Tag Archives: Russia

US sidelined in Syria, as Turkey and Russia set stall for Trump

The notable absence of the United States (US) in the latest Syrian ceasefire coordinated by Turkey and Russia coincided with escalating rhetoric and growing animosity from Turkey, blaming Washington for the failed military coup, recent security attacks, and the growing Syrian Kurdish power.

The intensification of criticism from Turkey is designed as parting shots at the outgoing US President and as pressure on the incoming US President-elect Donald Trump.

With the thawing of ties with Russia, Turkey is increasingly looking to build bridges away from the West; this is evident not only with general animosity towards Washington but also the European Union in recent months.

The shift in Ankara can be seen with the armed intervention in northern Syria to drive out the Syrian Kurdish forces and the Islamic State (IS) and by accepting that Russia and Iran would not allow the demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Michael A. Reynolds, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan 24, “Under Obama’s leadership the US either by intention or default put itself on the sidelines. This, I think, exasperated Ankara and led it to reach out to Moscow, repair relations, and to accept Assad’s continued tenure as president of Syria.” 

Now, in playing a prominent role in the latest ceasefire and the prospective talks in Kazakhstan, Turkey is seemingly open to striking a deal, without the US to act as a roadblock, to preserve its interests in Syria while Russia and Iran would also maintain strategic interests.

Ankara’s key goal, however, is to curtail the growing Syrian Kurdish autonomy, in contrast to the continued US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces.

As for Russia, it will continue to enjoy unhindered access to the Mediterranean via its naval bases, a pro-Russian regime in the Middle East and growing influence in the region last seen in the Soviet era.

Meanwhile, Iran’s influence is also growing through a pro-Iranian access zone along the Shiite axis between Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

By pressing ahead with a ceasefire, peace talks and a possible grand bargain over Assad, Turkey, Russia, and Iran are setting the stall for the future Trump administration.

While Trump will exert some influence, the expectation is that a more Russia-friendly Washington will provide little resistance to any initiative. Trump has already highlighted that his focus is on working with Russia to defeat IS and is unlikely to continue support for Syrian rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled his hope that Trump “will also join the efforts in order to channel this work into one direction basing on friendly and collective cooperation.” One of Trump’s dilemmas will be how to handle the existing military alliance with the Syrian Kurds that has been vital to pushing back IS.

Turkey has a strong expectation that Trump will change course over support of the Kurds, but a complete u-turn by Washington is risky and not inevitable.

Overlooking the Kurds and allowing Turkey to take center stage in battling IS on the ground, as it has long insisted, may weaken IS but will risk inevitable conflict with the Kurds that Obama has tried to avoid.

Trump has previously stated “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think we could have a potentially very successful relations with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together”. However, balancing between the Kurds and an increasingly hawkish Turkey is difficult.

Ultimately, the indecisive approach of the Obama administration towards Syria lead to its waning influence and credibility in the region.

Various red lines such as the use of chemical weapons by Assad were crossed without action and Obama hesitated to empower Syrian rebels, especially as the distinction between moderates and Islamists amongst fragmented rebels became murky.

According to Reynolds, “Trump was quite critical of Obama’s half-hearted attempt to intervene in Syria, and particularly of Obama’s muddled and incompetent efforts to aid the armed opposition in Syria.

Whereas Clinton wished to double-down on intervention, Trump did not see how such recklessness would serve American interests.”

While the US dithered, Russia took center stage diplomatically and shaped the military picture on the ground. After all, it was both a combatant and an arbiter and had to be taken seriously.

As for Trump–Turkey and Russia expect him to come on board with their plans, but Trump has already proved unpredictable, and Syria remains too complex for straight forward relations between sides with their differing agendas.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

As Turkey downs Russian jet, a rightful defense or a disproportionate move with a bigger picture in mind?

With the Syrian skies crowed as ever with planes from dozens of countries primarily fighting the Islamic State (IS), an “accident” was bound to happen. However, the jury remains firmly out whether Turkey was right to shoot down a Russian jet straying seconds into its airspace or if it was a disproportionate move made with a bigger picture in mind.

