Russian roulette and US dexterity in Syria
A shikari invited a friend for a shoot because he had obtained permission to cull vermin. The friend, a man of Catholic palate, returned home with a bagful of wild boar. There was a furore in the haveli. The host was shaking with rage. “You know pork is taboo among all my friends,” he said. “Couldn’t you have returned with more edible meat?”
In other words, during its hunt in Syria, Russia must wear blinkers: the only kosher target is ISIS.
On the basis of an old treaty, the Russians are arming themselves steadily in Syria. This is under an overarching umbrella of an understanding reached on May 12 between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They declared a convergence on Syria.
Armed with approvals, the Russians have gone out on a shoot in Homs a 100 km from Damascus where a canal network still provides escape route to anti-Assad gangs trained by the Americans. Senator John McCain blurted this truth out. Are more US-trained rebels likely to come out of the warrens, their hands up in surrender? Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar - all have their “fronts” in the huge mess that has been created in Syria ever since the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia led the charge on Syria.
And now that the Russians are taking out all the vermin (read terrorists), the Western and Arab members of the alliance are crying foul”. No one can say that the Russians must not attack terrorists. But what they are saying is: “Russians are not attacking the ISIS.” A milder allegation is: “They are killing civilians” or that “they are weakening the anti-Assad coalition inside Syria”.
The understanding between major powers always leaves room for maneuver. Americans can give their spin and Russians theirs. The ultimate purpose is the same - to work towards a political settlement in Syria. There is, of course, a divergence in the rhetoric on Assad’s role towards this end. Russians are quite clear: Assad has to be part of the solution. The American position is more nuanced: Assad will have to go eventually, but it has yet to be determined when.
This is another way of saying that Assad is required for the peace process after which his future will be in the balance. This double speak is meant to assuage allies like Saudi Arabia, who want Assad’s head on a platter.
Remember Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Moscow to meet Lavrov. Jubeir did not resile from his chant: Assad must go. He would not like his supporters inside Syria and elsewhere to know that he has already moderated his position on Syria. The Saudis have dropped their opposition to the Syrian army and other government institutions Assad supervises. Rhetoric on Assad’s departure cannot be given up by Riyadh abruptly because all their non-kosher, Salafist assets will simply wither away if the objective of removing Assad, for which they were mobilised in the first place, is given up.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond did not know how to explain British hesitation on air strikes. “Now we have a new leader of the opposition - Jeremy Corbyn.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he was concerned that Russian air strikes “may not have” targeted ISIL positions. Surely one expects more certitude from the world’s most powerful alliance. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter waffled in front of the media. The Russians should not be supporting the Assad regime, he said. Their military moves are “doomed to fail”.
On the margins of the UN General Assembly virtually holding Kerry’s hand, Lavrov told a reporter “We are for a democratic, secular Syria”. The word “secular” in this context will set the Saudis on fire.
The wing of the Western media whose core emotions hover between the US and Israel is livid. They have grown accustomed to shaping opinion in West Asia not being asked to swallow an uncertain line. Recent realities have been disconcerting for this lot.
The nuclear deal with Iran became a reality; the Palestinian flag fluttered at the United Nations, and now the Russians are altering all game plans in West Asia. How can anyone fault the Russians for calling for a joint battle against terror in Syria and Iraq? The western and Saudi insistence that the Russians must only target ISIS to the exclusion of other groups pre-supposes the ISIS as a tidy column on the march that does not have tributaries reinforcing it from such places as Homs.
Once upon a time the Sole Superpower could do pretty much what it liked when it entered an area like West Asia. But in its post-Sole Superpower phase, the imperial power will have to navigate through a plethora of interests. It has to be nimble, dexterous, and patient and focused on a clear target.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal)