Monday, October 15, 2012

'The "end game" is commencing in Syria'

[ATimes] "... Interestingly, the Turkish side has pointedly refused to take issue with Moscow's narrative. The Turkish statement was actually evasive and loquacious - to the effect that Ankara had acted on the basis of "information that the plane was carrying cargo of a nature that could not possibly be in compliance with the rules of civil aviation". 
Meanwhile, Ankara and Moscow lost no time to transfer the topic to the diplomatic channel away from the limelight. Russia's Gazprom has since announced that it will step up the supply of gas to Turkey to offset the shortfall in the supplies from Iran through the winter season. 
Ankara has also since disclosed, almost eight weeks in advance, that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Turkey on December 3. This is the first point. 
Now, the intriguing part is that it was left to a third party to resort to shrill rhetoric - the United States....Victoria Nuland said: "No responsible country ought to be aiding and abetting the war machine of the Assad regime, .... We [US] have no doubt that this was serious military equipment." Evidently Nuland was under instruction to go to town on the Syrian plane issue. Why would the US be so overtly keen to introduce high-class polemics? This is the second point
The geopolitics is not difficult to understand. The US has probably been hoping all along that Syria would be the wedge that forces apart the partnership between Russia and Turkey, which has witnessed a remarkable upswing through the past decade, ...  Russia has significantly expanded its energy cooperation with Turkey, meeting two-thirds of the latter's gas needs. Russia is set up to build Turkey's first nuclear plant; the US$25 billion project could be a game changer in the overall relationship. The 63-billion-cubic-meter South Stream gas pipeline is slated to pass through Turkish waters to feed the European markets. 
Evidently, a high level of interdependency is developing between the two countries, which would be nothing short of historic given their troubled relationship through the centuries, and holding the potential to impact profoundly the geopolitics of a vast region comprising the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian, "Turkic" Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. 
Suffice to say, Moscow and Ankara have done well so far to decouple the Russian-Turkish bilateral relationship from the Syrian question. However, whether this is achievable in the coming period remains to be seen, as the "end game" is commencing in Syria. 
The US rhetoric underscores the early warning of booby traps ahead. This is the third point. 
The first booby trap was laid by unknown hands when Erdogan was in Moscow in late July as he was proceeding for his meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. The report of the high-profile terrorist strike in Damascus killing the Syrian defense minister and other top security officials had just come in, which all but sabotaged Erdogan's mission aimed at bridging the Turkish-Russian differences over Syria and exploring an acceptable formula to work together to find a solution to the crisis. 
Curiously, the incident of the Syrian plane being interdicted also coincided with a visit Putin had planned to Ankara to meet with Erdogan for a follow-up conversation on the substance of the latter's proposal. Earlier reports had mentioned that Putin was due to visit Turkey on October 14 and 15. 
Putin held a meeting with the advisory Security Council regarding the Syrian situation on Friday. Obviously, Moscow realizes that a new criticality is arising in the Turkish-Syrian standoff, which is also amply evident from the growing belligerence in Ankara's rhetoric toward Damascus as well as its military deployments on the border regions in an operational mode. 
There are three or four interlocking vectors here and their interplay is going to be crucial in the coming weeks. First, much depends on how the situation develops on the ground. The Guardian newspaper reported that Turkey's eastern Mediterranean city of Antakya has become a meeting point for arms dealers from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and it is the centre for equipping and arming the rebels in Syria. 
As things stand, Syrian government forces have begun challenging the rebels all over the country. They have had success in Damascus, but face resistance in Aleppo and the northern provinces. Thus the fate of the covert war depends heavily on Turkey. And there are growing indications that hardliners in Ankara are prevailing. Evidently, Erdogan is in two minds (which also explains Putin's decision to confer with him). But part of his posturing is due to his lingering hope that with the nerve-racking distractions of the election in the US on November 8 behind him, President Barack Obama will revisit the Syrian question. 
But having said that, Turks are smart enough to hear the drums by now in the Western capitals, beating the retreat from the Syrian battlefield even before the battle has been truly joined. Westerwelle made it clear in Istanbul on the weekend that Germany would expect Turkey not to precipitate the Syrian crisis.To be sure, North Atlantic Treaty Organization secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen expresses solidarity with Turkey, but then, he also underlines that it is a mere "hypothetical" question whether Turkey would invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter for an intervention in Syria; he then quickly adds that Syria can have only one solution - a political solution. ... 
But in all fairness, the Obama administration has consistently made it clear that it is not willing to engage in direct military intervention. ...  is having a tough time explaining what happened really in Benghazi.... the disunity among the Syrian rebel groups causes genuine despair in Washington. Meanwhile, Muslim Brothers are on the march in nearby Jordan and anything can happen now in that country, which is a linchpin in the United States' regional strategy. 
To cap it all, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Moscow to wrap up a $4.3 billion arms deal. Not surprisingly, the Chinese oil companies have appeared all over the Iraqi oilfields, which were supposed to be Big Oil's playpen after the US made such huge sacrifices in men and resources. And Maliki is beckoning the Russian oil companies, too, to pick up the threads from where they left off in the Saddam Hussein era. 
Clearly, the writing is there on the wall that the Syrian crisis is having a "spillover"...
Woven into all this intricate Arab Spring tapestry, another new thread is threatening to dominate the "big picture" - the division among the Arabs themselves about the crisis in Syria. Differences have appeared in the stance of, say, Oman and Kuwait on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other - or, between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 
When United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi visited Riyadh recently, King Abdullah complained to him as much about Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. No wonder Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is proceeding to Kuwait this week. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi just visited Qatar. The isolation of the Saudis is no longer possible to be ignored. The prominent pro-Saudi daily Al-Hayat wrote bitterly on Saturday:
'... The countries of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] do not now have the choice to head to the Arab League and then to the [UN] Security Council ... This sexpartite bloc perhaps does not have the option of heading to NATO and asking it to intervene ... In fact, it may not even be possible to reach unanimous agreement even among these six countries, due to the differences in their stances...'
In sum, the United States' regional allies are waiting expectantly like the pair of men in Samuel Beckett's play vainly for someone named Godot to arrive any time soon after November 8.... The end game is beginning in Syria. "

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