Putin Takes Center Stage in the Middle East

October 20, 2015

In the Middle East, there’s a new game — and possibly a new sheriff — in town.

Three weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned observers around the world by ordering his military directly into battle in Syria’s long-running civil war. This unexpected move is Putin’s first “out of area” power projection gambit — the first time that Russian troops and firepower have been deployed beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War.

Putin first shocked the West and its regional allies by quickly, efficiently, and unexpectedly deploying strike aircraft, tanks, and Russian military “volunteers” into bases in Syria. Within days, he was launching lethal airstrikes on rebels battling the Assad regime. And just a week later, he fired dozens of cruise missiles from Russian ships in the Caspian Sea against other Syrian rebel positions — with apparently a few falling short into Iran. As of last week, Russian aircraft were flying scores of sorties a day over Syria — in contrast to the U.S.-led coalition’s far smaller daily tally. Political leaders and Kremlin-watchers across the globe were surprised and astonished.

Putin’s actions may not have reestablished Russia as a preeminent global power as Putin may have wished, but his bold moves have captured the attention of NATO and a wide range of actors all across the Middle East and beyond. Without a doubt, Putin has re-established Russia’s position as a Middle Eastern power broker. Rapidly deploying troops and aircraft, launching them within days directly into combat, and firing cruise missiles from distant warships in support are indisputably the marks of a serious and capable military actor.

But Russia’s move in Syria is more than simply one further extension of its military power. Putin’s now-direct military involvement in the Syrian civil war is a potential deadly addition to an already volatile mix in the region. The risk that the U.S. and Russian military efforts —and their airplanes — collide is high.

In many ways, Russia and the United States are fighting two separate and almost completely parallel wars in the Middle East today. In each, the two nations’ military and diplomatic maneuvers overlap, but their interests do not. They each have widely disparate goals. Russia seeks to keep Assad in power, bolster its regional position, and keep Islamist terrorism far from its borders. The United States seeks to defeat the Islamic State, preserve the Iraqi state, and find a political solution to the Syrian civil war without Assad.

The Russian war in Syria is a full-scale effort to preserve the rump of the Syrian state and the Assad regime. Any adversaries who threaten that end state may now face direct Russian military attack. Whichever opponents of Assad’s regime pose the greatest threat to his survival will feel the brunt of Russian military force — and that presently seems to be rebel groups aligned with the United States, as well as the jihadist coalition known as the Army of Conquest, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Putin, however, seems interested in the Islamic State only insofar as the radical Islamist group threatens Assad’s hold on power or can attack him at home — and because it gives his military operations the veneer of international legitimacy.

The U.S. war in Syria and Iraq, by contrast, is focused primarily against the Islamic State in order to save the fraught Iraqi republic. The United States has been more ambivalent about its goals in Syria, particularly regarding the removal of Assad. Had the Islamic State confined its aggressive behavior to Syria, it is hard to imagine that approximately 3,500 U.S. trainers and advisers would be back in Iraq today after having withdrawn entirely in late 2011. The Obama administration only deployed those forces after the Islamic State overwhelmed Iraqi defenders and seized nearly a third of Iraq’s territory, even threatening Baghdad itself. Yet the U.S.-led coalition of nearly 60 nations has accomplished little militarily beyond achieving a stalemate. The Islamic State remains potent and seemingly little-affected by either coalition airpower or the coalition’s intensified training of Iraqi forces.

Some observers have suggested that the United States and Russia should now collaborate in the common battle to defeat the Islamic State. But the fatal flaw of that argument is that the two parallel wars described above share very little in common. As long as the Islamic State does not directly threaten Assad’s hold on power in Damascus, such as by driving westward toward the coast and the capital, Russia may actually benefit from the group’s success. Its ongoing battlefield advances provide a deadly but useful thorn in the side of the United States. The apparent inability of the United States and its large coalition to roll back, much less defeat the Islamic State further erodes American power and influence in the region every single day the conflict continues. And Putin will be careful to ensure no one in the region sees the Russian intervention as weak, feckless, or anything less than potent and highly dangerous. Russia stands to gain in influence daily as the United States loses.

Of deeper concern, a Russia–Iran–Iraq–Syria alliance is emerging that may challenge every component of U.S. policy in the region. Such an alignment could have destabilizing impacts far beyond the borders of Syria and may have far more important consequences than simply bringing more actors into the war against the Islamic State. Baghdad is now sharing intelligence with Russia and Iran, much to the chagrin of U.S. policymakers. The Iraqi government has welcomed Russian support and some Iraqi politicians are calling for even more Russian help, further undercutting the importance of U.S. military support. American diplomats and military leaders in Baghdad now must compete not just with Tehran in dealing with the Iraqi government, but with Moscow as well. And there is no chance at all that the United States will cooperate with an anti-terror quartet composed of Russia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

With its newly launched military and diplomatic offensives, Russia now stands at the cusp of establishing itself as a major long-term power broker in the Middle East, rivaling the United States’ long-standing role. It may ultimately find itself over-extended or caught in a quagmire, as President Obama was quick to suggest. But in some ways, power in the Middle East is a zero-sum game. As Russia’s influence rises and its military presence on the battlefield expands, regional confidence in the military and diplomatic clout and staying power of the United States will almost assuredly wane.

Putin’s military gambits in the Middle East probably won’t evolve into the type of regional political and military influence that the Soviets wielded in the 1960s and 1970s. But now, for the first time in decades, the United States must face the fact that a newly resurgent Russia flexing its military power can garner allies in a region in ways that will directly compete with American interests and conflict with U.S. policy goals. Putin’s unwavering use of military force in a region that recognizes and respects pure power is a substantial challenge to the U.S. role in the Middle East — and one that America cannot afford to ignore.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: kremlin.ru