By punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons, President Donald Trump effectively broke with Barack Obama’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. In a bit of irony for a committed anti-interventionist, Trump enforced Obama’s red line in Syria against the use of chemical weapons, ending the U.S. prohibition on military strikes targeting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This is not necessarily the start of a larger American war in Syria, but it could be the beginning of the end of the Syrian conflict.
For opponents of Assad who hope Washington will seek regime change in Damascus, news of the strikes on a Syrian airbase was welcome. The Trump administration may not escalate much further, but some expect it to push Russian President Vladimir Putin to break with Assad. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Secretary of State of Rex Tillerson have, in turn, called Moscow either complicit in Assad’s chemical attack, as at least one U.S. official has alleged, or incompetent in fulfilling the promise of preventing it. Either way, Tillerson is expected to use his visit to Moscow this week to demand Russia break with Assad.
But the promise of a break is wishful thinking. The chemical attack and the retaliatory U.S. strike may have embarrassed and angered Russia—even if it was given heads up, as reporting suggests—but they’ve given Putin no reason to turn on Assad.
Today, days after the strike, the balance of power in the war remains the same. Assad and his allies continue to gain new ground in Idlib province and consolidate their hold over the critical corridor stretching from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. The airstrikes may slow his pace for a time, but he is still winning, and that means Putin will see no need to change his long-term strategy: His prestige and, indeed, very conception of Russia’s great-power status are tied to the outcome of Syria’s war. He took advantage of Obama’s reluctance to intervene against Assad to become the main power broker in Syria. In the process, Assad’s survival has become the measure of Putin’s influence.
Of course, Russia’s interests in Syria predate even the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church has close ties to its sister Syrian Orthodox Church; some of the czars crowns were said to have been made of Damascene steel. Strategic ties forged during the Soviet era persist to this day. Russia continues to enjoy access to the eastern Mediterranean using the Syrian naval base in Tartus.
Strengthening Putin’s ties to Assad is their shared concern with containing Islamic extremism in the Arab world and Afghanistan, lest it spread to Russia’s Muslim regions and periphery. Syria has become ground zero for Putin’s containment strategy, and Russians are quick to point to the large number of Chechen jihadis fighting there to make their case. Putin, however, sees the Assad regime as a bulwark against extremism, and has embraced a strategy for defeating extremism that starts with keeping Assad in power. Hence, Putin sees Assad’s opposition, and the Islamic State, as the immediate obstacles to his containment strategy. And, further: As long as the largely Sunni jihadis are waging war on Assad, the threat they pose to the Russian homeland is diminished.
This common cause against the Sunnis has allowed Iran and Russia to forge deep military and intelligence ties. Over the past five years, Iran has, in turn, created a formidable integrated force, consisting of Shia militias and fighters, from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to volunteers from across the Arab world, to Pakistan and Afghanistan, all trained and under the command and control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This is a regional strategic asset of material value to Putin. Defending Assad is about more than just the future of Syria: It is also about using this Shia force to serve Russia’s broader interests in the Middle East. It is for this reason that Turkey or the Arab states supporting the opposition have found it so difficult to wean Moscow off Tehran.
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