Stopping the madness in the Middle East

Western interference has made life tougher for those living in the Middle East. Source: Alla Shadrova, Spike Rogers

Western interference has made life tougher for those living in the Middle East. Source: Alla Shadrova, Spike Rogers

In the backdrop of the meltdown in Mali, Russia’s struggle to save stable Middle Eastern regimes from Western-backed fundamentalists is matched only by the West’s attempts to create more Libyas in the volatile region.

“We came, we saw, he died.”

– Hillary Clinton moments after hearing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s death.

The US Secretary of State’s disingenuous joke about the outcome of America’s Freudian bargain with the Islamic fundamentalists did not sound funny to anyone sane. But like all Freudian bargains, there comes a time to pay up. Indeed, days later Hillary’s morbid joke came back to haunt America when the same rebels it had been arming for months to unseat Gaddafi killed the American ambassador to Libya, dragging his bloodied corpse through the streets of Benghazi.

And in what would surely rank as the most ironic moment of the year, jihadi rebels in Mali armed with AK-47s looted from Gaddafi’s arsenal shot down a French Mirage 2000 supersonic fighter bomber.

A time bomb for decades

At the height of the Libyan civil war, Russia had repeatedly warned that the “freedom fighters” the West was supporting were in reality allied to the al-Qaeda. Indeed, the US weapons that were provided to the Libyan rebels are now being used against French regiments and American special forces in Mali.

“It’s important to lift one’s head a bit and look over the horizon, look at all those processes more widely, they are interconnected and carry very many threats,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking of unrest across the Middle East that could play into the hands of militants. “This will be a time bomb for decades ahead.”

Russia returns to the ring

However, it seems like the doomed Bourbons of France, the West has “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. Perhaps the irrational decisions the US, UK and France are making are being forced by panic – at seeing the dramatic comeback of the East and the relative decline of the West.

But with China and India still not militarily strong enough to challenge the United States, the one nation that has done precisely that is Russia. With the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000, Russia’s diplomatic passivism ended as the country sought to regain its rightful place on the world’s stage.

Russia’s relationship with countries in the volatile Middle East is defined by four main factors. One, there are countries like Syria, Algeria and now Iraq which are important primarily for commercial reasons. Two, countries like Turkey pose security concerns because they are civilisationally opposed to Russia or firmly in the Western ambit. Three, countries like Iran are needed for maintaining leverage over the West. And finally, the Muslim factor; since the fall of the Iron Curtain, there is no wall separating Russian Muslims from their coreligionists in the Islamic crescent.

Whatever the reasons for Russia’s involvement they are symbiotic rather than parasitic. Moscow apparently believes in the maxim that revolutions devour their children and are not especially kind to meddling foreigners. Unlike the zero-sum stance of the West – “let’s jump in and grab the oil” – Russia’s watchword is caution. Where the West wants to change regimes like they are dirty laundry, Moscow seeks stability, especially as these countries are in its arc of influence.

Syria: Crunch time

The distance between Syria’s northern tip and Chechnya is less than 1000 km. If you are a Russian you ought to be very worried if a ragtag bunch of Islamic fundamentalists and opportunists takes control of Damascus.

Russia hasn’t given up on President Bashar al-Assad primarily because Syria is the last of its allies in the Middle East. Secondly, Tartus in Syria offers the only warm water port available to the Russian Navy. Tartus is crucial if the Russian Navy wants to keep a permanent presence in the region and further in the Indian Ocean in an anti-piracy role.

Russia, however, has an odd problem with Syria. Damascus is the lynchpin in its strategy to keep pressure on the Israelis, and in turn the Americans. (It was a Hezbollah suicide bomber, who killed 241 US Marines in October 1983 in Lebanon, who ended America’s Middle East presence. Minutes later another bomber killed 58 French paratroopers and rolled up Paris’ pretensions.)

At the same time, Russia’s links with Israel have improved dramatically. This has happened with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Russian speaking Jews, who have strong links with their birthplace. Russia, therefore, does not want Syria to spoil the party.

Although the Syrian situation is on a short fuse, Russia, with some support from China, has stood its ground. Whether Russia’s Atlanticists, such as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, will prevail over the Eurasianists – led by Putin – and sacrifice President Assad, will be known in the weeks or months ahead.

 Iran: Accidental ally

Iran ended up in Russia’s corner simply because the Americans and the British screwed up things in the country. Though close to Russia, Iran is fiercely independent – a fact Moscow respects but which the West refuses to acknowledge. Tehran’s nationalist policies have taken it on a collision course with the West but this has worked to Russia’s benefit.

Though mutually suspicious due to historical rivalries, Moscow and Iran have developed a healthy respect for each other. This is because of several reasons. One, unlike so-called secular Turkey, Iran has not interfered in the former Soviet republics. Again while Turkey allowed aided and harboured Chechen guerrillas, Iran did not allow the Organization of Islamic Countries to censure Russia during the war in Chechnya.

Though Russians believe Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons, they do not live under the delusion that the Iranian nuclear programme can be bombed or rolled back. Russia doesn’t really relish the prospect of having a nuclear Iran in its troubled underbelly, but it realises Tehran is no pushover.

And, unlike Pakistan, which has been a leading supplier in the nuclear underground, Iran, the Russians believe, will be a responsible nuclear power like the Indians.

Another reason why Russia wouldn’t like to lose Iran is that the country has vast reserves of gas. By keeping Tehran in its ambit, Moscow hopes to regulate oil and gas prices. The bets on an American attack on Iran are, therefore, low.

 Strategic retreat

The end of the Cold War saw a weakened Russia retreat from its geopolitical responsibilities and interests. Back in February 1991 when an American-led coalition rolled over Iraq, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, it was seen as Moscow’s weakest moment since WW II. A country that had poured a million troops into Afghanistan at the mere hint of a coup simply watched as two dozen nations pounded Iraq.

Again in March 2012, as Libya’s beautiful cities and its welfare state were torn down by the West, Moscow’s inaction was inexplicable, considering that Russia was now stronger and its armed forces well-equipped.

If you think that was madness, then there was a method to the madness. The Russian leaders who decided not to oppose the United States’ charge into Iraq and Libya perhaps anticipated that America was digging a hole deeper than Afghanistan. The degradation of the American military and the loss of morale among Western troops would be ample payback for the Western meddling in Afghanistan.

More Libyas

Mali clearly shows the West has learnt nothing. Yemen is being bombed on a daily basis. Algeria, which is a major buyer of Russian arms, could be next. Egypt, if it dares to be too independent, could be the target of destabilisation. “This is the new trend in dispensing due process, in a declining Western civilization where bloodlust suffices for justice,” writes Patrick Henningsen in the Canadian think tank, Global Research.

The destabilisation of these countries may or may not directly impact the likes of Russia, China and India but the hundreds of thousands of disaffected Muslim immigrants pouring into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa will definitely change the map of that continent. And as the 9/11 terror strikes showed, the United States is no island either.

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