Syria is now the front line of a new Cold War between the US and Russia.
After Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria, the Middle Eastern country is now the second big arena in a new Cold War (including also the war in Ukraine). The power-political interests of the two old enemies, the USA and Russia, are being conceptually intertwined with those of regional powers in the Middle East (i.e. Saudi Arabia–Iran) along Muslim-confessional lines resulting in an existentially dangerous situation.
From the southwest Caspian Sea, near the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, in early October, four Russian naval vessels sent a total number of 26 cruise missiles on their 1,500 km journey, at the end of which eleven Islamic State (IS) targets were destroyed without having to mourn any civilian casualties, Shoigu, the Russian minister of war, has reported. Western military officers as well as political commentators voiced their incomprehension about this odd Russian military strike—the missiles, however, had to fly across Iran and Iraq as well as east Syria in order to take their full explosive effect in the west of Syria.
The saber-rattling of the old days
As in the days before—and far less histrionic—the Russian military could have shelled the Islamic State (IS) targets with fighter jets or from their only military base in the Mediterranean Sea in the Syrian port city of Tartus. But this exaggerated maneuver from the Caspian Sea had a deeper strategical sense: sea-launched cruise missiles are commonly a “specialty” of the US-military in its wars of aggression overseas. With this action Russia tried to suggest its military has allegedly caught up with that of the USA.
The actual receiver of Moscow’s media-effective display of the attack, thus, was not the terrorists of the Islamic State but rather the US-leadership in Washington: Russia is back on the global stage of the powerful (…at least militarily)—which is the emitted message.
This military muscle plays enqueue in the escalation spiral both sides have been twisting relentlessly since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in February 2014.
The NATO alliance more than tripled the strength of the NATO Response Force by ramping up its contingent from 13,000 up to 40,000; the USA is deploying heavy military equipment to eastern Europe; and the US military is holding joint military exercises along Russia’s borders, as well as in the non-NATO country Georgia. Russia for its part supports the separatist movement in east Ukraine with weapons and troops and provokes with hundreds of maneuvers of its air force at the NATO outer borders.
These dramatic developments in East-West-relationships—(Who in earnest could have imagined we would backslide to think in these old, dichotomous categories in the year 2015?)—inevitably remind us of the saber-rattling of the old days. Those days of the Cold War that were believed to have ended once and for all.
We stand at the outset of a new Cold War.
New and old concepts of enemy
While Germany is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its reunification, two old enemies find themselves anew on the opposite sides in two war theatres: for almost two years in the Ukrainian war and now at the front line Syria.
A quarter-century after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the world is more complex and, hence, less calculable. After capitalism’s defeat over communism, the victors of back in the days glorified the alleged “End of History”. But the payout of the often promised and longingly hoped-for peace dividend never really happened.
The gate to a comprehensive and peace-promoting demilitarization on a global scale—including the dissolution of the NATO alliance that has become obsolete—was wider open than it had ever been since the fall of Nazi Germany. Genuine ambitions to pass this gate were non-existent on the level of the heads of states.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union the West lost its identity-establishing enemy. At last since the 9/11-attacks, however, “the communist” as the scrapped concept of enemy was replaced by that of “the Muslim terrorist”. The “War on Terror”, proclaimed by the Bush regime in 2001, paved the way for an endless, permanent war that knows no national boundaries.
In Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, India, Mali, Libya, Sudan, Palestine, Nigeria, Lebanon and Syria a variety of war theatres was initiated or conflicts already in place were misused to intervene in order to breathe in deadly life to the “War on Terror”.
Russia, back on its feet again, tries to compete for its position in this novel global conflict architecture in which the NATO-states up to now have held the exclusive prerogative of interpretation and of intervention. Since the outburst of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, “the Russian” was reactivated as the Western’s bogeyman and complements “the Muslim terrorist” in an ideological as well as in a conceptual-strategic manner.
USA and Russia—hand in hand on terrorist hunt?
Since the end of September, finally, Russia has been an official war party in Syria as well, launching scores of air strikes on various terrorist organizations in the country killing scores of civilians during the attacks. In an almost bizarre manner, Russia pursues the same anti-terror rhetoric to justify its entry into the war that we have got used to hear from the West in the last 14 years: Russia is launching air strikes against IS targets in order to combat the international terrorism, the official line of the Kremlin reads. The Russian rhetoric is as mendacious as that of the West and belies its actual intentions.
