Trump fans, that endangered and vanishing species, are going through hard times. Even a devoted admirer of the Orange Man couldn’t swallow his strange battle of words with Kim, his threats to Iran, his UNESCO farce – and keep a straight face. The only comfort is that Hillary would have been even worse. Is he a comic miscast, a buffoon? Actually, Trump is doing the thankless job of soft-landing the US Empire.
The giant spaceship America still may crash under the unsupportable weight of its obligations and ambitions, and bury much of the world under its debris. (The Third World War is another name of that impending crash.) Trump is an expert in bankruptcies, and he was supposed to downsize and soft-land the ship in the best (for Americans) terms.
This is what he is doing, helped by the Congress and the mainstream media. Yes, you’ve heard it right. By limiting the manoeuvrability of the US President, by their open animosity to his proposals they speed up the landing. Perhaps it won’t be as soft as it would be in dreams, but without the Establishment’s resistance, Trump might be tempted to keep the ship flying.
The Middle East has been a place of huge American involvement for many years, and here – I write this after coming to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from Moscow – the feeling of impending US withdrawal is particularly strong. Many years ago, the British Empire contracted and withdrew from many of its colonies and possessions; now it the US turn.
It is being said that Russia is moving in, while the US is moving out of the Middle East. This is not exactly so: the Russians can’t and won’t assume the Imperial functions in the area, or anywhere else. The Russians feel that the idea of one state ruling them all has outlived its practicality and is dead, for good. We are back in the multi-polar world of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with different actors, but the same paradigm. It makes the Russians try hard to stabilise the area, without becoming a sheriff-on-the-beat.
They achieved their centuries-old dream: gaining a foothold on the Mediterranean, on the other side of the Bosporus. That dream pulled Russia into World War One; and it has been obtained without heavy sacrifice. Now they seek stability, and that the neighbours of Syria get used to the Russian newcomers.
The Middle Eastern rulers, who feel that the US is out, flock to Moscow, while the emissaries of the Kremlin fly to the Middle East. They have to sort out and re-establish some regional order after the Syrian war. There are a few separate and still interconnected confrontations: Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, and the major players are Russia, the US, Israel, Turkey, Iran and the Saudis.
Israel is playing a dangerous game: it bombs the Syrian army almost daily. Despite their renowned anti-missile shield of the S-400, the Russians are not protecting Syrian targets, only their own bases. The Israeli planes decided that they may fly with impunity over Lebanon. Sometimes these are reconnaissance flights, sometimes these are bombing sorties. During their recent reconnaissance flight, the Israeli jets were met with Syrian anti-aircraft missiles of older generations, and apparently escaped unscathed (the Syrians claimed a hit, but this was not independently verified). Two hours later, the Israeli jets came and destroyed the Syrian missile battery. The Russians just sat tight and did nothing. This Russian silence has an interesting history and an important follow-up.
On his last visit to Russia, PM Netanyahu warned Putin that Israel would not quietly observe Iran and Hezbollah improving their positions versus Israel in Syria, and he demanded that the Russian remove the Iranians. Putin refused, but expressed his understanding. He promised to try and keep Iranians at five miles away from the Israeli border. He could not do much more even if he wanted.
Iran is a Russian ally in Syria and beyond. It participates (together with Turkey and Russia) in the Astana peace process. Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia form an important South-North route for oil and goods; Iran, Turkey and Russia plan a joint venture to supply gas to Europe. The Iranians supported Moscow in its fight against Chechen extremists supported by Washington, as Vladimir Putin described at length in his interview with Oliver Stone. The Iran-Russia relations are not those of great passionate love, but of good cooperation and coordination.
The Iranians in Syria do a lot of hard fighting; without them, Russia would have to send ground troops and Putin is reluctant to do this without a very good reason. (Dislike of Israel does not count.)
(Aside: There are some Russian troops in Syria, and there is one private Russian military contractor, usually called Wagner (for the composer of The Ride of the Valkyries). There were publications in Soros-owned Russian media claiming there were many casualties among them. However, I met a person with first hand knowledge of the Wagner Group, and he told me that their activity is very limited. They are no longer being armed, supplied and paid by the Russian MoD, as it was done for a while. The Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoygu, a strong man of Mongolian stock, didn’t like having independent troops on the ground.
