Russia Upends Middle East Situation: New Reality, Reviewed Policies
Andrei AKULOV | 14.10.2015 | FEATURED STORY

Russia Upends Middle East Situation: New Reality, Reviewed Policies

The US puts an end to its training program of Syrian rebel forces and shifts to providing equipment and weapons to existing forces.

Its $580m program was beset with a series of embarrassing setbacks and came under harsh criticism after it emerged that the rebels had handed hardware and ammunition over to extremists. “Probably 60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shoveled in have gone to al-Qaida and its affiliates,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

According to the program, the US had aimed to train and equip 5,400 fighters this year and a further 15,000 in 2016.

Dennis Etler, a professor of Anthropology at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, believes that, “Russia has shown the US policy to be totally bankrupt, because it’s accomplished basically in one week what the US could not accomplish in one year.”

“But, of course, the US never wanted to disarm, or dismantle ISIS [Daesh/ISIL]. They basically wanted to keep it there to implement its policy, and they were basically conducting a fake war, a phony war against ISIS,” Etler adds.

The US strategy in the region is being retooled. The revamped program will provide small arms and ammunition to Arab Sunni and Kurdish groups in Syria that are fighting the terrorist group. "The work we've done with the Kurds in northern Syria is an example of an effective approach," U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter told a news conference in London without providing any details of the new program. "That's exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward."

The Pentagon said it would shift its focus away from training to providing weapons and other equipment to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a U.S. vetting process to ensure they are not linked to militant Islamist groups. Some ofthe leaders selected will be trained to pass information on potential targets for airstrikes to Joint Operating Centers run by the U.S. and allies. By vetting only rebel commanders, the new U.S. policy could raise the risk that American-supplied arms could fall into the hands of individual fighters who are anti-Western.

The decision to scuttle the program comes amid Russia’s entry into the Syria’s conflict. The Russian bombing has been accompanied by a major advance by Syrian government forces, backed by thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen and hundreds of Iranian troops. Moscow's military operation in Syria has cast doubt on Obama's strategy there and raised questions about U.S. influence in the region.

Most of the Islamist opposition groups, are Sunni Muslims and most of the Arab states have majority Sunni populations. Persian Gulf Arab states, along with Turkey, have funneled huge funds to Sunni Islamist opposition groups seeking to overthrow Assad's regime, which is largely rooted in Syria's Alawite community, a religious sect that is an offshoot of Shi'a Islam. Some analysts say Russia’s resolute actions is a foreign policy gaffe as it will spoil its relations with the many Sunni countries. The recent events prove the opposite.

Egypt has actually endorsed the Russia’s operation in Syria.  "We believe that the [Russian intervention] will have an impact on the fight against terrorism in Syria and help eliminate it," Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said on October 4.
The relations between Moscow and Cairo have been constantly on the rise since U.S.-Egyptian ties cooled over the military overthrow of former president Mohammad Morsi in 2013.

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan view Russia's actions with hope and approval.

These countries view the groups being hit by Russian airstrikes as extremists, explained Gulf-based geopolitical adviser and analyst Theodore Karasik. "There has been a lot of complaining from the West that these airstrikes have not only targeted the Islamic State but other groups," Karasik said. "This concept of other groups is very important, because Russia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE consider other actors in Syria to be extremist, including the Free Syrian Army, because the FSA has been an abject failure."

On October 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, a son of the Saudi king and leading figure in its regional security policy. After the meeting, which took place on the sidelines of a Formula One Grand Prix race in the Russian resort of Sochi, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow had sought to assuage Riyadh's concerns. Both sides shared the objective of preventing a "terrorist caliphate" from taking root in Syria, he said.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia said he hoped the hoped talks with Russia would continue. Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will travel to Russia before the end of the year.

About the same time the Russian President met Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arabs Emirates Armed Forces His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The meeting between the two is the highest-level contact between the Kremlin and a Gulf Arab leader since Russia began a campaign of air strikes to support Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. "I welcome the opportunity to talk about ... the situation in the region, particularly in light of recent terrorist acts in Turkey," Putin told Mohammed bin Zayed on the sidelines of the Russian Grand Prix in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

On his part, Mohammed bin Zayed expressed his satisfaction on meeting President Putin and discussing ways to bolster the relations in the best interest of the two countries. "While meeting with President Putin, we are looking forward to discussing cooperation between the two countries and tackling the current Middle East issues."

Mohammed bin Zayed stressed that the UAE "is keen to build stronger relations with Russia that serve the interests of both countries and peoples, especially in the areas of economy, investment and trade."

The US admits failure and reviews its Syria policy while Russia’s effort gains momentum. Its move into Syria upends the US-led coalition plans. It has the potential to tilt the course of the war. The Russia’s military operation is setting the stage for a new phase in the four-year-old conflict. This is the time for changing approaches, reviewing the strategies and coming up with new diplomatic initiatives.

Tags: Syria