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Middle East & Africa
The Economist May 18th 2019
2 Meanwhile, ﬁghting resumed in Hodeida.
America and Saudi Arabia accuse the Houthis of being Iranian puppets. Although that is an exaggeration, the Houthis have received arms from Iran, which has a record of supporting allied militias—and of attacks on ships. The so-called tanker war between Iran and Iraq ravaged international shipping in the 1980s. But the timing of the incident in Fujairah, and the speed with which American oﬃcials blamed Iran, has raised eyebrows. Max Boot, a hawkish foreign-policy scholar, wondered whether Mr Bolton was “trying to provoke Iran into striking ﬁrst”. He and others are reminded of the Gulf of Tonkin incident—a murky naval skirmish in 1964 used by America as a pretext for expanding its involvement in Vietnam. Some oﬃcials have urged calm. John Abizaid, America’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a former general, called for a “thorough investigation to understand what happened [and] why it happened”. Mr Abizaid says it is not in America’s interest to have a conﬂict. Many oﬃcials in the Gulf quietly agree. It is not in theirs, either. European oﬃcials are nervous. Germany and the Netherlands suspended training operations in Iraq. Spain withdrew its frigate from the American strike group heading towards the Gulf. Major General Christopher Ghika, Britain’s senior oﬃcer in the American-led coalition against Islamic State, said: “There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.” His comments drew an unusual rebuke from America’s central command. On May 15th America ordered many of its diplomats to leave Iraq. Tensions are unlikely to abate. Last year Mr Trump pulled out of a deal, made in 2015, that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme in return for economic relief. Now he wants to undermine what remains of the pact. He has restored crippling sanctions on Iran. On May 8th President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would abrogate parts of the deal and gave the remaining signatories— Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union—60 days to help Iran’s oil and banking sectors do business abroad. If they fail, Mr Rouhani warned that Iran could resume enriching uranium to higher levels of purity, which would shorten its path to a nuclear bomb. Mr Trump, for his part, runs hot and cold on Iran. He has told Iran’s leaders to call him (Mr Rouhani has spurned many such requests). He said the Fujairah incident would be “a bad problem for Iran” if it was involved yet dismissed the reported war plans as “fake news”. If America did go to war, he added, it would send “a hell of a lot more” than 120,000 troops. Such language may cheer Mr Bolton. But it leaves many feeling nervous about a cycle of escalation that looks hard to control. 7
Russia in the Middle East
Putin’s road to Damascus M O S CO W
The Kremlin’s military gamble in Syria is paying oﬀ more handsomely than it dared imagine. But for how long?
he great victory train clattered across eight time zones and back before groaning into a military-exhibition ground outside Moscow last month. It pulled car after car of trophies from Syria, as well as wagonloads of patriotism and conspiracy theories. Here was a pockmarked American-made Humvee; there pickup trucks turned into battering-rams for suicide carbombers. Various home-made bombs included one hidden in a can of Russian beer. Amid the fanfare of military bands, veterans on the platform recounted how Russia had intervened in 2015 to stop Syria falling into the hands of jihadists, notably Islamic State (is), who had been secretly armed by nato. “A lot of what you’re seeing here could have been delivered directly by the Americans,” explains one guide. “It’s not just my opinion. Many think so.” Never mind that Russia fought mostly against non-is groups, or that America did much to crush the is “caliphate”. Another display purported to show a chemical-weapons lab with barrels of precursors labelled in English—an apparent attempt to accuse rebels of using chlorine gas in Douma in 2018. Western powers blamed the regime of Bashar al-Assad and bombed Syrian air bases in retaliation. Propaganda aside, Russia is elated by the outcome of its intervention. It saved Mr Assad at relatively small cost to itself, became the kingmaker in Syria and returned as a power-broker in the Middle East for the ﬁrst time since the dissolution of the Sovi-
et Union. All this is gratifyingly diﬀerent from the experience of America, whose invasion of Iraq turned into a bloody debacle; or of western Europeans, whose air campaign in Libya to topple its dictator, Muammar Qaddaﬁ, sundered the country. Most important, breaking America’s hegemony in the Middle East shows that Russia is not merely a “regional power”, as Barack Obama once put it, but a global one. The “Syrian Breakthrough” tour revives the long tradition of agitpoezd (agit-trains). Stalin, for instance, used them to show oﬀ Soviet victories against the Nazis. When the latest train arrived in Moscow, young army cadets clambered onto a tank chanting “To Berlin!” Many Russians—more than one million, according to oﬃcials— have come to ogle the loot. “They’re ﬁghting not against some tribesmen shooting arrows, but against people with serious technical capabilities—tanks, armoured vehicles and mortars,” said Anton Sidorov, a salesman and veteran of the Russian navy, who brought his four-year-old son. To stop terrorism in Russia, “we have to battle terrorism outside of our territory.” Russia has surprised itself with its prowess. Many Russians recall how the intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 helped destroy the Soviet Union. Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 exposed many inadequacies, not least the poor performance of the air force. Its annexation of Crimea and its undeclared war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 brought Western sanctions and isolation. 1