- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
Even before Russian bombers launched strikes into Syria from an Iranian air base last month, it was clear that one of President Barack Obama’s more dubious foreign policy legacies would be the resurrection of Moscow’s great power status in the Middle East. Lacking a significant military footprint in the region since being unceremoniously expelled from Egypt in 1972, the Russians are back with a vengeance, potentially bigger than ever. Indeed, moving into the void created by Obama’s years-long retreat from Pax Americana, Russian President Vladimir Putin now stands poised to make major geopolitical advances into areas that his predecessors — czars and communist party general secretaries alike — coveted for centuries, but never realized. Areas, it should be stressed, where blocking the expansion of Russian influence has been among America’s highest national security priorities for the entire post-World War II era, from the Truman Doctrine to the Carter Doctrine and beyond. Until the age of Obama, that is.
Across the eastern Mediterranean and Levant, through Turkey, Iran, and the broader Gulf region, the trend line is obvious to anyone with eyes to see it: Russia’s star is waxing while America’s wanes. In strategic theaters where successive generations of U.S. statesmen have consistently maintained that American military dominance is essential, a resurgent Russia increasingly poses challenges. Slowly but surely, Washington’s freedom of action is being constricted. And as sure as night follows day, Russia’s successful flexing of military power has led to the rapid expansion of its political clout as well. And not just among America’s adversaries. From Israel to Saudi Arabia, from Egypt to Turkey, traditional U.S. partners are also increasingly compelled to curry favor with Moscow.
Syria, of course, is the Obama administration’s original sin in this regard: the hesitancy, the empty ultimatums, the erased red lines, the lack of anything approaching a serious strategy to contain that conflict’s steady, predictable descent into hell. All that and more over the course of four and a half long years amounted to a flashing neon sign declaring the abdication of U.S. leadership, an open invitation for a decisive assertion of Russian might in September 2015.
And decisive it was. Obama insisted that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad must go. Putin insisted that Asad stay. Needless to say, Asad is staying. In the face of Obama’s endless tut-tutting about the disutility of military force to shape political outcomes in the Middle East, Putin deployed force and in a matter of months transformed Syria’s political landscape.
As for the impact of Russia’s intervention on U.S. military calculations, the Obama administration has been pretty clear. It wanted no part of any action to weaken the Asad regime that might risk tangling with the Russians. Just days after Moscow’s bombing campaign began, a Washington Post headline blared, “U.S. will not directly confront Russia in Syria, Obama says.” Months later, in open testimony to Congress, a top U.S. general all but admitted that U.S. options to impose a no-fly zone inside Syria had been effectively nullified by the administration’s fear of triggering a confrontation with Moscow.
While the United States once enjoyed near-total domination of the skies over Syria and the broader eastern Mediterranean, it was clearly now constrained heavily, forced to alter its operational patterns to deconflict with Russia’s growing presence. The bottom line: As a result of Putin’s intervention, the Asad regime — a regime, let’s remember, that has split its time in the 21st century between running al Qaeda rat lines into Iraq to blow up American soldiers and perpetrating mass murder against its own people — appears now largely immune from U.S. military action that might compel a change Assad’s decision-making calculus toward the war, much less put his government’s very survival at risk.
The changes wrought by Russia’s intervention are no passing phenomenon linked to the Syria crisis. They appear to represent a more permanent shift in the geostrategic realities of the eastern Mediterranean. Whether or not the immediate conflict gets settled, the new Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria, is almost certainly here to stay. Russian fighters will be flying regular patrols in the area to monitor (and harass) U.S. warships and planes. The S-400 surface-to-air missile system, among the most advanced in the world, will be capable of striking targets in a wide arc that takes in southern Turkey, Cyprus, most of Israel, and northern Jordan. U.S. and allied forces will be confronted with an area denial, anti-access challenge on NATO’s southern flank that they haven’t faced for decades, if ever. On a daily basis, regional states will have to take account of the reality of Russian power projection on their immediate doorstep, with potentially far-reaching impact on their own decision-making and behavior — especially in a context of continued American retrenchment.
Recent Russian bombing raids from an air base in Iran raise the specter that Moscow’s growing military role, bad enough in the case of the eastern Mediterranean, could expand to the Gulf region as well, a theater of perhaps even greater strategic consequence for the United States. True, the immediate grounds for the use of the base were relatively narrow, restricted to the joint Russian-Iranian interest in bolstering the Asad regime. Also true, the sorties lasted just a few days, cut short abruptly after Russian crowing about the operations to the media triggered a public kerfuffle in sovereignty-obsessed Iran. The Iranian defense minister, Hossein Dehghan (a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, mind you, not an institution otherwise renowned for its strict adherence to the rules of etiquette) even chastised his Russian counterparts for their “ungentlemanly” remarks.
