Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Vox Veritatis exclusively for SouthFront
The Syrian war develops in a manner that refutes the predictions of political scientists who are accustomed to relying on the rules of the unipolar world. Egypt, the most populous country of the Sunni Arab countries, maintains relations with Damascus, but not with its opponents, and this, taking into consideration the cooling of relations between Cairo and Riyadh, will not change neither in the short nor in the long term.
China intervened in the events in Syria. US failed the truce agreement with Russia, demonstrating their inconsistency as partners and directly threatening Moscow. Let us consider some aspects of these processes, based on the materials prepared by Y.B. Scheglovinym for the Middle East Institute.
Humiliation of US by the opposition
In connection with the failure of the US-Russian Agreement of September 9, on the establishment of the cessation of hostilities in Syria, and discussions on the subject in the UN Security Council between Washington and Moscow political analysts wonder whether the United States and their allies have tried to influence the Syrian opposition and to persuade them to obey the terms of agreement? The position of the Russian Foreign Ministry in this case is simple and logical: Moscow is not interested in what was going on in this direction. It is interested in the outcome, but there are no results.
We recognize that the United States and its allies are trying to convince the opposition to accept the terms of the armistice. These activities were classified. This refers to the September meeting of representatives of Syrian Islamist opposition with the British and American representatives in London. Syria was represented by delegates from “Jabhat Al-Nusra” (renamed “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham”), “Ahrar al-Sham” and “Jaish al-Islam.” Only the emissaries of the “Islamic state” were not present (all of these organizations are considered terrorist in Russia).
As a result, the opposition theoretically agreed to a “temporary truce”, but on a very demonstrative and humiliating for the US conditions. They demanded 50 million euros from the US and its allies for the rehabilitation of refugees and resistance fighters, as well as the opening of a massive humanitarian intervention in Aleppo and in other areas blocked by government forces. In addition to all of that, they required that the US and its allies to influence the Turkish President to provide free treatment of the wounded militants in the country’s hospitals. The Syrian opposition has complained to the Western participants of the meeting on Erdogan, who blocked the main supply lines to the militants and occupied, according to them, position of a hostile neutrality.
The opponents of the Assad regime initially did not plan to comply with the conditions of the truce. The US and its allies looked like bystanders. Washington is not in a position to influence the processes in the Syrian opposition, but has a connection with all the radical groups. The US has a complex relationship with Turkey, which is blocking the offensive of the international coalition on the Syrian “capital” of the IS Raqqa. Ankara expelled the Germans from the Incirlik base, resulting in 20 Bundeswehr helicopters and a group of advisors to be relocated to US bases in Jordan. And the Islamist segment of the Syrian opposition, speaks at the negotiations as a united front, and this causes a reasonable doubt as to the very possibility of their separation on the principle of “moderation”.
US and its allies have kept this position, when in the midst of discussions about the ways out of the Syrian dead end (which was more like an information war) they suddenly declared recognition of “Jabhat Al-Nusra” as a terrorist organization. The US Justice recognized the group as a terrorist organization since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, and this decision has not been yet annulled. Although the Pentagon has regretted the unnecessary haste of such a step. However, the recognition of terrorists as terrorist organization was not addressed to Russia, but to the Syrian opposition and to Saudi Arabia. The hidden subtext of the American statement: maneuvers of legitimation of “Jabhat Al-Nusra” by transformation or change of the name, as well as public statements about the discontinuity of relationship with the “Al-Qaeda” will not be regarded in the West more seriously.
Thus, the line is drawn under the long negotiations of Washington and Riyadh with the participation of Ankara and Doha on the transformation of the main organization of Sunni resistance in an acceptable to the international community framework for its incorporation in the negotiation process on the peaceful settlement. This is a serious signal to the KSA. The next step may be a similar action against “Ahrar al-Sham”, as it is insisted by Moscow. Inflexibility of Riyadh regarding this matter has a dual nature. First, the traditional stubbornness of Bedouins, and secondly, the hope that the new occupant of the White House will change the policy concerning Syria – which is doubtful. The new president is likely to continue supporting the Sunni resistance in Syria, but with mandatory refusal from radical ideology.
However, the US are to blame for the indifference of the Syrian opposition to their ideology. Since the beginning of the crisis, they took the position of a bystander and made no attempt to structure a “convenient” for them opposition in the face of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as they were offered to do in Ankara. The reason – the unwillingness of President Obama to deal with Erdogan. As a result, the opposition segment was given to Riyadh, which in turn involved Ankara in their project, as a result, the jihadists had become the leading force among the opponents of Assad. The beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria on September 30, 2015 caused Washington to be more active, but the period during which they could have influenced the situation was over.
