We saw the human face of destabilization. Amid the endless Syrian war, we again witnessed useless raids conducted for no better reason than ‘agreements’ and ‘patronage.’ They were agreed upon because Moscow had been warned of the attack and of its targets — which excluded Russian bases. ‘Patronage’ because more than protecting civilians from alleged chemical attacks by Assad’s forces, they aim at supporting the regional allies of US, UK and France: Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. Israel and the Saudis fear Iran’s expansion in the region more than Putin — with whom they have always been able to reach an agreement. In other words, if Assad broke with Tehran, he would not be in trouble anymore: the two Gulf monarchies have even offered him money for this.
After reaching a compromise in a meeting in Ankara between Moscow and Tehran — two NATO opponents who together with the US did not stop the massacre of Kurds in Afrin — Turkey must show it still has an important role in the Atlantic alliance and can determine the fate of neighboring Syria. But in fact, Erdogan must justify his neo-Ottoman dreams.
All this happened while the markets were closed: nothing should worry traders, since they’ve been selling since the trade war between Washington and Beijing began. Markets do not care all that much about Assad, but are very sensitive to the power struggles that might affect the economy and finance. They’re watching the Middle East while keeping an eye on China, which holds a good share of US public debts.
What do we know about the Syrian strikes? They won’t bring down the Damascus regime — even the British say so. So the attack won’t lead to any change in the power relationships. We know that the Russians have been warned — the French admitted it first, belying the Americans, who had to issue a correction. If Russians had not been warned, they would have probably reacted anyway. It’s clear that Turkey supported the Western attacks with emphatic words, but we do not yet know if Erdogan allowed jets to depart from Turkish bases — which is of paramount importance given that Erdogan has agreements in place with Iran and Russia.
Putin was in Turkey recently for the inauguration of Russia’s first nuclear plant in the Mediterranean. He also promised some S-400 missiles and the completion of the Turkish Stream gas pipe: a rich loot that the Turkish leader does not want to jeopardize.
The raids are part of yet another Middle Eastern tragicomedy that will not bring any benefits to the people in the country being bombed. Foreigners will cash in. Maybe there will be more strikes, but the US, UK and France are going to avoid hitting military bases that house Russian troops. That’s not difficult to do: Russian bases are concentrated mostly on the coast of Syria, so it’s enough to keep far from the coast to avoid conflagrations. Avoiding an uncontrolled escalation is the first mantra for Washington, as Defense Minister James Mattis told Congress on Thursday.
But it’s different to figure out Moscow’s, Iran’s and Assad’s intentions. Americans have deployed 2,000 more soldiers in the northwest part of Syria and along the axis linking Syrian Kurdish territories to Raqqa, the former capital of the so-called Islamic State. If they wanted to, Syrians, Russians and Iranians could make their life difficult.
Even here there are more questions than certainties. Moscow and Tehran won the Syrian game by keeping Assad in power, and will thus keep in mind their main objective — keeping the regime in power and starting reconstruction, which will cost about $400 billion.
It will be interesting to see Israel’s move. The Jewish state has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967, and in the past few days it bombed a military post with Iranian officials. Israel’s aim is to contain Iran’s and Hezbollah’s regional influence. Moscow has already warned Israel to keep out of these raids.
The other crucial point is the relationship between Iran, Russia and Turkey. The Russians have abstained from commenting on Turkish military operations against Kurds. It’s likely there will be some friction, but Moscow’s alliance with Turkey — a historical NATO member — should not change. Western ‘patrons’ are satisfied. Israel, guardian of the region, obtained America’s involvement, following Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem as its capital. It was just a week ago that Trump said he wanted to pull back from Syria immediately.
But Saudi Arabia too has influence in Washington, London and Paris. Macron just sold weapons worth $16 billion to heir-prince Mohammed bin Salman. London provided them with 48 Eurofighter jets and obtained the Saudis commitments for trade agreements worth $60 billion. The economic partnerships between the US and Saudi Arabia are also vast. So, the prince pays dearly for our ‘humanitarian’ interventions. The Saudis would also like a hand in Yemen, where they are struggling to win a war against Houthi Shia rebels. There, too, children are dying because of Riyad’s bombs, and nine million are at risk of famine. But in this case, the humanitarian West is looking elsewhere.