In Syria’s war, and who is fighting whom, the complication of that civil war is dwarfed by another more acute one: Who holds what cards against whom.
Europe is held hostage by its Russian gas pipeline, running through the Ukraine, it could shut down anytime. In January of 2009, in the middle of one of the coldest month, the world witnessed that Putin would not hesitate to use this weapon against Europe. There is a point at which if Europe deploys paralyzing sanctions, Putin would cut off his gas supplies to Europe.
Europe is attempting to free itself from Putin’s choke hold. Norway, in May of this year, surpassed Russia as the main gas supplier to Europe.
Turkey is also held hostage to Putin because of the new TurkStream gas pipeline, which giant Russian Gazprom just delayed building as a warning to Turkey. Turkey is siding against Assad in Syria’s war. Why the warning? Because there have been Turkish rumors it may shut down the Bosphorus Strait to Russian ships carrying weapons to the Assad regime. Putin fired the first shot.
Russia also holds Saudi Arabia, another weapon supplier to the rebels fighting the Assad regime, with damning WikiLeaks Saudi Cables it already released a small portion right after King Salman’s son met with Putin in June of this year. The release was coordinated with Julian Assange who is allegedly a Russian spy.
Wikileaks announced that the remaining 180,000 cables are very damning if released.
The Wikileaks affair was a delayed Russian response, triggered by the meeting between Salman’s son and Putin, to Saudi Arabia keeping its oil production high, which is a double-edged sword against the Iranian and the Russian economies. In the last 18-months, Crude Oil Brent (ICE) prices declined from a high of over $100 a barrel to about $51 a barrel today. According to London-based consulting firm Energy Aspects, Russia’s oil extraction costs average over $40 per barrel, while Saudi Arabia’s, by contrast, are just over $20 per barrel. Saudi oil war takes time to affect the Russian economy but it has been launched in the summer of 2014.
By invading Syria, Putin acquired a new ace card he could use against Europe in the form of large exodus of Syrian refugees. By letting Assad barrel bomb civilians through the use of Russia’s veto power at the U.N., Putin is threatening Europe with an overwhelming human and financial burden Europe is ill-equipped to handle for a long time given its own precarious financial status. This is reason number one why Europe did not respond to Putin’s aggression in Syria with more sanctions.
As far as the West is concerned, it has two cards it could deploy against Putin, in addition to cooperating with Saudi Arabia on keeping oil prices artificially low.
The U.S. and Europe can slap Putin with more economic sanctions. Given he sneaked into Syria by surprise and how much he controls the flow of Syrian refugees towards Europe, Putin has been able to neutralize this Western powerful sanctions card.
The other option deals with a military direct confrontation that involves NATO. From all accounts, neither America’s White House nor the EU in Brussels are keen on starting a war over Syria. Putin outmaneuvered the West, and the West response has been more to the tune of begging Putin to back off than to threaten him.
The only card left is to equip the Free Syrian Army with anti-aircraft weapons that could down, or even threaten to down, Russian fighter jets and bombers. Defeating Putin on the Syrian battlefield is the only remaining option for the West and the Saudi-Turkish alliance. Removing Putin from Syria through a protracted war of attrition will reset Putin and send him back to Moscow weakened and vulnerable.
Whether the West has the courage to act decisively in Syria’s war is not a certainty. Remember that Barack Obama is still in the White House, and he is, by far, Putin’s best ace in the hole.