From the beginning of the Russian air strikes, Washington raised the allegations that Moscow was not targeting IS combatants but fighters of the Syrian opposition that are backed by the USA. The independent and renowned Institute for the Study of War compiles the targets of the Russian air strikes in a constantly updated map which speaks for itself.
The vast majority of the Russian air strikes targets, indeed, are in areas in the northwest of Syria that are controlled by rebels as well as the embattled major cities of Hama, Aleppo and Damascus. Strikes on IS positions remain a rare event and merely serve to maintain the official war vindication of “war against terror”.
Russia’s actual intention, however, is obvious: Putin wants to prop up his close ally Assad. He wants to recapture territory lost by the Syrian army and, hence, fights rebel groups that want to oust the Assad regime from power. These rebels, in fact, are backed by the Obama administration. Among the casualties of the Russian air strikes, thus, are explicitly troops trained by the US military.
The USA misuses the attacks on their allied rebel troops to justify further massive armament supply to Syria. Time and again, distinct terror groups profit from these supplies, such as the al-Nusra Front and, most cynically, the alleged main enemy: the Islamic State (IS).
One official with a rebel group describes the armament supply as “carte blanche”: “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them. Just fill in the numbers.”
The US intervention is no more confined only to arms supplies and logistics. President Obama announced to send a contingent of US special forces to Syria. Thereby, Obama commits breach of his unremittingly repeated promise of “no boots on the ground in Syria”. And, finally, Russian and US troops stand on opposite sides of the front line Syria.
Syria—a melting pot of foreign interests
In contrast to the opaque constellation in Ukraine where unofficial US Academi mercenaries (former Blackwater) fight against unofficial Russian soldiers in the east of the country, it is the official troops of both countries on the ground in Syria. It is only a matter of time until a US-American kills a Russian or vice versa. I would not like to imagine how Putin or Obama will react in this scenario.
At the sight of the recent developments even quite progressive commentators call for a militarily strong America demonstrating leadership. Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf degrades Syria to a nation without a true agenda of its own for the strong leading USA to make a military example—Syria as a further pawn sacrifice in the geopolitical chess game of foreign players.
This perspective strongly reminds of the times of the old Cold War when whole countries, such as Vietnam or Afghanistan, were grinded in between imperialistic aggressions of the two hostile blocks.
Syria could become the turning point in the clash of the “last superpower” and Russia back on its feet again.
The balance of power, however, did not only shift in the last 25 years, but became substantially more multilayered, more complex and, hence, less predictable as the case of Syria illustrates.
NATO-affiliated and massively arming Gulf dictatorships do not only support US backed “moderate” rebels, but also the proclaimed main enemy of the West—the Islamic State. First and foremost the fascistic oil monarchy Saudi Arabia that becomes increasingly perilous and unpredictable, not only due to its ambitions for nuclear armament. The USA, Australia, Great Britain, Jordan, a variety of other countries and especially France—blind with rage after the recent Paris terror attacks—launch steady air strikes on different groups in Syria.
On the other side, in support of the Assad regime, next to Russia there is Iran economically as well as militarily strengthened. Via its proxy in Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah, Teheran has been an indirect party in this war since its beginning, and now directly entered the war zone with thousands of ground troops, too. And more and more there is China announcing its readiness to join in the fight against terrorism in cooperation with Russia.
And there is the German government that adds fuel to the fire at all the hot spots providing arms to Kurds in the north, Iraqis in the east and Saudis in the south. In contrary to its ostensive passive role communicated to the outside, from the inception of the war in Syria the Merkel government has to be very well assessed an active player in the war with its illegal arms supplies that represent a breach of the German constitution. The latest decision of the Bundestag to send six “Tornado” warplanes, a frigate and up to 1,200 soldiers to Syria paved the way to enter the most extensive of all—then—14 current Bundeswehr missions.
In the old Cold War, the two hostile blocks fought with the complicity of pro-Western proxy governments against pro-Soviets along the economic ideological front line capitalism—communism. In the new Cold War with its current main stage, Syria, however, the proxies are lined up along Muslim-confessional lines: a Western-backed purpose alliance between Sunni oil monarchies (Saudi Arabia above all) and Sunni radical Islamists fight against a Russian-backed alliance between Shiite Iran, Shiite groups in Iraq and the Alawite-Shiite Assad regime in Damascus.
