As Russia’s airstrikes begin to take hold, and Russian/Syrian coordinated ground attacks against the non-ISIS rebels continue, the battle lines in the post Sykes-Picot Middle East are starting to emerge, while exposing contradictions that will need to be resolved.
Firstly, the Shiite Axis of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah is being cemented under the cover of Russia, which is gradually enforcing a no-fly zone over this territory as evidenced by the rumors that Iraq will request Russia to start bombing over its territory as well as the incursions into Turkey. The main adversaries of this axis are Islamic extremists, including but not limited to ISIS.
Attacking non-ISIS CIA trained and armed rebels has exposed the fact that there has been an active effort to support Islamic extremist groups which were deemed ‘moderate.’ The main argument between the Shiite axis and the Western coalition that includes the US/Turkey/Saudi/Qatar among others is if one can vet and verify Islamic extremists such that they can be deemed moderates. The German Defense minister has recently stated in an interview with Christiane Amanpour that there are no longer moderate rebels to speak of in Syria. These ‘moderate’ extremists can be clearly linked closely to the Muslim Brotherhood, which were probably funded by Qatar and provided entry and arms into Syria by Turkey, after being trained by the CIA. The Muslim Brotherhood in response to the Syrian attacks has called for jihad. The other group are more linked to Saudi and were trained in Jordan by the CIA, so are most probably not linked to the Muslim brotherhood, but may be some other strain of Islamic extremists. 52 extremist clerics in Saudi issued a fatwa for jihad against Russia which was subsequently dismissed by the government as illegal. This could possibly explain the verbal gymnastics that the western coalition are seemingly engaging in when complaining about Russia’s intervention against the non-ISIS rebels as worsening the situation on the ground by encouraging these rebels to join ISIS and/or Nusra.
Jordan and Egypt which are closely allied in their fight against the Muslim brotherhood and Islamic extremism in general, have established warm ties with Russia, and while they do not want to alienate their Saudi and US allies, refuse to support the Muslim Brotherhood/Islamic extremist takeover of Syria, even if it means living with the Assad regime. To that end, Jordan’s head of the military sent a greeting to his Syrian counterpart congratulating him on Eid al Adha, while King Abdullah recently received the head of the Russian Parliament in Jordan. Egypt’s foreign minister on the other hand, welcomed Russia’s military presence in Syria as a positive development in the fight against Islamic extremism.
Meanwhile, the United States and NATO currently find themselves in a conundrum, with limited options except if they are willing to go head to head with Russia and its regional allies by establishing safe havens supported by no-fly zones to protect Muslim brotherhood/Salafi rebels which may ultimately change allegiances and join Nusra and/or Qaeda; or do they lose face and abandon these rebels and allow Russia a psychological victory of having faced NATO down and won. Following up on this issue will also require a question as to the contradiction in the United States training and arming programs between those of the CIA which they seem to now take full ownership of and are considering facing off with Russia to defend, and between the Pentagon program which has been deemed an abysmal failure that led to the transfer of most of the arms and troops to Nusra by the Pentagon’s own admission. What was the purpose of the second program if the CIA program was such a success? Why was the pentagon program stifled by vetting, whereas now the ‘moderate’ extremists are deemed to be kosher?
As president Obama indicates that he is not willing to have a proxy war with Russia over Syria, and as rumblings of Houthi acquiescence to the Muscat peace plan emerge after a Houthi delegation visited Tehran handing Saudi a victory, and as the scheduled meeting between President Putin and the Saudi King Salman continues to be sought after, the question is has there been greater coordination between some of the regional powers prior to the Russian incursion than is apparent? Some clues that this may be the case is that Jordan would not willfully go against US interests in the region.
In short, I believe that many countries are exercising patience as significant negotiations on how far NATO is willing to support Muslim Brotherhood extremists, as Saudi waits to see if they could have a grand bargain on extricating itself out of Yemen with the support of Russia and Iran in return for a face saving way out of its commitments in Syria and assurances on Iran’s regional ambitions. To that end, influential Saudi authors like Abdul Rahman AL Rashed have come out against incitement against Russia and repeating the Afghanistan scenario. Israel is also waiting for assurances that Hezbollah will not be emboldened by Russia’s protection. Turkey has significant plans to increase trade with Russia, and will have to weigh its interests in Syria versus its interests with Russia. Europe is concerned about the additional influx of refugees as a result of Russia’s intervention (estimated at an additional 1M), and will weigh that risk versus further escalation with Russia. But what continues to emerge is that Russia has found a way to be the main interlocutor on matters of vital importance to the region and the world, and is in a position to trade favors for concessions with a whole host of players.
The larger question for the region is if the farcical notion of empowering non-ISIS non-Qaeda Islamic extremism will be tolerated by the west and used to fight a war against the Shiite axis in a throw-back to Afghanistan, while maintaining the untenable position of also fighting ISIS and Qaeda who are only different shades of the same color, while in the meantime reducing Syria and the region to more rubble in the meantime (if that is possible)?
Additionally, if the Shiite axis does prevail, what will the implications on the region be having an extremist expansionist theocratic regime (albeit Shiite) with so much power and influence? Will Russia be able to maintain control of this creation? How do the moderate countries such as Jordan and Egypt navigate through this contradictory minefield? And how does Israel manage to fight off the isolation caused by the internal security situation vis a vis the threat of a 3rd intifada, the European increased pressure on the two state solution, the BDS movement worldwide, as well as having its regional wings clipped by Russia’s presence in Syria?
The battle lines in the region are becoming clearer, while exposing contradictions that will need to resolve themselves in short order, and while the west can generate a PR campaign to push through whatever way forward they ultimately come up with, they risk sinking the region into a sectarian war on a scale that has been unrivaled if they act unwisely. Russia today is in the enviable position of sitting back and being courted, but they too could overplay their hand by creating a Shiite behemoth which they lose control of. As such, as Qaddafi asked in his now famous speech before his downfall: “Man Antoum?” (who are you in Arabic)–this is an honest question these regional powers must ask of these proxy armies that they are empowering in the region lest they leave the Middle East in a situation that makes the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan seem like a good outcome.
Photo by Kristijonas Dirse, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license