The contest between Washington and Moscow over Syria has implications that go far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East.
MOSCOW — The weather was gloriously sunny here on Monday and Tuesday, as if to celebrate the release of tension over the possibility that Saturday’s U.S. missile strike in Syria would lead to U.S.-Russia fighting. Perhaps the most significant lesson of the strike is that the military deconfliction channels between Washington and Moscow still work.
Oblivious to recent tensions, crowds of tourists, many Russian-speaking, wandered around the Kremlin walls and St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square and the nearby mall inside the famous GUM department store. They flowed in from the pedestrian walkway on Nikolskaya Street, its elegant, centuries-old houses turned into high-end shops and outdoor cafes.
As if to advertise Moscow’s contradictions, the far end of Nikolskaya looks out at the imposing yellow and redbrick Lubyanka building, once home to the KGB and now housing its successor, the FSB organization.
But by Wednesday, the Moscow skies were gray and rainy; the talk had reverted to whether the much-telegraphed strike had demonstrated American weakness. Or whether it might yet precipitate a summit between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. (Moscow is encouraged that Trump just rejected new sanctions on Russia and wants to remove U.S. forces from Syria.)
One thing was very clear from Russian Mideast experts: The contest between Washington and Moscow over Syria has implications that go far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East.
“Syria is about bigger things,” I was told by Maxim Suchkov, editor of Russia-Mideast coverage at the excellent Al-Monitor news website. “For Russia, it is more about the makings of a new world order, setting new rules and saying no to ‘regime change.’ ”
Russia entered the Syrian fray in 2015 to prevent the toppling of Bashar Assad, a dictator friendly to Moscow, just as the United States had enabled the toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 — and as other dictators had been toppled by “color revolutions” and the Arab Spring revolts.
Putin blamed all of these upheavals on Washington machinations. Incorrectly, I’d add.
So Putin’s first goal was to rescue Assad, lest his fall create political chaos and enable Islamist jihadis. (By 2015, given U.S. unwillingness to help secular rebels early in the Syrian revolt, Putin was probably right.)
But as Russia achieved unexpected successes, new goals developed, like the wooden Russian nesting dolls that emerge one from the other.
“It was all very ad hoc, target of opportunity,” says Yuri Barmin, an expert on Russia’s Mideast policy at the Russian International Affairs Council. “Initially it was to save Assad. Then they thought out the rest.”
With Iran and proxy Shiite militias providing the ground forces, Syrian rebels were pushed back. Russia acquired a major air base in Syria and a long-term naval base on the eastern Mediterranean at Tartus. “This creates a part of the sea where NATO can’t operate unnoticed,” says Barmin. “Putin sees the Middle East as key to a lot of things. Push Americans out, power projection, energy policy, trade, tourists.”
Other Mideast leaders, recognizing Russia as the new power in the region, are rushing to Moscow. After a decades-long absence, Russia has military basing rights in Egypt.
Which brings us to “the bigger thing” that Syria represents for the U.S.
Russia sees the U.S. as a declining world power, says Suchkov. As little as Syria may mean to Trump, a withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria’s Northeast Kurdish region would affirm that perception to Moscow. It would open the door to a reemergence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It would also convince Tehran that Washington is unable to push back against Iranian expansionism in Syria and the Mideast.
I would add that the idea of concocting a Sunni Arab mercenary force to replace U.S. forces, attributed to new Trump national security adviser John Bolton, is utter nonsense. Such a force would never jell, couldn’t keep ISIS down, and would be rejected by Syria, Iran, the Kurds and probably Turkey.
This brings us back to the question of whether the end of the missile-strike crisis might precipitate a summit that would serve both U.S. and Russian goals.
A summit may yet happen, but U.S. and Russian interests in Syria are so divergent I find it hard to imagine a successful outcome. For starters, Moscow values its relationship with Tehran and will not, nor can it, push the Iranians out of Syria — as the Trump team is demanding. If Trump walks away from the nuclear accord with Iran, it’s even harder to imagine any Syria deal.
More likely: Russia will be left wrestling with how to keep divergent forces in Syria from each other’s throats. Can Moscow prevent Iran from precipitating a war with Israel over Tehran’s weapons buildup in Syria? Will it stop Turkey from invading the Kurdish heartland? Can it muscle Assad into halting the use of chemical weapons, which could provoke another U.S. strike?
Every Russian Mideast expert I spoke to told me Moscow wants to avoid the burdens of becoming the Mideast’s new godfather. But this yoke may come with the Kremlin’s new pre-eminence in the region. Putin may come to regret that Trump is so eager to give up this leadership role.