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Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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Iran’s Mehr News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Mehr:  After the coup, President Erdogan announced Turkey would change its foreign policy.  Do you believe that Turkey’s foreign policy will change?

Katz:  President Erdogan seemed to be in the process of changing Turkish foreign policy before the coup attempt anyway, but he has accelerated this change since then.  The main outlines of this policy seem to be a move away from America and Europe and toward Russia and, to a certain extent, Iran.  Although Erdogan is still calling for the departure of Bashar Assad from Damascus, he is clearly de-emphasizing this goal and prioritizing the weakening of the Syrian Kurds instead.  Still, a Turkish “move toward Russia” does not mean an alliance with Russia—with which Turkey has long had many differences, including over the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute.  These differences will not disappear.

Mehr:  Ben Ali Yildirim , the Turkish Prime Minister  said, Russia can if necessary, have the use of Incirlik base. Will these statements damage Turkey’s relations with NATO?

Katz:  Such statements will indeed damage Turkey’s relations with NATO.  I think that it would be very difficult for NATO and Russian forces to share the same air base.  This statement may be more intended to motivate America and Europe to adopt policies that please Ankara rather than to signal an actual invitation to Russia. Even if there is a wider breakdown in Turkey’s relations with the West and U.S. forces end up leaving Incirlik, it is not clear that Turkey would really want forces from Russia to replace them.

Mehr:  Now that relations between Tehran and Turkey have improved after the military coup [attempt], can it be helpful in solving the Syrian crisis?

Katz:  Turkish-Iranian relations have generally been good, except with regard to Syria.  To the extent that Erdogan is no longer actively seeking the departure of Assad from Syria, the prospects for Iranian-Turkish cooperation will increase.  They appear to have common interests with regard to the Kurds also.  And to the extent that Erdogan now realizes that Sunni jihadists such as ISIS are actually a threat to Turkey, this may provide an additional common interest for Turkey to cooperate with Iran as well as Russia on.  Yet even if Turkish policy on Syria is moving closer to Iran’s and Russia’s, it is not clear that this will help resolve the Syrian crisis.  There are, after all, real differences between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents.  Further, these opponents seem quite likely to continue fighting—especially since there are other countries that continue to support them.

Mehr:  Fethullah Gülen’s extradition—would the US now give him over to Turkey?  And if not, what will be the consequences for relations between Turkey and the US?

Katz:  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will ever extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  Ankara does not seem to have the sort of hard evidence needed to convince the American courts that Gulen was behind the coup attempt.  I, for one, do not think he was, and that Ankara is merely using the coup attempt (which appears to have been based within the Turkish security services) to label all Erdogan’s opponents (real and imagined) as “Gulenists” in order to get rid of them.

And this could have serious consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations.  Erdogan has made clear that he really wants Gulen extradited.  The U.S. will not accede to this.  Erdogan may then decide to take drastic action, such as withdraw Turkey from NATO.  Perhaps Erdogan wants to do this anyway, and is merely using the Gulen case as a pretext for arousing popular indignation within Turkey against the U.S. (where there is widespread belief that America and Europe actually supported the coup attempt). 

The U.S. does not want to see Turkey leave NATO, but would be unable to stop it.  Russia, of course, would be quite happy to see any country withdraw from NATO.  Still, a Turkey led by Erdogan that is outside of NATO may not pursue a quiet foreign policy, but attempt to assert itself as a regional great power instead.  Turkey’s neighbors (including Iran) may find Ankara much more difficult to deal with if its policies are not constrained by being a member of NATO.

 

 

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IEMed (the European Institute of the Mediterranean) has published an article of mine in the Winter 2015/2016 issue of its journal, Afkar/Ideas, which is issued both in Spanish and in French.  With the permission of IEMed, I am posting the original English version of the article here.  Written before the dramatic deterioration of Russo-Turkish relations at the end of November 2015, I noted that Moscow has important reasons to pursue good relations with Ankara, but that their interests differ sharply over Syria.

Russia has several different geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean Sea basin. Some of these interests, though, conflict with one another.  After reviewing what Russian geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean are and identifying in what ways they conflict with one another, this paper will discuss and assess Putin’s geopolitical strategy for advancing these conflicting goals.

