling scandal of a revolt by CENTCOM  intelligence analysts who requested a Pentagon Inspector General  investigation into why assessments were being prettied up by superiors  to present a misinformed picture to the President and National Security Staff that we were succeeding in the air campaign without US boots on the ground.  That was further depicted in testimony by ex-CIA director, retired Army General Petreaus , who  testified  before the same Senate Armed Services Committee  recommending establishing   no fly zones, sanctuary havens in country and deploying  Special Forces teams.  Add to that the failure of the Obama White House to honor its commitment to supply  Syrian Kurdish YPG  and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces with updated weapons, ammunition and equipment.  The Kurds are  being attacked by Turkish air force fighters.  To cap things off, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, coordinator of the  Coalition effort,  resigned after a year of service.  As former Defense Intelligence Agency  head, retired Army General Michael Flynn observed, this is what you get when you “politicize intelligence”. The President suggested in his UN address  that the Islamic State   “violent extremism , distorts ”the true meaning of the Islamic faith.”

Russian may have “frozen” the Syrian conflict in a stalemate.  The U.S. finds itself suddenly on the sidelines, largely, by its own “red lines”. Now with Russia’s direct involvement in Syria and Iraq, we will soon find out if ISIS is vanquished or remains a growing global threat. Such are the rules of The Great Game that in the 19th Century pitted imperial Czarist Russia against the British Empire.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

The Syrian Constellation before the Geneva 2 Peace Talks

Pinhas Inbari  published this timely Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) brief on the issues and dramatis personae at the opening round of the Geneva II talks in Montreux, Switzerland that began today.

We consider insightful Inbari’s analysis of the roiling seemingly intractable, inconclusive  civil war in Syria now in its 35 month. Israel is concerned about what may arise from these fractious discussions given the presence of both Assad regime and Syrian opposition, including  potentially intrusive  Al Qaeda-affiliates operating in the demilitarized zone on the Golan plateau. Further, as Inbari points out in this brief, should , mirabile dictu, should  an agreement  be reached and a new government installed in Damascus  are the be renewal of demands for return of the Golan, annexed by Israel in December 1981.

There have also been reports of both Israeli Arab Muslim extremists and Palestinians from Gaza  joining those al Qaeda opposition militias in Syria.  The Syrian Kurds have abiding concerns regarding attainment of possible hard fought  regional autonomy that has apparently vanquished Al Qaeda militia threatening their Rojava heartland in Syria’s North East.

This post should assist you in identifying the contending parties, including the Islamic regime in Tehran and its proxy Hezbollah, whose presence at the meeting was considered unhelpful. vigorous objections raised by the Syrian opposition, the US, UK and others forced  UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon  to abruptly ‘disinvite’ the Iranian delegation from attending this session.  Nevertheless, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who lauded the UN Secretary General’s invitation extended to Iran, may be both the assad regime;s and its  Shiite hegemon’s diplomatic proxy auditing the proceedings for the Islamic Regime.

The Syrian Constellation before the Geneva 2 Peace Talks

by
Pinhas Inbari
Vol. 14, No. 2    22 January 2014

* This report is based on telephone conversations with members of the Syrian opposition.

  • The Geneva 2 peace conference was convened after an agreement between the United States and Russia that the main danger posed by the situation in Syria is that of al-Qaeda, and that the course of events should be steered in order to obviate this danger.
  • The Syrian opposition sees a danger that the two powers will prefer to leave Assad in place since, if the choice is between him and al-Qaeda, then Assad is the better option.
  • The powers’ need to convene the Geneva 2 conference stemmed primarily from the failure of the Free Syrian Army under General Idris to defeat Assad’s army and bring about regime change.
  • Ironically, the success of the al-Qaeda groups against the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army helped Russia convince the United States that, at least for the time being, Assad should be left standing. The result is that Assad’s loyalists will be in attendance at the conference.
  • If the Syrian opposition has trouble accepting the presence of Assad loyalists at the peace conference, it cannot accept an Iranian presence at all. They say their real opponent on the Syrian battlefield is the Iranian army, and they view Iran as an invading country that is also deploying Hizbullah against them.
  • Israel must pay attention to two possible outcomes: A Middle Eastern inter-bloc agreement may at some stage include the Palestinian issue. Another possible scenario may involve renewed pressure on Israel to give up the Golan Heights in order to “strengthen” the new Syrian government.

