Middle East turning into an open contest

With Russian planes targeting the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in Syria and the US-led coalition strikes, too, targeting their hideouts, the region — Syria in specific and the Middle East in general — has started to give the impression of a classic cold war rivalry brewing between the US and Russia.

Russian strikes

While Russians are trying to set their foot on the Mid-Eastern geo-political landscape through air-strikes, the US has been trying to prevent it. And so far, the US has chosen to ‘rely’ only on Obama’s carefully constructed criticism of Putin’s policies.

After the annexation of Crimea, Russian campaign against IS in Syria seems to be the second biggest indicator of systemic changes taking place at global level. While it may be too early to really predict the precise nature of these changes, it is never too early to talk about them.

The Western media’s anti-Russia propaganda notwithstanding, Moscow’s involvement in the region does mean an ‘official accomplishment’ of Putin’s long cherished dream: gaining a strong foothold in the Middle East — a region that is important for Russia not only for its strategic reasons and warm water ports, but also for the impact this region’s geo-politics directly leaves on Russian economy.

Russia’s involvement has gained quite a different meaning from that of the US. While Russia is acting on Assad’s ‘invitation’ that gives its campaign a ‘legal’ cover, the US, also supposedly fighting IS, does not have the luxury of a legal justification.  Putin did not hesitate to express this fact while addressing the General Assembly for the first time in ten years recently.

Without mentioning the US directly, he said: “We all know that after the end of the Cold War — everyone is aware of that— a single center of domination emerged in the world, and then those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that if they were strong and exceptional, they knew better and they did not have to reckon with the UN, which, instead of [acting to] automatically authorize and legitimize the necessary decisions, often creates obstacles or, in other words, stands in the way.”

Alluding obviously to the US’ opposition to Russian air strikes in the region, Putin minced no words about taking sides with Syrian army if they were to really dismantle IS’s strongholds in Syria. This is what he said with regard to it:

“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurds (ph) militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”

What Russia thinks does obviously not suit the US’ interest via-a-vis the Middle East. In his UN speech, Obama reinforced the US’ cardinal objective with regard to the conflict in Syria and its resolution.

Referring to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a tyrant, President Obama categorized him as a leader “who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children”,  and then moved on to describe how the Syrian conflict started in addition to reiterating that Assad must go.

“Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests, by escalating repression and killing, and in turn created the environment for the current strife… Realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader,” he said.

While Obama did resort to history to prepare a charge sheet against Putin, he did certainly forget to delve a bit deeper into it, just forgetting to mention a declassified intelligence report from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2012, a year after the violence had erupted in Syria,  that completely contradicts the notion that the protests were “peaceful”, as the report documents that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq], are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

He also forgets, unsurprisingly though, to mention the US State Department’s official statement of the same year when the said report was declassified, which claimed that: “Since November 2011, al-Nusrah Front has claimed nearly 600 attacks – ranging from more than 40 suicide attacks to small arms and improvised explosive device operations – in major city centers including Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, Dara, Homs, Idlib, and Dayr al-Zawr. During these attacks, numerous innocent Syrians have been killed.”

Here it is important to note that the US had initially decided to support Al-Nusra front with supplies of weapons. Al-Nusra was declared terrorist by the US only when it started to implement its own program regarding Syria’s future.

In other words, the story of today’s “moderate” fighters turning into tomorrow’s “terrorists” is not something new at all that we continue to hear even today.

The New York Times noted in its article, published on September 30, that, “by supporting Assad and seemingly taking on everybody fighting Assad,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Wednesday, Russia is “taking on the whole rest of the country that’s fighting Assad.”

Some of those groups, he added, are supported by the US and need to be part of a political resolution in Syria.

While Russian vision of fighting terrorism in Syrian does not make difference between the so-called “moderate” and “bad” terrorist outfits, the US’ does.

The New York Times noted in the same article, “Russian aircrafts carried out a bombing attack against Syrian opposition fighters on Wednesday, including at least one group trained by the CIA, eliciting angry protests from American officials and plunging the complex sectarian war there into dangerous new territory.”

While one can surely question the logic of the argument that Russian attacks may lead to an intensification in sectarian attacks, it is pertinent to ask if IS itself is not already enough indulged in carrying out sectarian attacks, particularly against Shia community?

Hundreds of people belonging to the Shia community are reported to have been brutally killed, thousands displaced and numerous directly and indirectly affected by it. From the very beginning of IS-phase of conflict, reports have been emerging claiming systematic targeting of men, women and children belonging to sectarian minorities. Not only in Iraq and Syria, IS claimed to have carried out suicide attacks on Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait too.

While IS has been carrying out what Navi Pillay the UN high commissioner for human rights chose to call back in 2014 “systematic targeting” of Shia, the US President now seems to be a bit concerned with regard to the possibility of Sunni population getting alienated due to Russian support for Assad’s regime in Syria that happens to be dominated by Alawites—a Shia sub-sect.

In his October 2nd press conference, Obama argued that if this were to occur, Russia will find itself in an awkward political situation given that it, too, houses “a significant Muslim population inside of its own borders that it needs to worry about”.

Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of the US-supported and not-supported terrorist outfits is putting the US in an extremely awkward position vis-à-vis its allies in the Middle East, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia who rely heavily on the US’ assurances regarding fulfillment of their strategic objectives.

With IS being bombed, Saudi Arabia and Turkey seem to be losing ground for what can otherwise be conveniently called their “operation Shia cleansing.” Hence, Obama’s allusion to the “Sunni population.”

The US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s claim that the Russian position is “doomed,” in what appears to be a pledge by the United States to resist Moscow’s attempts to stamp out Al Qaeda groups in addition to taking on and eliminating IS, reinforces the impression that if Europe (Western and Eastern) was the territory where cold war was played out between the USA and the Soviet Union, the Middle East has turned out to be the territory where a new phase of power-contestation, if not a fully-fledged cold war, between the two countries has emerged.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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