A key Russian geopolitical interest in the Mediterranean is to maintain maritime access through the Turkish Straits in order for Russian naval and commercial vessels to easily transit between the Black Sea (which Russia borders) on the one hand and the Mediterranean and beyond on the other. The pursuit of this interest requires a stable Turkey that is able to ensure orderly passage through these straits as well as a Turkish government that is not hostile (and preferably, is friendly) toward Russia.

Another Russian goal is to promote Moscow’s economic interests in the region—especially in the petroleum sphere which the Russian economy is so heavily dependent on. Advancing this goal not only depends on market factors, but Russia’s image both as a reliable supplier and desirable partner for the region’s petroleum importing countries.  In pursuing this goal, of course, Russia must compete with other petroleum producing countries either in the region (such as Algeria), already exporting significant amounts to it (such as Saudi Arabia), or potentially doing so (such as Iran).  Yet even countries competing with Russia in the petroleum market (such as Algeria and Libya) can also provide investment opportunities for Russian firms.

In that Putin sees America, NATO, and even the EU as hostile toward Russia, he has seen undercutting each of these as an important Russian geopolitical interest. This can be pursued through supporting various actors (governments, political parties, public opinion) in the region that are also opposed to any or all of these to a greater or even lesser extent.

Yet another important Russian geopolitical interest is preventing the further rise of Sunni jihadist forces in the region that could threaten Russian interests as well as Russia itself. Putin has sought to work with any and all Mediterranean governments (as well as others active in the region) in pursuit of this goal, including Western democracies, secular Arab dictatorships (including Syria’s Assad regime), Shi’a forces (Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah), and even Israel.

As in Soviet times, Putin regards maintaining a permanent Russian military presence in the Mediterranean as an important geopolitical interest. Doing so can serve various purposes, including the specific goal of providing support for the Assad regime (Moscow’s beleaguered ally in Syria) to the more general one of projecting an image of Russia as a great power.  And, of course, other unanticipated purposes can be pursued more easily in the region through Russia already having some military presence in the Mediterranean. Pursuit of this interest requires at least one government in the region willing and able to provide Russia with military facilities.  Syria does this at present.

The problem with pursuing all these disparate geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean region, as was noted earlier, is that some of them conflict with others. Moscow’s strong support for the Assad regime in Syria, for example, conflicts with Moscow’s desire to build and maintain good relations with Turkey in particular when Ankara is calling for Assad to step down.  Further, it is difficult for Moscow to maintain good relations (including in the economic realm) with European states which are members of NATO and the EU when they see Moscow supporting far right and far left political parties in them seeking to undercut European governments, these two institutions, and perhaps even democracy itself.  Similarly, it is difficult for Moscow to build and sustain the trade relations it needs with the European countries in the region when Russian politico-military actions (whether through support for separatism in Ukraine or unauthorized military flights over many European countries) serve to reduce Russia’s attractiveness as an economic partner.  Further, it is difficult for Moscow to persuade both European and Middle Eastern governments in the Mediterranean that they should join Russia in backing the Assad regime in order to thwart the forces of radical Islam when many on both sides of the Mediterranean see the actions of the Assad regime (and its external backers) as only serving to strengthen these forces.

Russia, of course, is not the only country pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean (or elsewhere). Indeed, the Mediterranean is a challenging environment not just because of its dual European and Middle Eastern natures (as well as tremendous differentiation within each), but also because Moscow perceives that Russia faces threats from both the European and the Middle Eastern sides of the Mediterranean.

Has Putin adopted an effective geopolitical strategy to deal with these challenges as well as Russia’s conflicting interests in the region? In order to address this question, it is important to understand what different geopolitical strategies are available for states pursuing conflicting interests.