Now they are employed by a Syrian company as security guards for the oil fields. They say they are not being armed and paid as well as before, but still they stay. Their casualties are bearable, and the Russian armed forces have very few casualties, in spite of the dire predictions of 2015.)
My Arab friend visited Damascus, his native city, and he observed that the Syrians greatly prefer Russians to Persians, as the Persians do interfere and indoctrinate, as opposed to Russians. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, a great fighting force, try to turn the Alawites and other similar religious communities into good Iranian-style Shias. But these many sects of Shia origin were formed centuries ago, and they do not want to join the Persian orthodoxy. Imagine Catholics trying to bring the Protestants back into Roman fold. In addition, the Syrian Alawites feel that the Iranians are likely to antagonise the Sunni majority.
However, with all these drawbacks, the Iranians are good warriors, and they are needed for the Syrian government to win its battle. They proved their mettle last week when the Iraqi Shia forces (trained by the Revolutionary Guards) took Kirkuk, together with Iraqi government army, putting paid to the hare-brained Iraqi Kurdistan ‘independence’ project. Kurdistan had been announced as “the second Israel”, a secular non-Arab state friendly to Tel Aviv. Being a ‘second Israel’ is not a great recommendation in the area still troubled by the first one.
Kurdistan took a page from the Israeli book and ethnically cleansed Arabs and Turcoman tribes from its own area and from the adjacent area of Kirkuk and Mosul governorates. The Kirkuk area with its oil fields is of particular importance and value. It was taken by the Kurds when Daesh (the Islamic State) expelled the Iraqi Army. Daesh didn’t fight the Kurds, who allegedly helped the Islamists take Mosul. Beside being ‘a second Israel’, Kurds were locally considered ‘a second Daesh’, another Israeli-American project to break fragile Arab unity.
As opposed to Israel, Kurdistan did not manage things well. The lord of Erbil, Masoud Barzani, called himself the ‘President of Kurdistan’, though he was not recognized as such even by the Kurds of the second largest city Sulaymaniyah; he decreed himself a huge salary. Though he officially received more per month than President Obama received per year, it was not enough, and the man privatized the oil profits and became a multibillionaire.
What was worse, he was a bad manager. While oil was expensive, Kurdistan stopped producing anything at all but oil. The rest of its population lived on handouts for loyalty. When oil became cheap, the economy of Kurdistan crashed, and with 20 billion of national debt, Barzani decided to double the stakes and declared the independence of his autonomy including Kirkuk. He hoped Israel and the US wouldn’t let the Iraqis call his bluff, as he had American military instructors and Israeli advisers. Besides, he believed the PR myth of Kurdish military prowess, of his fighting Amazons.
It turned out the Kurdish soldiers did not want to die for Barzani, for they knew Kirkuk has never belonged to the Kurds. They withdrew with little fighting, and the Iraqi Shia militias trained by Iran took over Kirkuk for the Iraqi state. The Israelis were upset. Trump had betrayed an ally, wrote Haaretz, and Iran has been allowed to gain the upper hand. It was a great relief for everybody else: for ethnically cleansed Arabs and Turcoman as they can now return home, for Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria as as independent Kurdistan would encourage sedition in their states. Thus the Iranians saved the Damascus government from the real danger of Kurd secession.
And now we come to the Israeli part. The destruction of the Syrian battery I referred to above had a complication. That was done on the day that Sergey Shoygu, the Russian Minister of Defence, visited Tel Aviv. Though the Israelis claimed they notified the Russians in advance, actually they notified them post factum, and Shoygu received the news from his headquarters when his plane was on the tarmac ready to take off to Israel. What’s worse, he received it on his phone, not by secure connection.
Shoygu was very annoyed by this welcoming present, and he expressed his dissatisfaction to his Israeli hosts. They coolly replied that while they take notice of Russia’s interests in Syria, they need nobody’s advice when their security is on stake.
This was probably a mistake, a very common one for the Israelis. They always push too hard, escalate confrontation in deep belief this will give them a great win. The results are often sad.
(Aside: I remember as a young soldier I served in the War of Attrition on the Suez Canal; the Israelis endlessly escalated the conflict, bombing Egyptian cities and refusing negotiations, until the Russians moved their anti-aircraft systems to the Canal. That was it, the Israelis lost their air superiority and quietly asked for a cease-fire. Another example, the Israelis killed the head of Hezbollah, and as the result, Seyid Nasr Allah became the new head and a much more efficient one.)
