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Mainstream, VOL L No 46, November 3, 2012

Syria: Waiting for Someone named Obama

Wednesday 7 November 2012, by M K Bhadrakumar

Even as German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who was on a visit to China, diverted himself to Istanbul in a mission on October 13 aimed at tamping down Turkish-Syrian tensions, Der Spiegel calmly reported that the information about the “non-civilian cargo”, which led to the interception of a Syrian aircraft by the Turkish Air Force the previous Wednesday (October 10) night, was actually passed on to Ankara by US intelligence.

Furthermore, Der Spiegel disclosed authorita-tively, “Ankara only forced the plane to land after close contact with its Western allies.”

The question naturally arises: Was it an incident that had been choreographed by Washington with a view to change the dynamics of the Syrian situation? Stranger ways have been found to kick-start wars in history. Or did the United States have another motive?

The pattern of the rhetoric may give some clues. Russia, of course, vehemently and promptly denied that it had violated international law. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in fact, gave a detailed explanation as if he were pleading with the Turks not to be taken in by whatever they might have heard:

“In the wake of all sorts of insinuations spread in connection with the Syrian jet’s landing, I’d like to stress we don’t have secrets in this respect. We’ve cleared out the situation and the truth is that, quite naturally, the jet was not carrying any weapons and certainly couldn’t be carrying them.

“The cargo was supplied by a legal Russian supplier in a legitimate way to a legal customer. It’s electric engineering equipment for a radar station, a dual-purpose equipment that isn’t forbidden by any international conventions. Airway bills for it were filled out in strict compliance with international requirements. Transportation of these cargoes by civil-aviation jets is normal practice, and this is confirmed by the fact the Turkish authorities offered the crew either to change the route or to land in Ankara before it entered Turkey’s airspace. The Captain decided to land because he knew the crew wasn’t doing anything illegal.”

Interestingly, the Turkish side has pointedly refused to take issue with Moscow’s narrative. The Turkish statement was actually evasive and loquacious—to the effect that Ankara had acted on the basis of “information that the plane was carrying cargo of a nature that could not possibly be in compliance with the rules of civil aviation”.

Meanwhile, Ankara and Moscow lost no time to transfer the topic to the diplomatic channel away from the limelight. Russia’s Gazprom has since announced that it will step up the supply of gas to Turkey to offset the shortfall in the supplies from Iran through the winter season.

Ankara has also since disclosed, almost eight weeks in advance, that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Turkey on December 3. This is the first point.

Went to Town

NOW, the intriguing part is that it was left to a third party to resort to shrill rhetoric—the United States. The State Department spokes-woman in Washington used harsh language to allege that Moscow was pursuing a “morally bankrupt” policy on Syria.

Victoria Nuland said: “No responsible country ought to be aiding and abetting the war machine of the Assad regime, and particularly those with responsibilities for global peace and security—as UN Security Council members have.”

The spokeswoman added: “We [US] have no doubt that this was serious military equipment.” Evidently Nuland was under instruction to go to town on the Syrian plane issue. Why would the US be so overtly keen to introduce high-class polemics? This is the second point.

The geopolitics is not difficult to understand. The US has probably been hoping all along that Syria would be the wedge that forces apart the partnership between Russia and Turkey, which has witnessed a remarkable upswing through the past decade, helped largely by the under-standing and personal rapport at the leadership level between Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.

Russia has significantly expanded its energy cooperation with Turkey, meeting two-thirds of the latter’s gas needs. Russia is set up to build Turkey’s first nuclear plant; the US $ 25 billion project could be a game changer in the overall relationship. The 63-billion-cubic-metre South Stream gas pipeline is slated to pass through Turkish waters to feed the European markets.

