September 4, 2013
Pres. Barack Obama's sudden volte-face on a strike against the Syrian regime of Pres. Bashar al Assad has only put on hold the enormous stakes in the crisis' ultimate outcome.
In one of those curious turns of history, an ugly, bloody, little conflict in an always fragile, volatile, artificial nation-state created in the last gasps of European colonialism now is determining the world's immediate fortunes:
For whatever the immediate effects of Obama's decision to go to the Congress for approval of a strike against Assad, the longer term importance of this contest in a corner of the chaotic Mideast has intensified. These concerns go far beyond the fortunes of Assad--or, for that matter, of Obama and his now crippled lame duck presidency.
▪ The pursuit of regional hegemony by Iran's mullahs is now (as it has been for some time) tied to Assad's continued survival, dependent as he is increasingly on their support.
▪ Russia's Vladimir Putin's attempt to regain a measure of the former Soviet Union's superpower status--with a threatening domestic economic crisis--is bound up in his commitment to Assad as a symbol of his growing antagonism to the US
▪ The Arab elites' half-century jihad against Israel--if not its rhetoric--has abated in the interest of their now common fight against the new threat of nihilistic religious fanaticism, occasionally linked with Tehran's fanatics.
▪ Britain's political paralysis, thereby abandoning its traditional commitment to play Greece to America's Rome, plus Germany's ambivalence, is writing the death notice for NATO's short-lived "outside the theater" role.
▪ The European Union, paralyzed by a painful choice between further political integration or breakup over its monetary fiasco, has excluded itself from a critical Muslim-world-related decision at a time when the role of Muslim immigrants becomes an increasing European domestic concern.
▪ The world economy, still grappling with a faltering recovery from the 2007-08 financial debacle, is further crippled by even the hint of an interruption of the Mideast oil flow.
The Tehran regime, struggling with leaky but nevertheless crippling US (and pro forma EU and UN) sanctions and the general decline in world energy demand, has placed big bets on reaching the Mediterranean through satellite regimes in Damascus and the Hezbollah movement among fellow Shia's in southern Lebanon. It has even crossed the theoretically impossible divide to cultivate the Palestinian Hamas, the illegitimate Gaza offspring of the Egyptian Brotherhood with its Sunni dogmatism. Maintaining the Assad regime as a sideshow against the West is critical to Iran's continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in defiance of the Americans and in any negotiated compromise at which the Obama Administration has hinted.
Putin's government Gasprom's attempt to dominate European energy is now in jeopardy because of the American shale gas and oil juggernaut. In riposte, he has attempted to resurrect the Soviet client relationship with Syria as an expression of Moscow's old attempt to get out of its ice-bound northern ports. It's largely bluff, since he has not been able to effect a reversal of the Soviet conventional military machine's collapse. Ironically, Hillary Clinton's attempt to reset Washington-Moscow relations is, in part, a victim of the world energy revolution writ by shale--which the Obama Administration (with its high-cost energy philosophy) as much as Putin (stuck with gas and oil as his only resources) finds counterproductive.
The Balts, for example, are discussing a unified energy market with Poland to break the Gasprom hold with US liquefied natural gas imports. It was discussed on the sidelines of Obama's meeting with the three Baltic presidents in the middle of the Syria crisis, overshadowed by one of Obama's several crisis statements. That meeting, by the way, was scheduled months ago on the eve of what was originally the President's one-on-one with Putin following the G20 in Petrograd, where he had earlier promised to be "more flexible" in a second term in reaching an understanding with Putin. Another one of the many anomalies of the Obama foreign policy?
Nor have the Persian Gulf states escaped the growing rearrangement in world energy markets. The days of vulgar surpluses--which have permitted the Emirates and the Saudis to bail out Egypt's new military government which overthrew Morsi's Brotherhood--is coming to an end. (That includes Qatar's $35-billion dalliance with the al Jazeera network and financing the Egyptian Brotherhood and al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate, in the Syrian struggle.)
