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September 29, 2022

Turkey vs. Russia in the Mideast (III)

Of course, the resumption of hostility between Russia and Turkey – which on common geopolitical (Black Sea) and economic interests (the export of Russian natural gas for a Turkish economy on an incredible upward trend in recent years) had experienced a remarkable recession in the post-Cold War period, reaching an unexpected Entente – is not the only consequence of the current developments in the Mideast. Even this Russia vs.

Turkey file is not determined solely by developments in this region. Turkey’s assertiveness in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia had caught, for some time, the attention of Moscow, willing to maintain its historical primacy over this vast region, and careful observers were wondering when the conflict between the historical adversaries would surface.

Experts are increasingly talking about the emergence in recent years of two axes of conflict in the Mideast, the first including Sunni powers (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf Emirates, as well as other states in Asia and Africa) and the second Iran and its prominently Shiite allies (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah). The Sunni axis was even formalized in a way in December last year, when Riyadh hosted, at Saudi Arabia’s initiative, a meeting of the representatives of these powers, who decided on joint action in Syria in parallel with the coalition formed and led by the US for this purpose (over 60 states), but also with the Shiite one which Russia effectively joined (the backer of Assad’s regime, while the previous two are in favour of its immediate removal).

Such a formalization was precipitated by the speeding-up of preparations for a UN Security Council meeting on the start of a process of peace negotiations in Syria and the defining of a post-conflict reconstruction roadmap (Resolution 2254 from 18 December 2015 was unanimously adopted).

This geopolitical power demarcation is obvious as shown by recent events. The Geneva talks decided by the aforementioned UN resolution, which started on January 29, were abandoned by the mostly-Sunni opposition, as a sign of protest against the pro-Assad forces’ action in the Aleppo region, a successful action with Russian and Iranian backing. The Sunni axis resorted to this gesture in order to pressure the US, artisan of the peace negotiations alongside Russia, so that they would obtain both the intervention of American ground forces in Syria, and the imposition, even despite the predictable Russian opposition, of a “no-fly” and “safe haven” zone in the northern part of that country.

These pressures exerted by the Sunni axis in the US have revealed American public opinion positions that have to be carefully weighed in order to glean possible future developments in Syria and in the Middle East in general. I have already mentioned the February 4 “Washington Post” article that asks the Obama Administration to act assertively in the direction of imposing a “no-fly” zone in northern Syria. Several days after that, on February 8, NYT published an op-ed signed by Roger Cohen, a known pundit, titled “America’s Syrian Shame.”

This article condemns the Obama Administration for the slowness with which it reacted to the Syrian challenges in recent years, something that resulted in Russia’s military comeback in the region and its becoming a major regional actor after almost half a century since it was eliminated from the region. At the same time, the article shows that the Obama Administration’s lack of a reaction to solving the Syrian civil war in 2013-2014 also led to the terror attacks in Paris in November and similar Sunni terrorist actions. Overall, Cohen considers that the Obama Administration “played” in Syria in line with the Kremlin’s strategy: “Putin policy is American policy because the United States has offered no serious alternative.” Particularly interesting are the readers’ comments on this article, because on one hand they reveal how they “see” the Syrian situation – and the likes received by various opinions correspondingly multiply the relevance of the point of view expressed – and on the other hand offer scenarios for the evolution of the file as perceived by one sector or another of the international public opinion (the comments are the reactions of readers from the US, of course, but also from other states from Latin America, France, United Kingdom, India or other states of the world). From the start, it has to be said that the readers, in their vast majority, so we can talk of a public opinion trend, consider that the origin of the civil war in Syria lies in the centuries-old enmity between the two branches of Islam – Sunni and Shia.

“The Syrian civil war is essentially a proxy war between the Iranians [a theocratic Shiite state] with Russian backing and the Saudis [Sunni state] with US backing,” one of them writes. At the same time, the readers reject Cohen’s assertion that Syria is a depiction of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy bankruptcy. On one hand, this trend shows that Obama did the right thing by not intervening in 2013 – the famous episode of the chemical weapons used against civilian population – and by abandoning the “red line” set by the American President, because by doing otherwise he would have embarked on a long war, the previous ones in Iraq and Afghanistan serving as examples.

Similarly, they believe that Obama’s alignment with Putin comes to answer an imperative. “The only reasonable course of action is to attempt to negotiate with all parties to deescalate the conflict. This is 2016. Oil is cheap and the US is essentially oil independent. We no longer need to reflexively support our Saudi allies, simply because they oppose Iran and Russia,” writes one of the readers. In other words, there is no longer the need to support the Sunni coalition once the US’s oil dependence has ceased and the opposition toward Iran can no longer be an argument.

There is however the opposite trend too, observable including in the readers’ reactions to the article signed by R. Cohen, namely that the US has to act so as not to accept Russia playing the “leading role” in the Syrian file. In fact, several articles that recently appeared in the international press are representative for this trend. One of them is signed by Natalia Nougayrede in Britain’s “The Guardian” (titled “What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe’s future,” published first on February 5 and updated on February 9), who opines that the Assad regime forces establishing control in northern Syria does nothing else but leave two players on the ground through the destruction of the moderate Sunni opposition: the Assad regime and Daesh.

This configuration was allegedly the main goal of the Russian military intervention and also renders visible a marked weakness of the West: “In fact, as the fate of Aleppo hangs in the balance, these events have – as no other perhaps since the beginning of the war – highlighted the connections between the Syrian tragedy and the strategic weakening of Europe and the West in general.”

Another analysis, which shares Nougayrede’s conclusion that events in Aleppo foreshadow a victory of the Assad regime, notes that this will result in the prolongation of the civil war with the risk of regional spillover: “After five years of brutal conflict it’s almost inconceivable that Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in particular, will walk away from the fight, accepting an Assad victory.

While both countries are now consumed by other struggles, Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Turkey against Kurds in its own southeast, Syria remains too important, and has become too personalised for the leaders simply to walk away.” In fact, this analysis, detailed especially when it comes to possible consequences for the near future, signed by J. Barnes-Dacey and titled “Aleppo under siege” (8 February 2016), encourages Europe to act rapidly in order not to be forced to bear unwanted consequences in the near future: “Europe, which has remained silent and ineffective despite occupying a quarter of the ISSG [International Syria Support Group] seats and bearing the burden of spillover from the conflict, urgently needs to step up its own game.”

Therefore, the author considers, Europe has to rapidly devise a strategy in order to live up to the current challenges from the Middle East (the war’s spillover risks and the refugee problem).

The analyst is spot on.

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