Russia is re-entering the Middle East. That reality was underscored by the images of a smiling Vladimir Putin greeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Moscow in what is believed to be the Syrian leader’s first trip overseas since civil war engulfed his country in 2011.
While the announcement was a surprise, the meeting is not a shock. After all, Putin is being presented by some as a savior, while even perennial U.S. ally Israel is beginning to accept the Kremlin’s resurgence, setting up a hotline between the two country’s militaries to avoid aerial clashes.
But the reality is that Moscow’s moves are misguided — and counterproductive even to Russia’s own interests.
Syria’s geostrategic importance for Russia is, of course, prime real estate on the Mediterranean coast — the Alawite-controlled Syrian port of Tartus has served as the only Russian naval facility outside Russia and the Crimean Peninsula.
In 2005, Assad reportedly received $9.8 billion in debt forgiveness. And Russia’s support has not been limited to financial. Moscow has accepted Assad’s brutality like the Soviet Union did his father’s, reflected in the four vetoes of U.N. Security Council votes condemning Assad’s government in October 2011, February 2012, July 2012 and May 2014.
Meanwhile, Iraq and Russia have been building on ties dating back to the longstanding relationship the Soviet Union had with the country, when it supported Iraq’s Baathists, including selling military equipment to Saddam Hussein’s regime. More recently, Iraq’s Shiite majority, apparently believing it wasn’t receiving adequate assistance from the United States and European Union to ward off the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS), was urged by the Iraqi parliament’s committee on defense and security to turn to Moscow for support. Other Iraqi officials are supporting that call, which itself follows the announcement of Russian assistance under an intelligence and security cooperation agreement that includes both Syria and Iran.
Already, Russian cruise missiles, fired from naval vessels on the Caspian Sea, transit Iranian and Iraqi airspace toward Assad’s foes, including U.S.-backed rebels. Plus, Moscow is reportedly operating an intelligence and military operations center staffed by Russians, Iranians, Syrians and Iraqis within the Green Zone in Baghdad. If provided access to the deep-water port at Umm Qasr and the Shatt al-Arab waterway port of Basra, the Russian navy could berth in the Persian Gulf, whose shipping lanes are vital for the world’s energy supply.
Of course, Alawites and Shiites are no threat to Moscow’s authority. But Sunni Islamists are, as evidenced by their attacks within Russia in recent years. In response, Russian Orthodox Church priests are turning to holy war, too, with one recent image showing a priest blessing fighter planes before bombing sorties against the Sunnis. Given this, Putin knows the specter of cross-confessional violence is looming over Russia, and he is determined to root it out.
The problem is that by entering the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts with its own troops and advisers, Russia is adding fuel to the lure of jihadism rather than tamping it. Dozens of Saudi clerics are already reportedly issuing edicts for Sunni to fulfill jihad, a pillar of Islam, by fighting not only Alawites and Shiites but Russians as heathens just as they did successfully in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
All this suggests that Putin’s Middle East re-expansion is making Russia less rather than more safe. It also points to the need for the Obama administration to stop standing on the sidelines and instead work to influence Russia’s actions away from causing further instability through its siding with the Alawites and Shiites against other groups, especially Sunnis. After all, workable solutions will require cooperation between the sects, especially among Muslims.
Reviewing U.S. foreign policy at Indiana University on October 15, Secretary of State John Kerry noted: “Nationalist ambitions and religious extremism are testing the resilience of the rule of law … this may lead to the temptation [of] tuning out…[but] we have to always be willing to invest in American leadership … because it makes a difference — sometimes all the difference.”
Kerry is right. And U.S. leadership need not push Washington into direct confrontation with Moscow.
Back in September 2013, for example, Moscow and Washington faced mounting evidence of chemical warfare in Syria, and came together to forge and enforce the collection and destruction of Assad’s WMD stockpiles. Both superpowers were able to set aside their regional power plays not only for the benefit of international security but for their own safety, too.
That sort of cooperation can serve as a model for the Obama administration in working with the Putin government toward solving the Syrian and Iraqi sectarian crises, perhaps by finding common cause through the possibility of resolving the larger problem posed by Sunni jihadist groups. Not only would such joint action be welcomed by the EU, it would also be palatable to Iran, whose leaders fear Sunnis bringing strife to their land. Other world powers such as China would likely sign up, too, for the same reason.
In Syria itself, one pragmatic solution would be to create regions based on communal affiliations. Remember, Russian and even Iranian interest in the current regime in Syria is strategic, not familial.
That keeps alive the prospect of a broadly beneficial multinational agreement that would see Assad and his cronies removed, while simultaneously granting ruling Alawites the coastal homeland they have long sought, safeguarding the Christian and Druze communities in southern and southwestern Syria, permitting the Kurds to hold on to northern and northeastern areas, and providing the Sunni Arab majority with the largest portion of land in central and eastern Syria.
A similar solution could work for Iraq, too.
Ethnically, Iraqis are approximately 75% Arabs, 20% Kurds and 5% Turkmen and Assyrians. Religiously they are around two-thirds Shiite Muslims and about one third Sunni Muslims, as well as Christians and Mandeans. Iraqi Kurds could retain the north where they have exercised de facto control since the no-fly zone of 1991; the heartland would become Sunni-led; Baghdad and the south would continue to be inhabited by its predominant Shiites.
Introducing such an arrangement would by no means be easy. But if Moscow and the United States could set aside their differences and instead focus on their very real shared interest in promoting long term stability, then sectarian communities could be allowed to focus on rebuilding their own regions while eradicating extremists.
That is surely preferable to them being pitted against each other.