While the US has certainly made some epic strategic blunders in Syria that raise serious questions about just how “intelligent” US intelligence actually is, there’s little doubt that if one were to look behind all of the media parroting, the Pentagon and Langley understand all too well what’s going on in the Middle East.
That is, the significance of the Russia-Iran “nexus” in Syria isn’t lost on anyone in the US military and you can bet there have been quite a few high level discussions over the past 72 hours about the best way to counter Moscow and Tehran’s powerplay before it spills over into Iraq and ends up degrading Washington’s influence in Baghdad.
As we put it on Friday, “if Russia ends up bolstering Iran's position in Syria (by expanding Hezbollah's influence and capabilities) and if the Russian air force effectively takes control of Iraq thus allowing Iran to exert a greater influence over the government in Baghdad, the fragile balance of power that has existed in the region will be turned on its head and in the event this plays out, one should not expect Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem, and London to simply go gentle into that good night.”
Sure enough, some experts now predict Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will move to counter Russia militarily if Moscow continues to rack up gains for Assad. Here’s The Guardian with more:
Regional powers have quietly, but effectively, channelled funds, weapons and other support to rebel groups making the biggest inroads against the forces from Damascus. In doing so, they are investing heavily in a conflict which they see as part of a wider regional struggle for influence with bitter rival Iran.
In a week when Russia made dozens of bombing raids, those countries have made it clear that they remain at least as committed to removing Assad as Moscow is to preserving him.
“There is no future for Assad in Syria,” Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir warned, a few hours before the first Russian bombing sorties began. If that was not blunt enough, he spelled out that if the president did not step down as part of a political transition, his country would embrace a military option, “which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power”. With at least 39 civilians reported dead in the first bombing raids, the prospect of an escalation between backers of Assad and his opponents is likely to spell more misery for ordinary Syrians.
“The Russian intervention is a massive setback for those states backing the opposition, particularly within the region – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – and is likely to elicit a strong response in terms of a counter-escalation,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
As the Syrian civil war has unfolded, Saudi Arabia has been clear about its position, say analysts. “Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the view in Riyadh has been that Bashar al-Assad must go. There is no indication what-soever that Riyadh will change this position,” said Mohammed Alyahya, associate fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.
“What is clear to Riyadh and its regional allies is that the recent Russian and Iranian escalation will only create a more unstable region and spill more blood,” he said.
Riyadh has focused support on rebels in the south, say analysts, while allies Turkey and Qatar have reportedly backed northern rebels, including conservative Islamist militias such as Ahrar al Sham.
That group, in alliance with the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, recently reached a local ceasefire deal with Assad in the north. Its success in taking on government forces is thought to have been one trigger for the Russian bombing campaign and put them among the jets’ first targets.
“Most probably, the coming efforts will focus on boosting the effectiveness of major coalitions, co-ordination and co-operation between the most influential and effective groups in Syria,” said regional analyst Ali Bakeer.
Of course that isn’t going to work.
Say what you will about how successful guerilla/urban warfare can be when it comes to bogging down a conventional army (examples of this include Vietnam, the Soviet-Afghan war, and Somalia during the Black Hawk down debacle), but the disorganization of the Syrian resistance combined with the fact that Iran has its own well-armed militias on the ground that, in combination with Hezbollah, are providing the ground support for Russian airstrikes, means the situation is all but hopeless for the various Riyadh- and Doha-backed groups operating in Syria.
The only way to turn the tide here would be to intervene directly.
But just as Iran is unwilling to risk direct intervention on behalf of the Houthis in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will likely be unwilling to risk direct intervention on behalf of their proxy armies in Syria. The problem for Riyadh and Doha: Syria is a lot more strategically important than Yemen. Here’s The Guardian again:
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already embroiled in an expensive and bloody war in Yemen that may limit both their military and financial resources. They have also so far deferred to western bans on transferring hi-tech weapons – including missiles that could take down aircraft – over fears that they might change hands in the chaos of the war and be used against their makers.
“The uncertain question today is the degree of power combined with efficiency that regional powers will be willing to bring to the table,” said Barnes-Dacey. “Do the Saudis now try to take matters decisively into their hands, including by providing rebels with sophisticated weaponry long denied them?
“The new [Saudi] king [Salman] has shown a willingness to be much more assertive and take measures into the kingdom’s own hands. If the Saudis see the situation slipping out of their hands, and there is a real sense that the Iranians are consolidating their position in Syria, you could see much stronger response.”
And speaking of a “strong response,” Russia continued to hit anti-regime targets for a fourth consecutive day on Sunday, making good on the Defense Ministry’s promise to step up strikes. Here’s Reuters:
Air strikes by suspected Russian jets hit targets around the town of Talbiseh in western Syria on Sunday, residents and a group which monitors the civil war in Syria said, a day after Russia promised to step up its air campaign.
Ambulances rushed wounded people to hospital in Talbiseh, north of the city of Homs, and one resident said at least five bodies had been recovered from the western part of the town.
"So far there are seven or six raids in the town," said Abdul Ghafar al Dweik, a former government employee and volunteer rescue worker.
He said he believed the raid was carried out by Russian jets. "They come suddenly... With the Syrian planes, we would get a warning but now all of a sudden we see it over our heads," he said.
We have said time and again that there’s no question Russian airstrikes will contribute to human suffering in Syria. After all, when you drop bombs on populated areas you’re bound to kill civilians (including women and children) no matter what Moscow says. However, the highlighted passages above shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you want your airstrikes to be effective, you’re not going to warn anyone about them beforehand unless of course you're dropping a nuke in which case you can tell civilians to leave ahead of time because you're reasonably sure the destruction will be so vast as to make the element of surprise a non-factor.
As for the effectiveness of the strikes, The Kremlin is out again claiming that ISIS is on its heels. Via Bloomberg and the Russian Defense Ministry (translated):
- Russian warplanes have made 20 sorties, attacked 10 ISIS targets in Syria in past 24h, Russian Defense Ministry says on website.
- Air force has attacked militant training camps in Raqqa, Idlib provinces; destroyed explosives workshop
- Warplanes destroyed at least 4 ammunition depots, several command posts
- Russian forces have broken “the management and logistics of the terrorist organization” and caused “significant damage to the infrastructure used for preparation of terrorist attacks”
And here's David Cameron repeating the Assad "butcher" accustations (again, via Bloomberg):
Russia is “backing the butcher Assad, which is a terrible mistake for them and for the world,” Cameron told BBC Television’s “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday. “It’s going to make the region more unstable, which will lead to further radicalization and increased terrorism.”
Cameron continued: “I would say to them change direction, join us in attacking ISIL but recognize that if we want to have a secure region we need an alternative to Assad,” using an alternative designation for Islamic State. Assad “can’t unite the Syrian people.”
Yes, Assad "can't unite the Syrian people", because clearly that's what this is all about, which explains why the West has been doing anything and everything to promote disunity among Syrians for the better part of a decade, and on that note, we close with the following excerpt from a leaked diplomatic cable penned by then-Deputy Head of Mission in Syria William Roebuck in 2006 which shows just how concerned the West is with Syrian "unity":
-- PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.