Russia’s not Leaving: Syria is about old-Fashioned Sphere of Influence, not Oil

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russia is not going to yield its sphere of influence in Syria to Donald Trump or anyone else. Russia has all but won the Syrian War as we speak. There is no longer any feasible pathway for the rebels to take the capital of Damascus. The non-ISIL groups have lost all major urban areas except for Ghouta near Damascus. They are bottled up there and in rural northern Idlib province, and likely the regime will overwhelm them in both places over the next year, with Russian air support. ISIL itself is on the verge of losing everything in Iraq and of being rolled up, over the next year or two, in Eastern Syria.

BBC Monitoring translated from Interfax for April 10,

“Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov . . . said . . . “The American side has thus demonstrated its complete unwillingness to cooperate on Syria in any form or take account of each others’ interests and concerns. . . The return to pseudo-attempts to settle [the Syrian conflict] in the spirit of reciting ‘Assad must go’ mantras cannot bring anyone closer to political settlement in Syria,” he said. Peskov was commenting on remarks by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who earlier called on Russia to distance itself from Assad.”

Source: Interfax news agency, Moscow, in Russian 1015 gmt 10 Apr 17

I think we should take Moscow seriously on this.

What can be said is that there are four major local forces in Syria: 1) the western urban regime stretching from Damascus to Latakia and Aleppo; 2) the fundamentalist rebels, whether moderate Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi Jihadis such as the Freemen of Syria or the Syrian Conquest Front; 3) The YPG leftist Kurds in the northeast and 4) ISIL.

The West and Northwest are a Russian sphere of influence, and the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Russians have, as I said, all but defeated the fundamentalist rebels there. (There are non-fundamentalist rebels, especially in Ghouta, but they frankly have never amounted to anything on the battlefield). The regime’s occasional use of poison gas is intended as a force multiplier, since at a low 50,000 or so men under arms they can barely control the country, much less take back big swathes of territory, even with intensive Russian air support. The other force multiplier is total war tactics such as starving out civilian populations among whom guerrilla groups hide out, or deliberately hitting hospitals and other essential service-providers in rebel areas. While the regime may become more cautious about the use of gas, it may simply double down on indiscriminate bombing.

A caution: on the map above, the reddish areas under regime control look geographically small. They actually contain about 75 percent of the population.

The east is an American sphere of influence, where the US is backing leftist Kurds to take on ISIL.

There is also a small strip of land north of Aleppo that is a Turkish sphere of influence, where fundamentalist rebels are still operating, but it doesn’t amount to much and Turkey backed off challenging either Russia or the US-Kurdish alliance in any frontal way.

The Syrian conflict is a challenge to economic theories of imperialism, whether that of J. A. Hobson or that of Vladimir Lenin. It is not about markets. It is not about monopoly capital. It is not about oil or hydrocarbon resources. It is not about pipelines. Other Middle East conflicts have taken place that could be explained that way. But today’s Syria isn’t such a case.

There simply is not much money to be made in Syria. Before the war it had a small population of 22 million. Its gross domestic product of $77 bn is less than that of the island of Puerto Rico and less than half that of Peru, one of the poorer countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Syria was pumping about 400,000 barrels a day of petroleum, which is next to nothing. One fracked field in North Dakota does that. Saudi Arabia does 10 mn b/d and Iraq does 3. Nor is the conflict about pipelines. Nowadays both oil and liquefied natural gas can be inexpensively exported by supertanker and while a pipeline might be nice it wouldn’t be worth fighting a war over.

Syria is important to Russia because

1. It is near to Russia and Chechen fundamentalist rebels are operating there in alliance with al-Qaeda and with Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). It is unacceptable to Russia for the fundamentalist rebels to win and sweep into Damascus, since this development would potentially destabilize the Russian Caucasus.

2. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is a neo-nationalist who feels as though Russia got a raw deal from the US and NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia was reduced to a weak joke, and lost the spheres of influence that characterize a Great Power. It has lost even nearby assets such as the Ukraine. It lost Libya. Syria was a place where Putin could show the flag and bring home some victories.