Jets flying at super-sonic speeds can cover kilometers in seconds and the notion of border lines and airspace zones can be a murky affair, even for Turkish jets. The downing of the Russian jet comes at a sensitive conjecture when a sense of coalition between Russia and the US-led coalition was forming and there were tentative but encouraging steps at reviving the peace process in Syria.

The vicious Paris terrorist attacks shortly after the bombing of a Russian airliner flying over Egypt had introduced a sense of a broader perspective to fighting IS as well as kick-starting talks at an elusive political transition in Syria.

Whilst the events that led to the downing of the Russian jet are widely disputed between both sides resulting in an escalating war of words between Turkey and Russia, Turkey could have easily held fire and opted for a strong diplomatic protest.

However, Turkey remains at odds with Russia over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian military intervention that has revived Assad’s fortunes, even as Russia has also attacked IS positions.

Not only was Turkey already angered by Russian attacks on Turkmen rebels close to the border but Russia has brazenly intervened literally on Turkey’s doorstep and sphere of influence.

No doubt Turkey wanted to send a strong message to Russia that it was not bluffing, it would protect its areas of interest and that it remained a strong player in the Middle East.

Turkey wants a resolution to the Syrian war but it can ill-afford a resolution which it doesn’t have a strong hand in. for example, Turkey has made it clear that it cannot accept an IS collapse at a cost of further strengthening Syrian Kurdish forces.

Syrian Kurdish forces have largely closed the border doors to IS with only one stretch of the border remaining that Turkey has insisted should be enforced as a buffer zone. With so many players in the mix, there are eyes firmly on the future ramifications as much as the short-term battle against IS and Assad.

Directly or indirectly, Turkey has a major hand in the Syrian war with the large porous border that is difficult to control acting as the gateway for so many forces including IS. The last stretch of IS border control can be easily sealed with a coalition of Syrian opposition and Kurdish forces, but of course it would effectively mean that the north of Syria would be more or less controlled by the Kurds that perhaps for Turkey poses a much bigger dilemma than the IS presence it can somewhat contain.

Turkish shooting of the Russian jet complicates NATO relations with Russia and opens the door to further escalation. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner and Russian President has already vowed serious consequences including cancelling join projects and introducing a visa system between the countries.

Russia has also deployed its most advanced air defense system, the S-400, as well as deploying the Moskva cruiser just off the cost of Latakia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to downplay the incident by suggesting that Turkey would have taken a different course of action if they had known it was a Russian jet. However, any sense of reconciliation was quickly lost as Putin continued to demand an apology that Erdogan has refused and ratcheted his rhetoric.

Whilst NATO and other powers will ensure calm for now, it leaves little margin for error in the future.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As US dithers, an increasingly assertive Russia shows its weight in the Middle East

As if the Syrian skies were not crowded enough, an assertive Russia joined the fray in its first combat mission in the Middle East since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The bold move by Russia, which is designed to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, caught many in the west by surprise but Russia has shown that it will not hesitate to match words with firm actions and the large array of aircraft and military hardware it was busy assembling in recent weeks in Latakia was hardly for mere show.

Since the start of the Syrian war, Russia has not hidden its relentless support for the Assad regime and along with Iran has been Damascus’s chief backer.

Islamic State (IS) has been around for a number of years so if the Russian actions are solely aimed at eradicating IS, why join the fight now?

The bottom line is that unlike the persistent dithering and indecisiveness of the US over the past few years, Russia has shown little reluctance in its support for Assad.

The trigger for Russia’s swift entry into the crowed Syrian battle scene was the increasing pressure on the Syrian regime from rapid rebel advances that had taken them to the door steps of Latakia.

Russia still maintains the only solution to the conflict is a political one but its military drive in Syria will serve to strengthen Assad’s hand.

