Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s failing war in Syria

Military solutions are not the answer to the storm of climatic, energy, food, economic and geopolitical crises facing Russia, writes Nafeez Ahmed

Al-Ahram Weekly

For the last few years, the Saudi kingdom’s insistence on pumping oil at high capacity has dramatically depressed oil prices. The result has undermined Saudi Arabia’s major oil rivals in OPEC such as Iran and Venezuela. It has also hit Russia hard.

Ratings agency Standard & Poors forecasts that Russia’s budget deficit is set to swell to 4.4 per cent of GDP this year. Russia’s own Finance Ministry concedes that if expenditures continue at this rate, its oil reserve funds will be exhausted within 16 months, by around the end of next year.

Meanwhile, over the last year real incomes in Russia have dropped by 9.8 per cent, and food prices have risen by 17 per cent, heightening the risk of civil unrest.

Rumbling along beneath the surface of such financial woes are deeper systemic issues. A report from the Swedish Defence Research Agency notes, “Prolonged dry periods in southern Russia are having the effect of reducing the level of food production.”

Most of Russia’s wheat imports come from Kazakhstan, “where climate change is expected to exacerbate droughts. These impacts would make farming harder and food more expensive,” observe Marina Sharmina and Christopher Jones of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Russia’s looming energy crisis is the other elephant in the room. In 2013, the HSBC Bank forecast that Russia would hit peak oil between 2018 and 2019, experiencing a brief plateau before seeing production decline by 30 per cent from 2020 to 2025.

Also in 2013, the international ratings agency Fitch Ratings came to pretty much the same conclusion. And last year, Leonid Fedun, vice-president of Russia’s second-largest oil producer, Lukoil, predicted that production could peak earlier due to falling oil prices and US-EU sanctions.

Faced with overlapping economic, food and energy crises, Russia is well and truly on the brink.

Russia’s intervention in Syria is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical trump card and is aimed at heading off the imminent defeat of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in its fight against multiple Western-backed rebel forces.

Putin’s goal was explained in article published in October in Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Washington DC Council on Foreign Relations. “Most of the foreign belligerents in the war in Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe,” wrote Mitchell Orenstein of the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

The present writer reported on the competing gas pipeline plans for the UK Guardian newspaper in 2013. Two years later, Foreign Affairs is finally catching up.

As Orenstein explained, “In 2009, Qatar proposed to build a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey . . . However, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad refused to sign the plan; Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined, put him under intense pressure not to.”

Russia’s Gazprom sells 80 per cent of its gas to Europe. In 2010 Russia put its weight behind “an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that would pump Iranian gas from the same field out via Syrian ports such as Latakia and under the Mediterranean.” The project would allow Moscow “to control gas imports to Europe from Iran, the Caspian Sea region, and Central Asia,” Orenstein wrote.

Up to this point, US policy towards Al-Assad had been ambivalent. US State Department cables obtained by Wikileaks reveal that US policy has wavered between financing Syrian opposition groups to facilitate “regime change” and using the threat of regime change to induce “behaviour reform.”

US President Barack Obama’s preference for the latter resulted in US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, shamelessly courting Al-Assad in the hope of prying him away from Iran, opening up the Syrian economy to US investors, and aligning the regime with US-Israeli regional designs.

Even when Arab Spring protests resulted in Al-Assad’s security forces brutally cracking down on peaceful civilian demonstrators, both Kerry and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton insisted that he was a “reformer” — which Al-Assad took as a green light to respond to further protests with massacres.

Then, in July, a $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline deal was announced and a preliminary agreement duly signed. By late 2011, the US, UK, France and Israel were ramping up covert assistance to rebel factions in Syria to support the “collapse” of the Al-Assad regime “from within.”

“The United States . . . supports the Qatari pipeline as a way to balance Iran and diversify Europe’s gas supplies away from Russia,” wrote Orenstein in Foreign Affairs.

Russia moved quickly to support the parties by signing a memorandum of understanding in July 2012. By the end of 2013, Russia had signed an offshore gas deal with Syria to explore the eastern Mediterranean, estimated to contain a total of about 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.

The US saw the move as “unhelpful”. Washington has worked with Israel, Turkey, Cyprus and Lebanon to develop an Israeli-dominated regional gas-export architecture capable of supplying eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe. “Natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean . . . have the ability to undermine Russia’s dominant position as a natural gas supplier to Western Europe,” wrote Simon Henderson, director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Programme, a US think tank.

As Russia’s energy crisis deepens, Putin’s desperation over the gas question has been compounded by fears over the geopolitical consequences of Al-Assad’s downfall. In October last year, the former director for China policy at the US Department of Defence, Christina Lin, warned presciently that if the US-led coalition’s strategy against the Islamic State (IS) group swung too far towards toppling Al-Assad, it could cross a “red line” that could trigger Russian military escalation.

“From the Russian perspective, replacing Al-Assad with an Islamist regime will also further export terror and radicalise Muslims in Chechnya,” Lin wrote. “Russia also wants to protect its naval port in Tartus, and has already demonstrated through its action in Ukraine that it would not hesitate to use military force to defend its core interests.”

She noted that Turkey, in particular, has been more concerned with toppling Al-Assad than with fighting IS. In July, an article in the Guardian newspaper article reported that a senior Western official, familiar with a large cache of intelligence obtained this summer, confirmed that  “direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking IS members was now ‘undeniable’.”

The same official confirmed that Turkey has been supporting other jihadist groups, including Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. “The distinctions they draw [with other opposition groups] are thin indeed,” the official said. “There is no doubt at all that they militarily cooperate with both.”

This has not stopped the US from running its rebel-training and supply programme through Turkey. If the US continues to allow Turkey to “change the mission of degrading IS into one of regime change in Syria,” said Lin exactly a year before Russia’s military intervention, this “would pit the coalition against the otherwise cooperative Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis on IS.”

Putin would be severely deluded if he thinks that military solutions are the answer to the perfect storm of climatic, energy, food, economic and geopolitical crises Russia is now facing.

In 1979, as revealed by then-US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US had covertly supported mujahideen activity six months before the Russians invaded Afghanistan. The idea, he said, was to draw them into the “Afghan trap,” and accelerate the Soviet collapse.

The strategy worked. At this rate, it’s going to work again in Syria.


The writer is an investigative journalist and international security scholar.

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