Since early September, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been sending fighter jets, helicopters and tanks to Syria and building troop barracks at bases on the country’s coast. Acting to keep the brutal regime of its longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad in power — though restricted to a narrow strip in western Syria — Moscow seeks more influence and control of the country and its Mediterranean ports and a stronger political hand in Mideast politics.
For several years Tehran has sent Revolutionary Guard Quds forces to help prop up Assad, and collaborates with Moscow on operations in Syria.
Alongside these moves, Moscow has consolidated its position in Ukraine, where it occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula last year and backed separatist forces that have seized sections of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Since Secretary of State John Kerry’s congenial visit with Putin in May, it has become clear that Washington would accept Moscow’s influence over its “near abroad” in Ukraine and the Baltics, in exchange for help to nail down the nuclear deal with Tehran.
Moscow has taken firmer political control over the separatist forces in Ukraine and seeks to maintain a frozen conflict there under the framework of the Minsk accord with Kiev. While Russian heavy weapons have not been withdrawn and the border remains under Moscow’s control, fighting has mostly stopped in recent weeks. Separatist commanders who opposed this course have been assassinated, and a government shake-up in Donetsk put Denis Pushilin in charge. He’s seen as more subservient to Putin’s shifts and goals.
Seeking a new, long-term relationship in the region, Washington offered to exchange Tehran’s promise to limit production of materials that could be used for nuclear weapons for a pledge the U.S. and its allies would commit to end sanctions against Iran.
While bemoaning the brutality of the Assad regime, Obama’s focus in the Mideast has been to fight against the reactionary Islamic State in Syria and Iraq without U.S. “boots on the ground.” The effort has centered on targeted bombing.
For years Washington refused to arm or finance resistance to Assad, claiming such support might end up in the hands of “terrorists.” With Islamic State stepping into the vacuum created by the slaughter of tens of thousands who took to the streets against Assad in 2011, Washington now says it wants to train local fighters, but its efforts have failed.
Gen. Lloyd Austin III, chief of U.S. Central Command, admitted to Congress Sept. 16 that “only four or five” Syrian opposition fighter trainees have entered combat against Islamic State from a $500 million program launched last December that was supposed to put 5,400 combatants in the field.
These U.S.-trained fighters — if they ever enter combat — are required to agree not to attack Assad’s forces, only IS, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The most effective force combating Islamic State has been the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria (YPG). The 30 million Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria have long demanded a homeland and an end to centuries of national oppression. In making gains against Assad and IS, the YPG now controls about two-thirds of Syria’s 560-mile border with Turkey.
While Washington has praised these advances, the U.S. and European rulers along with the governments of Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey are dead set against the Kurds’ national aspirations.
In Iraq, promised government offensives have failed. Part of Washington’s deal with Tehran is to give it sway over the majority Shia areas on Iraq’s border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with U.S. complicity, has used what was billed as an Islamic State-free “safe zone” in Syria by Turkey’s border to block Kurdish advances and has focused air attacks on Kurdish fighters.
Washington’s strategic shift to Iran and Russia, in search of some stability for its interests and investments, means downgrading its reliance on relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the Iran deal, although many of Israel’s generals accept it as a realistic step to lower the likelihood of a nuclear assault from Iran. Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow Sept. 21, saying his concern was to “prevent misunderstandings” between Israeli and Russian troops. Tel Aviv has carried out airstrikes in Syrian territory targeting weapons being transported to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.
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