One possibility is to devise an overarching strategy which manages to overcome the inherent contradictions in the foreign policy aims being sought and successfully pursues all of them more or less simultaneously. Another possibility is to make a determination that contradictory interests cannot successfully be pursued simultaneously, and that it is therefore necessary to prioritize among them by devising a strategy that pragmatically de-emphasizes what has been determined to be the less important or less achievable interests in order to successfully pursue the ones deemed to be more important and more achievable.  A third possibility is to subordinate foreign policy interests to domestic political ones because even though pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests simultaneously may interfere with achieving some or even all of them, doing so may serve to advance what are a government’s (or just a leader’s) higher priority domestic political goals.  A fourth possibility is not to consciously adopt an overarching, prioritizing, or domestically-oriented geopolitical strategy, but to pursue differing interests on a piecemeal, tactical basis as opportunities to do so arise.

Which of these approaches has Putin adopted? To some extent, all four.  Just as Moscow pursues contradictory interests in the region, Putin has employed differing strategic approaches for doing so.  The key to understanding the overall Russian geopolitical strategy that results from these differing strategic approaches is to understand how Putin prioritizes them, and when he tends to rely more on one than another.

Putin’s domestic concerns appear to underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean region. He sees the rise of Islamist forces on the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean as threatening to spill over into the Muslim regions of Russia.  And he genuinely sees America, NATO, and the EU (concerns that are not limited to but definitely include the European side of the Mediterranean) as threatening to topple his rule via democracy promotion.

What to do about this dual threat from the Mediterranean is variously informed by the three other approaches. When he is more optimistic, Putin appears to pursue something of an overarching geopolitical strategy of working against the “threat” from the West on the one hand while simultaneously working with the West against Islamist forces on the other.  This strategy is based on the assumption that whatever the West’s differences with Russia, the West sees the Islamist threat as an even greater problem, and thus should be willing to work with Russia against it.  Further, it is especially the European countries of the Mediterranean plus Turkey (and even Israel) that Moscow believes understand this since the Islamist threat is a more immediate one for them.  They, then, should act to persuade America and certain northern European countries that this is a far more serious problem than Russia.  In other words, even though they may not like certain aspects of Russian foreign policy, “the logic of the situation” will propel not just America’s allies in the Mediterranean, but America itself to subordinate Western concerns about Russia to dealing with the common Islamist threat in that region.  It was this logic that, despite sharp differences between Russia on the one hand and much of the West on the other over Ukraine, underlay Putin’s call to, “join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism,” in his September 28, 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly.

By contrast, it is when Putin is more pessimistic and sees the West as placing a higher priority on undermining Russia than on responding to the Islamist threat—or perhaps simply when the opportunity arises—that he pursues a more piecemeal, tactical approach toward the Mediterranean—especially vis-à-vis the European side and Turkey. Putin did not create right-wing and left-wing political parties such as the National Front in France, Podemos in Spain, the Northern League and Forza Italia in Italy, or SYRIZA and Golden Dawn in Greece which are hostile to America, NATO, and the European Union.  Their political popularity as well as generally pro-Putin stance, though, present the opportunity for undercutting efforts by the U.S. and certain more anti-Russian European governments to increase sanctions against Russia, and even undermining both NATO and the EU, especially if—as in Greece—they become governing parties.

It is when Putin is in a more pragmatic mood, however, that he seems to pursue a geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean which prioritizes certain goals over other ones in the region. Further, in three recent instances in which he has made a choice between what Russian interests to pursue in the Mediterranean, Putin has adopted a pragmatic and not a confrontational geopolitical strategy.

For example, while Putin has frequently and loudly denounced the 2011 intervention in Libya against Qaddafi by certain Western and Arab states and vowed not to let something similar happen in Syria, Moscow has quietly established relatively good relations with the internationally recognized Libyan post-Qaddafi government based in Tobruk, with which it has revived various agreements that Moscow had previously reached with Qaddafi. Moscow is talking to the rival government based in Tripoli as well.  In this case, Putin’s interest in restoring Russia’s business ties with Libya are more important to him than any inclination to remain aloof from the forces that ousted Moscow’s longstanding ally there.

In Egypt, as is well known, Putin supported the 2013 overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Morsi, by his top general, al-Sisi, and has taken advantage of the Obama administration’s disapproval of al-Sisi’s actions to improve Moscow’s ties with Cairo. But when Morsi was actually in power in 2012-13, Moscow had relatively good relations with him. Morsi met with Putin at the BRICS summits in South Africa in March 2013 and again in Sochi, Russia, in April 2013. During the latter, the two reportedly agreed that Russia would help Egypt with the construction of a nuclear reactor and the development of its uranium deposits.  Thus, when actually faced with the question of how to deal with a Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Putin chose a highly pragmatic course of action.

