Moscow, Washington and Shaping a Way Ahead

At present, most Russians still probably want the regime-led reform rather than regime change. (Credit Image: Bigstock)

2017-01-05 By Richard Weitz

Until recently, except in the case of Iran, the Obama administration did not address Russia as a major factor in its Middle East strategy.

The administration withdrew the U.S. military from Iraq and promoted Israel-Palestinian reconciliation without thinking of Moscow’s potential contribution or opposition.

Then external events—the Arab Spring, NATO military intervention in Libya, and the uprising against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad—increased Russia’s influence in the Middle East and also heightened U.S.-Russian tensions.

Though some in Washington expected that the Russian Aerospace Forces would become bogged down in their Syrian campaign, the operation has proved more successful than any foreign military intervention in the Middle East since the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War.

Suffering few military losses, the Russian forces saved the Assad regime from likely defeat and made Moscow the key external player in the Syrian conflict.

Perhaps due to the war in Syria, the Russian-Iranian alignment is also much stronger than many U.S. policy makers and analysts expected.

The Obama administration hoped that the nuclear deal with Iran would result in a weakening of Tehran’s ties with Moscow and an Iranian foreign policy more open to cooperating with the West on other issues.

Instead, Russia and Iran have furthered their bilateral and region-wide partnership since the Iran nuclear deal.

Russia has increased its arms sales to Iran, deepened its civil nuclear and other joint economic projects, and engaged in an unprecedented degree of regional security cooperation centered on Syria.

Russian warplanes have even been allowed to land and refuel at Iranian military bases.

It remains uncertain if the Russian-Assad-Iranian-Hezbollah alliance can consolidate control over all of Syrian territory in the near future, let alone claim a major victory in the war on international terrorism.

Despite the recent re-conquest of Aleppo, the Assad government still controls less than half of Syria’s territory, while millions of Syrians reside outside its control, including in foreign countries.

Even with substantial Hezbollah and Iranian manpower and Russian air power, the Syrian government’s depleted armed forces lack the strength to launch simultaneous offenses.

Instead, the Syrian government coalition must launch sequential campaigns—one attack at a time in different sectors—rather than concurrent attacks.

Furthermore, Russia has also not yet effectively leveraged its Syrian intervention and enhanced Middle Eastern influence to induce the United States or its NATO allies to weaken Western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine.

It has managed to secure greater cooperation from Turkey, whose government has become alienated from the Obama administration, but Turkish-U.S. ties should initially improve under Trump due to his indifference to Turkey’s internal affairs beyond the issue of anti-terrorism.

Still, Trump understands that the United States cannot ignore Russia’s diplomatic priorities and military potential when pursuing U.S. goals in the Middle East.

In fact, Trump says he is looking forward to a robust U.S.-Russian partnership against Middle Eastern terrorist threats.

Putin and other Russian leaders have repeatedly called for such a broad-based antiterrorist front.

However, the limited U.S.-Russian collaboration against terrorist threats, evident in the shortfalls that contributed to the April 2013 Boston Bombings by two Chechen brothers, has yet to recover from the adverse impact of the Ukraine crisis.

The Trump team will find it difficult to balance the goals of cooperating with Russia while rolling back Iran’s regional influence, unless Moscow decides to subordinate its ties with Iran in order to strengthen relations with Washington.

The Obama and Putin administrations were able to achieve some short-term agreements regarding Syria, such as the chemical weapons demilitarization agreement, but not an enduring peace agreement.

Despite years of direct talks over Syria, they were not able to move cooperation beyond basic de-confliction.

A recurring problem has been that the two governments have had conflicting definitions of which Syrian groups should be labeled as “terrorists,” and therefore excluded from the peace process. Even so, the strength of the extremists in the Syrian armed resistance to Assad has brought U.S. and Russian policies regarding the conflict closer in practice, if not in rhetoric.

For example, Trump has joined Russian officials in expressing doubts about the wisdom of arming moderate rebel groups in Syria.

However, cutting off all contact with the non-governmental insurgents could harm U.S. intelligence gathering efforts in Syria, unless U.S.-Russian information exchanges expand to fill any gap.

Although U.S. officials have contested whether the Russian forces in Syria have consistently targeted ISIS as opposed to bombing the West-backed Syrian insurgents, and while there have been sharp exchanges over civilian casualties due to Syrian-Russian air strikes, a focused effort by Russia in the future to eliminate the ISIS presence in Syria would make Moscow a more attractive partner for the new Trump administration which is likely to generate a more robust air operation than that pursued by the outgoing Administration.  

During the election campaign, Trump’s most visible remarks on the Syrian conflict have primarily revolved around defeating and destroying ISIS. He also repeatedly expressed his support for working with Moscow to defeat ISIS and favorably described the Russian military intervention in Syria for helping relieve the U.S. burden of fighting international terrorism.

As long as the invitation remains open, the Trump administration could attend the planned Syrian peace talks in Astana, currently scheduled for mid-February, as well as engage in the parallel peace negotiations through the United Nations.

Russia has positioned itself as a necessary but not sufficient partner for achieving peace in Syria.

Although Russia, Iran, and Turkey conducted Syrian peace negotiations without U.S. or UN participation in mid-December, the United States and others later joined the deal through adoption of a UN Security Council resolution that endorsed its terms.

The parties might also resurrect a version of the Russian-U.S. Joint Implementation Group agreement, in which they pledged to minimize civilian casualties, foster a political transition in Syria, and share operational intelligence and targeting data through a joint headquarters.

Importantly, the agreement would have entailed bilateral military collaboration to defeat ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, the main al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Cooperating against al-Qaeda, as well as ISIS, will likely become more urgent during the Trump administration.

Some experts worry [] that al-Qaeda is exploiting the ISIS difficulties to make a comeback.

Greater U.S.-Russian collaboration against both groups and their affiliates would be welcome in dealing with the ISIS challenge.

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Moscow and the Middle East: What Might Trump Do?