Russia’s geopolitical success in Syria | Sunday Observer
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Russia’s geopolitical success in Syria

After decades of failed or barely successful American military interventions in West Asia, who would have thought that Russia, no longer the superpower it once was, would succeed in its intervention in that same war-torn region? Right now, having deftly supported its long-time ally Syria in combating the Western-backed so-called ‘democratic’ insurgency, Russia is helping Syrian government forces dislodge the motley collection of rebel groups from their last major southern stronghold region of Deraa.

In the past three weeks of intense fighting, Syrian government forces used their dominance of the air to pound the rebel groups into submission and, with Russian military police units acting as neutral monitors, are now supervising full rebel withdrawal from the region. Last week, the bulk of some 6,000 rebel fighters belonging to different groups surrendered their heavy weapons (automatic cannon, mortars, missile launchers) and boarded buses and trucks with their families to be taken to rebel-held northern districts of Syria. These rebels are mainly Islamist fundamentalists, including some sympathetic to ISIL (Daesh – Islamic State).

By their departure, the rebels ceded the only major border crossing in the south that they had held for 3 years. The southern border was a key access point for military supplies for the rebels from adjoining Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

This withdrawal from Deraa region is the latest of more than a dozen such supervised mass withdrawals of the rebel factions from their besieged strongholds since the Syrian rebellion began in 2011. The other withdrawals, dubbed ‘reconciliation’ programmes by Russia, were also the outcome of similar concentrated assaults by government forces, including pro-government militias, backed by Syria’s own air force as well as the superior Russian air force units.

These offensives were all notorious for their ferocity, their use of massive firepower and largely indiscriminate targeting of rebel-held areas irrespective of the proximity to civilian concentrations.

Invariably, the retreating rebels were quick to blame bombardment with chemical and gas toxins for the high civilian casualty rates and consequent demoralised retreats.

By Friday, the UN had reported that up to 220,000 civilians had been displaced in the Deraa province due to the fighting and were crowded on the Jordanian border. Amman had sealed the border to prevent another human flood to add to the more than one million displaced Syrians already in UN supervised camps in that country.

Jordan is already the semi-permanent home to nearly a million Palestinian refugees displaced from their homeland during the successive wars that saw the establishment of Israel in the aftermath of World War 2.

It is hoped that the new Russian-brokered ‘reconciliation’ programme enabling the transfer out of rebels and their families from Deraa would stabilise the situation in that region and enable the quick return of the displaced population.

How is it that the world’s sole superpower, the United States, has slipped up on its long assumed role as the world’s policeman and manager of global crises?

Much has been said in criticism of the nature and justification of some these ‘interventions’ by the US and its Western allies – the double invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the support for successive military dictatorships in Egypt. Equally negative is the memory of the 1953 toppling the popularly elected secular government of Mohamed Mossadeq in Iran and propping up of the decadent dictatorship of Shah (King) Reza Pahlevi.

But, states can recover from strategic errors and repair their international standing. In America’s case, however, no such ‘repair’ can succeed because of another long term ‘constant’ in its foreign policy towards West Asia: Washington’s unwavering support for the state of Israel. While Moscow has built up ties with a range of states in West Asia to varying degrees of intimacy, Russia (or the previous Soviet Union) has never given a special place to any single state in that region against others.

Washington, however, has been bogged down with lavish and completely biased support for Israel because of America’s domestic and political-cultural compulsions, while Russia’s involvement in West Asia has been purely realistic geo-politics. So, despite peace accords and Nobel Peace Prizes, Washington has never been able to be viewed as neutral enough to play the honest broker and facilitate productive negotiations to ensure true peace among West Asian states.

This is what has enabled Russia to finally ‘put boots on the ground’ in Syria in firm support of Damascus but still equally deal with not just most other Arab/Muslim states around but even with Israel.

The victory over ISIL in Syria was enabled by the military roles played by both the US and Russia. But the US has not been able to take more advantage of that victory whereas Moscow is forging ahead in helping Damascus crush the other rebel groups under the guise of mopping up the remnants of the fundamentalist militants.

It is Moscow that is the principal arbiter on the battlegrounds of Syria and not the US despite the presence of several hundred American troops on Syrian soil. And, even Israel seems to have realised that it is better to have a secular Baathist dictatorship continue in power in Syria rather than have that country collapse into the mess of rival militancies that is Afghanistan and Libya. Hence, Tel Aviv’s silence on the major military role being played by Russia just across the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, the world is getting engulfed in what Beijing has called the “worst ever economic war in history” launched by the US. At midnight last Friday, the United States had implemented its promised trade tariff hikes on another US $ 34 billion worth of Chinese imports and China’s promised retaliation also took effect. Beijing imposed equally high import duties on a matching $ 34 billion worth of American exports to China, now the world’s biggest single market.

In the last two months, the US has slapped high import duties on huge whole sectors of products – beginning with steel and aluminium products - imported from America’s main trading partners, namely the European Union, Canada and Mexico. Canada and the EU have already retaliated with similar duty increase on a similar volume of US products and Mexico’s newly elected government is expected to follow suit. These countries, like China, have no option if they are to maintain their balance of trade with the US and thereby protect the stability of their economies.

Economic analysts across the world are warning that this unprecedented trade war will not just undermine the warring economies and the global economy as a whole.

They point out that these unilateral acts of economic protectionism already violate existing World Trade Organisation (WTO) trading rules and, more such tit-for-tat measures will seriously damage the intricate institutional system that governs the world market and enables international growth and prosperity.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, at least Pakistan and Malaysia are doing what successive Sri Lankan governments have promised but never delivered to their people: prosecution of the highest political leaderships for rampant nepotism and corruption. Last week a Pakistani court slapped prison sentences on recently judicially ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his businesswoman daughter on conviction for massive corruption and abuse of power.

In Malaysia, too, recently elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed is also wasting no time in rooting out corruption at the highest levels – or, at least in some highest levels. Recently unseated Prime Minister Najib Razak now faces charges of billions of ringgits’ worth of corruption and malpractice and has been barred from leaving the country.

At least in Malaysia, the astute grand old man of his country’s political society, Mahathir, is all too aware that delays in prosecuting top political leaders for their wrong-doing would only result in giving time to those ousted leaders to revive their political fortunes and turn on him.