Yesterday, after spending months building up its forces stationed in Syria, Russia suddenly began air strikes in Syria. While Russia claims they’re hitting ISIS targets, everyone else says Russia is instead hitting targets related to rebel groups fighting against the Syrian government. Additionally, Russia has had success at intelligence sharing between Iran, Iraq, Syria and itself, which is being portrayed by Western press with great surprise. However, as we’ll get to later, this alignment of Russia/Iran/Iraq/Syria makes it clear the real conflict in Syria concerns routing of a natural gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf.
Let’s first look at recent statements in the news, and then analyze what’s been said.
An interesting Salon.com article says America is being blindsided by Russia’s actions because Washington is studiously ignoring several things. For example, the Obama Administration is supposedly in “full pre-legacy mode” where the goal is to let Pres. Obama coast out of the Presidency, and therefore they cannot pay attention to anything that’s going opposite to plans.
The truth is that the US-backed campaign against ISIS is not having much effect. For example, the project to train rebel groups to fight against ISIS (and perhaps the Syrian government) is failing abysmally.
Immediately before Russia beginning its bombing campaign, critical statements were made at a meeting of world leaders at the United Nations. According to Reuters, an agreement was reached between Russia and Western powers like France or the United States to cooperate on fighting ISIS. But the statements made by each power were interestingly divergent.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisted that Russia had to make a “real strike” rather than a “media strike” and that “Bashar has been qualified by the U.N. as a criminal against humanity. How can you imagine Syrians coming back if we tell them that their future passes through Assad?”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” and that “Everybody understands that Syria is at stake, and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution.”
President Obama said “Defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader and an inclusive (Syrian) government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups. This is going to be a complex process.” The BBC added to this quoting Obama saying “The point I’m making is Assad is one of the recruiting sergeants for ISIL. Because of what he’s done to his people, that is one of the reasons why people are flocking to ISIL to fight with ISIL.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed hope that a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on counter terrorism on Wednesday would be used to build a legal basis for action in Syria.
Haaretz quotes NATO General Phillip Breedlove saying “[Russia’s] very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about [Islamic State], they’re about something else,” and “High on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s list in Syria is preserving the regime against those that are putting pressure on the regime and against those that they see who might be supporting those putting pressure on the regime.” The airplanes stationed by Russia in Syria have air-to-air capabilities, which would not be useful against ISIS, but useful in fighting against US-led air forces.
Reuters is reporting that Iran is sending ground troops to Syria to support Assad’s government. Further, Russia’s bombing campaign hit groups that had been trained by the CIA.
Russia has denied hitting rebel groups. Instead, Russia is drawing a distinction in saying that Assad’s government is the only legitimate government of Syria. Therefore, any group fighting against that government is a terrorist group, according to Russia.
The Russians have one really good point here. When Obama says defeating ISIS first requires toppling the Assad regime, that completely flouts the United Nations process. One country looking to topple the government of another country is surely a threat to international order, right?
This applies just as much to U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussain’s government of Iraq back in 2003 as it does to Assad’s government in Syria today. Whether or not that government is abusing its citizens, if it is the government it is the government. Hence, taking action against a legitimate government must involve the United Nations to make it all proper and legal and an agreement by the worlds powers.
Back in 2003, the U.S. government did go to the UN Security Council to request permission, but failed to get that permission and went ahead to invade Iraq anyway. But let’s stay focused on Syria.
That Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq are joined as a coalition is not at all a surprise. Those countries were already working together on one side of the Syria conflict, because of a disagreement over the routing of a natural gas pipeline.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about a huge natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. The natural gas field is split between Qatar (Sunni) and Iran (Shia). The goal is to supply that natural gas to Europe. The map above demonstrates the routing problem.
A pipeline from the Persian Gulf to Europe has to go through Syria, or else Lebanon (a Syrian client state). But the Sunni and Shia split between Iran and Iraq means the two are not going to cooperate.
The “Islamic Pipeline” is routed through Shia-dominated regions in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Then, in order to avoid going through Turkey, they’re proposing to build an LNG terminal in Syria for shipping LNG to Europe. The “Qatar-Turkey” pipeline instead goes through Sunni-dominated regions except getting to Turkey means it must go through Syria.
That’s the source of the Syrian civil war. The US/EU/Britain/Turkey/etc want to route their pipeline through Syria and Turkey but Syria is instead in cahoots with Iran on a different pipeline.
Why is Russia involved?
First, Russia wants to be the dominant natural gas supplier to Europe, and has been fighting against any competing effort.
Second, Russia has been involved with Syria for decades (Wikipedia). Russia’s Tartus Naval Depot in Syria is its only military base outside of Russia, and is the base from which Russia has launched its strikes in Syria.
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