By Julian French.
“His courage, cunning, energy and patience made him the most remarkable man on his time”
Ali ibn al-Athir on Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade (1189-1192)
Europe’s small-minded, little thinking little leaders seem unable to grasp the strategic ambition behind Putin’s Great Crusade. With the brutal fall of Aleppo this past weekend President Putin is well on his way to creating a puppet state in the Middle East as his Great Crusade gathers momentum. The West has failed Aleppo and itself in part because its leaders thought Putin was fighting a small war for small ends. In fact, Putin is fighting a a series of small ‘wars’ in pursuit of very big strategic ends; influence around the Black Sea, through south-eastern Europe, across much of the Levant and the northern Middle East, as well as the Mediterranean basin.
On 27 December, whilst much of North America and Europe slumber in Yuletide excess, President Putin will host a meeting in Moscow with Iran, Syria and Turkey to discuss a resolution to end the Syrian War. At that meeting it will be decided that Syrian ‘moderates’ (both real and synthetic) will be invited to ‘peace’ talks charged with ending the war and re-establishing some domestic ‘legitimacy’ for the Assad puppet-state. A general war will also be declared against all ‘terrorists’, i.e. any groups deemed to be standing in the way of the interests of the four states represented in Moscow. This will include all Islamist groups, including some Sunni groups close to the Saudis, and all Kurdish groups inimical to President Erdogan. Erdogan will also be offered an anti-Kurd ‘buffer zone’ along Turkey’s southern border, not dissimilar to the one Putin himself seeks along his own western border. The meeting will also pave the way for the coming attack on Idlib.
The very fact of the meeting, its timing, and its location is strategically critical. In the face of lamentable Western weakness 2016 saw President Putin become the power-broker across much of the northern Middle East and beyond. He has strengthened Shia Iran in its proxy wars with Western-leaning Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Co-operation Council, tightened a strategic vice on Israel, and forced the government in Baghdad to look increasingly to him and not the Americans. By confirming Russia’s in-for-the-long-haul military presence at his two military bases in Syria Putin now threatens Cyprus and has extended his influence across the Mediterranean basin, both north and south.
However, Putin’s ‘jewel in the crown’ at the Moscow meeting will be Turkey. In this year of shocks (i.e. Western retreat) much has been made about Brexit and the election in the US of an apparently pro-Putin President-elect Trump. However, the biggest strategic shock to the West in 2016 has been the rapid loss of Turkey. Just over a year ago in November 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian fighter-bomber. Russo-Turkish relations were at a low ebb. A year on and Russia and Turkey are fast-forging a strategic partnership with immense implications for the region, NATO and the West.
So, why is Turkey switching allegiance? President Erdogan has all but abandoned the Western-leaning strategy of modern Turkey’s great founder, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. Erdogan was deeply frustrated and angered by what he saw as lukewarm Western support during the failed July 2016 coup attempt. Erdogan also believes that Moscow will prove a more decisive ally than the West in preventing the emergence of a de facto Kurdistan. 2016 was also the year that Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU finally evaporated.
What does Putin gain from such an alliance? The Russo-Turkish alliance changes the big strategic picture. Firstly, Putin now has protected access for the Russian Black Seas fleet into the Mediterranean. After concluding operations off Syria I would not be at all surprised if the aircraft-carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its six ship task group sail into the Black Sea and onto Sevastopol. Secondly, with a pro-Russian government in Bulgaria, an EU member-state, and Russian influence over Cyprus, Greece, Hungary and Italy growing. President Putin is offsetting Russia’s intrinsic relative weakness vis-à-vis the West by ‘deconstructing’ his adversaries. Thirdly, the Turkish alliance helps Putin further dissemble NATO. Since the coup Ankara has steadily removed Western-leaning officials and officers from the command chain of the Alliance and replaced them with ultra-nationalist hardliners.
Furthermore, if Francois Fillon is elected ‘President de la Republique’ in May 2017 I would not be at all surprised if the two French-built Mistral-class assault ships recently ‘sold’ to Egypt suddenly appeared alongside the Kuznetsov. This would create a powerful Russian Mediterranean Fleet just at the moment when the US Navy is being challenged to over-stretch in the Pacific. The sooner the British can bring its two new fleet carriers fully into service the better. However, to do so the British must for once see beyond London’s strategic myopia and look at Putin’s big strategic picture, and properly prepare those ships for service.
However, a word of warning. In 1095 sheer force of Frankish arms conquered Jerusalem for the Crusaders. For fifty or so years the Frankish kingdom tried to consolidate itself. However, in 1187 Jerusalem fell to the mighty Salah ah-Din Yussuf ibn Ayyub. Allegiances and prospects can change very quickly in the Middle East and Putin could lose all his influence just as quickly as he has gained it.
2016 has been the year of Putin and at the Moscow meeting he will demonstrate that to the world and to his own people on the eve of the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. President Putin has succeeded because he understands the cynical application of power and strategy. Because of that President Putin is brilliantly changing the strategic order not just in the Middle East, but across much of Europe, and along Russia’s southern borders.
Perhaps President Putin has been inspired by the words of the Salah al-Din. On seizing Aleppo in 1183 Salah ah-Din said that Aleppo was “the key to all the lands”. He also said, “I warn you against shedding blood, indulging in it and making a habit of it, for blood never sleeps”.