The US led coalition has spent years trying to level the playing field to force through a negotiated settlement with its support of moderate forces that has been ultimately too slow and bogged down with the sheer difficult of vetting the moderates from the extremists.

If Russia continues to focus largely on the rebels that it labels as terrorists in the same manner as Damascus, then Assad is afforded much needed breathing space at a crucial juncture much like the Hezbollah\Iranian intervention a few years ago that saved the regime from the brink.

US President Barack Obama labelled the Russian view that all those forces opposing Assad are terrorists as a “recipe for disaster”.

Russia has already tried to sway large segments of the Syrian opposition over the past year or so as it hosted peace talks and a continued perception that the Russia action in Syria is solely on the side of Assad will backfire.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated the Russian approach is “doomed to fail” as a political settlement needed at least some of the opposition onboard.

The boldness of the Russia actions in Syria transforms the negotiation landscape. Russia has insisted it is not wed to Assad personally but for any settlement to be viable Russia will ensure that its strategic presence in Syria is maintained with its naval base in Tartous and new bases in Latakia and that apart from Assad, the power apparatus and institutions remain largely the same.

As the war rages on, the West will have little choice but to compromise on the position of Assad and there are already numerous signs that Western powers see their “Assad must go first” mentality to any political transition as unrealistic.

If Russia continues to prop up Assad with such increased fervor, then even the Syrian rebels may see the dead ends especially if US support on the ground continues to lack the same urgency as that of Russia.

Russia has also targeted IS but could easily increase the ferocity of its campaign against IS if the West and Assad’s regional foes start to make concessions on the fate of Assad.

Russia would not want to exert all its energy eradicating IS whilst anti-Assad forces creep closer to Latakia and the gates of Damascus.

In the short-term, Russian intervention is yet another party dropping bombs on Syria and suffering of millions only intensifies under a crowded battle field with so many warring sides and now ever crowding Syrian skies.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Russia’s new military drive in Syria – the making or breaking of peace?

There seems little hope that the devastating Syrian war will be ending anytime soon. Vested interest in the conflict from Russia, Iran, US, Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and numerous other powers has turned Syria into a proxy playground with the end result of severe destruction, a deepening humanitarian crisis and a country at a point of no return.

Each side has much to gain and much more to lose in the deadly civil war with the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad overshadowed by another side war against the Islamic State (IS).

Fighter jets of various nationalities roam the crowded skies each with seemingly different agendas. And now Russia, who has been a key backer of Assad alongside Iran, is expanding its own sphere of influence in Syria.

The extensive Russian supply of military hardware and advisers has been a key factor of Assad’s evident stamina in the conflict. However, Russian support is not for love of the Assad regime or indeed Syrians – it is for their strategic interest in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean that want to preserve at all costs.

Tartous, in the Alawite heartlands of Syria, is home to Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East. If the Assad’s regime was to suddenly crumble it would hamper Russian interests on many levels not least its military presence in the Middle East.

The weakening hand of Assad as an alliance of Syrian rebels increasingly knock on the doors of Latakia is no doubt a key trigger for Russia’s extensive military buildup around this key city in recent weeks, which has includes hundreds of marines, equipment and tactical Russian fighter jets.

Russia is seemingly determined to add to it naval base by building a new airbase. The Russian expansion in recent days naturally sent alarm bells in Washington. Russia is issuing a bold statement that it will not forfeit its strategic interests in Syria or abandon Assad at any cost whilst their interests are intertwined.

The sense of reality from the US has prompted the first military-to-military talks between US Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu in over a year.

Whether the Russian role will deepen the conflict or hasten attempts to end find an elusive settlement remains to be seen.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has focused on the notion of “common ground” in recent days. And it is this common ground that will go a long way to deciding the ongoing severity and length of the Syrian war.

Russia’s active involvement could on the one hand bolster the campaign again IS that it has long insisted as a common goal but there are wider ramifications. Russia is unlikely to join a coalition when their ally in Assad is sidelined and threatened to be removed from power.

By moving to consolidate its presence in Latakia, Russia has set redlines to any rebel encroachment of this area as well as protecting its naval port.

Such redlines affectively partition Syria along the current battle fronts that may serve the basis for any future negotiations.

Although further talks are expected between Russia and US in the coming weeks, with a possible meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a UN General Assembly at the end of September, the Russia position on Assad is unlikely to shift.

Russia will not abandon Assad and their new military adventure reaffirms this commitment. This pushes the peace initiative to end the war firmly in the hands of Russia.

The US and its allies have to accept flexibility around the future of Assad with an agreement that Assad “eventually” leaves as part of a transition.

Kerry’s statement in recent days may be aligned to this reality, “our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with a long-term presence of Assad.”

Russia has claimed it would be even open to the idea of supporting the Assad regime with combat troops if requested by Damascus. Obama may have condemned Russia military moves as a “strategy that’s doomed to failure” but as their willingness to negotiate has shown, it must keep Russia onside.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As Russia claims Crimea, West struggles amidst threat of a new Cold War

The growing crisis in Ukraine has threatened a new Cold War. Ukrainian civil unrest and protests gathered pace only recently leading to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovyc, but in reality it had been on the cards for several months with the West reacting too slowly.

Ukraine’s pro-EU and pro-Russia split is hardly new and Russia remained determined since the break-up of the Soviet Union to ensure that Ukraine toed the Moscow line – with various economic and political sticks and carrots.

Now with the focus heavily on Crimea, the West is scampering to deescalate the crisis and calm the drums of war. However, Russia is seemingly two-steps ahead of the West. Whilst Western powers and Russia tried to find common ground on the negotiating table, Crimea was already preparing for its formal reunion with Russia and had set a 16th March referendum. Whilst Vladimir Putin claimed that only pro-Russia militias existed in Crimea, thousands of Russian troops were pouring in to besiege Ukrainian bases.

With historic emotional and strategic ties to Crimea, Russia did not need a second invitation to create a pretext – protecting its ethnic Russians. After all, this is the same Crimea that Russia deemed worthy of sacrificing hundreds of thousands of troops to safeguard in a bloody war against an alliance of European and Ottoman forces in the 1850’s.

Putin is an opportunist and knows that a chance to reclaim Crimea does not come every day.

Yet the ethnic pretext in Ukraine is the same one that saw the West stand virtually idle in 2008 when Putin invaded Georgia to protect its citizens, thousands of whom Russia had provided passports, and practically annexed the break-way provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The crisis over Crimea has many more twists and turns. The Russia parliament has already promised to help their “brothers” with their nationalist wishes if they formally request this as part of the upcoming referendum.

Such a unilateral annexation is in violation of the Ukrainian constitution, Russian treaties with Kiev and international law and is unlikely to be recognised but is Russia really deterred? It has long calculated and presupposed Western reaction and positioning and limits of any repercussions. Threats of sanctions, visa restrictions etc is too predictable and do not carry enough substance.

Indeed as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned, any sanctions would certainly have a “boomerang effect” on the West. For a start, Ukraine already owes millions in gas payments to Gazprom. In 2009, a two week Russian suspension of gas supplies to Ukraine and in turn to the rest of Europe via transit pipelines crippled the Ukrainian population and countries that relied on Russian gas. All because Russia wanted to hike transit fees and extend the lease of its Black Sea Fleet and ensure that Ukraine remained in its sphere of influence.

Western rhetoric, in particular of the Unites States and its President Barrack Obama, however strong in nature, has become too predictable. War of words will not solve any crisis that turns into a war of guns.

The US has tried to “reset” ties with Moscow in recent years but Moscow has pursued its national interests first and has not hesitated to take action that alienates Washington.

This could not be truer of Syria. Obama has tip-toed, repeated the same rhetoric against Bashar al-Assad and has drawn and redrawn “red lines” for 3 over years. Russia on the other hand, did not hesitate to go neck-deep in the conflict to protect its strategic interests in Syria and the Mediterranean.

Russia has single-handedly propped the Syrian regime and has done it with little regard to Western or regional pressure.

A lack of US muscle and more importantly a united Western stand in Syria has led to a disjointed foreign policy and an even more disjointed opposition movement.

Now in Ukraine, the West has to find a united position quickly. Western goals of seeking a diplomatic solution and continuing dialogue would certainly make Russia “smile” as they recently stated. After all, it just buys more time. Before the West finishes discussing Crimea, it may long have become a de facto part of Russia.

Any policy of appeasement is certainly going to back-fire. Western allies or Ukrainians do not have the appetite to fight Russia militarily so if sanctions and political pacts do not have the desired effect, will the crisis stop at Crimea? How about most of Eastern Ukraine which is pro-Russian and has been the subject of many protests?

Protecting its citizens becomes a template in which Russia policy can be repeated for its benefit.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Russia Solidifies Influence Over Georgia

Russia’s battle for regional supremacy comes at a price, as ties with West reaches crisis-point

In latest developments, NATO foreign ministers have warned Russia that there will be “no business as usual” unless Russia pulls its troops out of Georgia immediately. The Russian onslaught in Georgia sparked international outcry, but Russian appears determined not to pull rank as the regional superpower while teaching the Georgians a lesson.

The Georgian-Russian conflict in the strategically vital Caucasus region threatened to open a new deadly front on what is already a volatile global stage. 

However, although the conflict which erupted when Georgia attempted to regain control of South Ossetia, a breakaway region technically a part of Georgia but de facto independent since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the tensions have been simmering for well-over a decade.

The provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have long-held separatist struggles with the Georgian government and crucially have been politically and militaristically backed by successive Russian governments.

Further Russian attempts to solidify their influence over both regions, particularly South Ossetia, resulted in more than half of South Ossetia’s estimated 70,000 citizens taken Russian citizenship offered by Moscow. This guaranteed Russia as stakeholder in future affairs.

Russian Response

The Russian response was swift and decisive. Although drawing strong rebuke from almost all Western countries for what appeared a disproportionate show of force, the Russian response was designed to send a number of key messages to Georgia, other bordering states and also NATO and the West.

Georgia was never going to be a match for the powerful Russian war-machine, but the Russian response showed that they were unwillingly to relinquish de facto control and influence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but also primarily to demonstrate that Georgia and many of the old Soviet republics remain within its sphere of influence.

Georgia has close ties with the EU and particularly the US and its attempts to join NATO have been met with stiff resistance by the Russians, overwhelmingly opposed to the eastward expansion of NATO, where Ukraine, another contentious neighbour has also been bidding to join the alliance.

Russians are keen to show that they are still a force be reckoned with, even as the demise of Communist rule took its toll.

Evidently, any eastward expansion of NATO would strike a great blow to historical Russian hegemony over the region. Russia, still suffering from the side-affects of its Soviet past and the new world order in the aftermath of the Cold War, has never quite lost the distrust of its former Capitalist arch-nemesis.

Russian opposition to the proposed US missile defence system over Europe is one example of this. With somewhat ironic timing, Poland and the US announced an agreement whereby a key missile defence unit would be deployed in the Polish state, formerly under the stewardship of the soviet juggernaught.

Although, the US has emphasised that the missile defence system is aimed at rogue states such as Iran, Russia remains unconvinced.

The Russian response at such a deal was sharp and chilling, effectively threatening a potential nuclear strike at Poland. Perhaps it was just a war of words, and emotions getting the better of politicians. The cold war, on the brink for so long, was dramatically avoided, so now the idea of a greater Russia-Europe battle is surely unthinkable.

This may be the case but certainly Russian rhetoric and the bullying tactics seen in Georgia sent a chill down the spine of Europe.

Russia, is also heavily reliant on the West to sustain its historically fragile economy, any show-down with the West would not serve any great long-term gains. However, with proposed expansion of NATO and Russia ceding influence in the region, it threatens to become isolated but also lose strategic significance.

