Putin’s silence: when real facts speak for themselves

August 1, 2017
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Analysts agree that the quagmire in the Middle East is more than other open conflicts or hotbed of tensions, the empirical testing to gauge the ability of the big powers to put back the world in working order.  Iran is the most telling case. Tehran has been responsive to take on the Islamic state and has signed the nuclear deal with the major powers.

Notwithstanding, according some leaders Iran still poses the largest threat to the stability of the Middle East Its Shia proxy armies, they contend, have extended its hard power far beyond its borders. Iraq is now seen almost a client state for the Ajatollah’s regime; Hizbollah is subjugated to it while remaining the strongest force in Lebanon. In Syria, Iran props up the regime of Assad El Bashar. In Yemen, Iran arms and trains successfully the Houthi rebels. Bahrain and the same Saudi Arabia have large Shia population.

Recently Iran escalated its involvement in Syria by firing a volley of ballistic missiles into a city in eastern side of the country controlled by Is. Behind these shows of force, it is started an unnoticed race between an emboldened Syrian regime and American backed forces, mostly belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to grab the rump of territory, still controlled by a faltering Is, along Syria’s borders with Iran.

It is a race that, according the analysts, America and its allies risk to lose. Actually, Iranian backed units are pushing south along the border through Is territory to link up with their allies in Syria. Gaining a land bridges will allow Iran to increase its already substantial shipments of arms to Hizbollah.

At this stage, observers reckon, the only plan to contain Iran may hinge on enlisting the help of Russia. The plan could in fact establish a buffer zone in southern Syria along the border with Israel and Jordan that is free of Iranian backed forces.

A similar situation is shaping the northern Syria where Turkish combat squads have created strongholds, apparently to counteract Is militias, but actually to prevent Syrian Kurdish unities close to PKK to install military basis. That of course with the fundamental help of Russia. Putin’s shrewd manoeuvers are clearly aimed at gaining an influence in view of future strategies which although formally targeted to de-escalate the Syrian conflict and to chase Is out, are practically bound to make the country an unavoidable power to reckon with for the new geo-politics of the region.

Contrary to the Russian-built alignment, America’s allies clash ahead of the final battle for Raqqa, the Islamic state capital, whose fall looks certain. What is going to happen, sooner than later, in this part of the world is something which may convince Donald Trump to bring forward the “Grand Bargain” to which he had initially hinted but that was never spelt it out.

It would be a mistake thinking of what occurs in the region as  short-lived event bound  to be reabsorbed by  alternative “doctrines”. The underlying implications which characterize the ongoing operations in the field have instead a significant bearing on the future world spheres of influence which the big powers will likely decide to agree upon.

More specifically we can see, on one side of the future front, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and part of the Gulf States. Those countries may still have differing views on the respective agendas but are aware of the need to address efforts to find a common ground. On the other side, one may consider Saudia Arabia, UAE, and Kurdish militias who will, very likely, introduce aspirations triggering division.

To this regard, two aspects appear noteworthy as they, among other things, may prompt Egypt and Libya to decide which front to side with.  As to the first, many have questioned the American wisdom of gambling on the Kurdish dominated SDF to liberate a city where Arabs predominate. Locals in Raqqa for sure want to get rid of Is but they look worried about who is coming to free them. Furthermore, it is known that America’s support for the SDF has infuriated the Turkish Government whose enmity with the Kurds has threatened to derail the campaign against Is.

In fact the SDF has spearheaded by the military wing of the PYD, a Syrian Kurdish party that managed to carve out a proto-state along the Turkish-Syrian border. The PYD in turn has close ties with the PKK, a Kurdish party that the Turkish Government has fought for decades.

According to Kyle W. Orton, an American analyst, by arming the Y.P.G. with heavy weapons, by-passing the SDF, even if forced by events, the US has taken a step toward a de facto recognition of the P.K.K.’s legitimacy. The experts’ view is that arming Syrian Kurds could come for the American at a high cost for their global influence in the region. That even if still exists the possibility for the US to divert future aid to rival Kurdish forces which are friendly to Turkey

Concerning the second aspect, it seems that the real reason why Saudia Arabia and its two allies have broken diplomatic relations with Qatar is not so much the Doha’s financial aid to Islamist extremism but mostly for more disturbing concerns.

Observers are inclined to attribute the Saudi ostracism to Qatar “for not kowtowing any longer to the collective vision for the middle east, (which implies Tehran as source of terrorism); a vision shared now by Riyadh with Abu Dhabi and Bahrein, which pleases to Israel and is endorsed by the conventional wisdom in Washington, including Donald Trump himself.

In the end, It seems that the “arm- twisting” with Sheikh Al Thani has been decided by the new Crown Prince Mohamed bin Sultan with the specific objective to punish Doha for engaging with Iran.

It was in fact more and more discernible that Al Thani, as Raymon Barret puts it, “took a lead from Baraka Obama doctrine of engagement with Iran, which brought to the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015.

It is known that the impulsive Crown Prince has decided for merely political reasons but someone thinks that strategic considerations have played a role. It is a fact that Russia has been thinking for some time to quietly encourage Qatar and Iran to give a fresh look to an old project-idea of jointly exploiting the huge Persian Gulf reserve of low CO2 natural gas.

The area to be explored and jointly exploited if the necessary conditions are met will be formed by the Qatari part, called North Dome, and the Iranian part, called South Pars, as the respective fields straddle the territorial waters between the two Countries.

But regardless if and when the project- idea, wholly or partly comes true, just the role that Russia may play will allow it anyway to acquire additional prestige in the area by affirming its legitimate right to provide leadership in the effort to shape a more stable region in a more stable world.


Antonio Badini’s new book Disordine Mondiale. Putin, Trump e i nuovi equilibri di potere is out now for LUISS University Press. Read it to further investigate these topics!

The author

Antonio Badini teaches at the Department of Political Science of LUISS University. He is the General Director of the International Development and Law Organization, and was Ambassador of Italy in Algeria, Egypt and Norway