oreign policy strategy in the past unfolded at a glacial pace, with accomplishments measured over decades.
In the Middle East, enmities and alliances go back over millennia. This makes the shakeup last week in
super power relationships especially noteworthy, as the new coalition of Russia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq formed
to fill in a vacuum left by Western powers. The United States made the major concessions of giving tactical
approval to Russia taking ownership of the problem. Months ago, with NATO officials furiously updating plans
to defend the Baltic nations, it was inconceivable for the United States to engage in any kind of alliance with
Russia. Yet last Monday, President Obama in his speech to the UN said, “The United States is prepared to
work with any nation—including Russia and Iran—to resolve the conflict” in Syria. Putin naturally caught the
scent of weakness in this flexibility, immediately bombing CIA-backed rebels and putting combat planes into
NATO airspace on the flimsy pretext of avoiding poor weather.
Moscow has been affected since 2014 by economic and diplomatic sanctions for its annexation of Crimea
and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. By putting boots on the ground in support of the beleaguered
Syrian regime, Putin made clear that there would be no solution and broke out of his diplomatic isolation.
For now at least, this achievement in Putin’s eyes has come at a low cost – sending a few thousand troops
to well-protected bases, and conducting airstrikes that in any case further damage American credibility along
with the US-backed rebel groups targeted by the airstrikes.
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The Russian-Syrian alliance is nothing new. When in 1971 Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father,
led a coup and took control of the Syrian government, he signed a security pact with Moscow. In return,
Assad gave the Soviets a naval base at Tartus, still Moscow’s only port on the Mediterranean Sea and the
gateway through which Russian arms have flowed to Syria for decades. The Kremlin over the years has
provided more than $2.5 billion in military assistance to Damascus – not a huge amount compared to US
aid to Israel and Egypt, but enough to sustain the regime until the civil war. Russia’s initial airstrikes were
clearly designed to help Assad defend his home territory in western Syria against a growing rebel threat (Assad now controls only 25% of Syrian territory). This is why the first Russian targets included units of the
U.S.-backed rebel coalition instead of Islamic State, which is concentrated in eastern Syria.
Still, Putin is worried about the Islamic State as well, not just because it is a threat to Syria, but even more
so because he sees the potential threat to Russia. More than 2,000 Russian citizens are said to have joined
the extremist group, largely Muslims from Chechnya. “Now that those thugs have tasted blood, we can’t
allow them to return home,” Putin said at the U.N. Protecting Assad and fighting ISIS are intertwined in
Russia’s view. As expressed by Putin at the UN, the Assad government is all that stands in the way of
complete victory for ISIS and the de facto disappearance of the Syrian state.
For Putin then, the priority is the preservation of the state of Syria, along with his foothold in the Middle East.
He sees Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya having resulted in anarchy, and sees the same
for Syria if the west topples Assad rather than defeat ISIS.
President Obama has been outfoxed for the moment, but he is correct to say that the incursion will be more
challenging for Russian than it now seems. Dozens of Saudi clerics have called for Arab and Muslim countries
to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to a “jihad”, or holy war, against Syria’s government
and its Iranian and Russian backers. Although the clerics who signed the statement are not affiliated with
the government, their strong sectarian language reflects a growing anger among many Saudis over Russian
and Iranian involvement in Syria’s civil war. Popular pressure and Saudi policy to counter Iraq both go in the
direction of engaging in further proxy warfare as in Yemen – It is not hard to imagine, for instance, Sunni
rebels turning up with some new air defense kit.
A first challenge for President Obama is that coordination and communication with US ideological
adversaries, Russia and Iran, has become a necessity in the fight against ISIS – but doing so further abrades
American standing in the region. Moreover, the US goal for Syria that “Assad needs to go” is no longer tenable
in the short run. Communication can prove to be more than challenging, particularly when it comes to military
organization. The Pentagon says at least one U.S. military aircraft changed its route over Syria recently to
avoid getting dangerously close to Russian warplanes in the area. If proper communication is not delivered,
one “accident” or “miscalculation” can prove to be very costly.
The White House must now figure out how to ensure that future transitions that will eventually occur in Syria
will not be the decisions of Russia and Iran alone – while knowing that Putin will seek to immediately
undermine whatever approach the US takes. We wish them luck. Syria is now at the point where it is creating
heightened risks for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other US allies — and with them critical energy supplies.