A U.S.-Russian Agreement

Geneva 2, the international peace conference on the future of Syria, began on January 22, 2014, in Montreux, Switzerland. Sources in the Syrian opposition say the conference has come about because of agreement between the United States and Russia that the main danger posed by the situation in Syria is that of al-Qaeda, and that the course of events should be steered in order to obviate this danger.

This inter-bloc agreement has put most of the Syrian opposition under great pressure. They see a danger that the two powers will meanwhile prefer to leave Assad in place since, if the choice is between him and al-Qaeda, then Assad is the better option.

The problem is that the opposition is very fragmented and the two powers can force it to accept their dictates. On the issue of Geneva 2, there indeed is such a dictate. Whereas, at first, the Syrian opposition refused to participate in the conference with Assad loyalists, after heavy pressure that included American threats to cease assistance to them, much of the Syrian opposition acceded to the two powers’ demand that they attend.

Who’s Who in the Syrian Opposition

What elements make up the Syrian opposition, what do they seek, and who stands behind them?

First, the Geneva conference will not represent the fighters on the battlefield; neither the different al-Qaeda groups nor the Free Syrian Army will be in attendance. Al-Qaeda will not be there because the talks are aimed at counteracting it, and in any case al-Qaeda does not ordinarily take part in gatherings of this kind. As for the Free Syrian Army and its commander Salim Idris, they still are not prepared to sit in the same room with Assad’s loyalists, though there are reports of enormous pressure on Idris to attend.

Basically, however, the talks will be attended by parties that are not active on the Syrian battlefield. Who are they?

One large body, known as the National Coalition of Syrian and Regional Forces (also called the Syrian National Coalition), will be representing the opposition that is based outside of Syria. It is headed by Ahmed al-Jarba, a scion of the leading families of the large Shammar Bedouin tribe, which migrates among Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and is considered pro-Saudi. Saudi Arabia indeed supports this organization.

Another group within the “coalition” is the representative body of the Syrian opposition before the “coalition” was formed. Called the Syrian National Council (SNC), it includes the Muslim Brotherhood and pan-Arab nationalists and is supported by Turkey and Qatar. Although it is formally within the “coalition” framework, the competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia influences its relations with the coalition. All this was evident when decisions had to be made on whether to attend Geneva 2. After al-Jarba announced that he would go, his rivals in the SNC declared that they would not. The reasons for al-Jarba’s decision are not clear. Whereas one would have expected that, given the Saudis’ anger at Washington, the pro-Saudi faction would try to impede the conference, the opposite is what happened. Sources in the Syrian opposition said the Saudis did not want to bring tensions with the United States out in the open, and perhaps also did not want to be associated with al-Qaeda; instead the talks could always be undermined from within.

Russia, too, has its favored groups, and there is no surprise in the fact that they agreed to attend. These groups are old leftist factions that were part of the Syrian Ba’ath party. Syrian opposition sources point to the “Internal Opposition Group” headed by Kadri Jamil and Ali Haidar, two veteran Ba’athists who abandoned Assad. Alongside them is another group of veteran Arab nationalists headed by Haitham Mana’a and Hassan Abd al-Azim, called the “Coordinated Administration,” an array of coordinating committees for the rebels in the field. This group maintains its independence and does not receive aid from any party; it opposes Assad and will not attend Geneva 2.

The powers’ need to convene the Geneva 2 conference stemmed primarily from the failure of the Free Syrian Army under General Idris to defeat Assad’s army and bring about regime change. Instead, the different al-Qaeda organizations have now prevailed in the local arena, and not long ago they handed Idris a defeat near Aleppo, taking over his main arms depot. The Free Syrian Army is also supported by Turkey and Qatar.

