Obama keeps hold of the Syrian ball
By M K Bhadrakumar
NEW DELHI - Taking a leaf out of the wonderful drama of the boot-to-boot combat between Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, one can say both will agree, despite their two very different geniuses, that it is dangerous to take your eye off the ball on the soccer field.
Yet, Moscow made that big mistake in taking its eye off Syria and allowing itself to be drawn away by alluring thoughts over Egypt.
Yet, the thought of regaining the influence it lost in Cairo over four decades ago lured Russia. The temptation was probably too much that this would even be a double whammy - to get back into Cairo and replacing the Americans as the only show in town soon after
wrapping up the affair of the ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
At any rate, it was overreach. Moscow shouldn't have been under any illusion that the US would walk away from the banks of the Nile and the Suez Canal just like that.
Just a matter of time
If the American ''military aid'' for the Egyptian military - ''export financing'' will be an accurate description - cannot be stopped, it is because the aid is ''tied'' to the Camp David accord, which stipulated that forever will Cairo source weapons from America and forever will Washington facilitate it.
If one side resiles from the pledge, the other side is entitled to do so as well, and the peace treaty of 1979 will unravel. It's as simple as that and the junta in Cairo knows the ground rules.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy disclosed in an exclusive interview with Russia Today on Friday that he has been holding "objective" conversations with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and "promising that bilateral visits, which will clarify the situation between Moscow and Cairo, are 'just a matter of time'."
Reports suggest President Vladimir Putin may pay a quick visit to Cairo. Indeed, Egypt is not just about arms exports and Suez Canal. It is also about the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam, about the future trajectory of the Arab Spring, and, most important, about the US's discourse with the Muslim Middle East in which Cairo occupies a centrality.
This is how Fahmy explained to RT the failure of the attempts by the US and the European Union to bring the army-backed government in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood movement to the negotiating table:
First of all, it refers to the political Islam movements. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted a return to the past, but it's impossible and unacceptable for the majority of the Egyptian people. It's not a problem between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government or the leadership of Egypt. It's a problem between the Muslim Brotherhood and the majority of the Egyptian people.
Being a savvy career diplomat, Fahmy would know such thoughts please his Russian interlocutors, who have a troubled history in relations with the Brothers going back to the Soviet period.
What would Ronaldo have done? First of all, he would size up that an intricate game such as Syria could not be considered as won till it is actually won and, more important, the referee blows the whistle to underscore that the game is over.
Ronaldo wouldn't have taken his eye off the ball as he approached the goal post, piercing his path through the opposition ranks, and would know a highly winnable game came first in priority.
This is where Russia might have faltered. Moscow got carried away that apropos Egypt's current situation, Russia is on the same page as the Middle East's heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, the tensions in the US's ties with the Persian Gulf allies, if any, are transitory and not at all unusual, whereas the bonds are of an existential character, which both sides treasure.
Besides, the Persian Gulf's sheikhs are not exactly the "secular" partners with whom Russia could think of going out for a walk on a foggy night. The ease with which they disappeared once the Syrian project began beeping on the radar on Wednesday afternoon leaves Russia stranded.
The root problem lies elsewhere, though: Russia is unable to give an ideological underpinning to its regional strategy in the Middle East. Indeed, ''ideology'' has become a dirty word in the post-Soviet foreign-policy lexicon. Russia, therefore, waffles by claiming it acts in ''self-interest''. But then, who doesn't act in self-interest?
The plain truth is that the remnants of the political order established by Britain and France in the second decade of the last century over the debris of the Ottoman Empire is no longer sustainable. The Middle East needs to democratize, but ironically, what brings Russia and the oligarchies of the Persian Gulf together over Egypt is their shared antipathy toward change and reform.
There is also a serious contradiction here insofar as the Persian Gulf oligarchies may rant and rave about the Brotherhood but they continue to consort with Salafists with whom Russia is locked in a struggle in North Caucasus and Syria.
An even bigger paradox is that the one country with which Russia ought to share strong strategic interests in the Middle East is Iran, but it neglected that vital relationship and allowed it to atrophy by sidelining it as a mere template of the now-defunct US-Russia reset.
A keen dribbler
Enter Obama. In a brilliant display of coercive diplomacy, the US is pressing ahead with the project to prise open Syria for the team of weapon inspectors led by Ake Sellstrom to explore.
Why after the Libyan experience Moscow should have goofed up again by prevailing upon Damascus to let in Sellstrom's team remains incomprehensible. Was it overconfidence at Moscow's ability as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to keep a tight leash on Sellstrom?
Was it complacency borne out of the string of military victories scored by Bashar al-Assad's forces - thanks to big help from Iran and Hezbollah - through recent weeks on the one hand and the hopeless disharmony within the Syrian opposition on the other hand?
Or, was it the miscalculation that the disarray in the regional alignments over Egypt (and the promise of a protracted crisis there) is so grave and irreparable that it leaves the Obama administration with no option but to shelve the Syrian project altogether?
Moscow now admits that the current controversy over the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus might be a pre-meditated one choreographed carefully with a political objective. But then, it is too late, since it emerges that Sellstrom is unbound already and is at large, and Moscow cannot easily circumscribe his future activities in Syria.
Indeed, it will look odd if Russia is perceived as blocking Sellstrom from holding a searchlight at every nook and corner looking for stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in a dangerous conflict zone.
Quite obviously, Obama will ensure Sellstrom travels far and wide within Syria and keeps a diary to report back to New York. The US' ultimate objective is to take control of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles out of Bashar's reach so that if and when a military attack begins on his forces, his capacity to retaliate will be seriously impaired.
In retrospect, while Russia took the eye off the Syrian ball, Obama took it away and began dribbling. On Friday, Obama told CNN he is not looking for a war in Syria because a war is costly; American people aren't ready for it; and, he lacks a UN mandate or a "coalition of the willing''.
But by Saturday it emerged that US warships equipped with cruise missiles were being repositioned in the eastern Mediterranean for a possible attack on ''targets'' in Syria. By Sunday, Obama had already phoned up British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is expected to do the heavy lifting for the US in the Syrian operations.
Obama hoped that by Monday he would get feedback from the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey, who is co-hosting an emergency meeting in Amman, Jordan, of defense chiefs from 10 nations, which brings together Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
To be sure, the embryo of a ''coalition of the willing'' is taking shape. Obama is keenly dribbling, with his eye riveted on the Syrian ball. It is 100% certain that he won't take his eye off it. In fact, it is advantageous to draw attention away from the ugly situation in Egypt.
Obama may be willing to show that, although Americans don't play soccer, this is a game he picked up in the back streets of Indonesia whilst a young boy, and he can match the impressive dribbling skill Putin recently displayed with the Snowden ball.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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