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Syria-Battle Lines Create Tough Questions In Geopolitics: Lessons Not To Be Missed

By Farooque Chowdhury 

03 October, 2015

The entire Middle East is in a volatile situation as coming days may find wider confrontation, and a few more actors are in the wings. New battle lines are being drawn almost everyday in the Kurdistan-Iraq-Syria-Turkey (KIST) region. Whatever news is coming from the region bears elements of uncertainty and increased tension with far-reaching implications in geopolitics. Many of the major geopolitical-players in the region are finding it difficult to estimate the total account.

A quarter assumes that Washington tacitly agreed with Moscow on Russia's Syria-maneuver. But Washington's formal reactions to Kremlin's Syria-move present a picture of unguarded Washington. Not only the US; its allies in the region are also finding it difficult to recon with the daily incidents that are moving very swiftly there. The Kremlin move in the region is, till today, swifter than Ukraine. With each day, the move is taking new shape. Russia has outmaneuvered the world imperialism.

Russian war planes from Syria's Latakia air base have stalled war plans the world imperialist powers and its allies including Turkey drew earlier. European powers are taking stock of the situation. Assaults that were being made by the world imperialism in the region are facing new reality. Its initial reactions show it was not prepared for the reality that has emerged since September 30. 

US president Barack Obama's first public comments since Russia's Syria-move show the US position: In a tight corner without initiative. Obama's rhetoric is the only move till now. Operation Inherent Resolve, the US led air attacks on IS – near to seven thousand air strikes in more than 53 thousand sorties at the cost of about $4 billion, according to US official account – now faces challenges from Russian air strikes.

Still the possible situation is uncertain if ground forces in Syria take a new initiative with new deployments from new actors in the region. Still uncertain is the pattern of the Russian moves from the sky. Types of its war planes deployed in Syria signify possible changing pattern in its operation. Its ongoing operation is closely related to possible new moves by the Syrian ground forces.

Turkey doesn't know its next steps as it faces many adversaries. Recep Erdogan, the Turkish president, “fails” to understand the Russian move as he said in a televised interview with Al-Jazeera aired on October 2: “Why is Russia so interested in Syria? I want to understand this.” It's not his failure to understand; it's his uncertain moments of searching for counter-options. There are the valiant Kurds with their crafty and determined position. Their political pressure is felt by Erdogan. There is the escalating Syrian refugee problem in Turkey. There are its economic ties to Russia. Turkey's dream with its foreign policy in the region is already dead.

The Kurds reserve a role on which many actors depend. The leader of the Kurdish YPG militia welcomed the Russian move, calling it “an important step”. “We can work together with Russia against IS,” said Sipan Hemo, general commander of the YPG. “We want air support against IS. We want weapons support.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also announced its welcome for the Russian air move.  

There's Iran. It has a role that is already making moves stealthily. There's the Hezbollah force from Lebanon.

There's possibility of expansion of Russian role in the region. It may extend to Iraq. The US ally is willing to welcome Russia. Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi president, said Iraq would “welcome” Russian air strikes. For the US, the mighty military power, Iraq may appear as an unreliable ally.

Does Saudi Arabia know that whether it's over-stretched or not with its Yemen war? There's the question of continuing its support to its ally in the KIST region. And there's the question of domestic implication of these adventures.

There's the question with Saudi oil made cheaper than water at home with billions of dollars-subsidy – an annual subsidy of near to $11 billion. There's the question of receding rate of oil in the world market with implication in Saudi economy. The slipping down rate is compelling it to cut spending with deep impact on wide areas from essential elements of life to infrastructure. The effects will press and push slowly that carry political implication. Non-existence of political party in the oildom will not be able to stop politics of inequality and discontent there. Probably the kingdom's backing to it allies in countries will also have new negative experience. 