Al-Qaeda Forces in Syria

Who are the al-Qaeda forces operating in Syria? There are about forty groups with numerous names, but two are playing the main role on the ground. One is the Al-Nusra group led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani; the other is “Daash” – the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham (the Levant), also called ISIS. Al-Nusra is made up of Syrian and Jordanian mujahideen, while the Syria and Iraq group has an Iraqi leadership.

Ironically, the success of the Salafi groups has worked in Assad’s favor. He claimed from the start that he was not dealing with a rebellion but with “terror,” and the al-Qaeda groups’ successes against the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army helped Russia convince the United States that, at least for the time being, Assad should be left standing. The result is that Assad’s loyalists will be in attendance at the conference.

The opposition groups claim, however, that at least the ISIS organization is actually in league with Assad. They say the al-Qaeda fighters in this group were originally Syrian intelligence agents who were infiltrated into Iraq to operate against U.S. forces there, and after the revolt in Syria erupted, Assad’s intelligence service implanted them among the rebels as a way of proving that the revolt is nothing more than terror. These al-Qaeda groups have also acted against the Free Syrian Army and diverted it from the anti-Assad struggle.

The Kurds of Syria

The Kurds of Syria are a special case. They, too, are fragmented into many groups; among the leading ones is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). A radical-left organization that is a twin sister of the Turkish PKK, it is close to Assad’s Ba’ath regime and loyal to it. The Syrian army was able to withdraw from Kurdish areas and concentrate its forces against the rebels because the PYD managed Kurdish affairs on Syria’s behalf. There are now reports that under the PYD’s “administrative autonomy,” pictures of Assad have again appeared in the streets.

The PYD is opposed by the Yakiti party, which is close to Kurdnas – a large coalition of Kurdish parties that triggered the Kurdish revolt against Assad in the previous century. In contrast to the PYD’s radical leftism, Yakiti and Kurdnas are pro-Western parties that advocate a federal regime in Syria. The space between the PYD, at one end, and Yakiti and Kurdnas, at the other, is filled by numerous other parties. These, however, were concocted by Syrian intelligence as a means of fragmenting the Kurds. One “real” group that is not an invention of Syrian intelligence is the Azadi party.

All the Kurdish parties are demanding autonomy within the framework of the Syrian state. The difference between them and the Sunni parties (the Muslim Brotherhood, former Ba’athists, Arab nationalists) is that, whereas the Kurdish groups call for a decentralized regime of autonomous districts for the ethnic communities and minorities, most of the Sunnis favor retaining the centralized regime in Damascus.

Whereas the Kurds demanded to come to Geneva 2 as a separate delegation, the United States insisted that they attend as part of the “coalition.” The Kurds refused and will not be at Geneva. They see the U.S. refusal to recognize their separate delegation as stemming from its support for a centralized Syrian regime even after Assad’s departure.

If the Syrian opposition has trouble accepting the presence of Assad loyalists at the peace conference, it cannot accept an Iranian presence at all. They say their real opponent on the Syrian battlefield is the Iranian army, and they view Iran as an invading country that is also deploying Hizbullah against them. Saudi Arabia, too, can barely tolerate the Assad loyalists and rejects any Iranian role at the conference altogether.

The Question of Assad’s Future

Regarding Assad’s future, while the first Geneva peace conference in June 2012 came up with a plan for a temporary government and elections for a new president, Assad insisted on his right to run in these elections. Geneva 2, as well, will likely propose a temporary government and elections while offering Assad an honorable departure from political life in return for his physical survival. Whether such elections can be held, however, is in doubt since forces on the ground will reject any such plan.

Meanwhile, there are initial signs of a deal taking shape outside the framework of the conference, in which Iran, Russia, and the United States would agree on a new president while forcing Assad to acquiesce. But such an initiative – if it takes shape at all – will have to wait until Assad hands over all his chemical weapons.

Israel must pay attention to two matters. First, a Middle Eastern inter-bloc agreement may at some stage include the Palestinian issue; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will fly to Moscow to clarify this option with the Russians. Israel must prepare for a scenario where a new central government is established in Damascus and the powers begin to pressure Israel to give up the Golan Heights in order to “strengthen” the new Syrian government.

About Pinhas Inbari

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.