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Syria: The Russians Were Right

“The Russians had a more realistic analysis of the situation than practically anybody else,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria. “Everyone should have listened to the Russians a little bit more than they did.”

Brahimi was referring to the Russian offer in 2012 to end the growing civil war in Syria by forcing the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to leave power. The Russian proposal went before the UN Security Council, but the United States, Britain and France were so convinced that Assad was about to fall anyway that they turned it down. Why let the Russians take the credit?

So Assad is still in power, several hundred thousand more Syrians have died, and millions more have fled. But Brahimi’s comments are still relevant, because the Russians are still right.

Finally, very reluctantly, the United States is coming around to the long-standing Russian position that the secular Baathist regime in Syria must survive, as part of some compromise peace deal that everybody except the Islamist extremists will accept (although nobody will love it).

Such a deal back in 2012 would have involved the departure from power of Bashar al-Assad himself, and it could still do so today. He’s mostly just a figurehead anyway. He was living in England, studying to be an optometrist, until the death of his elder brother made him the inevitable heir to the presidency that his father, Hafez al-Assad, had held for thirty years.

It’s the Baathist regime’s secular character that makes it so important. Its leadership is certainly dominated by the Alawite (Shia) minority, but it has much broader popular support because all Syria’s non-Muslim minorities, Christian and Druze, see it as their only protection from Islamist extremists. Many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities, see it the same way. They also see it as the one Arab government in the region that has always defied Israel.

The deal that the Russians could have delivered in 2012 would have ditched Bashar al-Assad but left the Baathist regime in place, while compelling it to broaden its base, dilute Alawite influence, and stop torturing and murdering its opponents. An over-confident West rejected that deal, while its local “allies”, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, gave weapons and money to the Islamist rebels who aimed to replace the Baathists with a Sunni Muslim theocracy

Fast forward to 2015, and by mid-summer the Islamist forces, mainly Islamic State and al-Qaeda, control more than a third of Syria’s territory. The exhausted Syrian army is retreating every time it is attacked (Palmyra, Idlib, etc.), and it’s clear to Moscow that all of Syria will fall to the Islamists unless Russia intervenes militarily. So it does.

When the Russian air force started attacking the Syrian rebels on 30 September last year, Western propaganda went into high gear to condemn it. Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t distinguish between ISIL (Islamic State) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go,” said US president Barack Obama. “From (the Russian perspective) they’re all terrorists – and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

All America’s sidekicks said the same thing. “These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Britain in a joint statement on 2 October.

The Russians simply ignored the Western propaganda and went on bombing until they had stopped the Islamist advances and stabilised the front. Then they proposed a ceasefire.

The brutal truth is that there is no “moderate Sunni opposition” in Syria any more. Almost all of the remaining “moderate” groups have been forced into alliances with al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, and the deal that the Russians might have brokered in 2012 is no longer available. The ceasefire they proposed in late 2015 deliberately left the Islamist groups out – and the United States (better late than never) went along with it.

That ceasefire has now been in effect for more than three months, and although there are many violations it has significantly lowered the level of violence in Syria. In the longer term, the Russians might be able to produce sufficient changes in the Baathist regime (including Assad’s departure) that some of the non-Islamist fighting groups might break their alliances with al-Qaeda and accept an amnesty from Damascus.

Maybe even the Islamist-controlled areas can be re-conquered eventually. Or maybe not: it’s a bit late for a peace settlement that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity. But at least the US State Department has finally abandoned the fantasy of a “moderate” rebel force that could defeat both the regime and the Islamist rebels in Syria, and instead is going along with the Russian strategy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has wisely given US Secretary of State John Kerry equal billing in the ceasefire initiative, and there has been no crowing in Moscow about the Americans finally seeing the light.

Great states never admit mistakes, so there will be no apology from Washington for all the anti-Russian propaganda of the past year. But it is enough that the US government has actually changed its tune, and that there is a little bit of hope for Syria.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 14. (“Such…years”; “All…October”; and “Maybe…strategy”)

Turkey’s Choice

“We will defend Aleppo: all of Turkey stands behind its defenders” – Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Wednesday, 10 February.

“Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation (into Syria) by land” – Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmed Cavusoglu, Saturday, 13 February.

“There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria” – Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz, Sunday, 14 February.

Between Wednesday of last week and Sunday night, the Turkish government, in league with Saudi Arabia, made a tentative decision to enter the war on the ground in Syria – and then got cold feet about it. Or more likely, the Turkish army simply told the government that it would not invade Syria and risk the possibility of a shooting war with the Russians.

The Turkish government bears a large share of the responsibility for the devastating Syrian civil war. From the start Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, was publicly committed to overthrowing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. For five years he kept Turkey’s border with Syria open so that arms, money and volunteers could flow across to feed the rebellion.

Erdogan’s hatred of Assad is rooted in the fact that he is a militant Sunni Muslim while Assad leads a regime dominated by Shia Muslims. Both men rule countries that are officially secular, but Erdogan’s long-term goal is to impose Islamic religious rule on Turkey. Assad is defending the multi-ethnic, multi-faith traditional character of Syrian society – while also running a brutally repressive regime. Neither man gives a fig for democracy.

Saudi Arabia has been Erdogan’s main ally in the task of turning Syria into a Sunni-ruled Islamic state (although 30 percent of Syrians are not Sunni Muslims). Together these countries and some smaller Gulf states subverted the original non-violent movement in Syria that was demanding a secular democracy, and then armed and supplied the Sunni-dominated armed rebellion that replaced it.

The US government also wanted to see Assad’s regime destroyed (for strategic reasons, not religious ones). So for years Washington turned a blind eye to the fact that its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were actually supporting the extremists of Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

Largely as a result of that support, these two extremist organisations now completely dominate the Syrian revolt against Assad’s rule, accounting for 80-90 percent of the active fighters. Turkey and Saudi Arabia finally broke their ties with Islamic State last year, but they still back the Nusra Front, which has camouflaged itself behind an array of minor “moderate” groups in the so-called “Army of Islam”.

When the Nusra Front, with strong Turkish support, overran much of northwestern Syria last spring, Russia finally went to the aid of its long-standing ally, the Syrian government. Russian air power helped the Syrian army push back the troops of both the Nusra Front and Islamic State. Erdogan pushed back, ordering Turkish fighters to shoot down a Russian bomber last November.

Even at the time, however, it was clear that the Turkish army was very unhappy about the prospect of a military clash with Russia. It doesn’t share Erdogan’s dream of an Islamist-ruled Syria either. Meanwhile the Russian bombs kept falling, the Syrian army went on advancing, and now it has cut the main supply line from Turkey to the rebels in and around Aleppo.

Erdogan is frustrated and angry, and he now has an equally reckless ally in Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi deputy Crown Prince and defence minister. Over the past week these two men appear to have talked themselves into a limited military incursion into Syria to push the regime’s troops back and reopen the supply lines to the rebels.

This would also have allowed the Turkish army to whack the Syrian Kurds, who are building a de facto independent state in the Kurdish-majority territory along Turkey’s southern border. (Erdogan is already at war with Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalists, having broken a four-year truce with them last summer.)

On Saturday the Turkish army began shelling Syrian Kurdish forces. On Sunday Assad’s government complained to the UN that about a hundred “Turkish soldiers or mercenaries” had crossed the border into Syria. But at that point the grown-ups took over, and the Turkish defence minister denied that there was any intention to invade Syria.

France publicly warned Turkey to end its attacks on Saturday, and there were doubtless secret but frantic warnings to the same effect from Turkey’s other NATO allies. Turkey (and Saudi Arabia) have almost certainly been put on notice that if they choose to start a local war with Russian forces in Syria, they will have to fight it alone.

