By any objective measure, Russia has made a strategic decision to challenge America for dominance in the Middle East. Despite depressed global oil prices and economic sanctions intended to curb his Ukraine adventurism, Vladimir Putin is pursuing an undisguised effort to expand Moscow’s military power, political heft, and economic influence in a region long under Washington’s sway. Barack Obama has made no effective response, and none seems in prospect. The recent Obama-Putin meeting at the United Nations did not change that underlying reality.
At a minimum, Russia’s Middle East actions today uncannily resemble Scoop Jackson’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “opportunistic hotel burglar who walks down the corridors trying all the door handles to see which door is open.” The Kremlin is probing for U.S. weaknesses, meddling across the region in ways unprecedented since Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers in the 1970s, reversed Egypt’s global orientation, and thereby ultimately enabled the Camp David accords with Israel.
Russia is not pursuing its objectives alone. It is strengthening allies and proxies such as Syria and Iran that regularly assist Moscow or undertake parallel, reinforcing initiatives to advance their own agendas. The ongoing, perhaps accelerating, region-wide deterioration of state structures facilitates Moscow’s assertiveness.
Russia’s recent rapid buildout of an air base at Latakia, Syria, is a palpable demonstration of military muscle, complementing its longstanding Tartus naval facility. Near term, it buttresses Bashar al-Assad’s rump Syrian regime, which is already heavily dependent on Iran (directly and through Hezbollah) and facing enormous battlefield pressure from ISIS, al-Nusra, and the remaining Syrian “moderate” opposition.
Far more important, however, Latakia is clear evidence of Russia’s new, sweeping strategy of challenging America. All too typically, Obama was caught by surprise, still waiting, as he has since Syria’s civil war erupted, for Moscow to partner with Washington to oust Assad from power. John Kerry asserted that Russia’s new air assets were merely for “force protection,” neglecting to explain what the objectives are of the force being protected! Indeed, just days later, the “force protection” force attacked non-ISIS targets in Syria, after warning U.S. planes to leave Syrian skies.
Well before Latakia, Russia was already testing U.S. vulnerabilities. Putin’s successful February visit with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo led directly to substantial military sales to Egypt, the first since the 1970s, sending a powerful signal of regional realignment. And Moscow is certainly not complaining about Sisi’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Most visibly threatening, Russia is selling Iran its S-300 air defense system (not to mention other advanced weapons and nuclear reactors when sanctions disappear because of the Vienna nuclear deal). Once deployed, the S-300 will end any prospect of Israel preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
Obama, faced with Russia’s assertive faits accomplis, remains lost in a post-Vienna ideological rapture, unable or unwilling to see the consequences of his passivity and disinterest. Expressing “concern” over Russia’s new Latakia base joins a lengthening list of Obama “concerns” that elicit only his rhetoric, nothing more.
Looking ahead, with Assad and Iran operating from much stronger positions, we face the risk that regional ideological adversaries will act in concert when their interests align, as in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing Poland. The gravest threat to U.S. interests, after a nuclear Iran, is the Russia-Iran-Syria axis reaching a modus vivendi with the Islamic State. A “truce” would allow ISIS to consolidate its new state from the rubble of Syria and Iraq (presumably with Kurdistan de facto independent) and concentrate on its highest-priority targets: the Arabian Peninsula’s apostate, heretic oil-producing monarchies.
With Putin explaining the historical precedent, ISIS and Iran could divide up the goods. Iran would tighten its hold on Baghdad and focus on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, with their large Shiite populations, while ISIS goes after the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the holy cities of the Hijaz. Tender Western ears may find this cold-blooded, but the regional and religious logic is straightforward. The inconvenient betrayal of one side by the other can come later.