As I write this, observers report a huge buildup of Russian military forces on Ukraine’s borders. We are talking about 7000 or more troops already inside Ukraine and some 50,000 massing outside. Besides scores of howitzers, rocket launchers, and armored vehicles the estimates specify 100 tanks inside and another 400 tanks outside the porous border. You could call it an escalation; the invasion began with Crimea and moved to Donbas and hasn’t stopped since. But that would be a euphemism. Actually, we are witnessing preparation for outright war along the lines of the Georgian protocol: first arm separatists, then send in Russian troops disguised as separatists, stir and bring to boil and then invade full throttle. Two other facts need considering. Putin just signed a deal to expand Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Turkey’s Erdogan called Putin to complain about Syria, and according to some sources a roaring argument ensued in which Putin told Erdogan to stop trying to unseat Assad and even threatening war if Erdogan interfered militarily. Here’s an item in a Turkish newspaper saying so (in Turkish).
Why all this now? In this space I’ve written numerous times that Moscow operates strategically, with global co-ordination and with precise timing. Indeed, that’s the entire message of the recent book I wrote with Douglas Schoen about Russia and China and the New Cold War -- that they have a game plan and we don’t. Mr. Schoen and I started the project when Putin’s rampage seemed likely but still in the future. A couple of years later, as we finished, everything we set out to warn against was happening in the present. It was so utterly predictable, once you saw the pattern. It didn’t take much seeing -- but nobody wanted to. Now they can’t not. Still, we’re all mesmerized and irresolute in the face of Putin’s stop-go rhythms, his almost incredible mendacity hidden in plain sight, his straight-faced brutality, as he makes his moves. We refuse to grasp the full scope of his strategic orchestration of global incidents. Partly because it seems audacious and cynical beyond all plausibility, partly because we in the West are incapable of it these days, mostly because we shy from sparking a world war. That too is in his calculus. That is what emperors do; they make such calculations and push forward. We still think that empires and emperors are a thing of the past, very 19th century. But the age of empire has resurfaced: Iran’s Shiite empire, Putin’s own, the Caliphate yearnings of ISIS, Erdogan’s own delusions of a Caliphate.
Repeatedly I’ve written that Moscow expanded its power during, because of, the ten years we in the West slogged about mired in Islamic wars. Surely Putin didn’t orchestrate that interlude, you might say. Perhaps not but he took full advantage. Through his ally, Syria, he made sure Iraq cost us trillions while insurgents came across the border. He knew about war fatigue -- a lesson we had taught his ilk in Afghanistan. Now that we’re wading back into the mire anew Putin will move his pieces. Surely he didn’t plan for ISIS, for the Iraqi army’s collapse, for the beheadings that caught our conscience and lured President Obama back into the Mideast? Surely not? Here [appended below] is a column in which I argue that Putin did just that, via the Shiite crescent’s co-ordination, via Assad’s deliberate empowering of ISIS, via a gameplan that goes way back to the second war of Chechnya.
Admittedly, I do get a couple of things wrong. The price of oil certainly didn’t go up. But that’s a side issue for the present. Iraqi PM Maliki lost his job -- which didn’t seem central and from a strategic perspective doesn’t change things. I wasn’t far off all else. We ended up fighting side by side with Iran. Putin launched his East Ukraine campaign as we geared up for Iraq. The pressure of sanctions abated, as did initiatives to investigate Iran-Syria money laundering. Much of the fighting is now between Sunni factions in Iraq and Syria, though it took a couple of months longer than I thought. In short, the rise of ISIS helped Putin and his Shiite axis allies. I stand by my argument that Putin exploited, exploits, our Iraq-Syria distraction, may even have planned it. In order to invade Ukraine.
