Saturday 28 July 2012

Syria: the new Cold War cauldron

Bhavin Vyas

Putin and Assad: The importance of Syria to Russia. Sergei Chirikov/AP/File
When Barack Obama came to office in 2008, he laid out a post-Bush post-interventionist strategy. The costly wars of Afghanistan and Iraq would be no more. Rather than confrontation and aggression, negotiations and collaborations would be the emphasis of foreign policy. Intelligence services and covert operations would be central. In keeping with such imperatives, the United States extended their arms to Medvedev’s Russia to ‘reset’ their relationship. However, the Syrian crisis has brought to head Obama’s doctrine and Putin’s realpolitik.
The strategy of the Obama doctrine – covert by nature, engaging and collaborative in public – found its cauldron in Syria and the Arab Spring. The populist nature of the Arab Spring has allowed the US to ride on the wave of ideas such as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ that it regularly espouses while abandoning the very leaders that they backed before the uprising. 
The Syrian-Russian relationship
In Syria, the US was a strong supporter of Syrian National Council (SNC), as it was of the Libyan National Transitional Council. As it became obvious in Libya that Gaddafi could no longer be backed, the US supported NATO action to back a unified opposition group. In doing so, it bypassed Russian resistance for any intervention in the Libyan crisis. The SNC received such backing before its legitimacy faded. The difference between Syria and Libya lies as much in the strength of the Assad regime as it does in its support from Russia.
Syria is important to Russia for several reasons. It is Moscow’s major cultural, economic and strategic ally in the Middle East. Tartus is the only military base outside the old Soviet Union, and provides an important fuelling port that forgoes the Black Sea and the NATO member, Turkey. There is a long-standing arms deal between Moscow and Damascus, and Syria has a large stockpile of Soviet weapons. 
The Syrian regime also provides a power balance through Iran and Hezbollah to the US-Israel relationship. Equally, the regime – like many of the dictatorships in the Middle East – guarantees a perceived secular government. Should the Assad regime fall, given their own problems with the Muslim population in the North Caucasus, the Russians would be worried by a possible Islamist extremism coming to power in Damascus. Crucially, Putin’s return has threatened to bring the Arab Spring to Russia. Thousands took to the streets to protest Putin’s return to power. The season of activism and mass protest has so far claimed leaders that were seen as untouchable. Putin may feel worried about his own fate.
Obama doctrine and covert operations
The Obama Doctrine has thus far wielded mixed results. The covert operations have brought the deaths of Osama Bin Laden, paved the way for Gaddafi’s death and have also claimed top militant commanders in Pakistan and Yemen. The US carries out one drone attack a day in Yemen and has carried out over 334 drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004, such has become its reliance on this strategy. Black ops warfare has become the signature strategy of the Obama administration. 

There have been strong public protests against US drone attacks in Pakistan. SS Mirza/AFP/Getty.
However, the drone attacks in Pakistan have been met with wild public outcry. The issue of drone attacks came to loggerheads through the NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. The Pakistani government closed the supply routes, demanding an apology from the US for civilian casualties caused by drone attacks. Right-wing Pakistani groups threatened to organise violent protests if the parliament opened the routes, and the government demanded higher tariffs on NATO equipment passing through the Pakistan border. A US apology was promptly followed by reopening of the supply routes and protests in the streets of Pakistan. 
In Syria, there is evidence to suggest that the CIA has been coordinating and assisting Saudi Arabia and Qatar in providing logistical and financial support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This can be seen in the fighting development and intelligence of the FSA, perhaps culminating in the bomb attacks that killed four of Assad’s closest allies. 
The struggle for power
The situation in Syria seems to be reaching a climax. Moscow has been unmoved thus far, keen to support their last remaining ally in the region. This has been evident in their veto of the latest Security Council resolution. While the UK attempted to push for a resolution under chapter 7, giving the Assad regime a time limit to adopt the Annan peace plan or otherwise face further sanctions, Russia was resistant to it. Russia was resistant to Western hegemony, of the biased wording in the resolution that would pressure only the regime and leave open the possibility of intervention. They know that sanctions will only serve to weaken the regime.
It is difficult to predict how the Syrian crisis will unfold. Very few would have expected the killing of senior security leaders. However, what seems certain is that Russia will be very reluctant to forego the Assad regime despite the massacres, the violence or the ever growing instability. It is a practical strategic ally. What NATO’s success in Libya also showed was Russia’s reluctance to allow Western powers to bypass them to remove despotic world leaders that served as allies. In the public rhetoric of non-intervention, Russia finds solace in keeping the status quo.
Meanwhile, what the Arab Spring has shown is that the Obama doctrine is pragmatic. It has ridden on the wave of populist movement in the Arab world, knowing that opposing it could damage their relations. Unlike Russia, US foreign policy has rested on the vestiges of human rights and democratic freedom. The Arab Spring has allowed it this space. In Syria, it has both publically backed the major opposition figures as well as pragmatically and covertly facilitating the main opposition on the ground. 
The Cold War was a clash of opposing philosophies. The post-Cold War era has been replaced by a different power politics. While the US and the Obama doctrine have pragmatically moulded its foreign policy, Russia has kept to its realpolitik in order to retain power and position in the region. Syria has unfortunately been the cauldron.

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