How Russia Outplayed America in the Middle East’s Great Game

Published October 5, 2015

The Week

The cliché of the Russian chessmaster strategist might be a cliché for a reason. The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin might have feet of clay, but the man is smart.

By going all-in on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria, he has put Russia at the center of the great game in the Middle East.

Now, for all intents and purposes, Russia controls the airspace over Syria. Russia has had a military base and seaport in Syria for a long time, and is now bringing over long-range surface-to-air missiles (Russia’s are among the best in the world). And if Putin says, “Now Syria’s airspace is ours, and if you encroach we will take you down,” do you think Barack Obama will call his bluff? Europe?

And if the Syrian government keeps using chemical weapons, and the U.S. didn’t intervene when they crossed that red line, will they do so now that Syria is backed by Russia?

Russia has clear interests in the region. First, there is the longstanding Russian interest in warm waters and warm water ports. Second, as Vladimir Putin has pointed out, Russia has its own domestic Islamic terrorism problem in the Caucasus, and many Russian Islamic terrorists have joined ISIS. And third, Russia enjoys frustrating U.S. geostrategic interests, and that includes America’s strategic dominance over the Middle East. Now for local regimes, Russia looks more like a power-broker, and looks like more of a reliable force than the United States, which says one thing and then does another (see: Mubarak, Hosni).

Russia has strong ties with Iran, now emboldened even more by the recent nuclear deal, which frees up funds that Iran will almost certainly use, at least partially, to fund Hezbollah and other allied groups across the Middle East, and is getting cozy with Iran’s good friend Iraq. Iraq has agreed to share intelligence with the Russians and has cleared Russia to make intelligence flights over its airspace. Now Russia stands as a powerful presence in the northern Middle East, a region close to the Caucasus and to Central Asia where Russia has key strategic interests.

It’s worth pointing out that while this is clearly smart gamesmanship from Putin, he has just been exploiting U.S. mistakes.

Nobody likes Assad. But it’s also the case that in the Middle East, there are only lesser evils. The U.S. supports a military-backed regime in Egypt, and supports Saudi Arabia, probably the most dystopian place in the world this side of North Korea. Let’s get real.

Assad is a tyrant, but Assad also protected minorities in Syria because it was his own interest as head of the Alawites. Syria’s civil war has been the occasion for the cleansing of religious minorities in Syria, particularly its Christian population, among the oldest in the world, as well as countless other acts of barbarism. The idea that it was possible to back “moderates” who would magically win against both Assad and Islamists and establish order and maybe even a rule of law, simply because they received M-4s and “training,” was always a mirage. And the destabilization of Syria further destabilized Iraq, which now depends even more on Iran to keep itself together. Brilliant work.

Here’s what America should have done: essentially what Putin is doing now. It was likely possible, a year or two ago, when the Syrian government looked to be on its last legs, to ensure a reasonable outcome. How? Crush the worst enemies of the Syrian government with airpower, intelligence, and special forces, and support Syria’s army, which clearly, if nothing else, is battle-hardened and knows the terrain and can fight on the ground.

(Does that mean the U.S. would crush Syria’s democratic, moderate opposition? Frankly, it’s hard to say whether there is any democratic, moderate opposition in Syria worth mentioning, except people posing as moderate democrats to get weapons from the U.S. Certainly the U.S. should have started by hitting the most extreme opponents first.)

Of course, the U.S. should and could have extracted significant concessions: give up the alliance with Iran, give up its weapons of mass destruction, give up Assad, form a unity government (even if just to keep up appearances), sign a peace treaty with Israel, and over the long run, modernize the public sector and the economy to give people jobs (because, yes, even though jobs alone won’t defeat ISIS, over the long run it does help to beat back terror, or at least keep it from metastasizing too much). In other words, becoming another Jordan or another Egypt, and maybe even over the long run becoming a modern, well-run country. Not a democracy, not the best place in the world, but certainly a much better place than Syria is now, or now will ever be for the foreseeable future.

Such a plan would have required strategic foresight and fortitude, which has been lacking from the U.S. government for many decades. A superpower can and ought to do better.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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