Furthermore, when Greek Prime Minister Tsipras appealed to Putin for Russian economic support as a way of avoiding the strict bailout terms that Germany and the EU were insisting on to resolve the Greek debt crisis, Putin refused and urged Tsipras to reach an agreement with the EU instead. Putin apparently did not see the potential geopolitical benefits that Moscow might garner from Greece moving toward Russia and away from the EU and the US as being worth the certain economic burden that Moscow would have to bear in supporting Greece.  In addition, the negative economic repercussions that Europe as a whole would have suffered from “Grexit” would have also hurt Russia which—despite Western sanctions—still prefers an economically stronger Europe which can afford to buy relatively more Russian petroleum to a weaker one that cannot.  Thus, when it came to actually making a choice between furthering Russia’s economic interests on the one hand and weakening EU institutions politically, Putin pragmatically prioritized the former over the latter.

What this suggests is that while Putin is strongly supporting the Assad regime in Syria now, if it should fall, he will pragmatically try to establish good relations with the regime (or regimes, if the country fragments) that replace him if they are willing to work with Russia. Moscow, then, might be able to keep (or regain if it loses) its military facilities in a post-Assad Syria.  And even if it cannot, Moscow might be able to establish new ones in Egypt, Cyprus, or Greece.  Obviously, though, Putin would prefer not to have to make such pragmatic choices.

It makes an enormous difference to the countries of the Mediterranean, as well as outside ones active in the region, whether Putin pursues an overarching (and usually aggressive) strategy that pursues most or all of Russia’s geopolitical interests simultaneously; a tactical, piecemeal one in response to what it considers aggressive moves by the West (or just from the opportunity to do so) that can actually undermine Russia’s larger interests; or a prioritizing strategy that often favors pragmatic interests over more confrontational ones. If indeed, as was argued here, that it is Putin’s domestic priorities that underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean, then his variable perceptions of the intensity of the threats Russia faces either from the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean, the European side, or both will affect the strategies he pursues in response, the allies (even if only temporary) he sees as available to work against those threats, and above all, whether he does or does not have to pragmatically prioritize among Russia’s contradictory interests in the region.

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The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an article by me on Thursday, August 13, 2015.  I wrote the article in English, and “Shargh” translated it into Farsi.  I am posting here the English text that I sent to them:

There is general agreement that the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) will have momentous implications.  There is general disagreement, however, on just what those implications are.  Several see it as having very positive implications.  These include the Obama and Rouhani administrations, China, as well as most Western and other governments.  Others see it as having very negative implications.  These include conservative politicians in both America and Iran as well as the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states (except Oman, which favors the agreement).

And then there is Russia.  Russia supports the agreement and worked toward its achievement.  But Moscow is nervous about what it means for Russia.  Moscow foresees that as economic sanctions against Iran are lifted, much more Iranian oil and gas will come onto the world market.  This will have the effect of lowering petroleum prices—something petroleum importers welcome, but other petroleum exporters like Russia do not.  Moscow is also nervous about the prospects of Iranian relations with the West improving at a time when Russian relations with it are poor and may well grow worse.

At the same time, Moscow sees that Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (except Oman) are also nervous about the prospect of improved Iranian-American relations.  Riyadh sees the hand of Iran opposing the Kingdom in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.  Riyadh fears that the Obama Administration’s agreeing to the nuclear accord will lead to such improved Iranian-American ties that Washington will leave Saudi Arabia and the GCC to face Iran all alone.

This fear, of course, is unrealistic.  Neither Washington nor Tehran sees the nuclear accord as leading to a full-fledged Iranian-American alliance.  But the reaction of both Moscow and Riyadh to the prospect of improved Iranian-American ties has been to improve Saudi-Russian ties.  And so we have recently seen more contact between Saudi and Russian officials to talk about joint cooperation in various fields.  Moscow especially hopes that Saudi annoyance with America will lead to Riyadh buying weapons, nuclear reactors, and more from Russia.

