Washington’s failure to react to the Russian strongman has Mideast powers doubting U.S. relevance like never before.
When Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Black Sea estate in Sochi this month to talk about Syria, the moment illustrated how much the Middle East’s power dynamics have changed in just a few weeks — and how the Russian president is looking to take the mantle of regional kingmaker away from U.S. President Barack Obama.
With Russian warplanes bombing foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and with the United States unwilling to confront the Damascus regime, Moscow has seized the initiative military and diplomatically. That means high-level delegations from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf powers are knocking on Putin’s door instead of that of the Oval Office.
The defense minister’s visit sparked speculation that Saudi Arabia — which has armed rebels fighting Assad’s army — was exploring a possible deal that would allow Assad to retain power longer in exchange for the two sides mounting coordinated efforts against the Islamic State. Former diplomats and outside observers, meanwhile, wondered whether Washington had signed off on Riyadh’s outreach to Putin or whether Saudi Arabia had decided to ignore the administration and pursue what it saw as its own best interests.
“If the Saudi visit was coordinated with the U.S., that would be one thing, but if it wasn’t, it was the Saudis again saying to us, ‘You’re irrelevant,’” Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, told Foreign Policy.
In the wake of Russia’s brazen military intervention in Syria, Obama faces a crucial test of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East.
By deploying a few dozen warplanes and a few thousand troops, Russia has upended the strategic landscape in Syria and has posed an unprecedented challenge to the Obama administration, leading many of its closest allies to conclude that Washington is looking to disengage from the region and is willing to accept that growing Russian and Iranian influence will fill the void.
With Moscow taking the initiative on the battlefield, senior officials from the Middle East have been making pilgrimages to Russia to hold talks with Putin, who has managed to convince key powers — including the United States — that a sudden Assad collapse would be potentially catastrophic and would risk allowing the Islamic State to conquer most if not all of the country. Arab nations that have been demanding Assad’s ouster for years say that he will eventually have to go, but are signaling that his immediate ouster is no longer their top priority.
That shift is part of a broader dynamic in the Middle East, where America’s key allies — already alarmed by the White House’s nuclear deal with Iran — are increasingly concluding that Obama is losing both relevance and influence when it comes to issues like the bloody Syrian civil war or the faltering fight against the Islamic State.
The U.S. president is also being challenged on the domestic front, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, distancing herself from Obama by stressing that he overruled her after she suggested arming moderate Syrian rebels several years ago. In a recent interview on MSNBC’s MTP Daily, she agreed with host Chuck Todd’s assertion that the U.S. effort to train Syrian rebels was a “failure.”
Obama, who has long argued against a major U.S. role in the Syrian conflict, has dismissed Russia’s actions as a strategic blunder that will plunge its forces into a quagmire. In a testy recent interview on 60 Minutes, Obama rejected the idea that Russia is overtaking America as the dominant actor in the Middle East.
“I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership,” Obama said.
But critics inside and outside the United States say Obama’s approach — which he has described previously as “strategic patience” — carries its own risks. By refusing to directly counter or confront Russia, Washington is seen as steadily ceding vital ground and allowing Putin to insert himself as arguably the most important current power broker in the Middle East.
Russia’s aim “is to shore up Assad and to consolidate his position in the western part of the country, and to thereby deal Russia in on any international process for resolving the conflict,” said Stephen Hadley, who served as national security advisor during President George W. Bush’s second term. “I think Russia is already on the road to achieving that objective.”
The administration, Hadley added, was “a little bit in denial about what’s really going on there.”
The Obama administration has vowed to keep up its air campaign against the Islamic State in eastern and northern Syria, and the Defense Department has been holding talks with Russian defense officials to work out rules to avoid possible midair collisions between each country’s aircraft. White House officials said they have no plans to enter into a confrontation with Russia and risk a dangerous cycle of escalation.
“There’s no benefit to us to turn this into a test of manhood,” one senior administration told FP. “There’s no reason to escalate in response unless doing so would demonstrably advance our campaign against ISIL or our broader interests in Syria.”
Even some of those who endorsed Obama’s decision not to intervene earlier in the Syrian civil war are now arguing for a firm U.S. reply to Russia’s military actions, particularly over its targeting of American-backed rebels from the air.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, called in an Oct. 4 op-ed in the Financial Times for a stern warning “to convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets,” or else face U.S. retaliation.
The 87-year-old author and informal advisor to several presidents was even punchier on Twitter, where he said: “Ambiguity can be a cover for strategy, or a signal of its absence. Increasingly, it seems the US is pursuing the latter in the Middle East.”
Other former U.S. officials and diplomats, including Clinton, have urged the administration to set up a no-fly zone in northern Syria to counter Russia and to offer a safe area for Syrian civilians fleeing both the regime and Islamic State militants.
The administration, however, has so far shown little enthusiasm for the idea of a no-fly zone, pointing out the risks that the U.S. military would face in safeguarding the area and the unresolved questions about which local forces would police the zone.
While the United States retains long-running alliances across the Middle East and still wields vast military and economic power, some partners are hedging their bets in light of events in Syria, privately expressing doubts about Washington’s commitment and exploring overtures from Moscow.
