By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
The realpolitik in the Levant changed significantly upon the entry of the Russian Government into the foray. Russia announced recently it would assist the Assad Government in Syria as well as Kurdish forces in fighting what it perceives to be a mutual threat to Russia by ISIS. It has interest in maintaining the Assad government, which has long established ties with Moscow. In the past weeks the Russian military established operational bases in Syria and began a heavy program in supplying material and personnel.
Now, the Russian leadership announced it was working on providing weapons to Iraqi Kurds fighting ISIS through the Iraq Government. This shows a clear departure from the politics in the region where the focus was upon the United States to provide the Iraqis with defense abilities. Yet, this has proven to be ineffective due to the rapid expeditionary campaign launched against the people and government of Iraq by ISIS. It was almost an embarrassment when the United States surprised the world with the announcement of ISIS’ threat after it was six months into its war effort against Iraq and Syria and went so far as to claim that despite the loss of 25% of Iraq’s territory and ISIS forces advancing within several dozen miles of Iraq’s capital, the situation was under control and was not an existential threat to the nation.
Now, in the vacuum of a serious effort on behalf of the west to address the ISIS problem, other than airstrikes and millions of dollars recruiting and training a handful of Syrian volunteers, Russia is emerging to fulfill the void left behind. Russia will gain both in terms of influence in credibility in the area as a result.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced last Thursday that his government will supply through Baghdad supplies and weapons to those Kurdish fighters engaged in combating ISIS. The Kurds meaning those in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
He stated that a fusion center was established in Bagdad having representatives and military personnel from the Kurds as well as nation stakeholders from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Russia. The center focuses on coordinating the war against ISIS by these stakeholders
However, the Minister of Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdistan), Jabar Yawar told Rudlaw News that they had not been informed of cooperation between Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Russia.
Minister Lavrov however stated during a UN Conference, “We have replied to the Kurdish request regarding armament and send arms to them through Baghdad.”
In other news, the United States reportedly is now supplying the Kurds with MRAP military vehicles which will be of great use.
Whatever the immediate logistics between these nations and the fusion center might be it is clear that Russia is garnering a strong presence. In the past few days Russia has confirmed that it carried out airstrikes against rebel positions in Syria. It is noteworthy that a difference of loyalties exists between the West and Russia with regard to Syria. The U.S. and especially Turkey maintain that the Assad Regime must go and Russia states that the Syrian government is an ally and that it is respecting what it refers to the legitimate government elected by the people of Syria.
During an interview on the Charlie Rose program, Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressed concern that it would be unacceptable to topple Assad because this would lead to another vacuum and chaos where non-state terrorists would then seize control of the country and lead to even larger problems than what might be expected in assisting the Syrian Government in its combat with rebels forces. While ISIS and other terrorist organizations are a common enemy as defined by all international governments, allied “moderate Syrian Resistance fighters” as the US Government refers, are also by definition fighting Assad: specifically the Free Syrian Army. The FSA, a reported ally of the United States, was the target of a Russian airstrike several days ago.
President Putin also made mention of the how the West allowed Libya to descend into chaos by expunging the legitimate government of the nation and creating an environment for militias and terrorists to operate. He made a similar objection to the effort by the US to destroy the Iraq government in the 2003 war which also led to chaos and the situation we have presently in the region.
The Russians will, in the opinion of your author, have the potential to displace the United States from a position of authority and reverence as a savior to those fleeing the attacks by ISIS and other terrorists.
There has unfortunately been a long history of the United States making promises of salvation to those under struggle from oppression in the area only to be abandoned later when political interests wane. The US did this to the Kurds, and the Marsh Arabs after the First Gulf war who believed after the decimation of Iraqi President Hussein’s military and promises to the Kurds that if they fought Saddam, the United States would protect them. Unfortunately Saddam recovered his forces and launched putative attacks against the Kurds in retaliation for their loyalties.
Years earlier, it also can be found in how the US previously supported Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war where Iraq legitimately believed America was on its side, especially knowing the hostility between the US and Iran after the Shah was deposed and the taking of American hostages. It came as a great shock when Iraq discovered that the US was also covertly supplying Iran with arms and support during the same conflict.
Another example was with a great many in Syria. The United States promised to arm and train resistance fighters in the Syrian Civil war, such as the Free Syrian Army, where it initially rolled out the red carpet to the FSA leadership with more promises, only to later begin to cut off essential munitions and supplies the FSA begged for.