By itself, increased Saudi-Russian cooperation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Increased trade between them really does not threaten anyone else.  Further, not just Saudi Arabia and Russia, but also Iran and America have a common interest in preventing ISIS from seizing power in Syria and anywhere else.  Indeed, it may take cooperation on the part of all four countries—and others still—to prevent this.  Improved Saudi-Russian ties may be as important as improved Iranian-American ties for bringing this about.

The idea, though, that even somewhat improved Iranian-American relations is going to lead to significantly improved Saudi-Russian relations is far-fetched.  For no matter how unhappy Riyadh is about the prospect (whether realistic or not) of improved Iranian-American relations, the Saudis are hardly likely to expect much support against Iran from a country, such as Russia, that has much closer ties to Tehran than America has or is likely to have any time soon.  For Riyadh, then, the primary utility of being seen to move closer to Russia may be to awaken fears in Washington that it had better “do something for Riyadh” so as not to “lose Saudi Arabia” to Moscow.

Moscow, of course, does want improved relations with Riyadh, and will gladly sell to Riyadh arms or whatever else it is willing to buy from Russia.  On the other hand, Russia does not want to give up anything it now has or hopes to acquire in terms of relations with Iran in order to improve ties with Saudi Arabia.  Moscow wants to have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the GCC on the one hand and Iran on the other, even if they do not get along with each other.  Moscow does not want to have to choose between the two sides, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

What all of this means is that the Iranian nuclear accord is not likely to lead to any dramatic changes in alliance patterns.  Iranian-American relations will hopefully improve, but the U.S. will remain allied to Saudi Arabia and the GCC (as well as Israel).  Moscow’s ties to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states (and also to Israel) may improve, but Russia is likely to remain more closely linked to Tehran as well as Damascus (as long as Assad remains in power there).

Yet despite whatever benefits might result from the Iranian nuclear accord, the Gulf region will remain tense so long as Saudi-Iranian relations remain confrontational.  And they will remain confrontational so long as they are on opposite sides in the region’s ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.  Indeed, if these conflicts persist or grow worse, the region could see an all-consuming Shi’a-Sunni war—similar, perhaps, to the Catholic-Protestant wars that plagued Europe a few centuries ago.

Progress on the nuclear issue alone will not prevent this tragedy from occurring.  What is needed for doing this are regional conflict resolution efforts involving Iran, the P5 + 1, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and all other governments and opposition movements involved.  The common threat from ISIS should be sufficient motive for everyone else to work together against it.  Just like the nuclear negotiations, these regional conflict talks will not be easy.  But if Iran and the P5 + 1 could succeed at something as complicated as the nuclear accord, I feel confident that they along with others could also succeed at regional conflict resolution too.

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Now here’s something odd.  Moscow has long claimed that its arms supply to the Assad regime in Damascus is occurring on the basis of contracts signed before the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011.

According to a Reuters report of March 30, 2015, though, Assad told the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta that Moscow is supplying arms to Syria both on the basis of contracts signed before the conflict began as well as of contracts signed afterward.  When asked about this, official Russian sources have either provided evasive answers that neither confirm nor deny what Assad has said, or they just have not responded at all.

The news that Russia and Syria have signed additional arms contracts since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 does not exactly come as a surprise.  What is surprising, though, is that Assad has contradicted Moscow about this.

Why would he do this?  He certainly has not pleased Moscow by contradicting it.  It is possible, then, that not everything is smooth in the Russian-Syrian relationship.

Perhaps Assad is fearful that the Russian government might intimate to the “moderate Syrian opposition” representatives due to meet Syrian government envoys in Moscow April 6-9 that the Kremlin is willing to push Assad harder to make concessions to them.  If so, revealing that Moscow has continued to sign arms agreements with Moscow might be Assad’s way of signaling to all he deems in need of receiving the message that Russia continues to stand firmly behind him.  Perhaps Assad hopes that after learning this, some of the Syrian opposition figures who agreed to go to Moscow in April will decide not to attend.  (Several Syrian opposition figures refused to attend a similar meeting Moscow hosted this past January because it would not lead to Assad’s removal from power.)  Assad, after all, does not want to make concessions to any of his opponents, moderate or otherwise.

