Beijing Leads From Behind in Syria

by Pepe Escobar, Russia Insider:

Beijing was always adamant that Syria would not be regime-changed – with devastating militia wasteland consequences – as in Libya

Muqtada al-Sadr is up to something. In 2004 occupied Iraq, the nationalist leader who later engineered the Sadrist movement was even demonized as America’s number one enemy – briefly dethroning Osama bin Laden. Now, he’s being painted – by the usual Wahhabi-coddling suspects – as some sort of Reconciliator.

Last month, al-Sadr flew to Jeddah to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS, the House of Saud destroyer of Yemen. This was only a year after al-Sadr was calling for protests outside Riyadh’s embassy in Baghdad for the Saudi execution of key Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

A few days ago, al-Sadr flew to Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan – who happens to be MBS’s mentor.

So what’s going on here?

Sadrists are essentially nationalist working class urban Iraqis, not exclusively Shiites. Al-Sadr is very critical of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government and used to support – sort of – former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Crucially, he wants the dissolution of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units, PMU) who have been instrumental in the fight against Daesh.

According to official GCC spin, al-Sadr’s travels are all about countering Shiite-led Iran’s expansion and “aggression.”

Yet the spin about his blasting of Iranian influence in Iraq tells only part of the story. Wily al-Sadr in fact is against any interference – from Iran but also from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, Sunni Turkey and pro-Kurdish Israel. On the other hand, al-Sadr called last year for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation in Syria – something that aligned him with interference/pro-regime change Riyadh and Ankara.

The notion that the House of Saud will consider investing in Shiite- majority southern and central Iraq and send humanitarian aid to internally displaced Iraqis, as confirmed by al-Sadr’s office, reads like lousy Orwellian newspeak. A quick glance at how the House of Saud is treating Shiites in Yemen and in its own Eastern province debunks it for good.

The Saudis also promised to “strengthen Arab Shiite authority” in Najaf and Karbala. That’s open interference in religious Shiite matters – as quietist Najaf is openly opposed to Khomeinist Qom. The Saudis will also “consider” opening a consulate in Najaf and operate flights from Najaf to Saudi Arabia.

This whole charade can be interpreted as Riyadh using Najaf as a sort of bridge to Baghdad. MBS has let out the notion that he would like Prime Minister al-Abadi to be a mediator in Riyadh and Tehran’s intractable relationship. Iran has welcomed the idea – assuming that’s not a Saudi diversionist tactic.

The House of Saud game is mostly about the 2018 elections in Iraq. Al-Sadr has been the proverbial king maker in previous elections. Yet the notion that the Saudis may be able to buy al-Sadr to become ‘The Man From Riyadh’ is ludicrous. Al-Abadi and al-Maliki (himself heavily supported by the PMU) will run united, and may get more than 120 seats in Parliament. In this case, game over for al-Sadr

What this House of Saud power play reveals is, once again, desperation – caused essentially by its miserable defeat in Syria. Thus the shift into trying to counter Iranian “aggression” in Iraq instead of Syria.

Syria: the facts on the ground

Way beyond the al-Sadr-Saudi love fest, Mesopotamia and the Levant, in the post-Daesh era, are indeed unrecognizable compared to the state of play in the early 2010s.

The facts on the ground in the Syrian war theater are stark.

While the Beltway was blinded by regime change, Moscow swooped in and with a small expeditionary force turned the Middle East game upside down. While Russian jets fully coordinated with an array of forces on the ground, Russian diplomacy ended up closing down all manner of war fronts and imposing ceasefires or de-escalation zones.

A New Syrian Army (NSA?), instead of those walking dead FSA, is now fully battle-tested, in both conventional and guerrilla warfare, and with morale extremely high to the point that Hezbollah now needs to deploy only a few of its officers to coordinate each Syrian unit.

Popular national units, Hezbollah-style, or even PMU-style, are being built by Damascus as the backbone of future resistance forces against any invaders, direct or by proxy.

While the CIA and the House of Saud, Qatar (which later repented) and Turkey (which later aligned with Russia) were obsessed by their regime change crusade, “investing” in chaos spread by “moderate rebels” and demented jihadis alike, Iran invested billions of cold hard cash in Syria – including paying salaries to troops, buying oil, logistical support and building medicine factories.

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