Has US messed with the hornet's nest?
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M. K. Bhadrakumar |

I have in my personal collection a riveting document relating to the great plunder of the state resources of post-Soviet Russia in the early nineties with the connivance of American advisors seconded to Boris Yeltsin’s government. It is in the nature of a testimony, given by Anne Williamson, a brave American journalist, before the Committee on Banking and Financial Services of the US House of Representatives in Washington DC, on September 21, 1999.

Anne Williamson’s widely read unpublished manuscript

The Pentagon version is that the Americans first alerted the Russians, using a special hotline, but Russians either couldn’t reach the Syrians or failed to convince them to turn around after which US jets carried out the airstrikes that destroyed the ground positions.

Williamson was an unusual American journalist at the Wall Street Journal – a Russophile – based in Russia in the early nineties. A major New York publisher signed her to a contract for a book on post-Soviet Russia in 1993. But when she finally delivered a manuscript in 1997, her scathing criticism of the Clinton Administration (and, especially of George Soros) made the manuscript radioactive. No publisher would take it. Williamson’s Contagion The Betrayal of Liberty: Russia and the United States in the 1990s probably holds the world record for an unpublished book most widely read in manuscript.

Anne Williamson just walked up from the attic of my mind while I was reading about the latest developments in Syria – the US air strike against a military convoy flying Syrian flags in the country’s southeast, near Al-Tanf town, on Friday. It marked the first time the US military targeted regime forces in Syria’s six-year civil war. The air strike comes on the heels of the US missile attack in Syria in April against a joint Syrian/ Russian air base near the city of Homs.

Read more: Has the US created another excuse to strike Syria?

The Americans claim that the Syrian convoy came too close to a US-British commando base training Syrian ‘rebels’ and failed to respond to multiple warnings. The Pentagon version is that the Americans first alerted the Russians, using a special hotline, but Russians either couldn’t reach the Syrians or failed to convince them to turn around after which US jets carried out the airstrikes that destroyed the ground positions.

There are no intestacy laws when nations die without any clear heirs. An ugly scramble ensues to appropriate the deceased nation’s property and assets, as Williamson recounted in her chilling story about post-Soviet Russia. The same sad thing happened to the Ottomans. But Syria’s fate may turn out to be greatly tragic because the predators might simply carve out the country nicely for themselves – like on Thanksgiving Day.

The struggles of external powers in Syria

The Atlantic magazine carries an essay dwelling on the grim struggle that lies ahead between the external powers to carve out their spheres of influence in Syria. It says, “As ISIS loses strength and territory in Syria, the endgame of the civil war is drawing nearer and the various powers engaged in that struggle are shedding a common enemy. The result is a race to carve out spheres of influence—and the United States under Trump appears to be getting in on the action.”

Read more: Fraying US-Turkey relations over US support of Syrian Kurds

The really fascinating thing to watch will be how Russia reacts to the US military moves to gain control of southern Syria in the region not far from the border with Israel and Jordan.

The perspective from Beirut, as a TASS report outlines, is that the struggle in Syria’s south-eastern border region is for control of the highway from Baghdad heading toward Damascus, which is an important artery for Iran to ferry supplies to Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The US seems to be choking the Iranian route. The Israelis have been demanding that the Iranians and Hezbollah should be kept at arm’s length from southern Syria. But another Russian commentary draws attention to the possibility that al-Tanf is situated on the approaches to the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, which is an area rich in oil deposits and could be in the sights of the Americans. (Sputnik). Of course, the two interpretations are not really contradictory.

At any rate, the really fascinating thing to watch will be how Russia reacts to the US military moves to gain control of southern Syria in the region not far from the border with Israel and Jordan, after having succeeded already in establishing a significant military presence in northern Syria. Moscow will factor in the critical importance of keeping a facade of cordiality with the Trump administration — hoping that a US-Russian detente still may be possible. Moscow’s reaction to the US air strike in al-Tanf has been somewhat propagandistic so far.

Read more: Israel’s Air Strikes on Syria are Unacceptable: Russia

US-Russia policy perspective

The ‘known known’ here is that the Iranians and Hezbollah aren’t going to walk into the sunset. They will make life hell for the Americans both in Syria and Iraq in this ‘hybrid war’.

Interestingly, at a briefing in the Pentagon on Friday, Defence Secretary James Mattis and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Joseph Dunford made some convoluted overtures to Moscow, differentiating the Russians from the Syrian operations (helped by Iranian militia) in al-Tanf and insinuating that Damascus (and Tehran) could be deliberately queering the pitch of confrontation with the US special forces in the region, whereas Russia is being a moderating influence on them. This could be true to some extent, but the Pentagon’s, which has no love lost for Russia, the real objective will be to work on Moscow’s policy dilemma vis-a-vis the Trump administration.

The Pentagon generals seem to be calculating that since Moscow is desperately keen to engage with the Trump administration, Kremlin may not mind throwing the Syrian government, Iranians and Hezbollah, et al, under the bus if only the Americans acted coyly and displayed the willingness to work with Russia in Syria. Whether this US ploy to string the Kremlin along will work or not remains to be seen. After all, Trump administration is facing an existential crisis at home and is highly unpredictable, and, secondly, Moscow ought to be wary that once the US chokes off Iranians and Hezbollah, they will come looking for the Russians too.

Read more: US Defense Secretary’s clarification over their Syrian actions

The ‘known known’ here is that the Iranians and Hezbollah aren’t going to walk into the sunset. They will make life hell for the Americans both in Syria and Iraq in this ‘hybrid war’. They must be sensing that the Americans are returning to Iraq for an open-ended occupation and are similarly establishing military bases in Syria in preparation for a prolonged stay.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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