Of course, it is also possible that Assad was not thinking in these terms when he revealed that there have been new arms contracts between Russia and Syria.  Perhaps he was just being indiscreet.

Either way, he has not endeared himself to Moscow.  But Moscow is not likely to stop shipping arms to Damascus just because of what Assad said..  Moscow does not get embarrassed that easily.

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I recently attended another conference in the Gulf:  the inaugural Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which took place October 19-20, 2014 in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The Debate was sponsored by the Emirates Policy Council with the support of the UAE Foreign Ministry.  I do not intend to give a detailed summary of what occurred (especially since this information can be found at http://www.epc.ae/?q=epcevents/22/eventdetails ), but to discuss how the organization of the Debate reveals what is especially important at present to the UAE—a small, but enormously wealthy oil exporting nation located in a highly turbulent neighborhood.

The Debate began the morning of October 19 with a speech by Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Dr. Gargash set the tone for the conference, in my view, when he stated, “Over the past few years, the UAE has repeatedly warned about the growing threat that extremist actors and ideologies pose to our region.  While some of our allies thought that we were being too alarmist, the rise of Daesh [ISIS] confirms the magnitude of the threat.  Instead of becoming moderated through engagement, so-called ‘moderate Islamists’ are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups.  This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of ideological extremism.  Make no mistake:  many of these movements that are described as ‘moderate’ in some lexicons, provide the environment for greater radicalization and the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Therefore, countering the threat posed by these groups requires a clear-sighted and comprehensive strategy.”

The bulk of the conference consisted of nine debate panels in which different themes were discussed.  In the conference program, the “Premises of the Debate” stated that the UAE and other GCC states “are not recipients of regional and international powers’ impact only, but are regional and international actors as well.”  Despite this, the first three debate panels were devoted to a discussion of the policies toward the Gulf of the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia (the first session also included the Deputy Secretary General of NATO).  In much of the first session, though, the speakers from the West and from Russia argued about Ukraine—something that is of only secondary interest to the Gulf states.

Panel 4 focused on Iran (which most Gulf Arab states view quite negatively), Panel 5 on Turkey (whose “Islamist” foreign policy is viewed uneasily), Panel 6 on Egypt (where the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed the ouster of the elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military), Panel 7 on Iraq (where the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad is seen as being heavily influenced, if not completely controlled by, Iran), Panel 8 on Syria (where the need to oust the Alawite minority Assad regime as well as combat ISIS was emphasized), and Panel 9 on both Yemen and Libya (where America and the West are not seen as being sufficiently concerned about restoring order in these increasingly chaotic countries).

While the choice of subjects to discuss in the nine debate panels was a good indicator of what is currently of concern to the UAE, the choice of subjects not to discuss was also revealing.  Most noteworthy, there was no panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, this was barely mentioned by any of the speakers except by one each from Russia and China in Panel 2.  These two went on at length about the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.  Indeed, the Chinese speaker became quite emotional.  The Arab participants I spoke to during and after the panel, though, were not impressed.  They know full well that Russia and China both have strong ties to Israel, and that neither will do anything in support of the Palestinians that would risk their relations with the Jewish state.  What not having a panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at this conference suggested to me was that the rise of ISIS, the threat from Iran, the situation in Egypt, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are all far more important to the UAE.

Other subjects that were not discussed include unrest in Bahrain (where relations are tense between the Shi’a majority and the Sunni monarchy which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE), uncertainty in Oman (where the long-reigning monarch, Sultan Qaboos, is rumored to be seriously ill and where his successor has not been named), the situation in Saudi Arabia (regarding both succession to the throne and Shi’a restiveness in the Eastern Province—where much of Saudi oil is), and the foreign policy of Qatar (which, as a result of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and efforts to engage moderate—and even not so moderate—Islamists, is very much out of step with Saudi and UAE foreign policies in particular).