And in the midst of this calamitous chaos, the Islamic State is the catalyst that is misused by both sides as the moral justification for the imperialistic aggressive wars of the two hostile blocks.
Some time ago, the Syrian civil war was still regarded as a hopeful opportunity for a confidence-building cooperation between the USA and Russia even by US hawks such as Madeleine Albright. But meanwhile, it fell to decline to become the second big arena in the new Cold War next to the Ukrainian war (and besides the minor stage in the Yemeni proxy war).
The chess game of geopolitics
The war in Syria and the war in Ukraine must be seen in the same geopolitical context—that of the new Cold War. With a look at the list of Russian military bases abroad this becomes apparent: the Russian Black Sea Fleet lies off the coast in Sevastopol on the disputed Crimea peninsula and secures the Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea. The only military base in the Mediterranean Sea—and the only one outside of former Soviet area at the same time—however, is in the Syrian city of Tartus.
As a consequence of the US-backed regime change in Kiev and the installation of the pro-Western Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk-government in early 2014, Russia feared that their lease contract for the Sevastopol naval base running until 2042 would be jeopardized.
Subsequently, a referendum was held on the Crimea peninsula that is mainly inhabited by Russians and had belonged to Russia until 1954 anyway. Not recognized by the majority of the community of states, 96 percent of the Crimean population decided the affiliation of their peninsula to the Russian Federation—the base in Sevastopol remained under Russian control.
The Russian naval facility in Tartus, however, would most probably—analogous to Sevastopol on Crimea—fall outside Russian control in almost every scenario for the development of the war in Syria. (One possible scenario is the Western-pushed overthrow of Russia’s ally Assad, another one is the horror scenario of the Islamic State slaughtering its way through to the Mediterranean Sea.)
In connection to Russia’s pursuit to prop up its ally Assad, the protection of the Mediterranean base in Tartus should be placed in the center of the cause analysis of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
Mr. Putin, of course, knows just as Western heads of state how to play the chess game of geopolitics. Until February 2014 (Sevastopol) and October 2015 (Tartus), however, he had no reason to enter this game actively.
Front line Syria—a turning point?
I do not share irrational fears of Russia dividing and running down Europe in the near future. Just as little I see Russia becoming obsessed by a NATO-like chaos of imperialistic wars of aggression. I do not see it: the expansionist Russia that so many Western politicians and commentators deliriously want to see.
I rather see Vladimir Putin being socialized and indoctrinated in the age of the old Cold War, only slightly more rational, slightly more farsighted than his Western counterparts. Nevertheless, he adheres to the same false means to secure Russia’s two important naval bases. His actions may be understandable with respect to geostrategic implementations, but anyway, they exacerbate the conflict and, thus, remain despicable acts from a pacifist point of view—for the simple reason of being military means.
Syria could become the turning point in the global politics of war.
From the US-led West, one virtually does not expect other responses than military ones. Peaceful, diplomatic approaches to settle disputes seem to have been abandoned piece by piece from the Western repertoire of conflict policies. (The historic milestone of the nuclear deal with Iran being the solitary diplomatic exception that proves the omnipresent military rule.)
By entering the war in Syria, Russia sets out on the same lethal path the West so many times went along in the last 14 years—and that is indisputably doomed to failure.
At the moment we are becoming witnesses of events of historic dimensions. The “War on Terror”, announced in 2001 by the USA, obtains an additional highly explosive component. It is upgraded with a heating up Cold War reloaded that is conceptually intertwined with a division of factions along Muslim confessions. The consequences of these developments can hardly be foreseen.
Russia being forced into the corner in a convenience marriage with powerful allies such as China and Iran on the one side, and a US-led NATO highly enmeshed in aggressive wars that cannot be won, in collaboration with reactionary oil dictatorships on the other side—this poses a dangerous, maybe existentially dangerous constellation.
The needs of the moment call for a return to comprehensive diplomacy.
This piece is a translated version of an article that appeared on November 10, 2015 on the author’s blog justicenow.de.