Great Power Realignment – To Russia?

  • As the Russians insist that the Assad government is the only legitimate government, all anti-Assad fighters — ISIS, al Qaeda-related, or U.S.-backed or Turkish-backed “moderates” — are, by definition, terrorists.
  • Russian — and in particular Syrian — tactics are appalling. Washington would rather not be associated with them, but has a horror of the vacuum that might emerge if Assad is swept aside. Mainly, the U.S. has hung its hat on the International Syria Support Group. The U.S. is muddled, as usual, without a clear goal, clear allies or fixed positions beyond support for a “political process.”
  • The U.S. is looking less and less relevant, as historic Great Powers do what they have historically done best — fight for their national interests as they define them. President Obama appears to be conceding the lead to Russia and Russian aims.

The shelling of Syrian soldiers by the Turkish military is one more step back into Great Power politics — historic Turkish-Russian enmity played out over Kurds and Syrians. The U.S. appears to believe 21st century wars cannot be won by military force and that battling parties can be induced to set aside their national and religious aims for a negotiated “peace.” Meanwhile, the parties to the conflict are using their armies to pursue victory.

The U.S. has urged both Turkey and the Kurds to decrease hostilities, but Turkey dismissed U.S. calls for a ceasefire. Attacks on the Kurds continued as Turkey began to fire on Syrian forces, and Turkey’s President Tayyip Recep Erdogan did not rule out a ground attack inside Syria.

The history is Sunni Muslim Ottomans vs. Orthodox Christian Russians, beginning in 1568. The Armenian genocide, Russian massacres in Chechnya and Dagestan, and the desire for revenge on both sides of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan are just recent occurrences. The Kurds, oppressed by the Ottomans and then the Turks, had believed the U.S. would be their sponsor, both in Iraq and in the larger region claimed as Kurdistan. But for the non-jihadist and non-anti-Assad Kurds, anti-Turkish Russians are an equally compelling ally. Hence last week’s Russian air strikes against Turkish allies on behalf of the Kurds.

To drive home the public relations point, the Russian media outlet RT ran a long article Sunday on the economic collapse of Northern Iraq (also known as Iraqi Kurdistan). The article focused on corruption, Turkey’s control of Kurdish oil and how the Kurds feel abandoned by the West as well as by Baghdad.

Where is the U.S. in this? Muddled, as usual, without a clear goal, clear allies or fixed positions beyond support for a “political process.”

The U.S. regards some Kurdish groups as terrorists, but agrees with Russia that the Kurds are an ally against ISIS. Closer U.S.-Russia cooperation means less American patience for Turkey. Russian — and in particular Syrian — tactics are appalling. Washington would rather not be associated with them, but has a horror of the vacuum that might emerge if Assad is swept aside. Mainly, the U.S. has hung its hat on the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which last met in Munich on February 11 and 12.

U.S. President Barack Obama, perhaps sensing futility, called Vladimir Putin last weekend. The Kremlin’s report of the phone call posits the U.S. and Russia getting closer — although, it appears, on Russia’s terms.

According to reports, President Obama pushed for humanitarian aid and a halt to Russian bombing of “moderate opposition groups.” The Russian president said his forces would bomb only “terrorists,” emphasizing “the importance of creating a united anti-terrorist front while giving up double standards,” according to Putin’s spokesman. As the Russians insist that the Assad government is the only legitimate government, all anti-Assad fighters — ISIS, al Qaeda-related, or U.S.-backed or Turkish-backed “moderates” — are, by definition, terrorists.

According to the Kremlin, Mr. Obama “emphasized the need to establish close working contacts” between Russian and U.S. military officials to fight the Islamic State “and other terrorist organizations.” For the U.S. military to move toward closer working contacts with the Russian military implies political as well as military coordination, regardless of American distaste for Russian/Syrian tactics.

The White House readout of the call sounded as if a different conversation had taken place. The readout started with Ukraine, not Syria, stressing, “full implementation of the Minsk agreements by all parties” and local elections in the Donbass region. The readout noted as well the need for a strong international response to North Korea’s missile launch and, oh yes, the “necessity of taking steps to foster productive discussions between representatives of the Syrian opposition and regime under United Nations auspices, principally by reducing violence and addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.” There was no mention of Obama asking Putin to refrain from bombing Aleppo.

…The end result may be “peace,” but of the Machiavellian sort. “Peace,” Machiavelli wrote, is the set of conditions imposed by the winner on the loser of the last war. The Turks and the Russians understand him. The Americans? Perhaps not so much.

Full article: Great Power Realignment – To Russia? (Gatestone Institute)

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