One can argue that America’s absent leadership from the quagmire of Libya to the ongoing shame of civilian casualties in Syria, through to border tensions between Lebanon and Hezbollah and Syria, to the gradual erosion of Iraq’s sovereignty, is a strategic choice by the Trump Administration, in some ways mirroring the Obama posture of light-handed engagement in the region. When one throws in the downturn with Turkey, the weaknesses of our overtures with Egypt and the GCC, and the absence of depth of State Department experts dealing with this convulsive part of the world, then Trump’s genius may be that letting Russia get bogged down, as it did in Afghanistan, will in the long run be the winning hand…but don’t count on it.
The election this weekend in Russia is seen as potentially significant if there is low voter turnout, indicating to some the unhappiness with Russians with its overseas adventurism. Independent polling being what it is in Russia, we may never be able to analyze the election in depth, but it is quite clear that the Kremlin is concerned that its foreign policies seem reasonable and necessary to protecting the motherland.
As Al Monitor reported, “In the Syrian conflict, the tables have been turning quickly. The sense that things aren’t working out properly is strong in Moscow, with even staunch advocates of Russia’s Syria policies now wary and calling for policy updates. Moscow has been cautious not to take any radical steps before the March 18 election day to dodge possible risks. But Russia's plans to amend its strategy are underway and will have been implemented once Putin receives his fourth-term mandate.”
What this means in Syria and beyond is not clear as the conflict there is a muddle of competing agendas among regional actors, militias, government forces, and assorted non-state actors seeking to move resolution of the war to their advantage. While some players, such as Russia and Iran, are quite clear about their goals, sway over the Assad government and large slices of the reconstruction pie, others, including Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon’s government, put security at the top of their lists.
It was only three weeks ago that, according to Real Clear Defense.com, that only a phone call from Russian President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu prevented a large-scale Israeli engagement with both Syrian and foreign forces as a “lesson” about Israel’s resolve. In reality, it mirrored the long-standing US role in cautioning Israel to stand down, now it is Russia that “has the ability to limit Israeli freedom of action.”
The article went on to say that “At a minimum, without strong American leadership to deal with the Iranian threat in Syria, Israel must stomach the presence of Russia as a major power. Indeed, Russia offers little help in solving the Israeli security dilemma. After all, Russia’s involvement in Syria enabled the Iranian expansion that presently undermines Israel’s security.”
It is troublesome that Russia has generated its own arms race in Syria, going beyond what Hezbollah has amassed from Iran in Lebanon, including advanced surface-to-air missile systems and stealth aircraft. This last engagement made it clear that Israel must think twice before continuing its overflights over Syrian territory. As the article indicates, it is even more worrisome that “Russia has only a marginal interest in limiting Iranian expansion along the Golan, as evidenced by multiple violations and Iranian abuses under Russia’s watch.” Thus while Israel continues to rattle its sabers at Hezbollah in Lebanon, the country with the most to benefit, Iran, continues to collaborate with Russia when its interests are at stake. As the article ruefully concludes, “American cannot cede its leadership role to Russia, particularly while Moscow continues its partnership with Iran.”
With America’s eyes now focused on North Korea, and with the dearth of expertise at the State Department and conflicting signals from the Department of Defense and National Security Council, there does not seem to be any hope of righting the US position any time soon.
So in some ways, if the US was as agile as Russia in influencing elections through social media, there would have been some opportunities for mischief despite the overwhelming odds of Putin’s reelection. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy opined, “While Putin is assured a victory, the Kremlin appears concerned about its longer-term political future, leading it to rely more on military mobilization and anti-Westernism to bolster its domestic legitimacy and slide back to its authoritarian past. This means the Middle East will likely remain an arena for competing with the West and expanding Russian influence.”
Much like President Bush 43 pulled out a victory in the 2010 mid-term elections by calling up fears of impending foreign policy crises, Putin has adopted this strategy to overcome “a deteriorating economy, growing poverty, and little government interest in development…” Despite its weak economic health, Russia, like Iran, expects to be well compensated for its Syrian adventures, and has extended its reach as the dynamic outlier to Turkey and Iran as well.
It is no wonder that almost every Arab head of state has made the pilgrimage to Moscow in the last two years, giving Putin the leverage to keep US interests out of the region. As the article concludes, “Following the election, Moscow will likely treat the Middle East even more as a privileged sphere of influence similar to the post-Soviet space, with an increasingly aggressive, expansionist, and anti-Western posture all but assured.”
Yet Russia lacks control over its convenient “friends” Turkey and Iran that have their own interests that for hundreds of years have resisted Russian encroachment. One possible liability from this strategy is the lack of control that Russia has over the non-state actors, aside from its own, one the fighting in Syria is in remission. “Senior US officials believe that up to 80 percent of the Syrian army is made up of foreign fighters, many of whom are loyal to international forces, including Hezbollah and other Shiite militias with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU),” according to the Middle East Institute.
There are no straight lines given the proliferation of arms, agendas, and alliances of convenience. As David French noted in the National Review, “It’s imperative that the American people understand the risks, understand the administration’s vision, and approach these potential confrontations with their eyes wide open. We should not stumble into war.”