So, Russia is now using Iranian air bases to launch pro-Asad strikes in Syria, creating a triangle within which I can’t imagine Turkey is particularly pleased to be. This seems to be a solidification of an ad hoc alliance that has been growing tighter, even as Russia agreed to be part of the Obama-led sanctions which crumpled Iranian nuclear resistance. Russia is now firmly part of the Iran/Syria axis, which could be extended to include the Houthis in Yemen and of course Hezbollah in Iraq. This is like every nightmare enemy of the last 50 years, even if they are opposed to our other nightmare enemies of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
There is a lot to discuss about the Middle East, and the ramifications in that, but I think there is an important question to ask. The Soufan Group’s IntelBrief hints at it: “While there is clear military value in the use of an Iranian airbase to launch strikes in Syria, the real gain for Russia is further solidifying its increasing role in the region.”
This is cause, in some circles, for palpitations and hyperventilations. Russia is playing maybe the leading role in the region now, certainly in Syria, and is forcing the action in favor of Asad. So are they winning? And what does winning mean?
I think this is lunacy, honestly. This is madness for Russia. What is going to happen if they “win”? What does that even look like? Asad in power, and what, all the rebel groups agreeing to lay down arms? A stable and secure Syria where both ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are gone? Is that even possible?
There can be no long-term good for Russia to get deeper and deeper into Syria, and into its endless war, and into the collapse of the modern Middle East. This transformation is just starting. Russia, which wanted to show strength to cover up fundamental weaknesses, has had success, but it is of the short-term variety. It is expanding its war involvement against any and all of the enemies of its new allies, which are literally everyone else in the region, in some combination or another. This is not going to play well within its own Muslim population. The borders of Russia are not settled and secure either. It could have dozens of its own little Syrias.
The idea that Russia is somehow winning in the Middle East is absurd. It’s flying right into turbulence, possibly of the historic, country-reshaping kind. The “great power” conflict between the US and Russia in the Middle East should be between who can do the most good without tying themselves in too much. You can argue that Obama has steered too close to the latter benchmark while largely avoiding the first one. I think it is silly to say that is weakness, or that it has cost us esteem, especially when there is just loss of esteem within the very same region from which he is trying to extricate us from. (It’s like being kicked out of a bar toward whose exit you’re strolling.) Russia isn’t playing that game at all: neither doing good, nor staying out of getting involved. It’s a series of moves, not a coherent strategy to make the country stronger in the long term. It’ll catch up. Russia, a country whose internal contradictions have never been resolved, is tying itself up in a century-long process of dissolution, one that could easily spread to that most impossible of nations.