As the US stutters toward a nuclear deal with Iran, Putin has just made it much harder by upping the ante with his own deal to expand Tehran’s nuclear program massively. He certainly doesn’t want his Shiite ally to turn coat and befriend the West. That would lead to a sea-change. Iran would become a bridge by which Central Asia’s natural resources flow out to the West rather than being bottled up and serving only Russia and China. The Iranians have grown tired of dependency on their former 19th century imperial hegemon in Moscow. They’re also tired of having China as their main trading partner; the Chinese strike very hard bargains and often don’t stick to them. Tehran really does want a deal with the West. They may have just blown it. But the US might not be able to backtrack so easily, being now committed to the ISIS war alongside Iran. We’ve been snookered.
Meanwhile, Erdogan. He didn’t just call Putin out of the blue about Syria. He first signed a deal with Turkmenistan for a gas pipeline across the Caspian to deliver supplies all the way to Europe. Is there anyone who doesn’t grasp the import of this? A Europe liberated from Russian gas imperatives might even stand up to Moscow’s bullying -- on Ukraine and elsewhere. Erdogan’s friendly phone chat undoubtedly pulsed with that subtext. As in “Hello Vladimir, I’m going to funnel Turkmen gas to Europe unless you stop backing Assad.” Hence Putin’s anger. Expect more PKK attacks in Turkey and a rise in rebel violence in Chechnya. The pipeline should be finished by 2018. As the Russian economy dives and Moscow’s gas leverage begins to crumble, while the US wrestles and wrangles with the Mideast, Putin has to act on his megalo-expansion plans quickly. Facts on the ground. Now happening in Ukraine.
I have mentioned before in this space that Syria’s Assad released hundreds of jihadists from his jails and allowed them to join the opposition. This information was first leaked by British Intelligence sources about a year ago in the Daily Telegraph. Here is a recent (rather long) chronicle in Politico of the story, itemizing how Assad let all the prisoners be housed together, how they inevitably networked and bonded which meant they co-ordinated quickly once outside, and how they ultimately split into factions http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/al-qaeda-iraq-syria-108214_Page6.html#.U6nckbcU_oZ . Much of this, as even the prisoners acknowledge, is exactly what Assad intended, because very soon their draconian actions (strict sharia, beheadings etc) sullied the image of the Syrian opposition in the world’s eyes. We can add to all this our own speculation that Assad likely placed his own spies among the prisoners with orders to go out and commit deliberate outrages. I have also noted previously that this ruse de guerre by Assad suspiciously echoes what happened in Chechnya during the 1990’s when jihadists infiltrated the ranks of Chechen rebels and took over their independence struggle, committed sundry atrocities and alienated world opinion which allowed Putin to carpet bomb them to oblivion along with many innocents. This after the rebels duly fragmented into warring groups. Nobody at the time saw an active Russian hand in the maneuver though one heard all manner of reports that Russian border guards constantly allowed rebels to pass through their lines.
Now let’s look at Iraq. The first anomaly that should have struck the astute observer in the recent ISIL surge onto Mosul and beyond: tens of thousands of pro-government troops ran away instantly when faced with an estimated 7000 militants. Everybody commented on how suddenly the government lines collapsed. Suddenly and all at once. No extended straggling fire-fights, no hold-outs by groups of well-trained troops lasting days or weeks. This is unusual for street-by-street combat. Then one read that, at least in some places, direct orders had come from Brigade HQ for soldiers in Mosul to abandon posts. Brigade HQ itself had itself abandoned ship very early on. The Turkish press reported the same concerning Iraqi troops guarding the Turkish consulate there, which led to the kidnapping of some 80 Turkish citizens by ISIL.
Now, this scenario can certainly be seen as a simple panicky order of withdrawal by top brass in order to save themselves and their soldiers from harm. It’s strange that nobody has been punished to date for desertion but let’s keep an open mind as we go forward. And let’s also keep in mind that Moscow has backed and advised the Shiite crescent powers for some time, namely Iran, Iraq, Assad, Hezbollah, for numerous reasons not least because the continuum gives Putin a front against Israel in Lebanon via Hezbollah. He used it before he invaded Georgia in 2008 by threatening to supply arms to Hezbollah if Israel continued to sell anti-air and anti-tank rockets to Georgia. Israel promptly stopped, and according to some sources even gave Russia the digital codes for the rockets they had already sold, thus neutralizing them.
At this point, a skeptical journalist or indeed any intelligent observer might begin to wonder a teeny bit about what is really going on in Iraq. But, alas, our newsmedia seems to lack all capacity to apply historical context or strategic perspective to dramatic crisis events. Instead, everyone bundles onto the noise wagon: who lost Iraq; is Bush or Obama more to blame; was Iraq doing ok until US troops withdrew, and the like. The conventional narrative has it that Prime Minister Maliki’s corrupt and one-sided rule triggered the collapse and perhaps that is sufficient explanation. Still, there’s no harm in probing a little further. How much does Maliki lose ultimately? And the most obvious question -- cui bono? Who benefits from Syrian ISIL and Saddamites overrunning Iraqi Sunni areas? What is the likely immediate strategic consequence?
Let us begin with the most obvious instantaneous effects: a predictable roar of outrage in the western media, predictable in the extreme. We should by now understand how effectively Putin, Assad et al have learned to manipulate our newscycles. For example, while all eyes were turned to Iraq’s debacle, Putin began to send in tanks to Ukraine. As we’ve noted, using the western media, Assad had already successfully blackened the opposition and stanched the flow of western aid to them. So in the case of Iraq and the media fallout,,,ISIL’s triumphs had the desired effect: President Obama was forced to back away from the Sunni side yet again and is even now sending US advisors to help the Iraqis. Let’s be clear: in this regional war, Iran-Iraq-Assad comprises one allied, co-ordinated side. There was a point when it looked like US airpower would support Iraqi ground troops beefed up by Iranians. In other words, the US and Iran would be fighting on the same side. It may yet happen. Then, also, with Iraq’s Shia government about to cave, with all the blame being aimed at Obama, just how likely was he to persist in ratcheting up sanctions on the Shiite alliance holding off the jihadis? Goodbye to all that, goodbye to the pending sanctions in Congress on Lebanese Hezbollah banks, goodbye to increased pressure on Tehran’s nukes, goodbye to further scrutiny of Assad’s chemical weapons, at least for now. You get the point.
Finally, what exactly has Maliki lost in the debacle? The Sunni areas? He was neglecting and abusing them anyhow. Now he has a chance to bomb them indiscriminately, as Putin did in Chechnya, as Assad has in Syria. Maliki knows that the Iraqi Sunni population is snookered either way. They get beheaded by ISIL if they refuse daughters in marriage to jihadis. They will end up longing for the return of benign neglect from Baghdad, but even for that they will have to fight ISIL themselves as they once rose up against Zawahiri’s ‘Al Quaeda in Mesopotamia’ because of AQ’s abuses. Result: the Sunni opposition will be fractured all over again. This time, though, the cracks will extend throughout the newly created caliphate zone into Syria. In other words, ISIL will have to fight Shiites in front, Sunnis from within and its Syrian rivals, Al Nusra, in the rear. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that Zawahiri and Al Quaeda declared open war on ISIL/ISIS many months ago. Here’s a prediction: much of the bloodshed after say, a month, will occur in Sunni areas from intra-Sunni fighting.
Meanwhile the Turks have to re-assess all their support for the Jihadis. The Jordanians ditto, since the jihadis have just taken a border crossing near Jordan. The Kurds have had to come in on the side of Baghdad. Weapons shipments from Moscow and Tehran will suddenly start getting through to the Shiite alliance. The Sanctions regime will take a long breather. Who stands to gain from the all the fallout? Assad, Maliki, Tehran, Hezbollah. Oh and the price of oil will surge. Who gains from that? Vladimir Putin.
Just a theory.