The curious world of realpolitik – why we’re really friends with Russia and Iran after all.

Posted: August 11, 2014 in Political musings
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Russian SU25s are in action in Iraq. Who is flying them or telling them what to attack is less clear.

Russian SU25s are in action in Iraq. Who is flying them or telling them what to attack is less clear.

The current emergence of the ISIS (Islamic State) insurgency in Syria and Iraq reveals the curious nature of the background diplomacy that goes on all the time, invisible to the man in the street, because you have to read the news stories BEHIND the news stories to work out what is really going on.

The ritualistic condemnation of Russia over the shooting down (most likely by separatist pro-Russian rebels) of MH17 near Donetsk (and the previous less violent kerfuffle over the Crimea) has led to mild sanctions being employed by the West, and a lot of publicly-expressed anger, at least some of which was undoubtedly sincere.

In return, Putin and his cronies have placed bans on certain imports from the West, such as Australian wheat, which are going to be virtually ineffective as we can’t produce enough wheat for world demand as it is, and the Russian business will be quickly replaced by delivering the wheat to countries like Indonesia, instead. Nevertheless, there has been a general chilling of the relationship between the West and Russia, or at least it appears so on the surface.

And as usual, the relationship between America and Iran seems pretty well stuck in deep freeze, although some very minor steps towards a rapprochement have taken place recently, and especially since the departure of the conservative idealogue Ahmadinejad and his replacement with the much more pragmatic and moderate Hassan Rouhani.

Ironically, though, America, the West in general, and Russia and Iran find themselves on the same side against the Sunni insurgents now slicing off the heads of those they disagree with – including, according to some sources, beheading children and putting their heads on display in a public park in Mosul – stoning so-called adulterous women, perpetrating the most horrific massacres, driving out religious minorities including Christians, and generally proving themselves to be the worst of the world’s current crop of uncivilised, idiotic savages.

In a shocking revelation, it has emerged that in the week-long Islamic State offensive in Sinjar, which began last Sunday, the militants killed at least 500 Christian Yazidis, according to Iraq’s human rights minister.

Several residents, including children, were buried alive, while around 300 women (believed to be from those Buried_aliveChristians who chose to pay a fine rather than leave the area or convert to Islam) have been kidnapped as slaves. The revelation was made by Iraq’s human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. In an interview al-Sudani alleged that the ISIS buried some of their victims alive, including women and children.

“We have striking evidence obtained from Yazidis fleeing Sinjar and some who escaped death, and also crime scene images that show indisputably that the gangs of the Islamic States have executed at least 500 Yazidis after seizing Sinjar,” Sudani pointed out.

“Some of the victims, including women and children were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar,” Sudani said.

In response to the Yazidi crisis, President Obama has authorised air drops of relief food to fleeing refugees and air strikes against the murderous ISIS, but interestingly recent air strikes have been claimed not to be by US jets. In which case, who is doing the bombing?

The most likely answer is almost certainly a mixture of Iraqi planes, flown and maintained by Russian and Iranian pilots and engineers, as the nascent Iraqi Shia government hasn’t got around to training its air force yet, and Iran has definitely bombed ISIS previously as their fighters neared the iranian border. Or it may have been Iraqis themselves, although this is considered unlikely. Or even Turkish fighters, as Turkey (especially the Turkish military establishment) is alarmed in the extreme about the pressure on the Kurds in the north (who, despite their antipathy towards Turkey, provide a useful buffer against the chaos further south) and their fears that the extremist Sunni ISIS could start to destabilise their secular democracy even more than it is already being notoriously weakened by the populist and increasingly authoritarian President Erdogan who was re-elected over the weekend in a poorly-attended poll.

This interesting article seeks to make sense of the conflicting signals coming out of northern Iraq currently.

What is certain is that behind the scenes, American, Russian, Turkish and Iranian diplomats and spooks are undergoing a much less antagonistic relationship than we see in public. Information sharing is the very least that’s going on – in all probability, “real time” battlefield intelligence is also being shared to make the fight against ISIS more effective.

Which is yet another modern example of the famous old adage Amicus meus, inimicus inimici mei or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. This understanding has powered geo-politics since it was first expressed in Sanskrit in the 4th century BC by Kautilya, the “Indian Machiavelli”, so perhaps it’s unsurprising to see it happening again.

As the fiercely anti-Communist British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared during the Second World War, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons,” when speaking in support of British aid to Soviet forces.

So the next time you hear a politician thumping the table and weighing in against some other country, bear in mind the reality of what’s happening behind the scenes may be far different. Or to put it more simply, politicians frequently feed us bullshit.

Really, who knew?


  1. Simon O says:

    The scenes from Iraq/Syria are extraordinary and sickening … although it is clear that relations between the West and Russia are at a low point, this is nothing compared to the atrocities being committed in these God-forsaken countries. Terrifying.


  2. chris B says:

    Fantastic stuff going on out there, but not in a good way. ISIS are a very nasty bunch (and, despite what the previous poster says, very religious, I guess they just worship the wrong God). But, given the circumstances, I wouldn’t take every claim from the Iraqi government as the truth. Its all a bit ‘bomb the rebels or the cute little kid will die’.

    What is definitely true is the fact that the complete capitulation of the Iraqi army has gifted ISIS large quantities of the sophisticated military equipment with which the USA had equipped them, with the end result that they now considerably out-gun the Kurds, for instance, who due to better military discipline were at one time seen as being able to defend themselves.

    And all this growing out of dis-affected Sunni groups and anti-Syrian rebels, and the mess that Iraq has become. Sadly this one is going to run and run.


