Vali Nasr is Dean of Johns Hopkins University’ School of Advanced International Studies.
The vacuum Putin is filling in Syria and the Middle East, critics say, is the one left by American insouciance. Vladimir Putin with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, in 2006 | EPA
Russia’s daring intervention in Syria is not just a rude shock for Washington, but could also be a strategic game-changer for the Middle East, especially if it helps end the Syrian civil war.
Putin’s maneuver at first glance looks like a desperate gamble to save the Assad regime. Military intervention could stabilize Assad for a time, but critics think Russia ultimately risks a repetition of the Afghan debacle when jihadi fighters bested Russian military might. Those naysayers should keep in in mind that for Putin, as he made it clear in his speech before the United Nations, the alternative to involvement may be an embarrassing defeat for Assad that empowers Islamic extremism. And that Russia is much better positioned than America to stop the bloodshed Syria.
No matter how this ends, for now Russia has changed the dynamics of the Syria crisis and opened up new possibilities. The crisis is no longer about Iran, which was increasingly on its heels defending Assad while also fighting ISIL in Iraq. By stepping forward as Assad’s principal prop and forging an axis against ISIL (consisting of Iran, Iraq and Syria), Russia has put fighting Islamic extremism rather than "Iranian mischief” center stage in regional politics. For many in the West, the preoccupation will be Russia’s role in the Middle East, not the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Russian intervention is also a direct challenge to Turkey’s and Persian Gulf monarchies’ support for Assad’s opposition. Back in 2012 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia showed his displeasure for Russian support of the Assad regime by purportedly hanging up the telephone on President Dmitri Medvedev. But it does not appear that Russia is too worried about how Turkey or the Arab world might react to its latest military endeavor. After the nuclear deal, Arab monarchies, unhappy with Washington, have deemed it necessary to build ties with Moscow. Unlike the United States, Russia does not have to choose between Iran and its Arab rivals; it has been able to stay close to Iran while strengthening ties with Persian Gulf monarchies.
The United States has from the outset been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian debacle. Its support for opposition to Assad has been ineffective and so have its attempts at finding a diplomatic solution. By contrast, or perhaps as a consequence, there is now recognition across the board that Russia is central to an end game in Syria.
Secretary Kerry is renewing his bid for a diplomatic solution to Syria, but it is Russia, not the United States, that is shaping the situation on the ground to compel diplomacy. In the four years of civil war, the United States has rebuffed calls to arm the rebels, establish a no fly zone or enforce its own red lines for use of chemical weapons. America’s impact on the civil war has been minimal. Russia, by contrast, has rmed Assad’s military and now taken charge of defending the regime. It is clear to all stakeholders that the key to the resolution of the war is Moscow.
Washington’s ability to get regional actors to compromise on Syria is also hampered by domestic considerations. The political environments in both the United States and Iran preclude serious talks over regional issues, let alone the meaningful give and take that would make diplomacy possible. Iran’s Supreme Leader has said that for now talks with the United States will go no further than the nuclear deal, and the Obama administration speaks of containment rather than engagement when it comes to Iran’s regional role. The implementation of the nuclear deal will cast a shadow on all discussions over Syria, and even if Washington were to manage a breakthrough with Tehran, it is bound to face opposition from Israel, Persian Gulf monarchies and Congress.
Moscow is better situated to move Iran, Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies toward compromise. Secretary Kerry brought Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Jubair together last month in Qatar to discuss Syria. But Russia has been pursuing more direct bilateral talks. The list of dignitaries who have visited Moscow in recent months is long: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force Commander Qasim Suleimani, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, UAE’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan. After Muhammad Bin Salman returned from Moscow, Putin arranged for him to meet Assad’s intelligence chief, Ali Mamluk, in Jeddah. As Putin has ramped up his defense of Assad, Russia has been speaking to the biggest regional actors.
This diplomatic outreach has already had tangible effects. Just last week, after visiting Moscow, Erdogan changed his position and accepted that Assad could be part of a political solution to end the civil war. It must be clear to Erdogan and the Persian Gulf monarchies that Putin will not let Assad fall. These nations also run the risk of confrontation with Russia if they continue supporting anti-Assad forces. Nor do Turkey and Israel want to see prolonged Russian military presence next door. Israel would not be able to hit at Hezbollah and Iranian targets at will, and Turkey wouldn’t be able to react to the Kurdish challenge as freely it has thus far. The best course of action, these states could conclude, is to agree to a diplomatic solution that would send Russian forces home.
This could create a path out of the current impasse in Syria, which would be welcome news in not just countries around Syria but also in Europe where the swelter of war-weary refugees is posing humanitarian and security challenges. But it raises fresh questions about Russia’s challenge to the United States and the world order. The Obama administration’s critics fear Russia’s power play could establish Moscow’s primacy in Middle Eastern affairs and embolden Russia elsewhere in the world. The vacuum Russia is filling, critics say, is the one left by American insouciance.
Syria certainly confirms worries about Russia’s outsized ambitions in the Middle East and beyond. It should also give us pause when we hear that Moscow is chastened by international pressure and out of options or that Putin has no strategy. But for now the focus is whether Russia shows its mettle in ending the war in Syria. The long-term repercussions of Russia’s aggression are a debate for another day.