And probably the greatest betrayal, as seen by many war-weary Syrian civilians, was the infamous “Red Line” saber rattling by President Obama declaring if Assad’s forces utilized chemical weapons in the civil war, the US would intervene militarily. In the aftermath and terror the civilians suffered from the chemical attack, many truly believed the United States was now determined to take out Assad from a leadership role and help bring an end to the civil war and their suffering. But, to them President Obama reneged on what they believed to be his promise to the Syrian people to deliver them from war and instead found a face saving way out for the United States to negotiate the removal of weapons in talks brokered by the Russian Government without having to remove Assad and get its knuckles bruised. The barrel bombings and shelling soon returned against Syrian civilians courtesy a newly revived President Assad.
Now we return to the problems at had where at least initially the US Government and President Obama are very critical if not angry with the Russians for their entry into the war, their backing of Assad, and taking over. Putin offered, and it possibly is occurring operationally in some degree between the US and Russian militaries in the area, to provide a working plan with the United States that ensures both forces do not cross each others’ lines, leading to friendly fire episodes. Furthermore he expressed interest in sharing intelligence information and steps to end the hostilities ultimately. But, it certainly complicates the matter when several of the actors’ allies are the enemy of the other. At least with regard to the Kurds, they have a common “friend” in Syria and Iraq.
One other complicating matter could be the situation with Turkey.
Turkey only reluctantly allowed Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq to cross its territory to engage ISIS in Syrian Rojova, specifically Kobani, to assist the YPG/YPJ in driving terrorists from the city. Due to decades long fighting between the Turks and the Kurds in Turkey proper, it was hesitant to allow an formalized Kurdish presence on its border. It was even indifferent in allowing ISIS to fight up to its border. As long as it was fighting the Kurds, and not Turkey, Ankara would at least allow the status quo. Turkey did finally allow US bombers and aircraft to station at air bases for attacks in Syria albeit reluctantly.
Yet Turkey demands that Assad must go, which complicates the Russian entry, but it also creates problems between Kurds and the Syrian Government. Turkey asserted that it would not accept an independent Syrian Kurdistan on its borders, for fear it would assist forces such as the PKK by providing a safe harbor for militia fighters to launch attacks into Turkey. Yet, diplomatic sources have raised the probability that Assad would agree to granting a more autonomous state for the Kurds in Rojova in exchange for the Kurds battling those resistance forces fighting the Syrian Army.
In the larger picture Russia has been, though largely unsuccessfully, trying to dislodge the United States from its influence in Europe by carrot and stick measures to draw western European nations into its sphere of influence. Now the largest influx of refugees since the Second World War into Western Europe, much of which stems from civilians fleeing the Syrian civil war, is creating the seeds of discord that Russia can take advantage of. Though some countries such as Sweden, Austria, and Germany promote themselves as being welcoming to refugees, others such as those nearer to Russia the mood is more hostile and fearful.
Russia can offer to take charge of the situation on the ground in Syria where the US and other external powers have proven to be largely ineffective in destroying the terrorist elements leading to the crisis in Syria and Iraq; hence the refugee exodus. If Russia can create through its stepped up efforts in Syria at least a workable resolution to the civil war and to bring in some measure of stability, especially if most of the refugees are able to return home, Europe and other nations surrounding Syria who are being burdened with the huge costs and resource allocation of hosting refugees will now view Russia more favorably than the Americans.
It is of course premature to predict that the coming of the Russian military will knock out the terrorists quickly, easily, and singlehandedly but it certainly will prove to be a game changer. Also many of the resistance forces and those ethnic groups who can argue that they were oppressed under the Assad regime will worry that once he is strengthened he will then resort to old practices and at least disallow any gains in autonomy they received at least in theory from the government. Then there is the question of how “moderate forces” (as the US refers to them) who have legitimate and strong grievances with the Syrian Government. In attacking these forces it could likely put Russia into the middle and result in what the United States called a quagmire, adding years and more blood to the war.
The Kurds in Iraq are generally very supportive of the United States, and it is one of the few true allies the United States has in the region. So, it is unlikely that the Russians will be entirely successful in unseating the Americans from its position of respect and praise there. But, if the United States can counter Russian influence by showing demonstrated steps to crate a true homeland, under their own governance, for the various ethnic groups that were carved up between arbitrary borders following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the events of the early 1920’s, it could regain a lot of face and standing in the region for many years to come.
By Darren Smith
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