петък, 11 септември 2015 г.

The power play over Syria - President Putin has a clear plan - the West does not

The mass refugee wave caught off guard all of the European Union. Neither the EU national intelligence and secret services, nor the diplomatic missions managed to alert on time of a looming problem that has stretched to its limits the body fabric of the European Union. The refugee shock wave came on top of other evolving and worsening crises in the Union - the economic and Eurozone crisis and Europe's failure to come together in a decisive and meaningful manner to design and implement a globally competitive upgrade of the original European Union 1.0 version. 

In a strange yet logical way both Turkey and Russia, being exempt from the EU integration process, felt that they could both profit from Europe's neglect for the crisis in Syria and the free lever at hand over EU's growing vulnerability amidst a rapidly degenerating refugee problem. Brussels and Washington are far from sinless for the lack of coherent strategy how to deal with the Islamic State and the stalemate in the seeming eternal tug of war between President Asad and the rebels. Yet it would take more than a radical form of amnesia to distance oneself, as President Erdogan's does, to obliterate evidence of his pivotal role in provoking, supporting and even profiting from the spring revolutions in Syria, Egypt and Libya. Ankara's heavy hand in supplying the Syrian rebels and more recently in providing all the necessary logistical and material support for the Islamic State fighters disregarding forthright discontent of the West can hardly vanish unnoticed.

Mr. Putin has all along been predictable standing by his ally - President Asad - even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the Syrian leader's abuse of power and track record of heavy loss of civilian life, that has triggered a mass refugee wave to Europe.

Although Turkish-Russian relations are in many aspects of an adversarial type both leaders enjoyed until recently a close and business like - the Real Politik type - relation. Russia was able to coordinate with its neighbor the free passage of - Caucasian (Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya) islamists on their way to Syria.

In spite of all institutional resources at hand the EU has been unable to identify and pre-empt the emergence and the use by its adversaries of the refugees as a potentially far more disruptive and destructive geopolitical weapon. 

The fault lines are visible in the Western governments on how to interpret and react to President Putin's moves - reminder of which are the latest stories on the inadequate coordination in the Obama administration. They are indicative of the failure of the West to identify and respond to new hybrid war threats. Russia could be a potential ally in defeating the Islamic state as it seems ready and able to provide troops on the ground, even endure heavy loss of life to defeat the Islamic state. This is the official mantra. Yet there no one in the Kremlin makes any secret that Moscow's foremost and imminent objective is to build a power base and support President Asad securing his grip on power. 

Suffice to look at Syria's map, showing allocation of control among warring parties, to note that between the area where Russian troops are based and the territories controlled by the Islamic state lies the zone controlled by rebels, Even if the Russians add their aerial power and start bombing the ISIS - it is far more likely that the first ground troops they are likely to engage with are the rebels fighting President Asad, The Russian army's support for regime in Damascus could further build on the current relative reluctance of the ISIS and the Asad government force to engage in direct combat (according to IHS's report only 14 per cent of the attacks of the ISIS in Syria target government forces while in Iraq the percentage is 54 per cent) with end result ISIS focusing on the opposition forces in Northern Syria. Therefore Russia's excuse and reason to enter Syria will closely follow President Erdogan's rhetoric on fighting the Islamic State while totally focusing on attacks against the PKK. 

President Putin tried to impress the West in Eastern Ukraine and to bring its leaders to the table to acknowledge his achievements in Ukraine - the annexation of Crimea and his full control on Eastern Ukraine. These plans mimic in full the approach used when President Sarkozy was forced to fly to Russia and agree the ceasefire in Georgia. Despite the hundreds of thousands of troops on an almost permanent state of alert and drills, the billions of dollars spent on recreating the myth of the All-Mighty Russian Army and the ravaging information and propaganda campaign - leaving the summer of 2015 President Putin finds himself totally isolated from the West over Ukraine, deprived of energy weapons - gas and oil - and with virtually no trump cards to play or charm.

Loosing a strategic ally like Asad would have been too dramatic a loss in the endspiel phase of his strategic gambit with the West. The key motive behind President Putin's current move in Syria is to try and make peace with the West - distracting its attention away from Crimea and Ukraine by focusing and exploiting the West's key vulnerability points - the refugee crisis and the Islamic state scare. Just imagine the sympathy President Putin's volunteer offer to address the refugee problem by attacking the Islamic state will generate in Germany, Austria, Hungary and other EU countries stricken and overwhelmed by the refugee exodus. And Vladimir Putin is right to believe that when the time comes gratitude would follow and sanctions will be lifted. 

Western and even Russian media are expected to shift their attention to Syria away from the lost information battle ground in Ukraine and even away from the deepening economic and financial crisis at home, where news are bleaker by the day. Concurrently Western governments are offered a show case in geopolitical power swap - sympathy and tacit acknowledgement for Putin's role in sacrificing the lives of Russian soldiers and paying out of his own pocket - at a time when Western governments are looking indecisive and unable to confront the Islamic state on the ground and tackle the refugee crisis at home.

President Putin not only hopes to brush up his image as the ultimate fighter for Christian values where Western leaders abdicate, but he will also gain the permanent right to set a foothold in Syria and oversee all major developments in the East Mediterranean, including the development of critical gas fields and transport infrastructure, that might threaten core Russian energy and foreign policy interests.

Let's recall that one of the main reasons for Qatar's break up with Bashar Asad was his consistent refusal, on demand from Moscow, to agree to the construction of critical transport infrastructure for Qatari, Saudi and other Gulf States gas via Syria to Turkey and then onwards to Europe.

With a military base on the Syrian coastline and Russian companies exploring for oil and gas in territorial waters of Syria, Kremlin will boost his capacity to monitor and keep under control all key development in the energy area in the whole region. Keeping Asad in power in Damascus would only add to this end.

Finally, in spite of all the rhetoric and the statements made by the Russian leader that he is ready to fight for the Christian world and for Europe against the Islamic State - Putin is unlikely to gamble and fight the Islamists on his own without some Master Accord with the West. He believes he could negotiate a global geopolitical settlement with the West, keeping him in power in Russia. Regardless of the tone and the verbiage - if Kremlin is allowed to take the initiative and define the agenda on Syria against the record belated, tense and hasty reactions in the West, - the Russian president stands a good chance to rejoice at the end. Putin's strategy has a strong chance of driving a wedge between supporters and opponents of sanctions against Russia and cooperation with it in Syria. 

The anti-Islamic Russian state propaganda is only a trivial decoy within the hybrid warfare web of obvious and hidden moves.

What is crystal clear - behind Kremlin's moves in Syria there is consistent strategy, sound logic and strong will. It might be downplayed as a gamble, as deceitful and too risky - ending up in yet another Afghanistan, but President Putin sees Syria as viable opportunity, one of his best and last, in his attempts to come to terms with the West while retaining Crimea and his place in history.

What is not clear - is how or when the West would react to Putin's opening on Syria. A simple yes or no will not do. There is an urgent need for a strategy to address the interrelated ISIS - refugees issues and engage in returning stability and growth to Syria, Libya and Egypt.

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