Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during their meeting in Ufa, Russia, July 9, 2015..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria’s territory – which until recently domiciled a purportedly bona fide nation – has now been reduced to a proverbial chessboard upon which foreign powers are playing a cynical realpolitik game.
On Wednesday, Russia launched its first air strikes against rebel targets near the Syrian city of Homs, apparently after informing the US and Israel.
So far the superior maneuvering is indisputably that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s far from clear what long-term strategy is being pursued by his American counterpart, Barack Obama. In New York this week, Obama indicated that defeating Islamic State in Syria would only be possible if President Bashar Assad were forced to step down, but did not hint at American involvement.
Again, after an extended absence, Russia looms as the Middle East’s imposing hegemon – one whose self-interests determine who will prevail and who will fail.
Historically the now-defunct Soviet Union used to describe this region as “adjacent to our southern borders.”
This contention presumably facilitated the claim that the Middle East was essential for the USSR’s security and thus could be annexed to Moscow’s sphere of pseudo-legitimate influence. It’s still the same.
Concomitantly, Obama is doing his utmost to disengage from the very spheres that Russia covets, and Putin helped push Obama in that direction when they met in New York this week.
In 2013, Putin swayed Obama not to react militarily to Assad’s use of gas against his own people, but to allow the Syrian leader to relinquish his chemical stockpiles. Obama was only too eager to be offered a way out, even if Assad continued butchering Syria’s civilians by other means.
Then came the deal on Iran’s nukes in which Moscow again coaxed Washington into an ultra-conciliatory stance to avoid confrontation. The Russian foothold in Syria’s port of Latakia is tangible fallout from Obama’s miscalculation.
Iran was propelled to the forefront as a regional power, operating in chummy collusion with Russia to prop up Assad in an ostensible anti-terrorist alliance. Its details were finalized last July, hot on the heels of the deal to lift sanctions off the ayatollah regime in return for a supposed shutdown of Tehran’s nuclear program.
Qassem Soleimani, chief of Iran’s elite Quds Force, flew twice to Moscow for consultations with Putin in flagrant violation of an international travel ban for masterminding terrorism. Shortly thereafter, Putin began shipping tanks, armored personnel carriers, and more to Syria. That was followed by fighter jets and an emergent Russian-manned air base.
The White House criticized the Russian moves, but has most recently given Putin leeway. Right before Obama’s eyes, a three-way military axis – comprising Russia, Iran, and Assad’s Hezbollah proxy – audaciously manifested itself.
The fact that Iran is finally off the American/Western nuclear hook and is flushed with cash made this unabashed partnership with Moscow possible. Russia, let’s not forget, is Iran’s primary weapons purveyor and builder of its nuclear facilities. It made sure that Iran would be treated indulgently during the recent nuclear negotiations.
In all, Iran is emboldened as never before and Putin is heartened by Obama’s phlegmatic response. One superpower – America – appears in retreat, whereas a reawakening Russia regains prominence.
The itineraries of a significant number of Middle Eastern leaders include Moscow – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is only one. Also traveling to Moscow are potentates from such unlikely ally countries as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Morocco, Jordan, and of course Egypt, which was unaccountably jilted by Obama.
Putin even plans a visit to Riyadh. All this speaks volumes.
The danger to Israel isn’t only that Iran can now openly become a key player in Syria, but that aggression will be indirectly funded by the resources the US has consented to release and by the vast business opportunities it steers to Tehran. Those funds, combined with unimpeded Russian ambition will thus not only help ensure Assad’s survival, but will also allow the further arming of Hezbollah and Hamas.
Netanyahu’s conversation with Putin last week dealt not only with military coordination regarding Russia’s actions in Syria, but also with Israel’s warning that it cannot allow a massively reinforced Hezbollah menace on its doorstep in Lebanon.