The Many Engaging Side Shows Around the Syrian Theatre
US President Barack Obama with Saudi King Salman
NEW DELHI: The world’s attention has been kept away from engaging side shows because of the centrality of the Syrian drama.
The position of Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is not very different from that of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. Neither are popular with their countrymen. They have been placed on the thrones by machinations in the name of democracy.
In Iraq, this meant popular unrest, frequent demonstrations against lack of governance, corruption. Now quite openly, the Prime Minister is being described as an “American lackey”.
In the powerful Shia centres of Najaf and Karbala there is a growing conviction that the Prime Minister is not allowing the Russians to act in Iraq on the basis of an earlier Treaty of friendship between the two countries.
To soften public opinion, Prime Minister Abadi is trying to enlist the support of the powerful clergy in Najaf. His overtures have so far been spurned. In desperation, Abadi turned up in Najaf without a prior appointment with Ayatullah Ali Sistani. He was sent back.
A shaky Prime Minister is also not responding to US pressure to attack the IS in Ramadi. Coteries have begun to condition his moves.
There is a clear reason for Abadi’s reluctance to act in Ramadi. In March, Shia militias supported by Iran, had cornered a powerful ISIS contingent in Tikrit. The US pressured Abadi to abort the Tikrit operation. The reason given was that a victory of Shia militias in Tikrit would create sectarian complications in the region. Saudi Arabia would throw a fit.
Facts which surfaced later were quite different. Yes, sectarianism may have received a boost, but the basic reason why the siege had to be called off was Riyadh’s anxiety on another count: important Saudi assets, holed up in Tikrit, had to be given them safe passage. That is why the Tikrit operation had to be taken away from the hands of Shia militia.
The Wall Street Journal reported: “Iraq began its attack without alerting the US or its partners. Instead, Iran played a leading role, in guiding Shia militias and providing weapons.”
Americans and the Iranians gave their own versions. US spokesmen said the Shia advance on Tikrit got stalled prompting the Iraqi government to seek US air support.
Iran’s version was quite different: US brought pressure on Baghdad to withdraw Shia militias from Tikrit. Only then would the US launch air strikes.
What is the truth? An American field commander gave the game away. “Iraq is going to have to decide who they want to partner with. We’ve been demonstrating all across the country and now in Tikrit, that we are good and able partners.”
“The good and able partner” is now pressing Abadi to knock ISIS out of Ramadi but Abadi’s military is dragging its feet. After the experience of Tikrit, the military’s caution is understandable. Sections of the army work closely with a host of Shia militias, who would not like to be seen fighting ISIS virtually in an exclusively Sunni enclave amplifying Shia-Sunni conflict. While for the West and its regional allies like Riyadh the Sunni-Shia divide is strategically advantageous, the line from Iran and Najaf is to play down sectarianism.
Another sideshow is being mounted by the Saudis in Riyadh from December 11 to 14. At least 65 Syrian opposition groups have been invited to attend the Riyadh conference. But opposition unity has been punctured at the very outset by Turkey which insists that some members of Kurdish Democratic Union party, invited by Riyadh, must not be allowed to attend. Names of other invitees will likewise cause contention. When Lakhdar Brahimi was the UN representative in Syria, several attempts to send coherent opposition groups to Geneva failed.
It must be assumed that most of Saudi assets in Syria will be present in Riyadh. But did Saudi Arabia ever sponsor moderate groups in Syria? Were groups in bed with the ISIS in Tikrit in March and for whom Saudis sought safe passage “moderate”?
To sort out the moderate-extremist dilemma, an even more interesting side show is being played in the secret chambers of the Royal Palace in Amman. King Abdullah of Jordan is in a bit of a spot here.
At the Vienna conference held on November 14, a day after the Paris terror attacks, the question of identifying terrorist groups was raised. An earlier meeting, held on October 30 in Vienna, had issued a communiqué which states: “Daesh (Islamic State), and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated.” This communiqué was issued after Russia’s entry in the Syrian theatre.
The mention of “other terrorist groups” at October 30 Vienna communiqué, provided the alert Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with just the opening required to identify terrorist groups who float in and out of ISIS and are maintained by regional and western groups as their assets.
Promptly, King Abdullah was given the task to identify “terrorist groups”. He must surely pry into the Riyadh conference for a plentiful catch of groups whom he will alas not be able to name because they will all be tied to the apron strings of his patrons like the House of Saud.
Other sideshows have been less transparent for obvious reasons. Saudi war on Yemen introduced new codes of ethics in contemporary warfare when Colombian, Panamanian, Salvadoran, Chilean and Mexican soldiers were enlisted to fight the war. Huffington Post quotes proliferation expert William Hartung, that the US government has trained 30,000 soldiers from Latin American countries which make up the mercenary force in Yemen.
Meanwhile French and German intelligence have been in touch with their Syrian counterpart seeking help in separating the “good” refugees from the “bad” entering Europe. A Syrian demand that they talk “officially” by reopening missions in Damascus has been half met. The two European countries will open interest sections in the Czech embassy in Damascus.