An Associated Press report cited a few hard facts:

Many Saudis are complaining that salaries, sometimes average just $300 a month, are not enough to cover basic costs of living. Housing is out of reach for many. Rents for middle income households are about $1,040 a month. By contrast, middle income households earn $1,600-$5,400 a month, meaning many on the lower end are squeezed out of the market and have to live with family members. Young couples are finding it harder to marry due to the high cost of dowries and apartments. The kingdom is issuing bonds to ensure a steady supply of cash. Next year, it will issue more than $53 billion in debt. (“As oil wealth dwindles, Saudi Arabia faces change”, October 1, 2015) Another report by The National, the Abu Dhabi-based media, said on August 17, 2015: “Saudi Arabia issued approximately $5bn of bonds this year, with another $27bn expected before the year's end, as the world's largest oil exporter hopes to avoid further drawing down on its reserves.” (“IMF cuts growth forecast for Saudi Arabia on weak oil prices”)

A recent Financial Times report said the kingdom has “withdrawn $70 billion from overseas investment funds to shore up its fiscal position in the face of tumbling oil prices”. An IMF prediction said the country's budget deficit would exceed $107 billion this year. Farouk Soussa, chief Middle East economist for Citigroup Inc. in London, said: “The Saudi government can't continue … to drive economic growth through the big infrastructure projects and it can't keep lavishing on subsidies and social spending. These are things that are absolutely politically explosive. You've gotten accustomed to a certain lifestyle and that lifestyle is far in excess in terms of luxury that was prevailing in 1998.” (Financial Post, “How much longer can Saudi Arabia's economy hold out against cheap oil?”, August 21, 2015)

Two letters by a senior Saudi prince calling for regime change in the kingdom, for removal of the king, is now well-circulated news around the world. The unprecedented call, a virtual call to rebellion, shows fracture in the royal family. The letters, as reported in media, call to remove the leadership in a palace coup. Developments in the desertdom will have powerful impact on a wide area.

A few months ago, news reports said, a senior Saudi prince accused his cousin over alleged drugging and abduction. The prince filed criminal complaint in Switzerland over kidnapping that, as claimed, took place near Geneva in 2003. The alleged incident is another indication of crack in the royal house. The prince making the allegation planned to hold a public seminar in Geneva to reveal the full extent of corruption at the Saudi ministry of defense.

There's the issue of hydrocarbons: not only oil's sliding down prices, but also discoveries of hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean – the Zohr, the Tamar, the Leviathan and the Aphrodite fields. The discoveries are leading to new equations – co-operations and competitions – between Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean is increasing. There's the issue of pipelines to export gas to Europe. Unstable condition in the region threatens many, not only Syria. Hence, Russia has entered as a force towards establishing stable condition required for hydrocarbon-business: from production to transportation.

The entire situation is still fluid as the main Russian thrust, more complicated than the Ukraine move, is yet to unfold. The Russian air sorties over the last few days are primary steps for an appropriate deployment in future. In the diplomatic front, Russian moves, proposals and deals are also in the waiting as Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister said: “Russia doesn't consider the FSA [the US-backed Free Syrian Army] a terrorist group and it should be part of the political solution”. Putin's statement also indicates flexibility: “A long-term solution in Syria is only possible through political reform and dialogue. I know al-Assad is ready for such a process. We hope he will be ready to compromise in the name of his country.”

In this swift Moscow-move, the US is facing an uncertain situation for the first time in decades on the very stage, on which it was the lone actor – hero to interventionists and villain to people – and the lone dictator. But those days have reached its end, the imperial power has lost initiative for the moment.    

With a broader and longer future scenario, the Syria Theater carries strong significance. Russia has its reliable ally China. Europe with its multiple ties is not now in a position to act boldly. There's a chain reaction to the geopolitical moves on the Syria Theater. The reaction will stretch from China in the east to far west and south. Changing real life Saudi-socio-political-scene is not an element to ignore.

The most important prospective actor that may get obscured in this geopolitical game is people. The most important lesson that may get missed in this charged situation in the region is people's rights and struggle, their democratic struggle.

Countries in other regions are also facing imperialist conspiracies. Plans for imperialist intervention are being hatched against countries in other regions. The Syria experience presents the important lesson: A mishandling of democratic struggle paves way for imperialist intervention, burns to ashes people's lives, leaves no scope for widening democratic sphere. This situation leads many to confusion, leads many to befriend imperialism. Without prior initiative for proper handling of democratic demands a leadership may find last opportune moments went long ago. In that case, history shall never forgive anti-imperialist, democratic forces. A major task is to inform people about possibilities of imperialist intervention, the method used to pave path to intervention.

A world with heightened geopolitical tension is not conducive for people. In that case, initiating and intensifying people's anti-imperialist democratic struggle is the option. Imperialist intervention in a country has spillover effect in surrounding countries. This makes it essential to form solidarity between peoples in countries. South Asia is no exception. Syria Theater indicates the urgency.

Farooque Chowdhury, a free lancer, writes from Dhaka.




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