Foreign Relations & International Law

Pushing Back Russia in the Middle East: A Thought Experiment

Daniel Byman
Wednesday, April 11, 2018, 11:12 AM

Russia is increasingly emerging as an enemy of the United States, not just a rival. Although President Trump generally seems to oppose any attempt to confront Russia—with the exception of a tweet this morning in which he warned the Kremlin to “get ready”—it’s worth considering how a more strategically minded administration might do so, particularly in the Middle East, where Moscow has vastly expanded its influence.

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Russia is increasingly emerging as an enemy of the United States, not just a rival. Although President Trump generally seems to oppose any attempt to confront Russia—with the exception of a tweet this morning in which he warned the Kremlin to “get ready”—it’s worth considering how a more strategically minded administration might do so, particularly in the Middle East, where Moscow has vastly expanded its influence.

During the height of the Cold War, the United States reflexively opposed the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. In addition to shoring up allies in Europe and Japan, the United States often sought to hinder or roll back Moscow’s influence in parts of Africa and Asia, regardless of the minor strategic significance of the areas in question. In the Middle East, the U.S. opposition to the Soviet Union often manifested in efforts to sway and topple governments in Iraq and Syria and a competition for influence in Egypt, among other locations. At the Cold War’s end, the Soviet Union maintained some interest in and influence over Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Syria and South Yemen (the last of which would soon enter history’s dustbin). Yet for the most part, the United States had run the board, with close partnerships with key states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt as well as Israel and Turkey, the region’s military powerhouses. These close relationships continued after the Cold War’s end, and the United States even improved relations with several of Moscow’s former clients.

The dominant U.S. position in the Middle East slipped under President Obama. Skeptical of intervention in the Middle East and unsympathetic to long-standing allies like Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration tried to keep its distance from the region. Although the United States intervened in response to the Islamic State’s atrocities against the Yazidis and the broader concerns about terrorism, the Obama team still tried to avoid greater entanglement in Syria, distanced itself from Egypt after the 2013 coup, soured on Netanyahu’s government in Israel and limited efforts to deal with trouble spots like Libya and Yemen to a narrow counterterrorism mission. Even the administration’s successes, like the Iran deal, seemed to alienate many traditional American friends. U.S. credibility in the region fell, and many leaders were glad to see Obama go.

Moscow entered into the void created by the decline in the U.S. position. Russia backed its Syrian ally when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on the ropes, helping Assad’s government survive and slowly turning the tide against an opposition that Washington nominally championed. Moscow delivered for its allies and claimed victory as the Islamic State receded and the Syrian state recaptured much of its lost, though now devastated, territory.

Moscow has also made inroads with former U.S. stalwarts: President Vladimir Putin recently visited Turkey, probably to coordinate the crushing of the Syrian Kurds who were the tip of the U.S. spear against the Islamic State. Russia also offered to sell Turkey advanced weapons. King Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose country had long scorned Russia, traveled to Moscow last October to talk about shoring up the price of oil. Ideologically, Russia also fits in well with the Middle East. Putin, an autocrat himself, is comfortable with dictators and resents what he perceives as U.S. democracy promotion—a position that dictators in the Middle East also share. As Steven Cook notes, “Now it’s payback time for almost three decades of Moscow’s humiliation. And what better place to start than the Middle East, where the United States is already widely resented even among its allies.”

Although many of Trump’s advisers view Russia skeptically, the president remains eager to coddle Putin, praising him for winning a fixed election, denying evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, and avoiding public criticism of the Russian dictator even as Trump lambastes longstanding U.S. allies.

To be clear, across-the-board competition with Russia throughout the Middle East would be a mistake. The United States worked with Russia to secure the Iran deal, and even in Syria, where Washington and Moscow have been on different sides, there is a role for working together to try to forge a peace deal.

But what if the president changed his policy in general, and United States sought to push back on Russian influence in the region? Here are several steps to consider.