Low on toner
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on September 28 at a briefing in Washington that the situation in Syria could get even worse. When asked what means of impact the United States have and if one of them could be the arming the population in Syrian Aleppo, he replied: “I do not think anyone of us would like to see a situation in which other governments supplied weapons or strengthened their support of rebel groups … But this is a possible scenario.” Toner emphasized that he was talking about other governments, and that the US are not considering such a scenario.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the officials involved in national security issues discussed other options regarding the resolution of the Syrian crisis, which do not revolve around diplomacy. He did not specify what options have been proposed, and added that Russia is interested in ending the violence in Syria, since the extremists could harm Russia’s security and attack Russian cities.
These statements are an obvious bluff. The offensive of government troops in eastern Aleppo is the only correct response to the attempts of Americans to tighten the process of demarcation of the opposition forces in Syria fixing the status quo with military alternative to the Assad regime. Their two main threats – to remove the barriers not permitting Saudi Arabia to supply terrorists “Jabhat Al-Nusra” (aka “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham”) with modern weapons, including not only anti-tank missiles, but also MANPADS, and the introduction of an additional package of sanctions against Russia. Other threats such as terrorist attacks on Russian cities cannot be considered seriously. Kirby’s statement demonstrates that Americans act spontaneously. The Obama administration “is packing baggage” and is incapable of multi-step combinations.
Neither the current, nor the new president will give an order to supply weapons to the factions, which the US Ministry of Justice considers terrorist. These are serious reputational risks. The maximum that Washington can do is give Riyadh permission to begin with such operations. And here arises the question of Ankara’s position, which is ambiguous as a result of worsening of Turkish-American relations and Erdogan’s reluctance to once again spoil relations with Moscow because of concerns about the excessive strengthening of Wahhabi groups – opponents supervised by the Turks of “Muslim Brotherhood”.
US Intervention by invading and heavy bombing the positions of Syrian government forces to prevent their offensive in Aleppo is unreal. As for the anti-Russian sanctions, they will have the character of a demonstration, not a realistic one. All possible economic sanctions were used by the Americans in connection with Ukraine. This will only untie the hands of Moscow and Damascus, resetting the influence of the West on the situation through consultations with Russia in Geneva.
The nervous reaction of US is understandable. Preserving the offensive dynamics in Aleppo for later with the prospect of the final “cleanup” of the city means breakage in the fighting and activation of settlement of the situation on the basis of separate joining of Syrian settlements for a truce with Damascus. This is equivalent to a sharp increase of Moscow’s influence, to strengthening the position of Assad and to a political debacle in Washington. But Americans have no real levers of influence on the situation in Syria. The attack on Raqqa was postponed due to Ankara’s position, and an attempt to open a “second front” in Deir ez-Zor, with the help of the Syrian oppositionists that were prepared in Jordan, failed.
MANPADS to terrorists
At the beginning of the diplomatic and media campaign to blackmail Russia after the predictable failure of the Russian-US agreement the United States have given the “green light” to “limited supply” with MANPADS systems to the Syrian “opposition”, stationed along the Syrian-Turkish border. The decision was made on 24th September in Riyadh at a meeting of representatives of the US military and intelligence units, KSA, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
The central theme of the discussion was Washington’s consent to the large-scale supply of MANPADS to the opposition, which was opposed by the representatives of the CIA. At the same time, Americans were subjected to enormous pressure from colleagues of the Gulf countries that insisted on the necessity of this in connection with the threatening situation on the fronts. Arabian monarchy have also asked to renew the supply of anti-tank TOW systems.
The final agreement reckons for limited supplies of non-US MANPADS of latest technological level to the limited number of rebel groups on the Syrian-Turkish border with a guarantee that they will not fall into the hands of “Islamic State” or “Jabhat Al-Nusra.” This is what the representatives of the US State Department meant when speaking about the imminent increase in the loss of the Russian contingent and discussions on the non-diplomatic impact on Moscow.
What are the prospects? Americans withstood the pressure of Saudis and insisted on a limited number of supplied MANPADS (no more than 30 sets). Washington did not begin with the implementation of “Afghani scheme” in Syria with the supply of “Stingers”. This is the test step to put pressure on Moscow and a reassuring gesture to the Allies of “anti-terrorist coalition.” From this agreement Turkey gained the most, since the rebel groups positioned along the border are those groups that are in the “security zone” between Jarablusom and Azaz. However, there are also deployed troops of “Ahrar al-Sham” and “Nurradin al-Zanki”, in the hands of which MANPADS could really fall.
Can Turks guarantee that MANPADS will not end up with these groups across Syrian territory? If that happens, it will mean that Turkey deliberately went to such a move. So far, experts believe, this scenario is unlikely: the Turkish side is more interested in additional security guarantees for their groups in the border area. Ankara is extremely concerned about the actions of the Russian and Syrian aircraft.
