On Monday, September 19, the Syrian military, after announcing the end of a week-old cessation of hostilities, resumed airstrikes against Aleppo. The American- and Russian-brokered Syrian ceasefire announced on September 9 has thus apparently unraveled before it was ever fully implemented. Particularly appalling was the sustained bombing of a United Nations humanitarian convoy that the Syrian regime itself had authorized, killing at least 20 aid workers.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the U.N. Security Council, “There are only two countries that have airplanes that are flying at all in that particular area—Russia and Syria.” On Thursday, General Joseph Dunford, the senior-most American military officer, told the U.S. Senate, “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Russians are responsible. I just don’t know whose aircraft actually dropped the bomb.”
The Obama administration’s persistent engagement with Russia as the preferred means to resolving the Syrian conflict can seem a disorienting turn of events to those accustomed to American predominance in the Middle East. For critics, it seems as if the overtures have willingly opened the door to greater Russian influence, even amidst the highest levels of tension between Washington and Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For much of the last several decades, the United States was central to most of the region’s diplomatic and security projects—whether energy security, nuclear nonproliferation, the dual containment of Iraq and Iran, or the various manifestations of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Those who rejected this U.S.-led regional order—Iran and Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda—typically articulated their objectives largely in those terms.
Russia was mostly a bystander. By 2011, Russia had few assets in the region beyond the small naval installation at Tartous in Syria, membership in the moribund “Quartet” (created to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process), and a few lingering arms clients in Algeria, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
In the early days of the Arab uprisings in 2011, Russia declined to veto U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, but soon protested that NATO had abused the resolution to impose regime change. Then, after five years of blocking all meaningful action on Syria at the Security Council, Moscow’s military intervention in September 2015 proved to be a game-changer—saving the Assad regime from apparent collapse and establishing Russia, at least for now, as a key interlocutor in the Middle East.
Given Russia’s previously limited regional role, what explains Washington’s break with precedent in embracing Moscow as an essential partner in resolving the Middle East’s most pressing crisis?
Three factors are commonly cited—the supposed relative decline of American power, President Barack Obama’s well-known aversion for the Middle East, and the American public’s exhaustion with military conflict fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks. While there are grains of truth in all of these, they are overstated and mask a more fundamental problem: the mismatch between the challenges of the Middle East and the means to address them.
The Middle East’s dilemmas in the decades before 9/11 revolved around states and geopolitics. Successive American presidents prioritized and responded to these challenges differently, with varying degrees of success, but the objectives were fairly consistent—promoting the free flow of oil, ensuring Israel’s security, non-proliferation, and managing what was then a terrorist irritant. Democracy and human rights promotion was often included as an objective, but relegated below the others in importance.
Today, the region’s key challenges involve not interstate relations but states’ internal politics. Thus, despite the United States being at war nearly continuously in Iraq for more than 25 years, the country seems less stable today than it was in 1991. In a Middle East dominated by institutional collapse, non-state actors, and transnational rivalries, the traditional tools of American statecraft have become less effective, whether enticements (such as multilateral diplomacy, security cooperation, arms sales, and economic assistance) or punishments (such as deterrence, economic sanctions, and military force).
The Obama administration’s outreach to Russia certainly reflects an urgency to use its remaining time in office to achieve a de-escalation of the catastrophic Syrian conflict, in which perhaps a half a million people have died, with no end in sight. But it also reflects a fundamentally pessimistic assessment of the ability of outside actors to positively influence this new and more dangerous Middle East.
One year into the Syrian intervention, Russia has undeniably received a good return on its relatively modest investment. Moscow has gained diplomatic leverage (which the United States has done little to counter), Russian arms sales have dramatically risen, and the tempo of senior visitors to Moscow from the Gulf monarchies, Israel, and elsewhere has increased, even as relations with Iran and Iraq have deepened.
But over the longer term, there are significant limits to Russian aspirations to regional leadership and geopolitical influence. The Russian economy, heavily dependent upon hydrocarbon exports, has been mired in recession for six consecutive quarters; it’s aging blue-water navy is a legacy of the Soviet era and continues to decline in size; and its unconditional support for the Assad regime’s indiscriminate violence against Syrian civilians is deeply unpopular among the region’s Sunni majority. While President Bashar al-Assad has been protected from military defeat, it’s not apparent that Moscow has clearer answers to resolving the Syrian civil war than Washington does.
American power still matters in the Middle East and across the region, and many are hoping that a change in administration will lead to a more assertive approach there. It remains to be seen how the next president will choose to use the military as an instrument to advance U.S. policy objectives. There are certainly compelling moral and strategic reasons for doing so, given the human toll of the Syrian conflict and the havoc it is wreaking on the post-Cold War global order. A more forceful American approach might curtail Russia’s recent relative successes and deter the joint military campaign with the Syrian armed forces now responsible for the bombing of a United Nations humanitarian convoy.
However, the track record of the past quarter century of foreign intervention in Middle East does not provide a reason for optimism. It is not clear that increased military pressure, whether American or Russian, can help stop, let alone reverse, the underlying roots of the region’s many conflicts and profound instability.