Evidently, a high level of interdependency is developing between the two countries, which would be nothing short of historic given their troubled relationship through the centuries, and holding the potential to impact profoundly the geopolitics of a vast region comprising the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian, “Turkic” Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

Suffice to say, Moscow and Ankara have done well so far to decouple the Russian-Turkish bilateral relationship from the Syrian question. However, whether this is achievable in the coming period remains to be seen, as the “end game” is commencing in Syria.

The US rhetoric underscores the early warning of booby traps ahead. This is the third point.

Three Interlocking Vectors

THE first booby trap was laid by unknown hands when Erdogan was in Moscow in late July as he was proceeding for his meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. The report of the high-profile terrorist strike in Damascus killing the Syrian Defence Minister and other top security officials had just come in, which all but sabotaged Erdogan’s mission aimed at bridging the Turkish-Russian differences over Syria and exploring an acceptable formula to work together to find a solution to the crisis.

Curiously, the incident of the Syrian plane being interdicted also coincided with a visit Putin had planned to Ankara to meet with Erdogan for a follow-up conversation on the substance of the latter’s proposal. Earlier reports had mentioned that Putin was due to visit Turkey on October 14 and 15.

Putin held a meeting with the advisory Security Council regarding the Syrian situation on October 12. Obviously, Moscow realises that a new criticality is arising in the Turkish-Syrian standoff, which is also amply evident from the growing belligerence in Ankara’s rhetoric toward Damascus as well as its military deployments on the border regions in an operational mode.

There are three or four interlocking vectors here and their interplay is going to be crucial in the coming weeks. First, much depends on how the situation develops on the ground. The Guardian newspaper reported that Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean city of Antakya has become a meeting point for arms dealers from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and it is the centre for equipping and arming the rebels in Syria.

As things stand, Syrian Government forces have begun challenging the rebels all over the country. They have had success in Damascus, but face resistance in Aleppo and the northern provinces. Thus the fate of the covert war depends heavily on Turkey. And there are growing indications that hardliners in Ankara are prevailing. Taking stock of Westerwelle’s weekend trip to Istanbul, Deutsche Welle warned in no uncertain terms that Turkey “risks getting mired” in the Syrian conflict after having “misgauged” it. The commentary was critical of Erdogan:
“Weapons deliveries from Turkey remain the most important support the Syrian rebels are receiving, which has helped the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army to secure a strip of territory nearly 20 kilometres deep into the Syrian side on the border with Turkey.”

The majority of the Turkish population has little sympathy for Erdogan’s stance on the Syria conflict. For the first time in his 10 years in office, the Prime Minister is facing widespread opposition. Half of the country’s electorate voted for his AKP party in last year’s parliamentary election—largely because it was perceived as offering stability to the country.

Since then, Turkey has enjoyed high growth rates and now belongs to the biggest 20 economies in the world. With wide sectors of the population having achieved relative prosperity, many Turkish people now fear that Erdogan’s aggressive stance toward Syria is endangering that.

Thoughtful Turkish commentators have also voiced similar misgivings. Mehmet Ali Birand, one of Turkey’s seniormost political observers, wrote in Hurriyet newspaper on the weekend: “The civil war in Syria does not threaten Turkey’s vital interests. In other words, it is not our duty. It should not be our duty to save the Syrian people from Assad. Let’s defend them, support them, but we should have boundaries.”

Waiting Expectantly

AGAIN, in a column in the pro-government Islamist daily Zaman, prominent Turkish commentator Abdullah Bozkurt wrote on October 12:

“The [Turkish] Government seems to be divided on how far Turkey should take the matter with Syria. The relentless war lobby is after a “fait accompli” to commit the government and the country to a permanent war in Syria ... Opposition parties are against the risky adventure while the public is overwhelmingly opposed to the notion of the war.”

Evidently, Erdogan is in two minds (which also explains Putin’s decision to confer with him). But part of his posturing is due to his lingering hope that with the nerve-racking distractions of the election in the US on November 8 behind him, President Barack Obama will revisit the Syrian question.

