In just under a year ago, during the five weeks between late July and late August 2011, Russia’s prime minister and future president Vladimir Putin came to a decision with critical repercussions for present-day events: He decided Russia must part ways with US policy initiatives in the Arab world and forge a path diametrically opposed to US President Barack Obama his transformational objectives for the Arab Revolt and his policy on a nuclear Iran.
The upshot is visible today in Moscow’s steps to stand in the way of all Obama’s plans for the Middle East.
Most of all, Putin’s thinking is dominated by the angry sense that the Obama administration conned Russia on Libya and must not be allowed to repeat the exercise in Syria.
“The fate of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria should be left to the hands of the Syrians,” he told a press conference Wednesday, June 20 at the close of the G20 summit in Mexico. To drive his point home, he stressed, “No one country has the right to tell another people whom their leader should be.”
In his view, the United States violated one UN Security Council resolution on Libya after another by leading NATO's air blitz on Muammar Qaddafi’s regime centers “from behind” and allowing European and Arab special forces troops to oust the Libyan ruler and hasten his death.
It is Putin’s recollection that Washington gained Russian support at the UN Security Council for the Libya expedition by promising to stay within its mandate, which was to protect civilians. Moscow took umbrage when US emissaries failed to turn up with rebel leaders to meet Russian diplomats accompanied by Libyan regime officials for three scheduled meetings at Tunisian hotels from mid-July throughout August, 2011.
They were to have signed a ceasefire in the fighting and drawn up a plan for easing Qaddafi out of power, though not members of his family.
Putin widens his rift with Obama at the Los Cabos and Moscow parleys
Later, the Russians discovered that the US had preferred to focus on setting up the decisive assault on Tripoli for toppling the Qaddafi regime. That offensive was launched Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011.
The Libyan episode partly accounts for three decisions from which Putin has not budged to this day, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Moscow:
1. To abstain from partnering any US diplomatic steps in the Middle East:
2. To prevent Washington repeating its Libyan exercise by achieving Assad’s overthrow;
3. To place every possible obstacle in the way of a US attack on Iran’s nuclear program or attempt at regime change in Tehran.
With these objectives firmly in mind, he marshaled big guns for two rounds of diplomacy this week: the G20 summit of industrialized nations at Los Cabos, Mexico and the third round of nuclear crisis talks between the six world powers (US, Russia, the UK, France, China and Germany) and Iran in Moscow.
In Mexico, Western “sources” wove back and forth to cobble together a united front against the Assad regime. Finally, President Obama had to admit Wednesday morning that China and Russia are "not aligned" with the US and other nations on Syria, “but both countries' leaders recognize the dangers of a civil war.”
Countering Putin’s demand to leave Assad’s fate to the Syrian people, the US President remarked:
"I don't see a scenario in which Assad stays and violence is reduced."
The results of the exchanges at Los Cabos were, as Putin intended: a widened gap between Washington and Moscow; a stalemate on Syria which left Assad in place in Damascus; and Obama stuck with them both for as long as he adheres to his current course of action.
Wooing the Chinese leader and Iranian negotiator
The Russian president’s advance preparations for his rendezvous with Obama in Mexico, as revealed here by our Moscow sources, were exhaustive – though hardly conducive to an amicable encounter:
One: From June 6, he spent two days in Beijing working with President Hu Jintao to synchronize their positions on Syria and Iran. Senior Russian and Chinese military and intelligence officers were roped in for their input.
Two: Two days earlier, Russia added the new design 11661 missile ship Dagestan to its Caspian Fleet.
It was described to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources as, “the most powerful of our naval forces on the Caspian Sea and the first in the Russian Navy to be armed with the latest universal missile complex Kalibr-NK, able to deliver high precision missiles to surface and sea targets. Its eight missiles have a range of 300 kilometers.”
Those sources were also informed that any Russian warship in the Caspian is there “either against Iran or in connection with Iran.” Above all, the Caspian fleet is there to protect the Russian border in case a sudden attack on Iran brings Western troops to the region.
Three: Saeed Jalili, Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator and head of its National Security Council, was invited by the Russian president for a long stay. From June 11, he was Putin’s honored guest in Moscow and, over the weekend, was invited to stay in St. Petersburg, where he was introduced to the president’s inner circle of friends, cronies from Putin’s days in the KGB known as the “Peter Group.”
A proactive Russian military posture to block intervention in Syria
Never in the history of Revolutionary Islamic Iran’s foreign relations has any of its officials been so honored by any world leader, east or west. By this gesture, Putin sought to win the trust of Iran’s leaders. It was meant as a symbol to show that the Russian leader’s personal pledges to Tehran were equal to the promises he made to his closest friends.
It goes without saying that Jalili’s stay in Russia was well spent on bringing the positions of Moscow and Tehran into close alignment – both on the nuclear and the Syrian issues.
Four: So by the time the nuclear talks between the six powers and Iran opened on Monday, June 18, in Moscow, the Russian and Chinese negotiators were primed to side with Jalili against the US and the West on the core issues. All that meeting achieved was another two-week postponement for the negotiations to be continued on July 3 in Istanbul by low-ranking officials.
To get anywhere at that meeting too, the Obama administration will have to get back to Moscow and Beijing and tie up some very loose ends.
Five: Russian military sources this past week showered the media with data attesting to hyperactive Russian military movements in the Middle East: Russian warships were said to be heading to Moscow’s Syrian base at Tartus, including an elite marine unit. Western defense sources read these reports, unfounded or not, as a powerful Russian signal of zero tolerance for foreign military intervention in Syria.
Monday night, June 18, the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars reported the armies of Russia, China, Iran and Syria were to stage in Syria "the biggest military exercise of its kind in Middle East history." It would include land, air and naval units and involve 90,000 combat soldiers, 400 planes and 900 tanks.
China was said to have applied for permission to send 12 warships to Tartus through the Suez Canal in the second half of June.
Putin has big plans for his new front
The next day, June 19, Russian and Chinese sources denied the Iranian report as false. But by then it had had its desired effect of providing an ominous backdrop for the Obama-Putin interview on Iran and Syria on the last day of the G20 summit. The impression conveyed to the world was that Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Damascus were ranged in a powerful front to defend their common interests and nobble any US attempts at intervention or military action against Bashar Assad.
It is plain by now, according to our Moscow sources, that the Russian-Chinese front is not confined just to buttressing Iran and Syria; it has more and bigger Middle East fish to fry.
Beijing, for instance, must decide whether it suits its book to meet Saudi Arabia’s request for nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and so accelerate a wild Middle East nuclear race that a nuclear Iran is bound to touch off. (See the opening item of DEBKA-Net-Weekly 545 from June 15 – Riyadh to Beijing: We'll Pay for Nuclear-Capable Ballistic Missiles with All the Oil You Need).
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Moscow, Putin’s impetus was initially driven in the latter half of 2011 by a compelling ambition to stall America’s thrust into the Arab world on the wings of the “Arab Spring.” His appetite and horizon have since expanded. Early this year, he launched a comprehensive scheme for dislodging the US from the positions it gained in Arab lands in the last quarter of the twentieth century by pushing Russia out.