Syria on the other hand is not important to the US. Syria’s alliance with Iran makes it inconvenient for both of the major US allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the Israeli security establishment is divided about whether it is better to leave al-Assad in power or to welcome the Sunni fundamentalists into Damascus in order to weaken the Shiite Hizbullah in Lebanon. After all, an al-Qaeda state next door would be much worse than a little isolated militia like Hizbullah. Saudi Arabia has no such reservations, but its proxies in Syria have mostly been defeated and it can’t do anything more there except play spoiler and encourage what will amount, after the war is over, to mere terrorism. Aside from the Iran consideration, the US has no stake in Syria except to deprive Daesh/ ISIL of a base there from which to attack Europe. But the US cannot defeat ISIL without de facto strengthening the al-Assad regime.

All this is why Russia will remain in Syria and will have most of it as its sphere of influence. Russia has clear motivations and clear goals there, a strong ally with most of the population under its control, and a practical plan for accomplishing them, which has worked well if sanguinarily so far.

In contrast, the US has no obvious motivation to be in Syria except fighting Daesh. Its policies are therefore muddled. It is damaging its relationship with a big important country, Turkey (pop. 78 mn., GDP $800 bn), by its alliance with the small PYD Syrian Kurdish population of some 2 million, for the instrumental purpose of rolling up Daesh. Maybe the military-industrial complex in the US would like a war just to make some money, and maybe the Neoconservatives would like a war to contain Iran. But neither of them is likely to be able to dictate to Trump, who likely hasn’t given up on better relations with Putin and doesn’t need either of those groups to be reelected.

My guess is that the Tomahawk strikes were impulsive and a one-off. The Russian-dominated status quo is not significantly affected, and there isn’t an early prospect of it so being.

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Related video:

CGTN: “Iran, Russia agree on more coordination in Syria, says Iranian president”

22 Responses

  1. Ka-boom!

    I was trending towards this conclusion already, thank you for providing the detailed analysis that leads towards the conclusion of your last paragraph: “My guess is that the Tomahawk strikes were impulsive and a one-off. The Russian-dominated status quo is not significantly affected, and there isn’t an early prospect of it so being.”

  2. One tends to forget that the US and Russia have been pawing the ground either side of Syria for a long time. Wikileaks has pulled a 1986 memo from the recently declassified CIA documents which puts the present situation into a broader perspective. link to cia.gov . It’s revealing how much has remained unchanged over the last 30 years. Trump, however, may break the mould since he appears to have no interest in diplomacy but simply seeks clear decks and peace and quiet to forge one to one trade deals, and while much of the diplomatic world is selecting its cutlery, he just uses he hands.

  3. Sound reminiscent?,,,”It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Churchill in 1939.

    Speaking of that era …hearing neocons gush about the $80million rocket attack (There’s a new sheriff in town) whose damage was repaired the next day you would think it was comparable to the fall of Berlin.

  4. The Guardian reports there is slave trade in present day Libya; Russia knows that if it lets Syria go the imperialists will eventually have slave trade in the whole ME and beyond, including Russia. This is very serious business because the Russian may also think “give me liberty or give me death.”

  5. Quoting Professor Cole – “My guess is that the Tomahawk strikes were impulsive and a one-off.” The question should be whose impulse? Eric sez Ivanka made daddy do it.

    link to washingtonexaminer.com

    Ivanka now has her own body count. Seven dead and nine maimed. So far.

    “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

    – Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2017

    Got it.

    • “Eric Trump says his ‘heartbroken and outraged’ sister Ivanka helped persuade their father to strike Syria” by Eliza Relman – link to businessinsider.com

      I wonder if Ivanka was equally heartbroken when Israel’s Operation Protective Edge slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian children in Gaza.

  6. The logic and realities here seem to be pretty clearcut. What remains is to discount simple posing to the contrary, as the administration at some level perhaps understands these things.

    However, the impulsiveness that unleashed those missles is not factored in, so all bets remain on the table. While we can reasonably bet on the Russian reaction, what we cannot anticipate is Trumps, personally.

    It was encouraging to see the Nimitz task force heading for Korea, suggesting those missiles were as much a signal to NK as anything else. Which suggest there is some thought going into these decisions, somewhere in the administration.

    Trump is clearly unqualified and dangerous. But, when you’ve got lemons, make lemonade. If his style and impulses can be managed by more thoughtful people there is hope. It may not hold much for a progressive agenda, but at least for surviving Trump.

