An Iran-Syria ‘Belt & Road’: A Far-Reaching Geopolitical Strategy Unfolds
As the US tries to consolidate its strategy for weakening and confronting Iran, the contours of an important geo-political strategy, launched by Syria and Iran, are surfacing. On the one hand, it consists of a multi-layered sewing together of a wide ‘deterrence’ that ultimately could result in Israel being pulled into a regional war – were certain military trip wires (such as air attacks on Syria’s strategic defences) – to be triggered. Or, if the US economic war on Iran crosses certain boundaries (such as blockading Iranian tankers from sailing, or putting a full stranglehold on the Iranian economy).
To be clear, the aim of this geo-political strategy is not to provoke a war with the US or Israel – it is to deter one. It sends a message to Washington that any carelessly thought-through aggression (of whatever hybrid nature) against the ‘northern states’ (from Lebanon to Iraq – see map) might end by putting their ally – Israel – in full jeopardy. And that Washington should reflect carefully on its threats.
The deterrence consists at the top-level of Syrian S300 air defences, over which Russia and Syria have joint-key control. The aim here seems to be to maintain strategic ambiguity over the exact rules of S300 engagement. Russia wants to stand ‘above’ any conflict that involves Israel or the US – as best it can – and thus be positioned to act as a potential mediator and peace-maker should armed conflict occur. In a sense, the S300s represent deterrence of ‘last resort’ – the final option were graduated escalation somehow to be surpassed, via some major military event.
At the next level down, deterrence (already well signalled in advance) is focussed on halting Israeli air attacks on either Iranian or Syrian infrastructure (in either state). Initially, air attacks would be countered by the effective (80%) Syrian, Panzir and BUK air defence systems. More ‘substantive’ attacks will be met with a proportionate response (most probably by Syrian missiles fired into the occupied Golan). Were this to prove insufficient, and were escalation to occur, missiles are likely to be fired into the depth of Israel. Were escalation to mount yet further, the risk would be then of Iranian and Hizbullah missiles entering into the frame of conflict. Here, we would be on the cusp of region-wide war.
Of course, Hizbullah has its own separate rules of engagement with Israel, but it is a partner, too, to the wider ‘resistance movement’ of which the Supreme Leader spoke after his meeting in Tehran with President Assad. As Israel knows, Hizballah possesses ‘smart’ cruise missiles that can cover the length and breadth of Israel. And it has well-experienced ground forces that can be directed into the Galilee, as well.
But were we to leave matters there – as some responsive deterrence plan – this would be to miss the point entirely. What has been happening at these various meetings amongst military and political leaders in the north is the unfolding of a much wider, forward looking, strategy to frustrate US objectives in the Middle East.
What has emerged from the key visit of President Rouhani to Iraq is something much larger than the military alliance alluded to above: These states are unfolding a regional ‘Belt-and-Road’ trading area, stretching from Lattakia’s port on the Mediterranean (likely contracted out to Iranian management) across to the border with Pakistan (and perhaps ultimately to India, too).
What is so significant arising from Rouhani’s recent visit to Iraq is that Iraq, whilst wanting to keep amicable relations with Washington, rejects implementing the US siege on Iran. It intends to trade – and to trade more – with Iran, Syria and Lebanon. One major strand to the agreement is to have a road and railway ‘belt’ linking all these states together, for trade.
But here is the bigger point: This regional ‘Belt and Road’ is to be unfolded right into the heart of the Chinese BRI project. Iran always has been envisaged as a – if not ‘the’ – key pivot to China’s BRI in the region. As China’s Minister of Commerce, Zhong Shan, underlined this week: “Iran is China’s strategic partner in the Middle-East, and China is the biggest trade partner and importer of oil from Iran”. A senior Chinese expert on West Asia plainly has taken note: Rouhani’s visit has “long-term geopolitical implications” in terms of expansion of Iran’s regional influence.
And here is a second point: The unfolding of this ‘Belt and Road’ initiative effectively marks the end of the Belt & Road members’ looking to Europe as a principal trading partner. EU equivocation with the US over the JCPOA by trying to tie conditions to their SPV, and by holding reconstruction aid for Syria hostage to their ‘transition’ demands, has back-fired. Together with the US, the EU has become tainted through its efforts to mollify Washington – in the hope of avoiding being tariffed by Trump.
How will the US respond? Well, Secretary Pompeo is about to arrive in the region to threaten Lebanon (as it has already threatened Iraq) with tough sanctions. Russia, Iran and Syria, of course, are already under harsh sanction.
Will it work? Mr Bolton presently is trying to weaken Iran – surrounding it with US special forces hubs placed in proximity to Iran’s ethnic minority populations in order to de-stabilise the central authority. And Pompeo is about to land in the Middle East threatening all around with sanctions, and still ‘talking the talk’ of reducing Iranian oil sales to zero, as US oil waivers expire on 1 May.
Of course, zero waivers were never likely, but now with the new trade ‘Belt and Road’ alliance unfolding, the stakes for US foreign policy are doubled: Syria will find investors in its reconstruction precisely because it – like Iran – is a pivotal ‘corridor’ state for trade (and ultimately for energy). And Iran will not be brought to capitulation through economic siege. What Pompeo risks, through his belligerency, or clumsiness, rather, is to lose both Iraq and Lebanon.
In the former, ‘losing Iraq’ could entail the Iraqi government demanding US troops leave Iraq. In the latter case, ‘losing’ Lebanon, translates into something more sinister: To sanction Lebanon (in order to ‘hurt’ Hizbullah) actually means putting Lebanon’s entire economic stability into play (as Hizbullah is an integral part of Lebanon’s economy – and the Shi’a compose some 30-40% of the population. They cannot be somehow ‘filtered out’, as if some stand-alone sanctions target). Instability in Lebanon is never far away, but to induce it is crazy.
Wherever Pompeo travels on his journeys through the region, he cannot fail but to notice that US policies – and the constancy of such policies – are not trusted (even this week, ‘old US ally’ Egypt has turned to Russia for the purchase of military aircraft, and India is defying the US over its oil imports from Venezuela).
It is against this background that the earlier intelligence service quotes in the NY Times, and its Editorial (i.e. not an op-ed article): Shedding Any Last Illusions about Saudi Arabia might be understood. US policy across the entire Middle East, and by extension, much of its leverage over Russia and China, stands on extremely weak foundations. The débacle of the US-sponsored Warsaw conference, which was supposed consolidate support for America’s anti-Iranian ‘war’ – and the silence with which VP Mike Pence’s address at Munich was received – provide clear evidence for this.
Well, the pivot for countering this unfavourable US conjuncture rests on one man: MbS. America’s entire foreign policy, and that of its ally, Israel, has pivoted around this erratic, highly-flawed, psychologically-impaired figure. The NYT leak from CIA officials, with its unqualified endorsement through a NYT board editorial, suggest that the CIA and MI6 have concluded that US global interests cannot be left in such unreliable, unsafe hands.
What this ultimately might mean is unclear, but such a leak would suggest that it stems from a concerted CIA professional assessment (i.e. that it is not just partisan party warfare). Trump may not concur, or like it much, but the CIA, when it does form such a definitive view, is no force to be lightly trifled with.
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