Russia has now confirmed that it is intervening in the Syrian war on the side of the Assad government. And the response of the U.S. betrays its impotent incredulity.
All the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could do is to repeat that he believes Assad must go, but that the West is now open on the timing of his departure. Not an explicit capitulation, but since the U.S. and the West have been left with virtually no influence over the developments on the ground in Syria, it is for all practical intents and purposes a complete defeat.
The upshot of this is that now the U.S. has been left with virtually no influence in the Middle East. It cannot convince Saudi Arabia to do anything; the Iranians remain as skeptical of U.S. policy in the region as ever, despite the remarkable success of the negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear programme; Turkey is only playing along so long as it can use the cover to keep the Kurds’ ambitions in check; and the Kurds have little left to thank the Americans for. Even relations with Israel are probably at their lowest since the state came into existence.
Would we even notice, at this point, if the West ceased its activities in the region, and let Russia and Iran deal with ISIS instead?Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
In other words, the US retains some “friends” in the region, none of whom would go one inch out of their way to help U.S. regional objectives. Which, at this point, is just as well, since it is no longer clear that the U.S. has anything resembling a coherent strategy with identifiable objectives for the region.
Putin, the brilliant stategist
But this development has ramifications far beyond Syria. By getting involved in Syria and thus locking the West out, Putin claims another victory in the global chess game he plays with NATO. He has now truly emerged as a brilliant strategist, having outmanoeuvred the U.S. on every occasion. These moves include Georgia, where Putin successfully spooked NATO out of eastern expansion; Crimea, where Russia has now gained strategic dominance over the Black Sea; and East Ukraine, where Russia has locked its neighbor into a frozen conflict.
Russia does not have the military capacity to take on NATO directly. It would hardly have the economic capacity to even entertain such a conflict for more than a couple of weeks. But that does not matter. Moscow has learnt the lessons from the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan, and has watched how even the American military behemoth has overextended itself fighting concomitant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has learnt that it could never hope to impose its own political settlements in other countries of geopolitical interest. But it has also learnt that it does not need to. All it needs to do is ensure that its enemies do not get to achieve their own geopolitical goals. And they continue to think that the enemy is, in the final analysis, the U.S. and more broadly NATO.
Putin has pursued this approach with brutal success. The U.S. and NATO can hardly claim any successes against Russian interests since Georgia, and we are now at a point where they do not seem to know even where to begin to look for a strategy to pursue their own goals.
This is true both in Ukraine and in Syria. But the Syrian case most clearly illustrates the point. Russia’s aim from the beginning has been to maintain its regional influence by propping up either Assad himself, or a suitably compliant successor regime. And their strategy was always to play the ISIS card and convince the West that the Assad government is the only local state apparatus able to keep ISIS from overtaking the whole country.
The subtext of Kerry’s statement is that the U.S. is now open to the idea of relegating the priority of removing Assad and his regime from power in Syria. Assad’s removal “can wait for now” – and really, can wait indefinitely, since the West has no means to undermine Assad, having managed to train a spectacular five anti-Assad rebels in the past year. The West is unlikely to gain the appetite for any kind of direct involvement against the Syrian and Russian troops stationed together in the region. Would we even notice, at this point, if the West ceased its activities in the region, and let Russia and Iran deal with ISIS instead?
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim