With Pres. Obama’s self admission that the U.S. has no Syria strategy and a destabilizing flood of millions of refugees piling into neighboring countries and now Europe, Vladimir Putin who usually plays it by ear seems to be betting on a climax to the barbarous five-year civil war.
U.S. sources report that Moscow is expanding its base at Latakia, Syria’s chief port and the traditional home of Pres. Basher al-Assad’s Alawite minority. The Alawites, a Shia offspring and therefore culturally linked to Iran’s mullahs, despite their inferior numbers have dominated recent Syrian regimes. Their hold on the Syrian Air Force, long time client of the Soviets/Russians, was a fulcrum to power in the multi-ethnic, always unstable caricature of a state the French created in the post –World War Ottoman empire implosion.
But when peaceful demands for reform of the Syrian regime were brutally repressed by al-Assad and loosed the whole gamut of conflicting religious and ethnic forces, al-Basher reacted with unrestrained violence. That hasn’t been enough, despite the fragmentation of the opposition and no help from the U.S. – after an initial Obama statement of support and then withdrawal – to restore his rule. The Damascus regime, despite the conflict among its opponents, appears to be on its last legs.
Furthermore, Obama’s flirtation with the Tehran mullahs, ostensibly to end their immediate pursuit of nuclear weapons, has realigned Mideast forces. Fear and opposition to Tehran’s bid to become the hegemonic power in the region – now seemingly with U.S. acquiescence — has created a new and tacit alliance among the Gulf states, Egypt, and even Israel, against the American-Iranian modus operandi – if indeed one has been successfully negotiated.
In order to reassure America’s traditional allies in the region that his deal with Iran would not jeopardize their security, Obama has made repeated promises to increase U.S. assistance. This past week in Washington, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz publicly accepted Obama’s assurances – even though Saudi spokesman privately leaked their unassuaged andd growing concern with the U.S.-Iran deal.
Encouraged by their beating off, at least temporarily, a takeover by pro-Iranian forces in neighboring Yemen which the Saudis consider vital to their security, the Saudis are privately announcing their continued effort to topple al-Basher in Syria. The aggressive nature of what is traditionally accommodating Saudi policy obviously has to do with al-Basher’s Iranian alliance, anathema to Jeddah and its Sunni Arab following.
The Saudis are buying billions worth of arms, from the U.S. and Western Europeans, in what their friends in the Western media call their attempt to turn themselves into a major military power. Ironically, Obama has had to go along with what now is the seemingly inevitable unstable arms race in the region between Iran and its allies and the Gulf states and Egypt, which critics of his Iranian deal promised would be its dangerous outcome.
Although it has been trumpeted as Putin’s renewed effort to bolster the besieged al-Assad regime – with its main support coming from Iran and the mullahs’ Levantine ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah – something else may be afoot.
Putin just told a Vladivostok audience – at the other end of a Russian empire suffering economic devastation with a halving of the oil and gas price and U.S. and European sanctions over his Ukraine aggression – that al-Assad was ready for a compromise. But what the reinforcement of the Russian installations in Latakia may mean is that Putin anticipates a Syrian breakup and he is grabbing onto a piece of the carcass dominated by his Alawite allies. That would give even Moscow’s sagging international stature a continuing spoon in the continuing boiling Mideast pot.
But it puts the catch-up incremental U.S. strategy for peace and stability in the area in that much more jeopardy.