When Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, it came as a surprise to almost everyone. Moscow had been down and out for so long that the idea that it could project power beyond its own “near abroad” had not occurred to anyone almost 25 years. Russia President Vladimir Putin’s decision to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from himself changed all that.
Since then, two radically different conceptions of Russian power have emerged. Within the Beltway, many analysts have come to understand the Russian demonstration of power and influence in the Middle East as an indicator that the global rivalry between Washington and Moscow of the past is also the present and future. Yet there also remains a small group of dissenters — Russia specialists, former U.S. officials, and journalists — to this view. They believe the Russians are actually quite weak, financially strapped, and caught in Syria. The best they can say is that Putin is playing a bad hand well.
Appealing as this counterintuitive claim may be, it is inaccurate. The Russians have a strategy and staying power. The question is: What does the United States do about it?
On Dec. 26, 1991, the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union was lowered from the flagpole atop the Kremlin for the last time. This was a terrible day for Putin — not because he is an unreconstructed communist, but rather because he is a proud nationalist. Now it’s payback time for almost three decades of Moscow’s humiliation. And what better place to start than the Middle East, where the United States is already widely resented even among its allies.
Since Moscow’s demonstration of strength (with Iran’s help) in Syria, the Russians have asserted themselves as a credible alternative to the Americans with traditional U.S. allies. With arms sales, economic deals, and diplomatic maneuvering, Russia has been effective in pulling Turkey and Egypt away from the United States, though not completely, and closer to Russia’s orbit. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman traveled to Moscow last October — the first ever visit by a Saudi king — to talk oil prices and hedge against American retrenchment. And now that the United States is the world’s leading producer of petroleum, there is likely to be more cooperation between the Russians and the Arab Gulf states in an effort to ensure that global oil prices are favorable to their interests. Even the Israelis have repeatedly beaten a path to Moscow over the last few years in hopes of persuading Putin to look after their interests in Syria.
This is a solid record of achievement. In the span of less than a decade, the Middle East has gone from a region in which the United States was overwhelmingly predominant to one that Washington and Moscow contest. In Syria, the Russians have demonstrated political will and staying power. This is more important than, for example, the size of Russia’s economy, which has been used as an indicator of Moscow’s weakness. To believe that Russian power is ephemeral risks instilling ideas and assumptions about the world that breed complacency. Washington needs the exact opposite.
So, what should the United States do about Russia in the Middle East? Before doing anything, policymakers must recognize reality: The Russians are not going away, they have a strategy to weaken the West, and it starts in the Middle East. Moreover, Moscow no longer has the ideological baggage of communism, making it easier for it to make inroads in the region.
The next step is for the same officials to ask themselves two questions: First, what is important to the United States in the Middle East? The answer is fairly straightforward — containing Iran, countering terrorists, helping to ensure Israel’s security, and making sure no country dominates the region. Second, what is it that makes leaders in the region seek closer ties with Moscow? The answer here is less tangible and somewhat controversial, but it boils down to leadership and commitment.
The Turks, Egyptians, Israelis, Saudis, and Emiratis are sophisticated observers of American politics. They recognize that the political dysfunction of Washington can affect bilateral relations. Over the last decade, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have become divisive topics in the United States. There is also the spectacle of the American legislative and executive branches being unable to manage the most routine tasks of governance without getting bogged down in ideological warfare. This makes leaders in the Middle East who have long relied on American security nervous that the United States is in decline, and they have thus begun to pursue, however tentatively, another option — Russia. Consequently, one of the best things Americans can do to counter the Russians in the Middle East is to set aside the partisan warfare that is weakening and destabilizing the United States. Given the current circumstances, this is a difficult task, but unless Congress and the White House get serious about the Russian threat, they will hand parts of the Middle East over to Moscow in what would surely be one of the greatest unforced errors in American foreign policy.
At the same time, Washington needs to make a commitment to the security of its friends and allies, even if that requires a certain amount of stomach-churning moral compromise. If these countries share the broad interests of the United States, then it is important for Washington to support them in word and deed. And that does not just mean selling them “beautiful weapons” as U.S. President Donald Trump famously remarked during his visit to Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2017. It means making hard decisions like accepting and supporting the Turkish position not just on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but also their affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has served as Washington’s principal ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. This would, in turn, require the deployment of more American troops to Syria to hold the line against the Islamic State and to deter Iran.
It also means restoring military assistance to Egypt despite the brutality of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, and giving the Israelis a green light to do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves from Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, obviating the need for Israeli leaders to constantly seek Moscow’s assistance and reassurances. And finally, it means using American military force to destroy the capacity of the Iranians and the Houthis in Yemen to threaten the security of Saudi Arabia, thereby allowing the Saudis to extract themselves from a debilitating conflict. Leaving the Saudis to bleed in Yemen is not just a strategic gain for Tehran, but also for Moscow, which would be only too happy to see Washington’s primary Arab ally stuck there and in need of a lifeline that U.S. policymakers are too ambivalent to provide.
The Russians are stronger than they have been in recent decades, but that does not mean they are strong. Moscow’s demonstration of military force in Syria is primarily against poorly trained militias, bands of extremists, and innocent children. The gunfight between Russian “mercenaries” and American soldiers in February that reportedly killed most of the Russian forces and no Americans indicates that whatever brute force Russia can bring to bear, they are simply no match for the United States. This is a fact that the U.S. ambassadors, envoys, and sons-in-law need to convey to decision-makers in Cairo, Ankara, and other capitals where Moscow is selling its military hardware.
To emphasize the point, the United States must call Russia’s bluff. There have been a few too many times when Washington has lamely protested the Russian military’s “unsafe maneuvers” in the air or on the high seas. Like the shootout in the Syrian desert, the United States has to make it clear that there are consequences for this military trolling. There are, of course, risks of escalation in this approach, but there are also significant disadvantages to demonstrating weakness in the face of Russian provocations. Finally, the United States would do itself some good if it engaged in its own information warfare campaign, emphasizing how many Syrians the Russians have killed, how many Muslims Vladimir Putin has slain in Chechnya, and how many extremists Moscow has created in the process.
If the United States is, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis averred in January, in a new era of great power competition, it is time the United States treated the situation as seriously as it is. Putin must be disabused of the notion that the Middle East is the most propitious place to begin weakening the West and the United States. Americans once before contained and rolled back Moscow’s influence in the region; there is no reason to believe that they cannot do it again — but only if they have the wisdom to recognize what is important in the world right now and the collective stomach to meet the challenge. It is no longer clear to those in the Middle East that they do.