But no one should take much solace from the temporary hiccup. Senior Iranian officials made clear that Russia’s use of the base had only ended “for now.” Even as he criticized Russia for prematurely advertising its operations, Defense Minister Dehghan emphasized that “Iran will give the Russians permission to use Nojeh Air Base whenever necessary.” He, along with other Iranian leaders, also pointed out that Russia’s use of the base had been approved by Iran’s highest decision-making body, the Supreme National Security Council, under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Making the point even more explicit, members of Iran’s parliament underscored that the expansion of Russian-Iranian military cooperation had occurred with Khamenei’s “approval and signature,” and that “it is impossible for such things to happen without the leadership’s permission.”
There may indeed be powerful constraints acting to limit military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran, including Iranian nationalism and centuries of Persian-Russian rivalry and suspicion. But it is also increasingly clear that there are powerful forces at work pushing the two countries in the direction of unprecedented cooperation. The war to save the Asad regime in Syria, where Russian planes have been providing air support to Iranian-led ground troops for almost a year, is the most immediate and striking example. But beyond Syria, a much broader strategic rationale for enhanced Russian-Iranian partnership is taking shape, one focused not just on thwarting U.S. interests in the Middle East, but on systematically dismantling the American-led security order that has underpinned regional stability since World War II.
Should it come to pass, the persistent presence in Iran of Russian aircraft, personnel, and potentially air defense systems would have profound implications for the United States and its allies. Most obviously, as in Syria, it would dramatically enhance Iran’s deterrence posture against American or Israeli military action. In defending the Iranian nuclear deal, Obama has argued that the risks are acceptable because his successors will have at their disposal exactly the same options that exist today to prevent any Iranian dash to the bomb, including the use of force. That will patently not be true if in a few years time the next president has to confront the possibility that any attack on Iran risks triggering a great power clash with Russia. The same logic would also apply outside the nuclear sphere to any possible punitive attack on Iranian territory, whether in response to Iran’s aggression against U.S. allies, threatening actions against American warships in the Gulf, or sponsorship of terrorism. In short, a de facto Russian deterrent umbrella would give Iranian leaders even greater latitude to undermine U.S. interests, secure in the belief that Washington would be especially reluctant to risk a direct clash with Russia.
More broadly, an expanded Russian military role in Iran would give Moscow the capability to project power in ways never before seen in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Indian Ocean — critical lines of communication where U.S. military dominance has gone largely unchallenged for decades. A world where long-range Russian bombers and aircraft are suddenly in position to disrupt or challenge guaranteed U.S. access in these theaters is a very different world, indeed — complicating American military planning, for sure, but also influencing the decision-making and policies of key regional actors.
Just put yourself in the shoes of a Saudi policymaker, for example. You see your traditional great power partner, the United States, pulling back from its Middle East commitments; making deals with your archenemy, Iran; and standing aside as its historical rival, Russia, embarks on a large-scale military intervention against U.S. interests in Syria, working hand in glove with a Shiite coalition commanded by the head of the Iran’s Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, there’s now the possibility for a Russian military presence in Iran as well, with potentially profound implications for vital Saudi interests in the Gulf. Facing that kind of emerging strategic challenge in its immediate neighborhood, it would hardly be surprising if the Saudis eventually start looking for ways to be more accommodating to Putin’s interests — maybe by dropping their demand for Asad’s immediate departure from power, or deciding to invest several billion dollars in Putin-approved projects in Russia, or submitting to Putin’s request for a cap on Saudi oil production that helps drive up global prices and Moscow’s revenues.
Putin almost certainly has his sights set on exploiting other opportunities for projecting Russian power in the region as well. For example, in defending Russia’s use of the Iranian air base to conduct strikes in Syria, Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of Iran’s parliament, noted cryptically, “we are also pleased that Russia is paying more attention to the Yemen issue too.” Within days, Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the main ally of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that have been fighting Saudi-led forces for control of the country, announced in an interview that Yemen would gladly welcome a Russian military presence. “In the fight against terrorism,” Saleh told Russian television, “we reach out and offer all facilities. Our airports, our ports…. We are ready to provide this to the Russian Federation.”
Iraq is almost certainly on Putin’s radar, too. Shortly after Russia’s intervention in Syria, Moscow said that it had entered a quadripartite intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Syria, and Iraq, for purposes of fighting the Islamic State. It includes a coordination center in Baghdad, staffed by officers from the four countries. Russia is also providing the Iraqis with increasing amounts of military equipment, including planes and helicopters. Iraq allows Russian military aircraft to overfly its territory for resupply missions in Syria, and on several occasions Russian combat operations have used Iraqi air space as well. Russian cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea in October 2015 crossed Iraqi territory on their way to Syrian targets (though allegedly without Iraqi permission). And last month, the Russian bombers that launched from Iran were given approval to fly in Iraqi air space to conduct their missions. Especially in light of Iran’s growing influence over the Iraqi government, it’s not much of a stretch to think that at some point the Russian military could be granted access to Iraqi bases. True, the U.S. might raise objections. But then again, if Washington has long been willing to abide Qassem Soleimani’s high-profile activities in Iraq commanding Shiite militias, how hard would it really push to keep the Russians out?
