- - Monday, June 11, 2018


Syria has become the “sick man” of the Middle East, a territory laden with death and homelessness. In 2014 erstwhile President Barack Obama invited the Russians into the region to control the use of poison gas by their surrogate Bashar Assad. In 2015, as the Russians intervention expanded Mr. Obama said this “is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire.” Sen. John McCain responded on the Senate floor that the policy of the Obama administration “replaced the risk of action with the perils of inaction.”

Today we can see the perils of inaction unfold. Russia is dominant over nearly half of Syria, within only a few months of the intervention, Russian presence had put an end to any serious attempt by backers of the rebels to topple the Assad regime.

Moreover, Russian leaders reached an accord with Turkey which had attempted to destabilize the regime and instead reached an alliance based on its active hostility to the Kurds. It can now be asserted that with these alterations in policy, almost all those countries that once backed the opposition now depend on Russia to salvage the situation for them in Syria. It is by consent that Russia is the “strong horse of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The idea that Russia would serve as the balance wheel against Iran when it also maintains a tenuous alliance demonstrates the belief it is a better guarantor of stability than the United States. However, the Russians have not displayed consistency. Jordan, the U.S. and Lebanon hoped that Russia would depart from its alliance with Iran and allow for a hopeful vision of the future. That has not yet emerged. But the State Department continues to believe Russia can be drawn away from its ties to Iran and Hezbollah. This initiative drives the present Russian-U.S. negotiation in the area.

Three background factors have changed U.S. understanding of Syria: There isn’t any outside effort to challenge Mr. Assad as before; the rebels present no threat to major population centers and all the nations with a stake in the region have existing deals with Russia, not Iran. Weakening the Iranian ties to Syria may be a Russian goal; it is also a U.S. goal. In fact, Russia is the only power that can prevent a full Iranian takeover of that country.

From the U.S. and Israeli position, there is a contention that Hezbollah must be constrained, at the very least must pull back from areas in the Golan Heights. This is the Russian test of reliability. Doves aren’t flying overhead in this region, but a form of stability is possible. Vladimir Putin has indicated a willingness to maintain a cordon sanitaire with Israel.

Despite the often reckless behavior of Hezbollah that has stockpiled more than 120,000 missiles in Lebanon, