A very nice article from the Wall Street Journal, about Russia’s new role in Syria, titled “U.S. Eyes Russia-Iran Split in Bid to End Syria Conflict”, November 2015. According to the article, after the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, there is an increasing pressure on the United States and Europe to cooperate with Russia in Syria against the Islamic State and ISIS. France is very active in diplomatically pushing for a coalition between France, United States and Russia against ISIS in Syria.
According to the article, the Americans, the Europeans, the Israelis and the Arabs, would all like to see Russia distancing herself a bit from Iran in Syria. And indeed, according to WSJ the Russians are distancing themselves a bit from Iran, since they are discussing the possibility of the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad stepping down, while Iran does not accept this scenario. The article also mentions that during the previous centuries Russia and Iran have been traditional rivals, especially in the region of Caucasus.
On the other hand, according the WSJ, the Americans and the Europeans are not sure whether the Russians are indeed serious about distancing themselves from Iran, because the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, does not accept any precondition on Assad’s removal for an end to be reached on the Syrian conflict. But I believe that’s a very reasonable reaction from the Russians, because the Russians would probably be willing to jeopardize their relationship with the Iranians only if they could sort things out with the West, but that has not happened yet. But despite the American and European doubts about the Russian stance over the Assad regime, the WSJ says that there is a growing pressure in the United States and Europe to form an alliance with Russia in Syria.
According to WSJ, Putin met with the Saudis and the Israelis, and the Saudis requested from him to let Assad go, and the Israelis requested that Russia prevents the Iranians and the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah from using Lebanon and Syria to attack Israel.
Therefore we see that with the large Russian military presence in Syria, an enhanced role for Russia might be a good thing for the Americans, the Europeans, the Israelis and the Arabs. It might even be positive for the Turks. Only the Iranians would be hurt under this scenario.
The Arabs of the Persian Gulf
For the Arabs of the Gulf, especially for the Saudis, an enhanced Russian influence in Syria will ensure that Syria is not under Iranian control. And the main Saudi rival is Iran and not Russia. If Russia did not exist in Syria, Syria would come under Turkish, or Iranian or Saudi influence. However it is more likely that Syria would come under Turkish or Iranian influence rather than the Saudi one. Therefore Russia might be the best feasible outcome for Saudi Arabia in Syria, given that both the Russians and the Saudis will be hurt if the Iranians and the Iraqis sent their oil and gas to Europe through Syria.
The Saudis also have many problems with the Turks, because from 2003 Turkey became an islamist country, and started claiming the leadership of the Islamic World, held until then by Saudi Arabia. Becoming the leader of the Caliphate would also give Turkey a greater role over the oil and gas of the Persian Gulf. See “The Intra-Arab War for Oil 1950-1970”.
Of course one could argue that in 2011 the Russians, actually Gazprom, proposed to Iran and Iraq to constructed the Shiite (Iran-Iraq-Syria) pipeline, and this pipeline would hurt the Saudis. That’s true, but the only reason that Russia proposed this pipeline was because she wanted to prevent the Sunni (Qatar-Turkey-Europe) pipeline. See “Who is Responsible for the War and the Immigrants”.
In reality the Iranian and Iraqi oil and gas would hurt both the Russian, who provide a large part of the European oil and gas imports, and also the Saudis, who provide a smaller part of these imports. The Russians and the Saudis would prefer that Iranian and Iraqi oil and gas would not reach the Mediterranean Sea through Syria.
For the Israelis, under certain conditions, an enhanced Russian role in Syria could be a blessing. I repeat under certain conditions. The Israelis have a much better relationship with the Russians than they have with the Iranians and the Turks. The Israelis are basically at war with the Iranians and the Turks, with the Iranians having as an official policy the annihilation of Israel. This is not an official policy for Turkey, but Erdogan has also said that the Muslims must march to Jerusalem. Therefore, at least for now, it would be much better for the Israelis if the Russian are in charge in Syria, as long as the Russians are a bit distanced from Turkey and Iran. That way Russia could guarantee Israel that the Iranians and Hezbollah would not use Syria to attack Israel, and Russia and Israel could fight ISIS together in Syria. That’s of course an ideal scenario because Russia needs Turkey and Iran, but maybe Russia and Israel could meet somewhere in the middle.
For Turkey Syria is very important because Iran can send oil and gas to Europe through Syria, and that would undermine Turkey’s ability to ask from Iran higher discounts, and also cooperation of Iranian and Turkish companies in the Iranian energy projects. It is true that Turkey would prefer to control Syria herself, but at least Turkey knows that Russia would be hurt too if the Iranians used Syria to send oil and gas to Europe. Thus, under the current threat of facing an alliance of Russia, United States and France in Syria, Turkey might have to compromise with a solution that would allow for a greater Russian role in Syria. In Syria the Russian-Turkish interests are closer than the Turkish-Iranian or the Russian-Iranian interests. There is already a lot of tension between Turkey and France, and we saw that when the Turkish fans boo the one minute of silence for the Paris victims. The Turkish fans were also shouting “Allahu Akbar” , which is very often heard in videos released by ISIS. See “Turkey football fans boo and chant ‘Allahu Akbar’ during silence for Paris victims”, November 2015
The United States
Syria is a lot less important than Iraq for the United States. In Syria the American interests seem to be closer to the Russian rather than the Turkish ones. For the United States the ideal situation would involve the construction of both the Sunni (Qatar-Turkey) and the Shiite (Iran-Iraq-Syria) pipelines, so that as much oil and gas as possible would flow in the global markets. But it is impossible that both these pipeline networks are constructed, because the party controlling the region would prevent the other side from constructing the competing network.
Actually it seems that currently none of these pipelines can be constructed. Therefore it does not seem that the main problem for the United States is the construction of two pipelines which probably cannot be constructed. But if a solution is reached in the Middle East, and there is peace, the United States could transfer military forces from the Middle East to the Asian side of the Pacific Ocean, which is at the moment the most important region for the United States. The United States are also facing China in the South China Sea, because China is trying to militarize the region ignoring the other countries of the South China Sea. The Malacca Straits are the second most important choke point in the world, second only to the Straits of Hormuz.
If the United States reach an agreement with Russia in the Middle East, they could share the military cost of safeguarding the Middle East. Until now it is mainly the United States that safeguarded the Middle East and the safe flow of oil in the world markets. Therefore the US would be very happy if Russia could carry some of the military cost. That is of course if the United States could reach an agreement with Russia. I believe the US should allow Russia to have the upper hand in the Middle East, and ask something in return in Europe or Asia.
Iran’s dream is to reach the Mediterranean Sea. The increased Russian influence in Syria might therefore be a problem for Iran. However how could Iran stop this scenario, if Russia, the United States, France and Turkey agreed? Until now Iran could fight the United States because it was backed by Russia. Iran is mainly using Russian weapons. How is Iran going to attack the US if Russia and the US are together in Syria? And I don’t thing that China would have a motive to help Iran in Syria, and go against everyone else. The Chinese, like the Americans and the Europeans, are major oil and gas importers, and they want peace in the Middle East, so that oil and gas can flow freely and most importantly at low prices.
For the Wall Street Journal article see
“U.S. Eyes Russia-Iran Split in Bid to End Syria Conflict”, November 2015.
Map 5 Oil (black) and Natual Gas (red) Fields