This time, too, their aggressive attitude was counterproductive. The Defence Minister of Iran stepped into the breach and promised to help Syria to secure its skies. This offer may have two possible consequences. One, the Russians will feel jealous and will seal the airspace of Syria and Lebanon against the Israeli Air Force. Two, the Russians will stand aside and allow (perhaps assist) Iranians to do this job. In both cases, Iranian positions in Syria will improve, and Israelis will lose their freedom to operate over Lebanon and Syria.
Israeli intransigence is unlikely to pay off regarding the Palestinian reconciliation. Two main parties, the PLO (mainly Fatah) ruling the West Bank, and Hamas ruling Gaza strip, succeeded in settling their differences. Gaza will come under the rule of PNA. Israelis were furious. They always enjoyed inter-Palestinian cold war; this allowed them to say they can’t negotiate with Mahmud Abbas as he represents only the West Bank. Now they say they can’t negotiate because Hamas are terrorists.
They demanded three preconditions from Hamas: (1) recognise Israel, (2) disarm, (3) stop anti-Israeli propaganda. Hamas replied: when hell will frieze over. The US supported the Israeli refusal, and said they will stop their financial help to the PNA if Fatah and Hamas fully join in one government.
Russia took over the reconciliation efforts management. Hamas leaders went to Moscow, and they were well received. I was present at their press conference, and I have heard of their optimistic prognosis. Immediately after them, the Fatah people went to Moscow, and were well received. Moscow wants them to make up and kiss. Probably it will happen. But what about the Israeli threats?
Now Hamas leaders went to Iran to ask for their support. The Iranians promised to help. Thus unnecessary Israeli intransigence has allowed Iran to enter Gaza on a much stronger footing. You may say that Russia/Iran play the good cop/bad cop game. Russia proposes peace initiatives, and when they are rejected, enter Iran with the military alternative. (This was the case in Kurdistan, too: Russians begged Barzani to postpone his quest for independence for some years, he did not listen, and then Iran came in and took Kirkuk.)
Israeli defence minister Mr Lieberman said this week that in near future, Israel will fight a three-front war at once: in Lebanon, in Syria and in Gaza. In all three locations, Israelis will find the Iranians waiting for them. That is, unless the Israelis agree with Russian ideas. What about the US? Trump still has the option of war with Iran, and it is not impossible. Then the Middle East is likely to become uninhabitable. If the US will stay out, a sort of peaceful arrangement is possible.
Another angle of the new configuration has been provided by Turkey, where President Erdogan practically broke with the US in a very public way. The Turkish police arrested a Turkish employee of the American consulate in Turkey. The US responded heavy-handedly, by ceasing to issue visas for Turks. The Turks responded by ceasing to issue visas for Americans.
This tit-for-tat comes right after Turkish decision to buy the S-400, the Russian missile defence system, which annoyed the US immensely. Removal of German (NATO) forces from the most important air base in Turkey practically took Turkey out of NATO. Turks also helped Russia and Iran undermine the short-lived Kurdistan independence: they closed the border for Kurdistan oil, and the land-locked small state economy went into a free fall.
The Saudis, the reliable and preferred friend of the US, began to feel heat. Recently the old King Salman of KSA came to Moscow on a grand visit. He promised to buy the fashionable S-400, and complained that Iran is too active and powerful in the region.
More importantly for the Russians, the Saudis agreed to cut their oil production output to keep the price up. The Russians have still nightmares from the late 1980s, when Saudis, at the US request, dropped oil price to five dollar a barrel and undermined the Soviet Union. Now it seems the Saudis and the Russians quietly do business together.
There weren’t high expectations of the Saudi royal visit: Saudis have little money left, and their promises often remain just that, promises. ‘Promising to marry’ is not the same ‘to marry’, people say. However, the visit confirms that the countries of the Middle East accepted Russia as one of the key countries in the region, and this counts.
These are the main points of the Middle Eastern realignment now under way. It is being formed now in front of our eyes, and it seems that the US will be able to leave the volatile region in relative peace.
Israel Shamir can be reached at [email protected]
This article was first published at The Unz Review.