I surmise that there were no debate panels on these topics not because the UAE isn’t interested in them, but because they were deemed as being too sensitive to discuss openly.  I have no doubt, though, that they are all being discussed privately throughout the Gulf.  Hopefully, though, the realm of what can be discussed openly will increase in future Abu Dhabi Strategic Debates.  Indeed, if some of the problems that were not discussed this time get bad enough, they will need to be.

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The latest issue of the German journal OSTEUROPA contains a virtual roundtable on Russia and Syria.  The editors sent a set of questions to six different scholars (including myself) and invited us each to pick from among them several to address.  Their questions and our responses were published by the journal in German. Here in English are my responses to the questions I chose to address:

OSTEUROPA:  The Syrian civil war has sectarian, ethnical, social, and geopolitical dimensions. It is an internal conflict, but regional and even global actors also play an important role. Moreover, in most of the states involved, Syria policy has a domestic function. Which of the conflict’s dimensions does Russian diplomacy emphasize? On which level (local, regional, global) is Moscow most engaged? Why?

Katz:  The Syrian conflict has been especially important for Moscow on the global and regional level as well as on the domestic Russian political level.  Moscow has identified Syria as the place where it seeks to halt American “unipolarism” if it can.  In addition, Moscow believes that however bad the Assad regime is, it is better than what Moscow sees as most likely to arise after its downfall:  a Sunni radical regime.  Finally, after so publicly backing Assad for so long, Putin does not want to be seen as giving in to U.S. demands that Moscow cooperate in bringing about his downfall.

OSTEUROPA:  Moscow argues that an international jihadist movement threatens order throughout the region, from the Caucasus via Syria to North Africa. Is this an actual danger? Does Moscow really fear such a jihadist movement or is it wilfully exaggerating the risk?

Katz:  It is not clear that this is an actual danger, but it does appear that Moscow really believes that it is one.

OSTEUROPA:  When Russia launched airstrikes against Georgia in 2008, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invoked not only the Russian Constitution, which calls for the protection of Russian citizens abroad, but also the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), a norm that is grounded in international law since 2005 and binds the international community to prevent or halt mass atrocity crimes. Is there any debate on R2P in Russia today (at least in the sense that, in Syria, the requirements for international measures of enforcement according to principle of R2P have not yet been met)?

Katz:  Russia has adopted a double-standard with regard to R2P.  While opposing Western intervention on the basis of R2P (as well as expressing deep scepticism about whether concern for R2P underlies it), Moscow reserves for itself the right to intervene in former Soviet republics on the basis of its unilateral assertion of an R2P justification without consulting the UN Security Council.

OSTEUROPA:  Russia has an interest in enforcing compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Why does Moscow refuse even limited air strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons?

Katz:  The Kremlin fears that if it agrees to this, the West will not limit itself to limited air strikes, but will give large-scale aid to the Syrian opposition to topple Assad.

OSTEUROPA:  Is Russia seriously interested in resolving the Syrian conflict? Does Moscow have concrete proposals for settling the conflict? Or is Moscow content with simply countervailing the United States?

Katz:  Moscow would like to see the Syrian conflict end through the Assad regime totally crushing its opponents, and thereby restoring “order.”  Until that occurs, Moscow seeks to block the U.S. and its allies from helping the Syrian opposition stop Assad from doing this.

OSTEUROPA:  What would a joint U.S.-Russian position on Syria look like? What would Washington have to do to convince Moscow to accept such a compromise?

Katz: Despite their agreement about placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control, Moscow and Washington agree on little else regarding Syria.  Their most crucial disagreement is about whether the Assad regime should remain in power or not.  It is doubtful that either will convince the other to adopt its view.

OSTEUROPA:  What role does Iran play in the conflict? Could Moscow help to resolve the conflict by using its connections in Tehran?

Katz:  Like Russia, Iran provides important support to the Assad regime.  If anything, Tehran is more committed to the Assad regime remaining in power than Moscow is.  This being the case, it is highly unlikely that Moscow could make use of its Iranian connections to resolve this conflict.  If, however, an Iranian-American rapprochement takes place, then Washington and Tehran may be able to work together to do so—and thereby force Moscow to go along with them or be completely isolated over Syria otherwise.

OSTEUROPA:  Could the involvement of the International Criminal Court serve to de-escalate the conflict?

Katz:  No.

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