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June 26, 2022

Russia, Iran and the Mideast: an imponderable equation

The situation in Syria is extremely complex from the standpoint of existing alliances/alignments in that country’s civil war (a fragile ceasefire has been in force since February 27, and will probably allow the resumption of negotiations provided by the roadmap approved by the UN on 18 December 2015). On one hand, there is the Assad regime, backed by what is dubbed the Shiite coalition of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah organisation, a coalition to which Russia was added by virtue of its geopolitical interests. On the other hand, we have two coalitions of states – a broad coalition led by the U.S., consisting of over 60 states; and the Sunni coalition consisting of over 30 states, hastily formed in December 2015 by Saudi Arabia at an ad-hoc meeting in Riyadh. These two coalitions are backing what is called the moderate opposition to the Assad regime. It has to be said that there are states that are part of both coalitions, Turkey or even Saudi Arabia being an example in this sense (especially through joint actions – see the deployment of fighter aircraft at the Incirlik airbase in Turkey). Occupying a special place in this constellation of alliances, there is the Syrian Kurds’ YPG organization, which recently opened its first international representation office in Moscow, thus being in Russia’s good graces, but being supported by the U.S. too since it represents a substantial ground force in the fight against Daesh (the so-called Caliphate or Islamic State). The Kurds’ military positions in Syria are being bombarded by Turkish artillery across the border, even against the backdrop of the ceasefire that came into force at the end of February. Ankara points out that YPG is in fact a branch of the PKK, the Kurdish organisation in Turkey, which is considered a terrorist group (by the U.S. and EU too) and is engaged in a veritable war with the authorities. Ever since last autumn, countering this Kurdish organisation with military means has taken, after a brief lull, considerable amplitude and is seriously endangering Turkey’s internal stability.

Apart from these main lines of the geography of alliances/alignments in the Syrian civil war, and in the Mideast in general, let us also note the fact that a military-political force of terrorist origin – Daesh – has taken root in Syria and Iraq, its annihilation being one of the international community’s duties. Daesh’s structure is diverse, bringing together Al Qaeda and Al Nusra supporters as well as other jihadist groups, including fighters recruited (by the thousands) from European states that have notable Muslim communities (including Russia), victims of wide-scale propaganda manipulation. Add to that the fact that a state that can be defined as “neither peace nor war,” extremely dangerous for the region’s stability, has set in between Turkey and Russia after a Russian tactical bomber was shot down by Turkish fighter jets on November 24 last year (the two sides accuse each other of breaking international legality). And, at the same time, the fact that millions of Syrian refugees represent a huge burden for neighbouring states (Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey in particular, but also Egypt and others) and for Europe, the successive waves that have entered the continent since 2015 – coming successively from Turkey through Greece and using the so-called Balkan route in order to reach Central and Northern Europe – threatening the very existence of the EU as a continental integration organization because of the differing stances adopted by its members in order to tackle this phenomenon.

A mosaic of alliances, alignments and “nodes” of conflict – the Assad regime versus the moderate opposition, but also Al Qaeda and Al Nusra; Kurds versus some opposition groups and Daesh; all three aforementioned coalitions against Daesh etc. –, unexpected changes in the actors’ political vectoring, alignments deemed unconceivable but that are becoming fact against the backdrop of shared interests – the danger that Iran might obtain a nuclear weapon has placed Israel and Saudi Arabia on the same position for instance –, an intense dynamic of international attempts to promote a peaceful solution, consequences felt at a great distance from the main theatre of action (see the refugees issue in Europe). Hence, an extremely complex picture we got used to for decades on the Middle East scene, a considerable threat to regional and global stability and security, one that is not showing any signs of notable reduction. One can say, in this context, that there is no more room for surprises. Yet surprises continue to appear. Here is an example with several meanings.

At a meeting that took place at the Stanford University in California, focusing on current international developments, students engaged in a questions and answers session. The forum, taking place on March 1, featured renowned guests: Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford professor and former U.S. Secretary of State; Michael McFaul, Director of Stanford’s Institute for International Studies and former U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Jeremy Weinstein, former Director of the National Security Council. Hence, a panel of prestigious specialists capable of offering answers to the questions related to the “When the World Is Aflame” topic. Who else than Michael McFaul could best answer possible questions about the U.S.-Russia reset (2010-2012)? Who else than a specialist of C. Rice’s calibre, former head of American diplomacy during the Bush-2 administration, could best offer a relevant critique of Obama Administration’s foreign policy? And the expectations were confirmed. The forum was broadcast live, almost 300 viewers signing up as soon as it was announced, and over 800 people watching the recording in the days that followed. The debate was wide-ranging, the two experts – Rice and McFaul, members of different political camps – had brilliant exchanges, but a common conclusion was the result, one outlined by a media report: “Though the panelists’ opinions differed at times, the trio of political science professors agreed on many points, including that international order is being tested, and that the refugee crisis is an overwhelming problem – one that the United States should help resolve.”

However, what draws attention is a certain statement made by one of the participants (McFaul), one that the other panellists did not contradict. Namely, that Russia allegedly wanted the nuclear arming of Iran. Here is this moment, as quoted by a media report: “‘So you were resetting some of my policy? ’Rice half-jokingly interjected, as McFaul discussed the objectives behind the U.S. trade talks with Russia a few years ago. ‘It was not about making friends with the Russians – I want to make that clear,’ McFaul continued after the laughter in the audience died down. ‘And it wasn’t that we needed to correct the wrongs from the previous period’ he said, casting a quick glance over at Rice. ‘The Russians had an interest in giving the Iranians a nuclear weapon. Our answer was, no, and let’s work with them to prevent that.’”

It is a shocking statement, one whose novelty we no longer need to exemplify, especially since it contradicts Moscow’s repeated statements (and even wide-scale diplomatic actions) about Russia’s commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of 1968. It has to be explored in order to find a proper answer to the surprising statements made by the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow (2010-2013). On the other hand, we can suspect that the chronological succession – only two months between – of some extraordinary events that took place last year could open a fascinating international diplomacy file. Namely that in which Moscow’s involvement in the nuclear agreement with Iran (July 2015) is closely linked with Russia’s comeback in the Middle East (September 2015), a region from which she was excluded over half a century ago.

True, the Middle East scene, now primarily occupied by the Syrian civil war and its possible settlement, but also by the wave of refugees that is endangering the very existence of the EU, is extremely complicated, and the great powers’ chancelleries are still holding on to high-calibre secrets.

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