Kunduz captured; US loses control but Obama soars; drug ship queries; Train gets navy intel back on track. By Hamish McDonald.

Vladimir Putin lifts Russian presence in the Middle East

US President Barack Obama greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week.
US President Barack Obama greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week.

A new Great Game is forming in the Middle East, after the Iraqi government’s announcement on Sunday it had reached an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to fight Daesh.

Suddenly, the Iraq state being propped up by the United States and its allies such as Australia has shifted explicitly into a grand alliance of Shiite-Muslim countries, to fight the most extreme of Sunni jihadist groups, with the backing of a great nuclear-armed power. 

The Sunni nations of the region are meanwhile getting more deeply involved in the civil conflict in Yemen, against the ascendant Shiite forces known as the Houthis. They are not conspicuously involved in the air and ground campaign against Daesh in either Iraq or Syria.

The effect will be to entrench the domination of the Shiite majority in Iraq and perhaps estrange Sunni Iraqis even further from the Baghdad government. Assad is getting a new lease on power with Russia pouring ground attack aircraft and helicopters into its air base in the western coastal strip of Syria controlled by Assad’s forces and home to his support base of the minority Alevite (Shiite) community. On Wednesday the Russian jets went into action, against non-IS regime opponents.

Western powers are coming around to this new line-up. “Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL,” Barack Obama told the United Nations General Assembly. “But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognises there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”

French aircraft entered the crowded skies of eastern Syria this week to join in the bombing of any Daesh targets that offered themselves, but this now seems a sideshow to the diplomatic action. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the United Nations to find out Moscow’s game plan, while Obama had a tense 90 minutes with Putin. Our own foreign minister, Julie Bishop, revealed to News Corp that Canberra was softening its line on Assad, agreeing he might be retained for a while as part of a peace settlement. British Prime Minister David Cameron thinks so, too, but still thinks Assad should eventually be brought before an international war crimes tribunal. The trick now is to persuade Putin that Assad is dispensable, and that his support for the Alevite regime otherwise risks getting Russia into another Afghanistan-style quagmire.

1 . Kunduz captured

Speaking of quagmires, the Taliban celebrated the first anniversary of Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s government on Monday by capturing the northern city of Kunduz, the first major centre they have occupied since being ousted in 2001. 

The Taliban sealed the four entrances to the city, seized the main government buildings, and freed 500 prisoners from the city jail. Government forces rolled up on Tuesday to lay siege, and with supporting US air strikes took back the police headquarters and prison, minus its inmates, despite encountering ambushes and roadside bombs. The Taliban were meanwhile facing competition from a local offshoot of Daesh, which attacked security posts in Nangarhar province early on Tuesday.

The attacks are likely to give Obama pause on his vow to pull out the 10,000 remaining US troops in Afghanistan by the end of next year, the effective end of his presidency. General John Campbell, head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, had already sent options to the White House for keeping US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016. The longest war in US history still has no end in sight.

2 . US loses control…

It all goes to emphasise what former Sydney boy Martin Indyk (who took US citizenship to become America’s ambassador in Israel and Middle East policy wonk in Washington) has been saying in his latest swing through his home town.

The US might have become the main power in the Middle East after Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez, but with the region’s descent into civil, sectarian and tribal wars and warring tribes it’s all now beyond US control. The American public will never countenance US ground forces going into Iraq, again, let alone Syria. The nuclear deal with Iran, which the US right deeply hates but couldn’t stop, is part of that sober realism.

3 . …but Obama soars

Barack Obama is still flying pretty high, even if he has only limited leverage over events in Iraq, Syria and Libya. 

His Republican opponents in the US Senate failed to block his nuclear deal with Iran. He’s reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba, so far without sparking an uprising in Florida among anti-Castro diehards. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington culminated with his announcement China would start a national emissions trading scheme in 2017.

Seven pilot schemes have already shown that a cap-and-trade system can work in China. Beijing also has tools that Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, can only envy in the Direct Action repertoire favoured by the Coalition: ordering polluting industry to simply shut down or switch to less carbon-producing technologies, without compensation. But the shift to a market-based system by this Asian giant isolates further the Australian approach inherited from Tony Abbott. 

Obama would love to introduce one in the US, but the deadlocked state of American politics makes that impossible for now. Even the US House of Representatives speaker John Boehner has announced he can’t take the negativity of his Republican Party’s right wing and is quitting politics.

4 . Drug ship queries

Defence Department video provided to TV networks last week showed the crew of HMAS Newcastle boarding a wooden dhow in the Indian Ocean, seizing a massive haul of heroin, and tipping it into the sea. 

We wondered what happened to the crew of the drug-smuggling ship, and put in a question. Happy to go on their way and perhaps try to make up for lost business, it seems. “Once Newcastle’s boarding party disembarked the dhow it was seen to resume its transit,” a defence spokesman told us. We also queried another aspect of the navy’s participation in the Combined Maritime Forces in the region: protecting shipping from Somali pirates. What happens if our sailors encounter some pirates in the act?

Defence also says that “for operational security reasons” it can’t disclose the rules of engagement when patrolling Australian ships encounter pirates, beyond saying the rules are “robust” and in accordance with the UN Law of the Sea. However, it did tell us that in mid-2013 Australia entered a detainee transfer agreement with the Seychelles for any pirates we capture. Thus far, none has been transferred. The Seychelles, we are pleased to note, abolished capital punishment in 1993, so traditional ways of dealing with pirates won’t happen.

5 . Train gets navy intel back on track

The US Navy has meanwhile got out of the awkward position in which for the past two years its director of naval intelligence, Vice-Admiral Ted Branch, has been unable to read classified intelligence material because he lacked a security clearance.

His clearance had been withdrawn while he was under investigation for possible links to a Singapore contractor, Glenn Defence Marine Asia, accused of bribing several senior US Navy officers. Branch is now moving on, and his position as intelligence director has been taken by an officer fully cleared for secret stuff, Rear-Admiral Elizabeth Train.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2015 as "Putin lifts presence in the Middle East ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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