But having said that, Turks are smart enough to hear the drums by now in the Western capitals, beating the retreat from the Syrian battlefield even before the battle has been truly joined. Westerwelle made it clear in Istanbul on the weekend that Germany would expect Turkey not to precipitate the Syrian crisis.

To be sure, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expresses solidarity with Turkey, but then, he also underlines that it is a mere “hypothetical” question whether Turkey would invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter for an intervention in Syria; he then quickly adds that Syria can have only one solution—a political solution.

Ironically, the one good thing for world peace lately was that the European Union is now saddled with the additional burden of the Nobel Peace Prize, which all but forecloses even a residual option for it to bankroll a war in Syria—that is, even if surplus savings could be found.

But in all fairness, the Obama Administration has consistently made it clear that it is not willing to engage in direct military intervention. Its distaste toward intervention probably increased after it transpired that various Salafi groups and Al-Qaeda affiliates had entered the Syrian cauldron.

The White House is having a tough time explaining what happened really in Benghazi. The Republicans have opened heavy artillery fire on the murder of the US ambassador to Libya. The pressure is on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (who used to be the most ardent supporter of regime change in Syria).
Besides, the disunity among the Syrian rebel groups causes genuine despair in Washington. Meanwhile, Muslim Brothers are on the march in nearby Jordan and anything can happen now in that country, which is a linchpin in the United States’ regional strategy.

To cap it all, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Moscow to wrap up a $ 4.3 billion arms deal. Not surprisingly, the Chinese oil companies have appeared all over the Iraqi oilfields, which were supposed to be Big Oil’s playpen after the US made such huge sacrifices in men and resources. And Maliki is beckoning the Russian oil companies, too, to pick up the threads from where they left off in the Saddam Hussein era.

Clearly, the writing is there on the wall that the Syrian crisis is having a “spillover”. Polls indicate that US opinion supports more sanctions against the Syrian regime and a no-fly zone but no direct intervention or arming of Syrian rebels.
But then, to be the devil’s advocate, there is the hawkish opinion, too. The influential pundit Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington argues that Obama should not remain trapped in policy dilemmas and “hollow posturing” but should actively “help to do the job”—namely, adopt a strategy like in the 1980s when it gave the famous Stinger missiles (“equalisers”) to the Afghan mujahideen.

He recently wrote that if only the US could provide similar “equalisers” to the Syrian rebels, it would ensure that the rebel fighters “inflict far more serious casualties” on the government forces and help expand their own safe zones and thereby “take advantage of ‘no fly’ or ‘no move’ zones enforced with limited uses of US or allied force, and be able to quickly become far more effective with limited training by US or other Special Forces”.

Beginning of End Game

CORDESMAN may well be echoing an opinion within the US establishment. But for Obama, the clincher is likely to be lying somewhere else.
Woven into all this intricate Arab Spring tapestry, another new thread is threatening to dominate the “big picture”—the division among the Arabs themselves about the crisis in Syria. Differences have appeared in the stance of, say, Oman and Kuwait on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other—or, between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
When United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi visited Riyadh recently, King Abdullah comp-lained to him as much about Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. No wonder Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is proceeding to Kuwait this week. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi just visited Qatar. The isolation of the Saudis is no longer possible to be ignored. The prominent pro-Saudi daily Al-Hayat wrote bitterly on October 13:

“The countries of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] do not now have the choice to head to the Arab League and then to the [UN] Security Council ... This sexpartite bloc perhaps does not have the option of heading to NATO and asking it to intervene ... In fact, it may not even be possible to reach unanimous agreement even among these six countries, due to the differences in their stances.”

In sum, the United States’ regional allies are waiting expectantly like the pair of men in Samuel Beckett’s play vainly for someone named Godot to arrive any time soon after November 8. To keep themselves occupied in the meantime, they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide—in fact, anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay”.

They may, it seems, even interdict an airplane or two. The end game is beginning in Syria.

(Courtesy: Asia Times)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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