Reports of Saudi efforts to reach Putin in an effort to stabilize notoriously fickle world oil markets are probably wishful thinking, even though there is a theoretical logic to any such pipedream. The Saudi (and the Shah's!) OPEC efforts to establish a producer's oligopoly has already disappeared in the mists of history. With this background, nobody will be as disappointed with Obama's postponement and perhaps end to a strike against Assad as the Gulf Arabs. The Saudis and the Bahrainis live with significant and threatening Shia populations whom Iran's mullahs have tried to stir into rebellion. They also have to wonder if Obama's reluctance to take on US public opinion for an immediate strike against Assad is not a part of a general American retreat from the region (first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan), leaving them to face the Iranians who may soon have nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, there is a tacit alliance, now, of most of the sheikhdoms with the Israelis in support of the new Cairo military regime with its fierce antagonism to the religious fanaticism (and incompetence) of the former Brotherhood government. It is as much a part of current scene as the Saudis' efforts, however feeble, to topple Iran's ally in Damascus by supporting "moderate" Islamists.
Although Britain gave up her tutorials to the Gulf Arabs in the mid-60s, the Arabs as well as the Europeans have looked to London's "special relationship" with Washington to weld temporary alliances and keep the Mideast peace. True, Prime Minister David Cameron's forthright approach to the House of Commons for an endorsement of his policies fell by a small majority. And his failure was in part Opposition Leader Edward Milbank's treachery. But it dramatizes the increasing lack of resources for the United Kingdom to punch above its weight in its joint military efforts with Washington.
Furthermore, Cameron's failure in Commons played a big role in Obama's decision to ask for a Congressional endorsement before any military action in Syria. And, while the fiasco of the Euro guarantees the debate over "the special relationship" vs. further integration into the European Union will not be resurrected, London is now likely to turn to the other 10 members of the EU who do not use the Euro as a counter to German and French calls for more fiscal and political integration of the European Union.
Facing a national election, there was never any question of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel joining the US in any military action in Syria. And, in fact, after the fiascos of Iraq and to some extent, Afghanistan, the whole question of NATO's becoming the world's "enforcer," occasionally at the request of the UN but more often for the West, has probably had its day. It was only the drama and the stunning brutality of the attack on the US on 9/11 that finally decided the long debate over "out of theater" operations for NATO and led it into Afghanistan. By post-Soviet standards, there was wide participation, if sometimes, as with the Germans, so many restrictions were placed on their participation that the great brunt of the fighting still had to be by the Americans, the British, and the Australians. Therefore, the vote in the House of Commons may well have decided the future not only of "the special relationship" but of NATO itself. Ironically, Paris's offer to be among the willing in Obama's skinny new coalition notwithstanding has more to do with a failed domestic French administration than military strategy. One of the elements in the equation, if somewhat camouflaged, is the growing issue of Muslim immigrants and their progeny in the European countries and their increasing demographic weight among the young. (London's upcoming mayoralty election will hang on it, for example.) Any crisis in the Arab-Muslim world henceforth will have to take that into consideration domestically.
Over all these political considerations, of course, hangs the threat of violence breaking out in the region that might endanger the flow of oil and gas. One of the considerations, apparently, in Cairo's current blockade and pressure on Hamas (at a time Gaza's northern portals are open to Israel!) is the growing connections between Gaza Islamists and the chaotic situation in the Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian military has made security of the Suez Canal its highest priority and is working with the aid of Israeli drones to reassert its control over neighboring Sinai. With the disappearance of tourism because of the violence, the Canal's revenues become a chief strategic consideration not only for the Egyptian military but as important to a straitened US Navy maneuvering around the several Mideast crises areas from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. But as far away as it is from the Gulf oilfields, the choke points at Suez and at the Hormuz Strait--and as little as it has had to do with transporting oil and gas--the discussion an American strike on Syria has had impact on the markets. A contentious debate in the Congress is not likely to improve investors' confidence.
Unanticipated events and consequences arising from Obama's erratic decision-making process will be rolling in during the next few weeks. But what is already as clear as those cool winter nights coming in Jerusalem is that the 2013 Syrian crisis is just beginning.
This article was originally published at The American Center for Democracy. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
Sol W. Sanders is a journalist specializing in Asia with more than 25 years in the region. He is a former correspondent for Business Week, US News & World Report and United Press International. He traveled extensively in Mexico during the 1950s and was a correspondent in Vietnam in the 1960s. In 1967-1968, Sanders held The Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship at the Council of Foreign Relations. He now writes weekly columns for World Tribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com. He is a scholar at the East-West Center.
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