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Calling Russia's Bluff

A congressional rejection of the military intervention in Syria will give Obama the right excuse to avoid military action and to accomplish his mission: calling the Russian bluff with a bluff.

Conservative thinkers in the US claim that President Obama’s Middle East strategy has not worked out, as planned. The idea of “engaging” Islamic governments in Egypt and Turkey has been met with rising authoritarianism in Cairo, and with a crackdown on peaceful protesters in Ankara and Istanbul. As for Iran, long gone are the days when the White House was sending its best wishes to Iranians for their New Year celebration, the Nowruz. In Syria, the situation drifted out of control, and Western-educated dictator Bashar al-Assad enjoyed the help of Iran and Russia to quench the local rebellion. It seems undeniable that the strategy did not work out as planned, and in that respect, the critics are right – see the commentary of Walter Russell Mead in the WSJ.
Yet, somehow, the strategy worked nonetheless – not as planned, but it worked. Washington’s policy in the Middle East is turning out to be an unexpected, sudden, improbable and cynical success. So far it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood and its dictatorial plan have been ousted; in Istanbul, the rule of Erdogan – with his fanatic anti-Jewish stints – is shaking; and in Syria, Western powers are talking about an 1999-Serbia-style army intervention. Russia is retreating from the quadrant and the West enjoys a free hand to reshape the situation.

How could this happen?

The Sandbox of the Big Players

First and foremost, we shall consider that the Middle East is still the sandbox of the big players. The goal of Russia is to retain a role in the Middle East, possibly influencing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It has always been like this since 1948: in that respect, Israel is like Berlin during the Cold War. Khrushchev once said that Berlin was “the testicles of the West … when I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin”. The same thing happens with Israel: every political tension in the area is reflected by the development of the peace process.

Russia also has a direct goal in the region: preserving its military naval facility in Tartus, on the Syrian coast, since it is the only harbor that the Russians have in the Mediterranean Sea. Here they can maintain and refuel their ships that patrol the Dardanelles Strait – a critical checkpoint for Russian tankers shipping oil from the Black Sea. Moreover, they can also keep an eye on the new underwater gas basins between Israel and Cyprus from there.

In order to pursue these two goals (influencing the peace process and keeping open access to the Mediterranean), Russia leverages the political connection of the “Shiite Crescent” that stretches from Iran, over some regions in Iraq and the Assad leadership in Syria, to the terrorists of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Moreover, until last year the Iran-Russia axis had even successfully co-opted the Sunnis of the Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and was engaging in profitable and advanced weaponry smuggling.

There was a direct cultural connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – and possibly even more than just a connection, since Hamas is the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood (and possibly the Egyptian version was bound to implement the same Hamas concept of “democracy”, with the “one-man, one-vote, one-time” approach in Egypt as well). It was easy for Russia to secure its connection to Hamas since Mubarak was no longer around to control the trafficking (although, from time to time, the former Egyptian President also “forgot” to control this illegal trading – especially when political circumstances provoked a lack of attention).

North of Israel, Russia was merrily attempting to build a closer relationship with the conservative party ruling Turkey – Erdogan’s AKP. Although Wikipedia lists some thirteen major conflicts between Russia and Turkey since the XVI Century, a new energy-centered political paradigm is opening new horizons. In the meantime, Erdogan made a lot of efforts to back pro-Hamas activists and the “Flotilla” raid operation, willfully facilitating a diplomatic crisis that he now refuses to solve.

So, from the North to the South, Russia was retaining some sort of influence in the countries affecting the stability of Israel and the quadrant, leveraging extremist factions in Palestine to sacrifice the Palestinian population on the altar of political prowess. Russia was just waiting for Assad to clear Syria, in a very bloody manner, of any armed opposition to make Moscow’s role in the Shiite world uncontested.

“Our Son of a Bitch”

The Egyptian coup changed the game. Militarily, it was quite easy: it is rather uncommon that a coup is announced a few days in advance – the military said something like “On Wednesday at 4pm we will perform a coup”. Now Hamas is isolated – see this extensive reportage by Al Jazeera. In Turkey, Erdogan is losing support within his party. Anti-Israeli Erdogan couldn’t even prevent Israel’s ascent to the top of Turkey’s export markets in the Middle East.

It is not by chance that the US has taken a firmer stance on Syria. An attack is all but certain, since the first aim of Washington is to call Russia’s bluff in the Middle East. Moscow cannot rely on stable strategic leverages. In Egypt, the US could not openly support the military – because of the bloodshed and the horrible violence – and Moscow intervened to offer support, fostering approval by Egyptian minorities and secularists. Nevertheless, Egypt will just continue to enjoy US money and possibly a helpful hand from the Saudis. Most likely, Saudi Arabia will support Egypt if the military severs ties with Russia, since Riyadh opposes Moscow with its support for nuclear Iran and its passion for incrementing its oil output each time the OPEC cuts quotas.

The Russian response came in the form of rockets thrown from Northern Lebanon to Israel. We can assume that Hezbollah would never perform such an act without prior green light from the Iran-Russia axis. The rockets would just make the West aware that Hezbollah is still there. Yet, for Russia the picture has incontestably turned grimmer. Be it for luck or ability, the US managed to reemerge from a very dangerous impasse. In the end, the “our son of a bitch” strategy seems to be the only feasible approach. To Obama’s consolation, it should be remembered that Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a democrat – supposedly invented the expression when he referred to Nicaragua’s President Anastasio Somoza by arguing: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”.

How to make it work? Well, calling Russia’s bluff shall stay a bluff. Adopting the “clintonesque” strategy of bombing from far away would not benefit the US that much. In the end, Washington is already at war in Syria – even if it is just by “proxy”. A rejection of the operation by the Congress will give Obama the right excuse to avoid intervening. His popularity in or around Washington will probably decrease after the vote – but he will have made his point, if that is what he wants.

Read Newest From Column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes

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