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Edition 131-November 1, 2015
Putin's gamble in Syria
Superpowers don't mix well in the Middle East
By Thomas Terrio

The Russian military intervention in Syria by President Vladimir Putin has forced the United States into a negotiation process over the presidency of Bashar al Assad. The Vienna meeting on October 30 between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, outlined several steps both powers have agreed to undertake in the region.

But the idea Russia and America are now jointly involved in the five-year Syrian war, a war which has caused a mass migration of displaced people into Europe and immense pain and suffering for the people of the region, is in many ways ominous.

Why, because to the Russians, the Syrian War has more to do with the progress of the Islamic State rather than the forced removal of Assad from power. Putin has surmised, the US decided for another disaster regime change for the sake of change in Syria, change similar to the catastrophies in Iraq and Libya.

On the other hand, America is very concerned about the borders of Syria that connect to Israel and Lebanon. Conquering Syria would place ISIL on the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, and give it a base on the Mediterranean Sea to threaten Europe. The involvement of Israel in any Middle East conflict is a major worry in Washington. Great emphasis is always placed on the special relationship America has with Israel.

Furthermore, Iran, a Russian ally, is another country which has a major stake in the region and is predominantly anti-American. At the moment, they have taken-up arms against ISIL by assisting Iraq. But this may prove to be more of a problem for the Americans than the Russians.

The most interesting area of consensus was over ISIL. Kerry and Lavrov agreed to defeat ISIL “and other terrorist groups as designated by the UN Security Council and as agreed by the participants must be defeated.” They plan to meet again in two weeks. As one can see, anxieties have increased since Putin’s intervention, above all, over the danger of “mission-creep.”

My reasoning is ominous because ISIL is winning their war by manipulating social media and by using a well-worn strategy of suicide bombers. ISIL’s suicide bombers disrupt and terrorize the inhabitants of any city which refuses to surrender and convert. The bombers strategically blow-up a local police station, government office, or army barracks in a city under siege before beginning their main offensive.

In my view, unless a single policy can be agreed upon by Russia and the US, the situation will remain dangerous for all parties, who risk the unintended consequences of a military incident or accident that could potentially expand the conflict.

Without question, the world must deal with the evils of the Islamic State, or face the repercussions of a broader conflict as ISIL gains in strength and bravado. The unspeakable jihadist brutality ISIL threatens the greater world with should not be underestimated, or foolishly dismissed as insignificant.

However, it is the responsibility of those Arab nations in the region to take-up the fight against ISIL, not an American or Russian one. Indeed both countries have good reasons to intervene in the conflict based on historical initiatives and agreements. But this direct intervention by Putin to save Assad is a gamble he hopes will re-establish Russia’s credibility as a global player. Putin may have outmaneuvered the Americans in Syria this time, but the world is in a far more dangerous place today than it was when Saddam Hussien invaded Kuwait in 1990.

There is a real danger America and Russia will not find common ground over Syria. This war may turn out to be a much uglier enterprise than both the US and Russia expect. Both powers have had drawn-out conflicts with radical Islam, and unfortunately, the Middle East is a place in the world where a 50-year-old peace process has failed more than once; and agreement if anything is next to impossible. The single most shining moment of the entire Middle East peace process happened way back in1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat first stood in the Israeli Knesset.

To that end, a quick solution to ISIL is desperately needed, because if the Russians and Americans learned anything from each other’s past adventures, they will have figured-out by now, superpowers in general don’t mix well in the Middle East.

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