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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Russia, Syria and Regional Instability

Russia is a nation with a long memory of strong rulers.  If unity evaporates a strong leader will be embraced with gratitude and he will likely abolish any institution that stands in the way of reinstating the unity of the fatherland.

Russian was proclaimed an empire in 1721.  It is today, the worlds’ largest nation state. By size it is almost double the size of the Unites States but with less than half the population.  It is almost 80% ethnic Russian and has some 160 additional recognised ethnic groups.

Its ideological imperialism during the communist era spanned the period between 1917 and 1991 and left it destitute.  Oil wealth saved it from collapse and provided Russia with an opportunity to claw back some national honour which it felt it had lost when the USSR collapsed.

But here is the problem. The combination of long history, glorious past, invasion and insecurity makes for a complex narrative that cannot be easily set aside. Russia has never known full democracy and even today its incomplete adherence to the rites of democratic dysfunction is treated with ill concealed disdain, xenophobia and contempt. We still assume Russia to be diminished and therefore somehow geopolitically unimportant.  We have already made the error of thinking that Russia would be unable to either defend its borders or unwilling to challenge its competitors.

A sphere of influence can be geographically at a distance of thousands of miles.  It may be based on military outposts situated in-country or it can be economic support.  Today China is purchasing the strategic support of much of Africa which perhaps because of indifference and racism, the Arab world with its trillions of dollars of oil wealth failed over the past forty years to do. Russia can no longer rely on its communist cadres scattered globally to do its bidding as they did in the past. Its influence is therefore diminished while other nations like China vie to take its place. America erred when it thought it could simple grab Russia’s former Satellite territories.

And a wounded former prize fighter is as dangerous if not more so, than the incumbent. Honour is a terrible thing because it becomes the principle determinant governing behaviour.

A sphere of influence is at its simplest, a buffer zone between enemies (old and new). For Russia, the USA, China, Japan, Germany, Iran and Turkey are its main rivals. The list is large but the memory of conflict is of even greater significance. Russia has been in conflict with all of these nations in the past.  Russia itself has a large Muslim population estimated to be between 6 and 25 million (depending on how the population is counted). Like its European brothers and sisters Russia’s Muslims are sometimes accused of nurturing a characteristic trend towards intolerance and extremism. The question is whether this minority will demand the blood sacrifice it is accustomed to receiving elsewhere?  All these factors make for some difficult decisions on how Russia will relate to regional conflict in the Mediterranean Basin.

Russia’s Syrian naval base at Tartus is capable of taking nuclear armed warships and submarines.  This is a significant and prestigious strategic asset for Russia. If it wants to project its power past its immediate neighbourhood Syria is an essential military asset.

Would it go so far as to incite a hot war between Israel and Iran to protect its Syrian ally?  After all, Haffez al-Assad murdered up to 40,000 of his own countrymen in February 1982 when he flattened the city of Hama in order to destroy the Muslim Brotherhoods opposition to his regime.  The first Western article that discussed this war crime appeared in Time Magazine a full six months after the event.

Public communication via twitter, Face-book and mobile phone may be ubiquitous but it won’t help if the son of the father, Bashar al-Assad decides it is time to crush the opposition to Alawite rule with the same ruthlessness his father employed.  With 12% of the population, supported by Christians who make up a further 9% of Syria’s 22 million people this regime should it fall could witness an unprecedented settling of scores on the scale of the Kampuchean or Rwandan Genocide.

Two old enemies are competing diplomatically on a variety of  fronts: Russia and Iran and Germany and Iran;  Russia and its former colonies, Germany and its new allies.  Germany’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe now stretches across most of the former USSR’s partner states.  Syria is an unwelcome distraction that damages Russian credibility.
It is possible that an attack on Israel or an Israeli attack on Iran would precipitate the kind of regional instability that would provide a diversion and therefore the opportunity for Assad to annihilate the opposition to his regime.  Another possibility is that Hezbollah and Hamas, as Iranian proxies could similarly, create a diversion that would allow Syria to again, settle scores.  While both Iran and Syria are competitors for regional influence and therefore power, there is no rule that forbids them from assisting each other against their enemies or opponents.

And European liberal society will always find an excuse to blame Israel for whatever happens. Emanuele Ottolenghi describes their “morbid fascination with dictatorship and power as a world view animated by a peculiar blend of post-colonial rage against the West and a grievance –driven pseudo-scholarship, cloaked in the language and footnotes of the late Edward Said.”

This period is therefore as dangerous for Israel as any in its history. Pre-Nuclear Iran is an unknown variable in this strategically restless and unpredictable region but we omit Russia from this brew at our peril.

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