by Graham E. Fuller
Washington has been wrapped in confusion and indecision for years now in trying to sort out just what its real objectives are in Syria. Its obsessive, and ultimately failed goal of denying Iran influence in the Middle East has notably receded with Obama’s admirable success in reaching a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue and gradual normalization of Iran’s place in the world.
But while the Israel lobby and its Republican allies failed to block Obama’s painstaking work in reaching that agreement, they now seem determined to hobble its implementation in any way possible. This is utterly self-defeating: unable to block Iran’s re-emergence they seem determined to deny themselves any of the key payoffs of the agreement—the chance to work with Iran selectively on several important common strategic goals: the isolation and defeat of ISIS, a settlement in Syria that denies a jihadi takeover, the rollback of sectarianism as a driving force in the region, a peaceful settlement in Iran’s neighbor Afghanistan, and the freeing up of energy/pipeline options across Asia.
But let’s address this Syrian issue. There’s a new development here—stepped up Russian involvement—that poses new challenge to the American neocon strategic vision. So here is where Washington needs to sort out what it really wants in Syria. Is the main goal still to erode Iranian influence in the region by taking out Iran’s ally in Damascus? Or does it want to check Russian influence in the Middle East wherever possible in order to maintain America’s (fast becoming illusory) dominant influence? These two goals had seemed to weigh more heavily in Washington’s calculus than Syrian domestic considerations. In other words, Asad is a proxy target.
There are two major countries in the world at this point capable of exerting serious influence over Damascus—Russia and Iran. Not surprisingly, they possess that influence precisely because they both enjoy long-time good ties with Damascus; Asad obviously is far more likely to listen to tested allies than heed the plans of enemies dedicated to his overthrow.
The overthrow of Asad seemed a simple task in 2011 as the Arab Spring sparked early uprisings against him. The US readily supported that goal, as did Turkey along with Saudi Arabia and others. As the Asad regime began to demonstrate serious signs of resilience, however, the US and Turkey stepped up support to nominally moderate and secular armed opposition against Damascus, thereby extending the brutal civil war.
That calculus began to change when radical jihadi groups linked either to al-Qaeda or to ISIS (the “Islamic State”) began to overshadow moderate opposition forces. As ruthless as Asad had been in crushing domestic opposition, it became clear that any likely successor government would almost surely be dominated by such radical jihadi forces—who simply fight more effectively than the West’s preferred moderate and secular groups who never got their act together.
Enter Russia. Moscow had already intervened swiftly and effectively in 2013 to head off a planned US airstrike on Damascus to take out chemical weapons by convincing Damascus to freely yield up its chemical weapons; the plan actually succeeded. This event helped overcome at least Obama’s earlier reluctance to recognize the potential benefits of Russian influence in the Middle East to positively serve broader western interests in the region as well.
Russia is of course no late-comer to the region: Russian tsars long acted as the protector of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Middle East in the nineteenth century; the Russians had been diplomatic players in the geopolitical game in the region long before the creation of the Soviet Union. During the West’s Cold War with the Soviet Union the two camps often strategically supported opposite sides of regional conflicts: Moscow supported revolutionary Arab dictators while the West supported pro-western dictators. Russia has had dominant military influence in Syria for over five decades through weapons sales, diplomatic support, and its naval base in Tartus.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991 Russian influence in the area sharply declined for the first time as the new Russia sorted itself out. America then began declaring itself the “world’s sole superpower,” allegedly now free to shape the world strategically as it saw fit. And the significant neoconservative and liberal interventionist factions in Washington still nourish the same mentality today—predicated on the belief that the US can continue to maintain primacy around the world—economic, military, and diplomatic. In this sense, any acknowledgment of Russian influence in the Middle East (or elsewhere) represents an affront, even “a threat” to US dominance and prestige.
For similar reasons Iran’s long-time open challenge against American ability act with impunity in the Middle East has always constituted a deep source of American strategic anger—viscerally surpassing the more Israel-driven nuclear issue.
Today the combination of Russia and Iran (whose interests do not fully coincide either) exert major influence over the weakening Asad regime.
If we are truly concerned about ISIS we must recognize that restoration of a modicum of peace in Syria and Iraq are essential prerequisites to the ultimate elimination of ISIS that feeds off of the chaos.
Russia appears now to be unilaterally introducing new military forces, stepped up weapons deliveries, and possibly including limited troop numbers into Syria specifically to back the Asad regime’s staying power. Washington appears dismayed at this turn of events, and has yet to make up its mind whether it would rather get rid of Asad, or get rid of ISIS. It is folly to think that both goals can be achieved militarily.
In my view, the fall of Asad will not bring peace but will instead guarantee deadly massive long-term civil conflict in Syria among contending successors in which radical jihadi forces are likely to predominate—unless the west commits major ground forces to impose and supervise a peace. We’ve been there once before in the Iraq scenario. A replay of Iraq surely is not what the West wants.
So just how much of a “threat” is an enhanced Russian military presence in Syria? It is simplistic to view this as some zero-sum game in which any Russian gain is an American loss. The West lived with a Soviet naval base in Syria for many decades; meanwhile the US itself has dozens of military bases in the Middle East. (To many observers, these may indeed represent part of the problem.)
Even were Syria to become completely subservient to Russia, US general interests in the region would not seriously suffer (unless one considers maintenance of unchallenged unilateral power to be the main US interest there. I don’t.) The West has lived with such a Syrian regime before. Russia, with its large and restive Muslim population and especially Chechens, is more fearful of jihadi Islam than is even the US. If Russia were to end up putting combat troops on the ground against ISIS (unlikely) it would represent a net gain for the West. Russia is far less hated by populations in the Middle East than is the US (although Moscow is quite hated by many Muslims of the former Soviet Union.) Russia is likely to be able to undertake military operations against jihadis from bases within Syria. Indeed, it will certainly shore up Damascus militarily—rather than allowing Syria to collapse into warring jihadi factions.
What Russia will not accept in the Middle East is another unilateral US (or “NATO”) fait accompli in “regime change” that does not carry full UN support. (China’s interests are identical to Russia’s in most respects here.)
We are entering a new era in which the US is increasingly no longer able to call the shots in shaping the international order. Surely it is in the (enlightened) self-interest of the US to see an end to the conflict in Syria with all its cross-border sectarian viciousness in Iraq. Russia is probably better positioned than any other world player to exert influence over Asad. The US should be able to comfortably live even with a Russian-dominated Syria if it can bring an end to the conflict—especially when Washington meanwhile is allied with virtually every one of Syria’s neighbors. (How long Asad himself stays would be subject to negotiation; his personal presence is not essential to ‘Alawi power in Syria.)
What can Russia do to the West from its long-term dominant position in Syria? Take Syria’s (virtually non-existent) oil? Draw on the wealth of this impoverished country? Increase arms sales to the region (no match for US arms sales)? Threaten Israel? Russia already has close ties with Israel and probably up to a quarter of Israel’s population are Russian Jews.
Bottom line: Washington does not have the luxury of playing dog in the manger in “managing” the Middle East, especially after two decades or more of massive and destructive policy failure on virtually all fronts.
It is essential that the US not extend its new Cold War with Russia into the Middle East where shared interests are fairly broad—unless one rejects that very supposition on ideological grounds. The same goes for Iran.
We have to start someplace.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). This article is republished, with permission ,from grahamefuller.com