Battle for Energy

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Caspian oil pipeline, built by Western oil majors at a great cost was never going to hit the right cord with Russian paranoia.

Russia controls a sizable proportion of oil flowing to mainland Europe and an effective dominance over European gas supplies. The Caspian oil-pipeline was designed to over-ride the heavy European reliance on Russian natural resources.

With Russian controlling the taps to the European market, it also controls a political wild-card. Only recently, European gas supplies were severely affected when a Russian dispute with Ukraine on transit taxes for the pipeline exporting gas through Eastern Europe, threatened mayhem on European markets.

Russian Withdrawal

After Russian occupied much of the key cities and entry points into Georgia, effectively threatening to strangle Tbilisi, EU and US representatives put tremendous pressure on Russian forces to withdraw.

A six-point ceasefire agreement was then brokered by the current EU president, Nicolas Sarkozy, however, it has taken many days to witness the first signs of Russian withdrawal, and for NATO ministers this was simply not enough.

Russian has been employing the terms of the ceasefire reluctantly and at a leisurely pace. Russians still control entry and exit points of many key roads and some forces are still reportedly stationed in Iqueti, near Tbilisi.

The notion of Russian withdrawal from Georgia is itself open to interpretation, with a vague ceasefire deal leaving uncertainty.

Russian forces were already deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia under a peace-keeping mandate. Agreement to withdraw from Georgia will certainly not mean withdrawal from these provinces under Russian influence.

Furthermore, Russia will likely keep a buffer-zone into Georgian territory around South Ossetia as part of any compromise agreement.

Western Pressure

The US has been particular tough on its response to what it has labelled a disproportionate Russian response.

US president George Bush warned his Russian counterpart that bullying and aggressive tactics did not belong in the modern era.

The EU and US threatened isolation but increased their pressure in the face of a slow-Russian willingness to abide by the terms of the signed agreement and withdraw quickly.

This week U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice urged Russia not call its trust into doubt.

In a further rebuke, the US administration warned that such actions put Russia’s reputation as a potential partner “in tatters”.  While the EU warned of “serious consequences” if Russian do not bide by the terms of the cease-fire.

NATO secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned that co-operative programmes with Russia would soon be at risk.

Future status still unclear

After the debris from this current stand-off has settled, the situation would not have changed a great deal, other than becoming more emotionally charged than ever.

It is now very unlikely that South Ossetia and Abkhazia would ever rejoin Georgia proper. Emboldened by Russia, the leaders of both break-away regions will seek new solutions to the crisis.

Whether they will be granted independence or if they choose to be annexed with Russia is open to question. What is clear is that question of right to intervention makes future conflicts evitable, unless lasting settlements can be achieved.

Both provinces contain a large proportion of Russian citizens, and that itself is a sure guarantee that Russia will not walk away all too easily.

Georgians aim to strike conciliatory tone

The media campaign from both sides has been fierce. In heated exchanges, both the Georgians and Russians have accused each other of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

However, while Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili, demanded full Russian withdrawal, he also tried to strike new conciliatory tones, Russian Dmitry Medvedev on the other hand warned that any aggression against Russian citizens would face a “crushing response”.

Russian immediate objectives achieved?

Russian immediate objective from the military confrontation was to achieve the overthrow of Saakashvili’s and deal a deadly blow to the Georgian army.

In this light, some critics have claimed that the Georgina army escaped without serious fatalities or military damage. In some Russian quarters the invasion would even be labelled a defeat as the strategic aims were not achieved.

On the contrary, this may create political pressure within Russia itself. The economy will undoubtedly take a hit in the face of possible Western sanctions.

More importantly, Georgia could witness a strengthening of ties with the US and more economic investment and support. US and its allies my well bolster Georgian military in the background, and future Russian offensives may not only be met with a war of words between the West and the Russian hierarchy. An express application to NATO can not be discounted for Tbilisi.

In the short-term, Russia will certainly have subdued Georgians and made their mark, while almost guaranteeing influence over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but at what price remains open to question.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.