As we advert to a world rearranging itself, there can be little doubt that in the midst of this suggested rearrangement is the role of a United States deeply involved in various aspects of Middle Eastern affairs that have certainly been reverberating over the globe as a whole. And even as we refer to the globe as a whole, we can be assured that what were once referred to as the superpowers, the US, and Russia in its past guise as the USSR and now in its present, while intensely involved in the present imbroglio concerning Syria, are well aware that they are being carefully watched from all corners of the globe.
When President Obama, soon after his assumption of office, gave his now famous Arab Spring speech in Cairo, few, including himself, would have thought that the Spring would produce flowers of diverse beauty or relative ugliness. And it can be asserted that as the Spring was generally welcomed in the Western world, there was an assumption that its outcome would be the result of a process in which the West would have a significant influence on what was to transpire. For to the West, there has always tended to be a feeling at the time this or that event occurs, that uprisings against various forms of autocracy or dictatorship have, in this era, the potential for a turn to some kind of representative democracy.
As events have transpired in the Middle East and in particular, Egypt, the country in which the US might have claimed to have the most influence because of the extent of the resources which it has poured in there over the years, it has begun to be demonstrated that the politico-military apparatus that has developed in the years of post-Nasser rule, is not as susceptible as might have been thought to external guidance towards what the West understands as representative democracy.
In particular, the new military leadership’s resistance to outside advice as to how to deal with an assertive Muslim Brotherhood regime determined to organize what it has deemed to be civilian control over the military, would seem to have already suggested to the American administration that it is probably better to see how things evolve, and in the meantime subordinate any concerns that it may have about how Egypt is likely to evolve. And this means that in the present circumstances US aid, in its various forms, tied tightly into the regime, is not necessarily a lever of substantial influence.
Indeed, the only thing that the United States government can feel somewhat assured about in relation to Egypt, is that it probably stands more firmly than ever before with the conservative, largely monarchical regimes led by Saudi Arabia as the events in Syria evolve, while not wanting to be as diplomatically aggressive as the latter are at the present time.
The United States well knows that Syria, itself not a major player as a repository of oil in the Middle East, but in a critical geographical location has, substantially under President Assad’s father, Hafez, and now under the son Bashar, long felt it necessary to constantly manoeuvre among its neighbours to ensure its own survival as a country, not wishing to be subject to incursion by neighbours or the larger global powers. But in relation to Syria when ruled by President Hafez al-Assad, the US also recognized that Syria’s concern with events in Lebanon, the object of its own concern now thirty years ago in October 1983 just prior to its intervention in Grenada, was something of a consistent irritant to its own objectives in the Middle East.
In recent times, the US supported by other NATO powers has sought to disentangle Syria from that country’s concerns with the evolution of events, first in Iran and then in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the Syrian regime has in turn sought to counterbalance US efforts by sustaining its relationship with a Russia which it had kept close to as the Soviet Union; and the regime has now leaned on Russia as the US has tried to isolate it in the region. And in that connection, Bashar al-Assad has also sought to diplomatically facilitate Russia’s relationship with Iran itself.
It is in that context that as the NATO powers were trying to take the opportunity of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its domestic opponents and their families, the US has found itself limited in any attempts to use force against the Assad regime. For the Russians, taking advantage of the unpopularity of intervention in both the US and Europe have, as de facto allies of Syria, been able to effectively intercede with the Syrians towards a diplomatic solution which in effect delegitimizes any Western attempt to intervene by force. And in that context, the NATO allies are aware of a situation in the United Nations in which China stands as a firm ally of Russian attempts to inhibit intervention in the Middle East.
President Putin, in surprising the NATO leaders with his intervention, has done something which was unanticipated until recently. In effect he has taken cognizance of public and parliamentary opinion in both the United States and Britain (and indeed in the other major powers of Europe as well) to participate in what became an international delegitimisation of any military intervention attempt against Syria.
But what Putin’s diplomatic intervention also indicates, is his own government’s increasing practical awareness of the complexity of ethnic and religious influences in the politics of his own country, particularly in areas which span countries dominated by Islamism, some of which were once members of the old Soviet Union. In that regard too, China, as well as Russia, can insist on a legitimate role for engaging in the resolution of areas in the Middle and Far East which have substantial, similar, influences.
To the Western world, Russia has now given itself a position of legitimacy in the solution of problems arising in the Middle East, and in Middle East-Western world relations, which the NATO powers have not previously conceded. Russian donation or sale of arms in such areas has largely been deemed by the West to be in the nature of interference. Last week, to the wider world, Russia’s diplomatic initiative was an assertion of the legitimacy of a role in the resolution of problems in an arena where the NATO powers have previously regarded Russian intervention as somehow illegitimate.
To China too, and no doubt other non-Western countries watching, Putin has, as it were, given Russia a legitimate presence in an arena in which its political influence or presence has never really been accepted by the NATO powers. That new circumstance will itself help China to advance its assertion of global legitimacy in the determination of world relations, on the basis that the United Nations Security Council’s membership has a right of concern in all areas of global relations.