Russia and Its Dubious Friends Deserve to Be Frozen Out

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Guest Commentary

Russia is on a roll. Vladimir Putin has displayed anguish over the break up of the Soviet Union and now he is intent on getting as many states as he can back under Moscow’s wing and is out to expand his nation’s powerbase throughout the Middle East.

What is deeply troubling is the impotence of the international community to stop him in his tracks. He grabbed Crimea with virtual impunity undeterred by a raft of toothless sanctions causing alarm within states close to Russian borders.

Several European Union (EU) member states reliant on Russian gas are anxious to avoid further sanctions with some opting for appeasement. As Britain’s former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain discovered to his cost at the start of World War II, appeasement only serves to embolden the adversary.

We have yet to see the course US President-elect Donald Trump intends to take but given his stated admiration for the Russian President and his tapping of Rex Tillerson as a Secretary of State who bragged about his close business and personal ties to Putin, I am not hopeful that the coming administration will rein in Moscow’s ambitions, particularly with regard to Syria.

From my perspective, Putin’s worst crime was his propping up of one of the most savage regimes in living history; one without any scrap of compassion, willing to bomb, torture and starve the very people it is duty-bound to protect.

I am shocked that so many heads of state, including one vehemently opposed to the idea of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad being involved in a political transition, let alone keeping his seat, are no longer calling for the dictator to go.

Little more than a year ago, regime forces had almost reached breaking point staring in the face of defeat. Assad’s army is comparatively small. He admitted his soldiers were tired. Experts predicted his days were numbered. Then, the internationally recognised opposition held almost all the cards giving it power to its elbow to forge a political settlement. Russia capitalised on a vacuum created by US President Barack Obama’s lack of commitment to bring in the big guns, altering the landscape in Assad’s favour.

Today, aided by Russia’s bombs and heavily armed ground forces, consisting of Hezbollah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and, according to Al Arabiya’s findings, as many as 64 Shiite militias, the regime controls all major Syrian cities as well as most of the areas around the coastline.

Syrian propaganda outlets are currently circulating videos showing the residents of Aleppo out in force to celebrate Christmas illuminations holding up posters of Bashar Al Assad and, somewhat incongruously, Hezbollah flags!

When hundreds of bodies still lie in the streets of eastern Aleppo where they fell, untold numbers remain under the debris of their homes, and refugees are dying from cold, such celebrations are akin to dancing on graves. As the United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Samantha Power rightly stated, humanity is in the process of a “complete meltdown”. She is right, but her own country cannot be absolved either.

The “meltdown” began with the invasion of Iraq on false pretences, the destruction of Libya and Obama’s lackadaisical response to the slaughter of Syrian civilians that have severely undermined America’s credibility as a force for good. If Donald Trump truly wants to make America great again, he should find a way to reconstitute America’s traditional pre-George W. Bush global caretaker role, in danger of being usurped by Russia.

Of course, I am not advocating a military confrontation between the West and Russia which could, in the worst case scenario, lead to nuclear war. At the same time, there are other methods to deter Putin from continuing his belligerent policies and his suspect alliances with rogue states and terrorist entities.

Russia may have weathered US and EU sanctions to some extent, but its economy remains fragile, still fighting its way out of recession, although it has received a boost due to the Trump factor. If President Trump embraces his Russian counterpart, the world will ultimately be imperilled because this will swell Moscow’s coffers, oiling further Russian military interventions in Syria and elsewhere.

Some pundits argue that Trump is likely to woo Russia with the aim of prizing it away from its alliance with China, but in my view, former KGB chief Putin is far too wily to fall for that; he will play along until the time is ripe to strike. Others predict the inevitability of these strongmen’s mega egos clashing sooner or later. That said waiting to see how the Trump administration’s playbook unfolds is an exercise in time-wasting.

Countries that count themselves members of the civilised world must materially stand against Russia’s criminal actions so that Putin can no longer imagine Russia and its partners engaged in Syrian massacres – Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias and others – enjoy immunity shielded by Russia’s UN veto power.

All diplomatic, economic and trade ties with Russia and its allies in Syria should be cut. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States are in danger from Syria falling into Iran’s sphere of influence, as Iraq and Lebanon have, and are threatened by up to 64 Shiite militias schooled in asymmetrical warfare close to their borders.

GCC states should start the ball rolling before they coalesce energised by their battlefield successes and aided by Iran newfound wealth (courtesy of President Obama’s deal), rearm and re-equip.

Gulf States should not hesitate to firstly break economic ties with both Russia and Iran which receive greater benefit from us than we do from them. Secondly, we should launch a global campaign to persuade other countries to do the same.

Lastly, we need to be unstinting with our support to the Free Syrian Army and moderate opposition fighting groups which have vowed never to give up until their country is finally free.

President-elect Trump is a pragmatist. He is a businessman. He wants investment and jobs. He goes where the money is and that’s one commodity the GCC can use to its advantage to bring the coming new leader of the free world on justice’s side.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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