The Saudi defense minister’s visit to Russia on Oct. 11, which coincided with a trip by a senior military representative from the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, followed a flurry of Russian diplomacy over the summer that Moscow billed as an effort to revive peace negotiations.
Although Riyadh said its position on the need for Assad to step down has not changed, analysts and former diplomats who served in the region speculated that the Saudis are exploring the possibility of forging an agreement with Russia — possibly without bothering to coordinate with the United States — that would trade greater longevity for Assad for more intensive Russian efforts against the Islamic State.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, however, told a news conference in Riyadh on Wednesday that his country remains committed to Assad’s ouster.
“There is no change. From the beginning of the crisis, the position of the kingdom is that al-Assad is the problem in the Syria crisis,” the foreign minister said after talks with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius.
In an embarrassment for Washington, which has carried out thousands of bombing raids in support of the Iraqi Army, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad has warmly welcomed Russia’s air war in Syria and joined an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Moscow in September. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has even appealed to Russia to extend its air campaign to Iraq.
Another one of America’s key allies in the region, Egypt, has also been steadily working to improve its ties with Russia. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made four trips to Moscow since taking power in a 2013 coup, while also hosting Putin in Cairo in February. But Sisi — whose dismal human rights record has drawn criticism from Washington — has visited the United States only twice as president and has yet to have a meeting at the White House.
Israel also has come knocking on Putin’s door. Days before Russia launched its airstrikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with his military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, and the head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, met with Putin on Sept. 21. The meeting, one of several with the Russian president, reflected a pragmatic understanding between the two leaders, while Netanyahu has had strained relations with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal.
The talks in Moscow were aimed at ensuring that Russian and Israeli forces avoid any accidental clashes and at conveying Israel’s concerns about Lebanese Hezbollah militants getting their hands on sophisticated weapons to stage attacks on Israel’s northern border, Israeli officials said. Israel also hopes that Putin, who maintains close ties with Tehran, could pressure Iran to cut back on its arms shipments to militant groups hostile to Israel.
In a vivid illustration of the strength of Putin’s alliance with Tehran, the head of Iran’s feared and elite Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, traveled to Moscow in July to begin planning for a coordinated military offensive in Syria to help the embattled regime regain lost ground, an operation now underway.
At the time of Suleimani’s meeting, Assad’s forces had been suffering a string of setbacks on the battlefield. But the combined military efforts of Russia and Iran could give the regime a new lease on life — and give Putin even greater influence over Moscow’s sole Arab ally.
Obama’s former defense secretary, Robert Gates, and Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state and national security advisor under George W. Bush, described Putin in a recent commentary as “playing a weak hand extraordinarily well.”
The two wrote in the Washington Post that “Moscow understands that diplomacy follows the facts on the ground, not the other way around” and added that “hectoring Putin about the bad choice he has made sounds weak.”
The White House is betting Russia will stumble in Syria. But if Moscow succeeds, and leverages battlefield gains into a political settlement of the war, then it will “translate into much more regional influence in the Middle East, it will translate into much more Russian bullishness in Asia and Ukraine,” said Vali Nasr, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration and now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“And also many other countries in other regions of the world may come to the conclusion that it’s not America that’s the indispensable nation,” he said.
The Syrian conflict has been a recurring source of grief for Obama ever since he called on Assad to “step aside” in 2011.
In February 2012, an American bid to broker a democratic transition in Syria with a U.N. resolution was vetoed by Russia. Later that year, then-Secretary of State Clinton, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, then-CIA chief David Petraeus, and the military’s then top-ranking officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, all recommended arming Syria’s rebels. Obama rejected the proposal, though he later approved a CIA program that has had disappointing results.
Obama had also long warned Assad that if he used chemical weapons against his own people he would be crossing “a red line.” Assad did so anyway, using sarin gas to kill 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb in August 2013. Obama was poised to order punitive strikes against the regime but backed away at the last moment, announcing instead that he would delay action to seek congressional approval. Russia then convinced Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpiles, and Obama’s failure to enforce his red line came in for harsh criticism among America’s allies.
When asked about criticism of Obama over the Russian military push in Syria, the White House referred to the president’s interview with 60 Minutes, in which he dismissed Putin’s intervention as a desperate act to salvage a vulnerable ally.
Administration officials say Obama’s response to the conflict has been shaped by a desire to avoid triggering an “anarchic situation” similar to what followed the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, officials said.
“One of the core dilemmas in Syrian policy has been you had to put pressure on Assad to incentivize a political solution, but you didn’t want to put so much pressure that you collapse the state,” the administration official said.
Those two disparate goals — weakening Assad without ousting him — have consistently plagued the administration’s deliberations.
The White House has even distanced itself from its own initiatives in Syria. When it acknowledged in September that a Pentagon effort to build a moderate opposition force in Syria had essentially failed, press secretary Josh Earnest suggested that critics who had demanded the program in the first place were to blame — not the president.
Earnest said it was “time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard.”
In his 60 Minutes interview, Obama also expressed an ambivalence about his own policies in Syria, saying he had always questioned whether it was possible to arm rebels who would commit to only fighting the Islamic State.
Obama said he had “been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria.”
He added, “And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.”
FP Managing Editor for News Yochi Dreazen and reporter John Hudson contributed to this article
Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images