Finally, even Turkey merits concern when it comes to Russia’s expanding ambitions. Here’s the short version: U.S.-Turkish relations have been on a downward trajectory for years, but especially since the July 15th aborted coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He and other Turkish leaders have repeatedly suggested that the United States might somehow have been behind the coup, lambasting America it in particular for failing to extradite immediately a Pennsylvania-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who they believe was the coup’s mastermind. The virulent campaign of anti-Americanism that Erdogan has engineered has sunk popular support for Turkey’s alliance with the United States and NATO to new lows.
At the same time, Turkey’s relations with Russia have been on an upswing since June, when Erdogan issued an apology for the 2015 Turkish shoot-down of a Russian jet over Syria. Putin was among the first world leaders to express unqualified support for Erdogan in the face of the coup, while Erdogan made a point of going to Russia to meet Putin in his first post-coup trip, resulting in the full normalization of bilateral economic ties. Perhaps most surprisingly, just days after Russia’s use of the Iranian air base, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim suggested that Turkey might also be open to letting Russia use the air base in Incirlik, Turkey, which of course has been the epicenter of U.S. combat operations against the Islamic State. “If necessary, the Incirlik base can be used [by the Russians],” Yildirim told reporters.
One other related development worth noting: As Turkey was pursuing reconciliation with Russia, Turkish ties to Iran also intensified, with the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers exchanging visits in August, and plans for an Erdogan visit to Tehran allegedly in the works for later in 2016. Speculation arose quickly about the possible emergence of a new Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis.
Let’s stipulate upfront that the odds of Turkey definitively switching sides from the United States to Russia are slim. After more than 60 years of NATO membership, Turkey’s security dependence on the U.S.-led Western alliance is deep and would be extremely difficult to replace. Moreover, Turkey’s long history with Russia is at least as troubled and suspicion-filled as Iran’s, including several lost wars.
Yet within limits, there’s still certainly plenty of running room for Putin to make a lot of mischief for the United States in Turkey. As analysts have noted, there are rising voices in Ankara calling for the country’s withdrawal from NATO in favor of an alliance with Russia. While Erdogan is probably too practical a politician to run the risks of going down that route, he’s definitely not above stoking the general sentiment as a means of mobilizing domestic support and building leverage over the United States. At a personal level, it’s frequently been noted that Erdogan’s natural impulses are far more Eurasianist than Western in orientation. Prior to the contretemps over the shoot-down of the Russian jet, Erdogan was known to have an extremely strong affinity for Putin and his style of authoritarian leadership and crony capitalism. That predisposition has no doubt been reinforced after the coup, as Erdogan contrasts Western complaints about his indiscriminate mass purge of at least 100,000 suspected “Gulenists” with Putin’s unqualified support. If Putin can exacerbate these already existing tensions, he will without question do so, using whatever means he has to fuel Erdogan’s continued drift away from NATO and the West.
Exactly how far Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East will ultimately go remains to be seen, as do the potential strategic ramifications for U.S. interests. But no one should be sanguine. The trend lines are all troubling. Thanks to the Obama administration’s retreat from regional leadership, things that seemed unthinkable five years ago are now entirely possible — from a large and permanent Russian military presence in the eastern Mediterranean to a rapidly evolving Russian strategic relationship with Iran in the Gulf. Already, Russia is today unquestionably the dominant player in the Syrian crisis, the most significant international conflict of our time. Based on the frequency with which Middle Eastern leaders are trekking to Moscow rather than Washington for consultations, it’s an assessment that could increasingly apply beyond Syria to the broader region as well.
While the Obama administration may not understand Russia’s power play in the Middle East as a serious challenge to important American interests, Putin definitely does. The fact is that while Obama may believe the world has transcended the era of great power rivalry, Putin is convinced that the United States is Russia’s main strategic enemy, and that the two countries are effectively at war. He will seek every opportunity to undermine U.S. interests and weaken the U.S. global position, while enhancing Russia’s. As one Russian defense analyst explained after Russia’s use of the Iranian air base in August:
There could be more, and the possibility of spreading the Russian air campaign to Iraq…. The thing is not about [the war in] Syria per se. Syria is important, but there is more: Russia wants to spread its influence over the entire region, have bases all over, push the Americans out and become the dominant power in the region.
As surely as Obama was unable to unilaterally end America’s wars in the Middle East, his effort to declare the region’s Great Game for influence irrelevant has also failed. Simply withdrawing from the field does not trigger the emergence of some self-sustaining, organic equilibrium. Instead, It creates a vacuum that engenders conflict and chaos, while empowering dangerous enemies like Russia, Iran, and the Islamic State that are determined to fill the void and attack U.S. interests. Yes, for sure, American primacy in the Middle East has been a bitch. But its abandonment will be a nightmare. Obama never got that. Will his successor?
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