Monday, 21 April 2014

A Moscow-Cairo-Jerusalem axis?

Being played out on the world stage, in this early part of 2014, is what might superficially be taken as a repeat of the communism versus capitalism Cold War of the 20th century.  It is nothing of the kind. There is no clash of political philosophies here.  The drama now being enacted, with Russia’s President Putin in the lead role, is the far older tale of lust for power.  The story, as it unfolds, has added poignancy because this generation of world leaders has forgotten two vital lessons: How to oppose the ruthless pursuit of dominance, and the fact that in international politics might is so often right in other words, strength is respected and weakness despised.

It is now clear that Putin is determined to re-establish Russia as a major force in world politics.  It took some time for the realisation to sink in, and there has accordingly been little attempt to obstruct him. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, US President Obama and his administration have consistently reacted with “jaw jaw rather than war war” – forgetting that this was far from Churchill’s attitude in the 1930s to Adolf Hitler’s insatiable appetite for power and territory.  While Obama havered and wavered, the relative balance of influence began to tilt against the United States and the West, while the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, started to reassess where its best interests lay.

Take the Syrian civil conflict.  From the start Russia and the United States stood on opposing sides.  Russia had a close working relationship with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, for under a 1971 agreement a permanent naval facility, Russia’s only Mediterranean fuelling, repair and replenishment base, was sited in Syria’s second largest port city, Tartus.  Accordingly, when a political movement dedicated to establishing a democratic alternative to the corrupt Assad regime surfaced in Syria, Russia backed Assad.

The US and the West, on the other hand, attempted to give some backbone to the loose, disparate and ineffective opposition.  During the early stages of the civil conflict there was a window of opportunity when effective military support for the domestic opposition might have resulted in Assad’s overthrow.  No such support was forthcoming, and the window soon closed.  Instead, the conflict attracted wild-eyed extremists of all sorts with agendas of their own, far removed from any attempt to replace Assad with a democratic alternative. 

Determined to cling to power by whatever means, in 2013 Assad resorted to using chemical weapons against the opposition and any civilians who chanced to get in the way. Obama had repeatedly threatened an immediate and salutary response to their use, but in a diplomatic coup Putin brokered an agreement with Assad to dispose of his chemical arsenal.  Obama gave way. No punishment was meted out to the guilty Assad, and in the event the disposal of Assad’s chemical weaponry is far from achieved, for recently further chemical attacks notably the use of chlorine gas have been reported in Syria.     

A short time afterwards Putin duplicated this diplomatic triumph by successfully spiking any threat of an attack by the US or Israel on the nuclear facilities of his ally, Iran.  By brokering negotiations nominally aimed at preventing Iran achieving nuclear weapon capability – another opportunity for avoiding military action seized on avidly by the US, the EU and the West – Russia again stood tall on the world stage.  And again, there is every reason to believe that Iran’s capacity to build atomic bombs has been little affected by the negotiations. 

   The pattern had been set – bold, self-interested and successful political action by Russia matched by abject and week-kneed political reaction by the West.

   Putin crowned his series of political achievements by violating Ukrainian sovereignty and engineering the annexation of Crimea.  Huffing and puffing by the West, the imposition of sanctions and the threat of more, had little effect on Russia. which proceeded to take the same course of action in the Russia-supporting eastern provinces of Ukraine.  A fragile agreement aimed at both sides exercising restraint, even if it holds, will not alter the fact that any plans the West might have had for binding Ukraine into the EU and NATO have been successfully scuppered.  By the ruthless exercise of power politics, Russia has swallowed Crimea whole, and successfully asserted its influence over the future of Ukraine.

   This resurgence of Russian power has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East.

   Early in April a 19-member Russian military delegation arrived in Cairo, the third visit in less than two months. The move followed a report that the White House was imposing a partial aid and weapons freeze on Egypt, as punishment for the military coup led by al-Sisi, and the crackdown on former president Mohamed Morsi and his supporters.  According to senior Egyptian sources, Field Marshal al-Sisi has concluded an arms deal with Russia that includes advanced aircraft, monitoring equipment and other sophisticated weapons to be used fighting Islamist terrorism in Sinai.

Now, the fight against Islamist terrorism in Sinai has turned into a closely coordinated effort by Egyptian and Israeli forces, who are currently cooperating in unprecedented ways, bypassing treaty restrictions on the battlefield deployment of Egyptian military forces and arms. Informed Israelis also speak of unprecedented Israeli-Egyptian intelligence cooperation in the area, "beyond anything dreamed of during Mubarak's rule."  So Israel is supporting al-Sisi, while the US is still reluctant to do so, on the grounds that democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi was overthrown by something akin to a military coup engineered by al-Sisi.

This comparatively minor divergence of interests between Israel and the US was exacerbated by Israel’s "neutrality" over Russia's invasion of Crimea. Senior US officials were shocked at Israel’s lack of support on the Ukraine crisis, and especially at Israel's abstention from the UN General Assembly vote deploring the Russian invasion and expressing support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Ever since, intense efforts have been deployed to try to mend fences.  At a series of meetings Israel has explained to the United States that taking a public stance against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine could cause real damage to its security interests.  “We are close to the chemical weapons in Syria,” Israeli officials are reported to have told their US opposite numbers, “and to the Iranian nuclear program, over which Russia has a decisive influence, and so a clash with Moscow could hurt our security.” 

If Israel has indeed adjusted its relationship towards Moscow and Cairo, the change may be significant, but it is not substantive. The community of interests between the US and Israel is too great to be seriously threatened by these minor upsets.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 April 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 April 2014:

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