In October 2015 the United States has allowed limited supply of MANPADS to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Then Chinese made MANPADS were delivered to the Free Syrian Army in the south of Syria and to the militants of “Ahrar al-Sham.” Some of them ended up in the hands of “Jabhat Al-Nusra”. Now the supply of MANPADS is likely to be only to “Ahrar al-Sham” and two or three local groups: Jordan’s security services oppose such operations near their border. In 2015, the Jordanians were also against the supply of MANPADS, fearing that it would lead to an escalation of tensions in the kingdom.
The transfer of MANPADS to pro Saudi groups in Aleppo is being discussed at the White House. They are inclined to believe that MANPADS may be located in Idlib and are covering the staff centers of the opposition, but not in Aleppo, despite the insistence of Riyadh. The guarantees of not using the MANPADS against international aviation coalition led by the US, which were received from Saudi Arabia, Washington believes to be insufficient.
It can be noted that for now the interests of the US, KSA, Qatar and Turkey regarding Syria remain the same. The priority is given to the preservation of the Sunni resistance core in eastern Aleppo. There is no talk about a large-scale US aid to the anti-Assad forces. Washington decided to play pinpricks, believing it will force Moscow to resume negotiations on a truce in Aleppo without the commitments from the US in respect to the disengagement of opponents of the Assad regime into “good” and “bad”.
The defeat in Aleppo can lead to sad consequences for the anti-Assad coalition, although the loss for its participants is different. For Saudi Arabia it is the establishment of conditions for the onset of an offensive of the Damascus military forces in Idlib. For the US – proof of their failure in Syria and loss to Russia. This will force Washington to take risks, fraught with an increase in the vulnerability of their own passenger airliners and military aircraft. Riyadh in this situation does not refuse from the massive logistical support of anti-Assad groups, transferring it to a new level.
The attack of the suicide-bomber, which happened on the Chinese Embassy on August 30th in Bishkek, strengthened Beijing’s desire to gain a foothold in the countries of the coalition opposing the “Islamic state.” The attack occurred two weeks after President Xi Jinping announced the accession of their country to fight against the IS in alliance with Damascus and Moscow, which seriously complicates the life for the international coalition led by the United States. China, for the first time in 25 years, moved away from non-intervention in the events not related to its economic interests that are happening in other countries. The announcement of China’s participation on the side of Damascus in the preparation of Special Forces and in provision of specialists in the fight against terror, is a weighty reinforcement of Moscow’s efforts in Syrian.
It was the result of lobbying the Ministry of State Security (MSS) of the PRC and it justifies the need for a more active position of China in opposing IS, including in Syria. It was insisted by the experts of the Middle East Chinese Institute (CICIR) – units of the 8th Department of the MGB, explaining it by the fact that several hundred Uighur separatists are fighting with the IS. The main emphasis will be set by the PRC operatives of MGB in Syria on their detection and neutralization.
The CICIR report concludes that there is a need to use the Russian experience in the containment of radicals. Russia underwent the brunt of the fight with them on their territory without waiting for them to arrive in the Russian Federation. The authors conclude that there is a necessity to support Assad as the only alternative to the transformation of Syria into a stronghold of Islamist terrorism with a perspective of its use by Uyghurs as a rear base. They came to a conclusion regarding the internal political risks of social instability in the Central Asian republics and the expansion on this background of IS supporters in defiance of the secular authoritarian regimes.
Central Asian vector of the security forces was suggested to make one of the priorities for China. Syria is authorized to oversee China’s Ministry of State Security. Political contacts are made through the China Institute of International Studies and CICIR. Assad’s adviser Buseyna Shaaban is authorized to maintain contacts with Chinese partners.
Beijing is using a strategy of preventive strikes on the supporters of Islamist and separatist Uyghur organizations abroad in the areas of their activity and training. Example: Chinese special services are active in Thailand, which has become a transit point for Uyghur separatists into Turkey and the countries of Southeast Asia, from where they are sent to the jihadists. The Chinese managed to convince Thai authorities to deport to China the Uyghurs that have received from the embassy residency of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Bangkok Turkish passports.
Operatives of the MSS of China played a crucial role in the eradication of Sheikh Abu Vardan Santoso in Indonesia on July 18th that pledged allegiance to the IS, under which the Chinese Uyghurs fought. MSS of China has gone on an unprecedented partnership with the Indonesian BIN and Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which could not establish the whereabouts of Santoso. The Chinese went on decoding agents to neutralize Santoso and his group. This shows that Beijing estimates that the activation of the Uyghur radicalism in China is highly possible.
Characteristically, after the statements of Xi Jinping to intensify their influence in Syria, the US Congress Commission on monitoring the situation in the sphere of economy and security in the PRC has requested the head of the US National Intelligence information on the amount of data regarding Uyghur activity transferred to Beijing through the partner channels. It was pointed on the necessity for revision of the transmitted materials in order for the authorities of the PRC not to be able to use them for the purposes of repression against Uyghur activists of the liberation movement.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute