Russia shifts the global axis

Russia shifts the global axis

You must have heard of the famous “Pottery Barn Rule.” In a retail store you are responsible for any damage you cause to the goods on display. In other words: Once you break it, you own it.

This rule has dominated the U.S.’s strategy vis-à-vis Syria since the beginning of the war. Washington has been trying its best to keep its commitments at a minimum so that it would not be responsible for whatever damage occurs. In other words, it “disowned” the conflict.

Now, after five years, Russia has barged into the store and “owned” it.

This has radically shifted the balance of powers not only in the region, but in the wider international scene. First of all, Russia has increased its international status to its highest level since the end of the Cold War, positioning itself on the same platform as the U.S. Moscow’s regional influence has also reached a peak. 

But despite what many analysts claim, the Cold War is not back. Considering the regional and international challenges that the two global powers are dealing with, they don’t have the energy for such a large-scale confrontation. Neither has the U.S. any intention of pushing Russia aside and entering the retail store.

Putin signaled this during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last week, proposing an “anti-Hitler type alliance” to fight ISIL. The backbone of that coalition formed in the wake of the Second World War was made up of the U.S. and Russia.

Prior to Putin’s speech, President Obama referred to Russia as a “partner” during his own address at the U.N.

Moreover, Russia is not conducting its Syria airstrikes “despite the U.S.” Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that he “appreciates the fact that Russia has chosen to focus on this issue” indicates that point.

The officials and retired ambassadors in Washington who I managed to contact emphasize two points in particular. First, the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers have publicly declared their common target as ISIL. Second, Russia has mainly been attacking al-Nusra over the last three days.

The U.S. is content with these two points, as Russia’s attacks on ISIL and al-Nusra will diminish its own burden. The fact that the militaries of the two countries will be conducting talks to “de-conflict” their military activities in Syria (meaning “ensure that the US and Russian air forces don’t shoot at each other”) might also lead to some burden-sharing.

But there is a critical point that the U.S. is not content with: For the last three days Russia has also been attacking some rebel groups other than ISIL and al-Nusra, supported by the U.S. and its allies including Turkey.

Although this is upsetting the U.S., Washington is putting up with it at the moment as it is not willing to do more than it is currently doing in Syria and Russia’s attacks on ISIL and al-Nusra are convenient enough.

Meanwhile, Russia seems to be approaching the U.S. on that front. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement on Thursday that “Russia doesn’t consider the [U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army] FSA a terrorist group and it should be part of the political solution” speaks for itself.

The main reason why Russia is targeting these groups is to strengthen Bashar al-Assad. According to Fred Hof, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council who was special advisor for Syria under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Russia also wants ISIL and al-Assad to be the only two forces left standing in Syria so it can force President Obama to have a working relationship with al-Assad against ISIL.”

However, many analysts also argue that Russia will increase its attacks on ISIL in the due course, as around 2,000 Russians have joined the ranks of ISIL and Kremlin fears they might return and trigger another Chechen war. Also bear in mind that ISIL recently claimed a swathe of southern Russia a “province” of its emirate.

The other disagreement of the two global powers is over the destiny of al-Assad. The U.S. recently came to terms with the idea of a “transition with al-Assad,” as did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But we have now crossed far beyond that line.

Russia wants to make al-Assad a partner in the war against ISIL, which the U.S. has so far rejected. But preventing this from happening does not look possible anymore, as the Russians are conducting their airstrikes in coordination with the Syrian regime. This will, in turn, only strengthen al-Assad and make him more durable.

But it also looks like the U.S. and Russia have agreed behind the scenes to have Moscow work to convince al-Assad to sit at the table and compromise with the opposition.

Putin’s statement this week is a strong indicator of this: “A long-term solution in Syria is only possible through political reform and dialogue. I know al-Assad is ready for such a process. We hope he will be ready to compromise in the name of his country.”

Kerry’s statement that “Russia’s new focus on fighting ISIL could be an opportunity to push towards a political settlement,” further affirms this.

Apparently the U.S. and Russia will manage to control the current tension in some way or another. The nitty-gritty is that the balance of power has shifted totally in favour of Russia-Iran and al-Assad. The implications of this for the U.S. and Turkey is the topic of another piece - and clearly the topic of many others ahead.