Vlad the Invader, Russia’s President Putin, freed from the bothersome necessity of having to fight any meaningful election campaigns, has been playing a long game. After successfully annexing the Crimea and cowing any Crimean opposition by the tried and tested, Stalinist method of having them disappear, and making certain that what remained of Ukraine didn’t either join NATO or the EU, turned his attention back to Syria. You may recall that some time ago I explained the Russian imperative of keeping their Mediterranean naval base of Tartus in friendly–i.e. Russian– hands. Short of doing a Crimean Tango in Syria, the sure way of doing that was to make certain that the area remained firmly in the hands of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. To that end, he gave Assad all the diplomatic support necessary to ensure any outside forces, which for the purposes of this article I’ll refer to as America, didn’t succeed in having him ousted. It certainly has worked, because despite all prophesies Assad is still in power. However, there is a looming problem which requires the Putin touch. I’m not referring to the fact that Assad is viewed by America as not far short of a war criminal, or to the fact that the CIA-sponsored Syrian opposition gave away most of their arms and supplies to Al-Qaeda forces in the area. Nor am I referring to the fact that Assad only remains in power due to military assistance from Hezbollah and Iran. I am referring to the fact that IS control an area dangerously close to Tartus and if there were to be any partition of Syria, then it might just be that Russia would have to come to terms with IS. Putin’s fall-back plan always has been that Assad, his friend and client, would control an area from Damascus to the Mediterranean. That no longer looks a certainty, without military assistance from Russia. A couple of maps, courtesy of the BBC, will make the point for me.
Tartus naval base. This is important to Russia because once America reduces their naval forces in the Mediterranean, it will free the Russia Navy from the necessity of transiting the Bosphorus to access the Mediterranean. Any transit requires agreement from the Turkish government, and Turkey of course is a member of NATO.
You recall I explained that America was redeploying their naval forces in the Mediterranean to confront a perceived Chinese threat in the Pacific? Good, well done, nice to see that people do listen to me. This decision arose from the American decision that it could no longer plan on fighting a war on two fronts. This was partly an economic decision, and partly a complete mis-reading of Putin’s long-term aims. Washington no longer saw Russia as a military threat, whereas China was seen as a growing one.
Now, in the last couple of days there has been some sort of ceasefire agreed between Hezbollah and IS, and there is a proposed territory swop of sorts. It will probably collapse, but in the meantime Hezbollah are trying to make sure there remains an effective corridor of access between Lebanon, the home base of Hezbollah, and Syria. Not only is this important for the transfer of fighters, but it has allowed Syria to transfer (allegedly) some chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, supposedly for safe keeping and away from any prying UN inspectors’ eyes, thus giving Hezbollah a possible chemical capability against Israel. More on Israel in a moment.
Moscow has been causing palpitations in Washington by deploying ground attack aircraft and supporting ground troops to Latakia (in Syria). Washington is wondering what Vladi is up to. Really? Is there nobody who can read a map in Washington? It seems pretty obvious to me, and I think that it will be obvious to you once you look at the maps for a couple of nano-seconds. Just in case you have the same difficulty with maps that Washington does, I draw your attention the relative positions of Tartus and Latakia. Got it? Yes, I would you would.
Vladi has just gone on a charm offensive on American television. He made the point that American foreign policy in the area is a mess–and an unsuccessful mess at that. If you remember, Putin did warn against any involvement in the Syrian civil war when it kicked-off, but Obama ignored him. Putin was polite about America–he praised American industry, ingenuity and innovation–and successfully came across as a ‘nice chap’. He didn’t rant, he was polite, he cracked a few jokes and in short, he was a great advert for benign dictatorship. Except that he isn’t particularly benign–ask the Tartars of the Crimea, if you can still find any in Crimea who are willing or able to talk to you.
America and the West [here boys, good boys, sit!] are now thinking aloud about whether Assad might remain in power. At the moment, Cameron (UK Prime Minister and obviously in line for a choccie biscuit or a juicy bone) is saying that Assad might conceivably stay ‘on seat’ whilst there is a transition of power in Syria. Given that Syria doesn’t really exist any more, it won’t be long before the consensus is that Assad remains as President of a rump Alawite state and Iran and the Kurds share the rest of Syria, having kicked IS into touch. The rump Alawite state will of course be centred around Damascus and will extend along the current Lebanon/Syria border to the Mediterranean–where you might notice the Russian naval base at Tartus–oh my, what a coincidence.
Israeli PM Netanyahu recently went to Moscow. The Western press interpreted this as something of a desperate mission–Israel being desperate that the Russian forces based in Latakia would hamper their efforts in preventing the transfer of WMD to Hezbollah. Don’t you believe it. Quite apart from the fact that Putin is on record as having a healthy respect for Israel’s military capability, both Israel and Russia have an interest in preventing the spread of Iranian influence in the area. If Assad does retreat to a rump Alawite State–something I have previously written about–this will lead to something of a power-vacuum in what is currently central Syria. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and neither Russia nor Israel want Iran to fill that vacuum. Might there have been discussions about the establishment of a safe area on the current NE Israeli border with Syria–policed by Russia and Israel? That idea could be sold to the EU on the basis of several million Syrian refugees leaving the EU and returning to that safe area.
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