It's All to Play for in Syria, and Russia Is Winning

It's All to Play for in Syria, and Russia Is Winning

Why you should care

Because “soft power” diplomacy counts as much as our military punch. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

OZY Senior Columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.

ISIS’s so-called caliphate will be dismantled in the coming months, which means the Syrian civil war is approaching a turning point. Whatever happens, the principal non-U.S. participants — Russia, Iran and Turkey — have grand ambitions that, if realized, will leave the United States with sharply diminished influence in the Middle East.

The military situation in Syria remains fluid and complex, involving forces from at least four large external powers, a host of minor powers and a mix of troops from the Syrian government and numerous militia groups and rebel formations. ISIS, under pressure mainly from U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, has lost about 65 percent of its “capital” in Raqqa. Simultaneously, major elements of the terror group are now under assault to the southeast of the city, in Deir al-Zour, where many have retreated and where both U.S.-allied forces and Syrian government troops supported by Russia and Iran are squeezing the terrorists with the aim of annihilating them. The anti-ISIS forces are increasingly in close proximity, complicating the problems of deconfliction — especially between the U.S. and Russia. ISIS is putting up a fierce fight and is still being resupplied from jihadists just across the border in Iraq.

A diminished U.S. role in the Middle East would magnify doubts about the United States.

The Trump administration remains unclear about its goals, with administration officials often contradicting each other. Based on actions, however, the White House has narrowed its objective to the destruction of ISIS. The problem? This opens the door for Iran, Russia and Turkey to pursue their ambitions, which are very large indeed:

  • Iran sees within its grasp a long-sought Shia “arc of influence” stretching from Tehran through Iraq (now nearly an Iranian client state) to the Mediterranean. With about 7,000 troops in Syria, and coordination of thousands of militia fighters, Iran has taken over 1,000 casualties and established a firm foothold. This will allow it to maintain a lifeline through Syria for its proxy partner, Hezbollah, which has both a terrorist wing and government seats in neighboring Lebanon.
  • Russia’s President Putin has achieved his goal of preserving Bashar Assad’s government, as well as Russia’s ports and bases in Syria. He is poised to exploit his success, and with Russian military support, Assad has expanded territorial control in Syria. In doing so, Putin has boosted Russia’s credentials as a reliable ally and deal maker, establishing close relations with many long-time U.S. partners.
  • Turkey continues to harbor an Ottoman impulse and sees coming into view its dream of regaining an enhanced role in the region and new leverage over the Kurds, whose drive for independence continues to spook Ankara. Meanwhile, Turkey is tolerating, at least for now, the enlarged role the Kurds have achieved as a result of the U.S.-led military ground effort. But once ISIS is suppressed, look for NATO-member Turkey to start consolidating its influence in northern Syria, pushing the Kurds aside and tightening its coordination with Russia.

These trends are nowhere more evident than in the way Russia, Iran and Turkey have seized the diplomatic initiative, convening a series of talks among the parties in Astana, Kazakhstan. American representatives are present, but the three other powers are in the driver’s seat. They are setting themselves up as kingmakers for when and on what terms the conflict eventually winds down and the spoils of war are shared.

So, what does all of this mean?

  • First, Assad is likely to remain in power and to continue governing a large chunk of Syria for the foreseeable future, thanks to Russian and Iranian help.
  • Second, the U.S. will find itself with stiffer competition for regional leverage than at any time since World War II. Russia has been on a diplomatic and trade offensive throughout the region, building relationships with countries and factions — ranging from Turkey and the Kurds to the Palestinians, Israelis, the Gulf countries, Libya and of course Iran. Moscow envisions increased sales of everything from weapons to nuclear technology — lucrative deals that would come without Washington’s usual conditions. Russia is also positioning itself to compete as the “honest broker” that has always been a foundation of U.S. power and prestige in the region.
  • Third, a diminished U.S. role in the Middle East would magnify doubts about the United States — doubts that are already firming thanks to our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. In fact, the most recent Pew Organization survey across 37 nations shows only 22 percent confidence in Donald Trump’s international leadership, compared to 64 percent in his predecessor’s.

To avoid the worst, it is essential that the United States broaden its objective well beyond the clearly achievable goal of denying ISIS its “caliphate.” This requires deepened diplomatic engagement in efforts to shape a post–civil war political outcome in Syria, and it requires a recognition that the U.S. is now in a newly competitive race for influence in the region.

This is a recognition that matters. Some will argue that North America’s expected self-sufficiency in energy within the next couple of decades makes Middle Eastern influence less important. But this is shortsighted. To the extent that there has been a measure of order and stability in the world since 1945, it has largely been the result of deep U.S. engagement in all parts of the world, including the Middle East. That order is under challenge there, in Europe and in Asia, where Russia and China are pushing aside longstanding international agreements.

With that global picture in mind, it’s time to recall the conviction of many foreign policy hands that “what starts in the Middle East never stays in the Middle East.” So you can be sure that, for better or worse, how this civil war ends will affect American interests well beyond Syria’s immediate neighborhood.


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