    • Chris, I agree this one is likely to run and run. We are fighting not only a very extremist view of Islam, but also major cultural hurdles where resort to sickening violence is seen as much more apparently “acceptable” than we would think. I am curious, do you have any ideas as to what might make it “run and run” for slightly less long?


      • chris B says:

        Short term I would guess it would need someone to come in and use a great deal of force, which would most likely be Iran. (And the cynical side of me would think that some in America be very keen to see how well their weaponry does vs Iranian equipment). Or it could mean the US coming back in. Cant see how either would be that popular and it wouldnt sort out the long term problems – and could lead to more.

        I always figured Iran is a very interesting country with a lot of potential, not least in finding its own way as a different kind of democracy, but as we know its a long long way from that.

        Long term fixes means cutting off the lines of support for ISIS and having a strong and stable government in Iraq (i.e. fat chance for now). Cutting off support means the funding from certain Arab states. And of course some kind of stability in Syria would be great. If the right things happen then the bulk of ISIS would probably just melt back into the general Sunni population


  3. Costas Apostolides says:

    I have been arguing for some time that the approach quoted by Winston Churchill is right. ISIS and AL Guida are the threat and the Challenge. We have to cooperate together to deal with them before they spread the problem further, already it is claimed that ISIS controls an area the size of the UK. Assad in Syria has lasted longer than anyone thought possible a couple of years ago. He has the implicit or active support of the Allewis, the Christians and the Kurds, the US supported opposition has failed utterly. The USA and no one else wants to go into the Syria hell hole. so the only way forward is a deal with Assad and Iran, by the powers Russian, USA and west and moderate Arab states, to combine with Assad to defeat ISIS and the Jihardists and set up a Syrian government with democrats included. The deal would be that after the extremists are defeated constitutional change will be introduced, and democratic elections held.
    Having come down on Churchills side, do not forget that when it became clear that Hitler was defeated Chucill wanted to attack the USSR, as I think Patton did also. Not to speak of macarthur wanting to Nuke China as he threw back the North Koreans.


  4. Cris Scott says:

    An interesting summary, let down by the last sentence; if only life was as simple as commentators (invariably unelected, unaccountable and shouldering no responsibility for providing any solution) would like everyone to believe.

    For those who know the region well, the current situation is as sad as it was inevitable. ISIS is not a homogenious, unified organization, even if in our simplistic way we would like to portray it as such. Like any such grouping it has a wide array of motivations and agendas, some extreme, some less so. What is true is that, whilst it is easy enough to undermine or destroy a government seen as ‘rogue’ or offensive, it is an altogether higher level of challenge to manage a transition to something more stable, capable, benign and (in our perhaps narrow Western view) ‘accountable’.

    Repeated meddling by external powers (regional or international) has so often been shown to slow down, not speed up, the process by removing one power group or elite, only to replace it with something no better and invariably less capable and competent.

    Take for example the international community’s faith in Nouri al-Maliki as the leader of the new Iraq. Al-Maliki, far from providing capable, mature and unifying leadership, has through his persuit of his own personal, familial, tribal and Shia agendas, simply presided over Iraq’s steady slide into chaos. People observe, often with a wry smile, that al-Maliki is simply focused upon establishing his own personal Dynasty in Iraq …many likening (a little unfairly perhaps) his son Ahmed to Saddam’s son Uday. Whilst they (especially those who follow Shia Islam) often candidly admit that, were they in a similar position, the temptation to do likewise would be strong, as al-Maliki and his inner circle grimly hang onto the reins of power, Iraq’s failure to form a coherent government ensures remains semi-paralysed whilst those loosely operating under Isis’s flag steadily advance.

    It is a sad fact that one of the primary reasons the Western trained new Iraqi Army melted away in the face of Isis’s advance is that so many felt more affilliation with at least some of Isis’s objectives than those of their own nation’s ‘democratically elected’ politicians. There is no easy way out of this, just as there is no likelyhood of the early establishment of a coherent and competent government in Iraq. The fact is though, that the destabilising potential of the current situation in Syria and Iraq in particular, both politically and economically, is huge. The world’s leaders are necessarily being very cautious and co-operating closely. I, for one, am hugely glad of it.


    • I am glad of it too, Cris, but I don’t understand why you criticise the end of the article. Would the world not be a better place – less tense, more transparent – if our leaders were upfront about the fact that they are co-operating. You don’t have to be a oneworldgovernment conspiracy theorist to think that a lot less tub thumping and a lot more honesty would be helpful.

      I agree with you completely that “repeated meddling” invariably – almost invariably – ends up with a worse mess than what was there before.

      An equally vital and relevant question is “Why are so many of the world’s states little more than kleptocracies, including many so-called “democratic” states?”


  5. Simon O says:

    The only comment I can offer comes from a much smarter source than me … but the prevailing view is that Israel and Iran will form an alliance as will Russia and the US to deal with this brutal extremism. The Republican Guard is allegedly in Iraq now and there appears little doubt that the instability is being funded from the ‘typical sources’. The Gaza conflict will slow down as Israel appears to be close to recognizing Hezbollah … how ’bout that?


    • I think some sort of very cautious rapprochement between the Israelis and the Palestinians is possible, but only, perhaps, after the effective absorption of Hamas and their Hezbollah backers into a national government with the Abbas faction (Fatah, or whatever it’s called now), which has already been foreshadowed. I think the problem is that both the more radical Palestinians and the Israelis have painted themselves into a corner with their rhetoric. There will need to be some humble pie eating on both sides before any slowdown of conflict is locked in. I do think the emergence of ISIS – who terrify most Arabs every bit as much they do they rest of us – has focused a few minds in the region …


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