One U.S. measure might be to step up anti-regime efforts in Syria, whether by increasing aid to the opposition, having more boots on the ground, or otherwise increasing America’s role. At the very least, the United States would not withdraw from Syria and would work with local Kurdish allies and otherwise maintain a stake in the country. Providing reconstruction aid would also allow the United States to outcompete local actors. The Syrian regime, working with Iran and Russia, is consolidating control in parts of Syria that the United States and its local allies helped liberate from the Islamic State as well as pushing back the Syrian opposition in other areas. Hindering this consolidation would limit the power of a key Russian ally and demonstrate to the regime’s foes, like Saudi Arabia, that the United States is willing to take steps that are politically difficult and involve a long-term U.S. role in the region. Trump, however, seems eager to remove the U.S. presence from Syria as soon as possible.

If a greater military role is too much, more diplomacy might be attempted though, without force to back it, it would be far less effective. No matter how the Syrian conflict ends, some deal will occur (either due to stalemate, an Assad victory, Assad controlling a portion of the country, or somehow a resurgence by the rebels) and the United States must determine how to engage with the post-war regime. The United States could play a stronger role in preparing for this now. As the most recent round of peace talks dissolved in December, it became clear that only Russia could bring Assad to the table. Holding Russia’s feet to the fire in the peace deal while also emphasizing that any deal must have U.S. backing would increase U.S. influence in the region.

The United States might also try to ingratiate itself with longstanding U.S. allies, warts and all. That would mean looking the other way as the Erdogan regime in Turkey steadily transforms the once-promising democracy into a dictatorship. In Egypt, the United States would work with the Sisi regime and offer full-throated military aid, forgetting that the Egyptian leader came to power in a coup. In Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration’s efforts to cozy up to the regime have gained it Riyadh’s goodwill, and the Netanyahu government in Israel also appreciates the Trump administration’s uncritical support. –These efforts would continue.

More importantly, though more ineffably, the United States would also try to exert leadership in the region beyond counterterrorism. This might involve getting allies to work together instead of egging them on when they clash, as the Trump administration regrettably did when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates stepped up pressure and isolated Qatar. The United States should lead efforts to negotiate ends to the region’s many wars and, in so doing, show its diplomatic power and reduce openings for Russia to exploit.

If Trump is determined to limit U.S. involvement in the Middle East, another approach is to do what Russia does so well: escalate elsewhere. One reason that Russia has been able to become so aggressive in the Middle East is that it can continue influencing its former satellite states without strong pushback from the United States and its allies. By trying to increase U.S. influence on Russia’s periphery—but remaining willing to limit this if Russia in turn backs off in the Middle East—the United States could gain leverage.

At the very least, the Trump administration should try to stop Russia’s influence from growing in the Middle East, effectively containing it and ideally reversing it in new areas. Russia’s inroads in the region extend beyond Syria. While Putin had a better hand to play in Syria due to the long-standing relationship between Damascus and Moscow, Russia lacks the same affinity for Libya, especially the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, even though it is trying to increase influence there. Algeria might also be a place to try to increase U.S. influence, though the prickly regime there has often rebuffed U.S. efforts to improve relations and might simply play Washington off Moscow, increasing the cost to the United States with little influence to show in the end.

The Trump administration has evinced little desire to push back against Russia in the Middle East or elsewhere, so I don’t expect any change. Moreover, some of the above policy options hinder other goals, such as restarting the peace process or limiting U.S. casualties. All require the United States to become more involved in a troubled region where U.S. policy has often failed —and a few might just be too nauseating to take. What’s more, Russia’s response to U.S. pressure has been far from predictable. Sanctions on Ukraine did not lead Moscow to back down—quite the opposite. But given Russia’s rise and the threat it poses to the United States across an array of regions, a time may come when the United States may want to regain its strong position in the Middle East and diminish that of its rising enemy, and worth weighing the options and their limits before we move forward.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University, Lawfare's Foreign Policy Essay editor, and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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