    • Encouraging? Bombing peter to intimidate Paul. That is our seasoned policy? I hope Japan and South Korea have the final say on how far the military escalation will go including the use of nuclear weapons.

  7. One addition to the list: A warm water port that allows Russia to project its influence in the Mediterranean in line with a long-standing Kremlin ambition that goes back to the Czarist era.

    • Until they went into Syria seriously in late 2015, the Russians barely bothered with that little base at Tartous.

      • True, but despite it’s seemingly lack of practical utility until 2015, they’ve signed a new fifty year lease on the base.

    • If the Russians truly want a warm-water port in the Med to project naval power, they could probably obtain one by wooing the Greeks away from their NATO alignment. Greece is poor and desperate and there is no civil war to complicate matters. And there is probably a better port facility available than little Tartous.

  8. USA critics of Syrian prez Assad should be required to preface their condemnations with: ‘I recognize that we recently elected a sadistic buffoon as our president, but …’

  9. I personally think Russia’s (and Putin’s) feelings are hurt, having been sidelined by the Western allies in the ’90s, with the West actually gloating at the collapse of the Soviet Union. Iran is fed up by the West not living up to the terms of the nuclear agreement, without any removal of the sanctions. So Trump needs to prove domestically his independence from Russia, while Russia and its allies fed up with this ‘sole Super Power’ throwing its weight around, we’ve got the recipe for real fireworks over there. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and work hard to get ALL the parties to get together for talks, but right now I’m not optimistic. And considering the tensions around the DPRK, Trump may get his wish ‘why have nuclear weapons if you can’t use them’

    • China would move to cover Russia if the situation looked like getting out of hand, and vice versa. The last thing either wants is to find itself face to face, one to one, with the US.

  10. the pentagon needs civil war and failed states. militant extremism requires military intervention. interventions create more civil war, failed states, and militant extremism. it is known as supply and demand. the industry is war. it doesn’t matter if there is natural resources or crucial real estate. civil war is itself the commodity. civil war equals regime change equals armament sales and armament use and raison d’etre.

  11. As was said elsewhere, demonization of an opponent can end up driving policy, especially if the leader is simple-minded. He just might have decided that regime-change is the only acceptable alternative?

  12. Is it not true that:
    1) “the largest natural gas field in the world lies under the Persian Gulf and is shared by Iran and Qatar, the latter of which has forged close ties with the European Union?” – Sean Gordon, The Globe and Mail
    2)” Two weeks ago, Russia and Iran held high-level talks about deepening their energy ties?” – Sean Gordon, The Globe and Mail
    3) “Only 35% of the European Union’s gas demand is met by domestic production, with the rest imported mainly from Russia (40%), Norway (30%), Algeria (13%) and 8% from Qatar. By 2025, the EU is expected to be importing over 80% of its natural gas?” William Engdahl, The Russian Insider

    Does the argument that by 2025 Russia will want as much LNG as possible to sell to Europe? Russia helps rebuild Syria in exchange for access and control of the pipeline’s development and operation. I am sure I am missing something.

    • You’re missing something. International sanctions were all that kept Iran from developing LNG. Now Shell or Total or someone will, and they will ship it on the seas to Europe. Going from Iran with natural gas to Europe anyway can be done through Turkey. Iran does not border Syria, and volatile gas pipelines can’t go through rabidly Salafi anti-Iranian provinces.

      There is *no* gas pipeline explanation for the Syrian war. This is not about hydrocarbons.

  13. What is the true support for Assad within his demographic strong-hold?

    Obviously you don’t want to switch you commander in mid-fight. But I would expect that many Alawites realize that he is a road-block for a peaceful post-war Syria, and also blame him for allowing the country to slide into civil war to begin with.

    It seems to me it is in Russia’s best interest to find somebody who is loyal to them but doesn’t hail from Assad’s extended family, and step up the pressure to switch out the Syrian leadership.

    Surly they can find some nice Russian Datscha for the Assad clan where they are sheltered from the Geneva war crime court?

    • You need to talk to some Syrian Allawites, Christians, secular Sunnis. They might have wavered in 2011-2012 but now they fear it is the regime or the Salafi Jihadis, who will kill them all.

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