So that is probably the end of that, and everybody can get back to the business of partitioning Syria – which is what all the talk of a “cessation of hostilities” is really about.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Erdogan’s…democracy”; and “This would…summer”)

Syria: The Last Chance Saloon

The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State troops last Wednesday was not a big deal. The city was deep inside IS-held territory, IS fighters had controlled 80 percent of it since March, and we already knew that the Iraqi army can’t fight. Even so, Islamic State is not going to take much more of Iraq. What it doesn’t already hold is either Shia or just not Arab at all (Kurdistan), and that is not fertile ground for Sunni Arab fanatics.

The fall of Palmyra on Friday was a very big deal, because it was clear evidence that the Syrian army’s morale is starting to crumble. It was doing quite well until last summer and even regaining ground from the insurgents, but the tide has now turned. After every defeat and retreat, it gives up more easily at the next stop. It may be too late already, but at best the Syrian regime is now in the Last Chance Saloon.

The Syrian army is very tired and short of manpower after four years of war, but what is really making the difference is that the insurgents are now united in two powerful groups rather than being split into dozens of bickering fragments. Unfortunately, both of those groups are Islamist fanatics.

The Al Nusra Front had to fight very hard for Idlib, the northwestern provincial capital, in March, but Islamic State met little resistance when it took over the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk in April. And Palmyra and the adjacent gas fields, which the regime fought for months to defend last year, fell to Islamic State this month after just four days.

It’s never possible to say when a hard-pressed army will actually collapse, but the Syrian army is now in zone. If the Assad regime does go under, Islamic State and the Nusra Front will take over all of Syria. What happens next would be very ugly.

Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both “takfiri” groups who believe that Muslims who do not follow their own extreme version of Sunni Islam are “apostates”, not real Muslims, and that they deserve to be killed. Around one-fifth of Syria’s population are “apostates” by this definition – Alawites and other Shias – and so are the Druze and Chrisian minorities. They are all at great risk.

True, the Nusra Front has been less outspoken about its intentions than Islamic State, but that’s just a question of timing and tactics. The basic ideology is the same, and the Nusra Front in power would be committed by its own religious beliefs to exactly the same murderous “cleansing” of the population. When religious fanatics tell you they intend to do something, it is wise to take them seriously.

An Islamist victory in Syria could entail the death of millions. It would also cause panic in the neighbouring Arab countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Yet no nearby Arab country will put troops into Syria to stop the looming disaster, because they cannot imagine fighting fellow Sunnis in Syria, however extreme their doctrine, in order to save the Shia regime of Bashar al Assad.

You don’t get the choices you would like to have. You only get the choices that are on the table, even if you are the president of the world’s only superpower. At this point Barack Obama has only two options: save the Syrian regime, or let it go under and live with the consequences.

It’s not even clear that he can save it. He cannot and should not put American troops on the ground in Syria, but he could provide military and economic aid to the Syrian regime – and, more importantly, put US airpower at the service of the Syrian army.

Even that might not save Assad’s regime, but it would certainly help the morale of the army and the two-thirds of the population that still lives under his rule. With more and better weapons and US air support, the Syrian army might be able to catch its breath and regain its balance. It would be a gamble, and if Obama did that he would be alienating two major allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But if he doesn’t do it, very bad things may follow.

US planes are already bombing Islamic State (and the Nusra Front too, in practice) all over northern Syria, but they did not bomb the IS troops attacking Palmyra. That was a deliberate decision, not an oversight, even though Palmyra would probably not have fallen if Obama had given the order.

The US President didn’t do that because he is still stuck in the fantasy-land of an American-trained “third force” that will defeat both Islamic State and the Assad regime in a couple of years’ time. Saving the Syrian regime is a deeply unattractive choice, because it is a brutally repressive dictatorship. Its only redeeming virtues are that it is not genocidal, and does not threaten all of the neighbours.

Obama may have as little as a couple of months to come to terms with reality and make a decision. Waiting until the Syrian regime is already falling to intervene is not a good option; decision time is now. His reluctance to decide is entirely understandable, but rescuing Assad is the least bad option.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 7. (“The al Nusra…ugly”; and “True…seriously”)

Yemen: Unintended Consequences

The Sunni Arab countries that started bombing Yemen on Wednesday night seem to think they are fighting an Iranian-backed plot to expand Shia power and influence in the Arab world. Most other countries find that hard to believe, but even if the Sunni countries are right, wars often have unintended consequences. This military intervention is likely to have results that Saudi Arabia and its friends don’t like one bit.

They’ve all shown up for this war. Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies of the Arab world (Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and even Morocco) have all committed aircraft to bombing Yemen. Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan have offered to send ground troops. And the United States (which just pulled the last American troops out of Yemen) promises to provide “logistical and intelligence support.”

In practice, however, this coalition of Sunni Arabs and Americans is unlikely to commit large numbers of ground troops to Yemen: the country has been the graveyard of foreign armies from the Romans to the Ottomans. But if they don’t do that, the (entirely unintended) result of their bombing may be to facilitate the take-over of most of Yemen by al-Qaeda and/or ISIS.

Sunni paranoia about the rise of Shia power has its roots in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. So long as the Sunni minority ruled Iraq, it limited the influence of Iran, the paramount Shia power, in the Arab world. With the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of Sunni supremacy in Iraq, Iran’s power automatically soared – and so did its influence in Shia parts of the Arab world.

Iran didn’t have to do anything particularly aggressive for paranoia to take off in the Sunni countries of the Gulf. Of the 140 million citizens of countries that border on the Persian/Arabian Gulf, about two-thirds are Shias. With a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Sunni Arab monarchies felt terribly exposed and began to see Shia plots everywhere.

They see such a plot now in Yemen. The Houthi militia, drawn from the warlike Shia tribes of northern Yemen, have taken control of all the country’s big cities and most of its thickly populated agricultural heartland in less than one year. This is not actually all that rare an event in Yemeni history, and it never required help from Iran before, but now the hand of Iran is suspected everywhere.

That’s why Sunni countries from all over the Arab world piled in so readily. They really believe they are fighting the Iranian bogeyman, although there is almost no evidence of direct Iranian support for the Houthis. (Nor is it easy to think of any strategic reason why Iran would be interested in Yemen.)

The historical pattern is that these periodic conquests of the country by the northern tribes usually recede again after a while, because Shias are only a third of the population and the northern tribes who provide the manpower for the Houthi milita are only a fraction of the Shias. But this time nobody is willing to wait for the local Sunni backlash in Houthi-occupied parts of Yemen to push the northerners out.

The “coalition” is now bombing the Houthis all over the country. How intensively and how accurately remains to be seen, but if they really succeed in breaking the Houthi grip on central and southern Yemen, they will create a power vacuum that will NOT be filled by the “legitimate” president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whom they are allegedly trying to restore to power.

Hadi’s forces have utterly disintegrated, and Houthi fighters now occupy the temporary capital that he established in his home city, Aden. (The real capital, Sanaa, has been in Houthi hands since September.) Hadi left Aden by boat on Tuesday, which suggests that he has left the country entirely – unless he plans to create another provisional capital on, say, the island of Socotra.

So if the coalition bombs the Houthis out of Aden, but does not commit ground troops of its own, the real winners will be the al-Qaeda forces that wait just outside the city. Much the same goes for Taiz, the third city, and even for Sanaa itself: it is al-Qaeda or ISIS jihadis who stand to profit most from a Houthi retreat.

The only other force in Yemen that could offer any opposition to the jihadis is the fighters who have rallied to the support of exiled ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh since he returned to the country. But Saleh is allied to the Houthis and he is a Shia himself, so it’s hard to see the coalition switching its support from Hadi to him.

Yet it’s also hard to see the coalition committing a big army to Yemen. Everybody who has done that has regretted it. So while Sunni planes bomb Shia fighters, the jihadis may step in and sweep the board. An unintended outcome, of course, but not an unforeseeable one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The coalition…Socotra”)