The country’s current strategy risks fuelling a sectarian warby Robert Fry / December 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September, President Vladimir Putin laid out Russia’s position on Syria. It was a mistake, he claimed, to refuse co-operation with the Syrian Government. Assad was the only participant in the Syrian war with any democratic authority, Putin said, and was the best hope for defeating terrorism in the region, of which Islamic State (IS) was only one element. In making his case, he said that Russia had legitimate interests in this and other parts of its “near abroad” and that they would be pursued with vigour, even when they conflicted with Western policy. Putin’s strategic clarity of purpose was striking and took many observers by surprise—but the logic underpinning his analysis was not new. It was strikingly similar to the Tsarist foreign policy of the early twentieth century.
For a region with such ancient provenance, it is remarkable how the shape of the Middle East today owes so much to events of the early nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire had provided unbroken rule of the region for 600 years. At its head was the conjoined role of sultan and caliph, the first embodying temporal leadership, the latter, religious. The sultanate could not survive defeat in the First World War and was abolished on 1 November 1922. The caliphate followed in March 1924 as part of the sweeping secular reforms instituted by Mustafa Kemal, first president of the Republic of Turkey and better known as Ataturk. This left vacant the post of spiritual head of Sunni Islam to which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, is the latest pretender.
The fall of the empire was hastened by the Arab Revolt of 1916, led by the Sherif of Mecca and abetted by T E Lawrence (of Arabia), which marked the beginning of a sense of collective Arab identity and nascent nationalism. This was followed, and incalculably complicated, by the British Government’s Balfour Declaration of November 1917 and its commitment to the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
But if there is a single legacy that, in conventional wisdom, holds the key to the Middle East today it is that left by Mark Sykes and Georges Picot. Sykes and Picot were, respectively, British and French civil servants, who, in 1916, began the process of carving up Ottoman territory that was finally completed with the signing of the Lausanne Treaty in June 1924.
But there was a third participant in what was a tri-partite discussion. Without him, and the national interests he represented, no sense can be made of the Middle East, then or now. Sergei Sazonov was Foreign Secretary of the Imperial Russian Government, and, in his 1916 discussions with Sykes and Picot, he was holding most of the aces.
The 1915 Dardanelles and Gallipoli defeats were shocks to the British and French who had underestimated Ottoman resistance. Worse was to follow in 1916 as Anglo-French attention became fixed on the apocalyptic battles of the Somme and Verdun, even as General Townshend was surrendering a substantial British force at Kut al-Amara, in present day Iraq. To cap it all, the Dardanelles Commission (the Chilcot Inquiry of its time) reported, and the scapegoat Churchill lost his reputation and his place in government.
While both Sykes and Picot were playing weak hands, Sazonov was operating from a position of strength. Russian forces crushed the Ottoman armies on the Caucasus Front (eastern Turkey today) in early 1916 and became poised to attack the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire. What’s more, he was playing at home. Russian imperial ambition had coveted the glittering prize of Constantinople, which the Russians called Tsarograd, and access to the Mediterranean since Catherine the Great. Sazonov knew exactly what his country’s strategic objectives were and he pursued them ruthlessly.
In contrast, Sykes and Picot were on more uncertain ground. Britain was in the region because of Suez, oil and the almost accidental acquisition in 1882 of Egypt as a protectorate. France was in the region because Britain was, and Italy too. For neither country did it represent the strategic priority in a world war that remained in the balance, and it showed.
The first cut of the deal ceded Arabia, Mesopotamia and Palestine to the British, which satisfied requirements for oil and links to India, but little else. On the basis of a tenuous Napoleonic linkage, France picked up Syria and Cilicia and Russia was given the Constantinople Corridor linking the Black Sea to the Aegean. Russia also gained naval basing rights that would guarantee control of the Black Sea, and the eastern Ottoman provinces comprising Turkish Armenia, Persian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan.
For the British and French it represented the almost arbitrary acquisition of territory, common in the late phase of empire. For the Russians it represented a maritime line of communication to the Mediterranean, sea control of its adjacent waters and the strategic hinge of the Southern Caucasus. This was a substantial gain, and it was all down to Sazonov.
Then, as now, Russia gets a vote. What aces does Lavrov hold? At least two: strategic clarity and a plan with a chance of tactical success. Russia’s aims are to mitigate its international isolation, to defend and secure a Syrian regime loyal to Moscow (though not necessarily its leader, President Assad) and secure a Russian footprint in the region, including valuable military bases. These aims have the advantage of being clear, limited and mutually supporting and bear scrutiny far better than the west’s ill-defined, over-ambitious and under resourced efforts.
Russian strategy also has the most effective tactical instrument in the current conflict. The Syrian army is reviled and complicit in war crimes but knows what it is fighting for and, with Russian air support, it is beginning to enjoy some tactical success. Over 90 per cent of Russian air sorties are now against Islamist and opposition groups other than IS. The clear aim is to leave only two protagonists standing: the Syrian regime and IS. Faced with this choice, the West will have to reach an accommodation with Assad that is brokered through Russian mediation.
It is a dangerous strategy. Russian policy runs the risk of creating a stand-off between a Shia bloc comprising the Assad regime, Iran and Hizbollah and a Sunni bloc comprising the Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey that can only increase the poisonous sectarian tensions within the Middle East and the possibility of a regional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But it’s a plan, and, compared to the recent agonised Parliamentary debate about sending a handful of aircraft to support a rebel army of dubious provenance and doubtful loyalty, it has the advantage of being connected with reality. Right on cue, the United Nations Security Council agreed on Friday a Syrian roadmap to elections within 18 months. Limited time places a premium on strategic clarity and tactical advantage: the starting pistol has been fired and the Russians are fast out of the blocks.
Whatever the outcome, Russia cannot and will not be ignored—just as Sazonov intended.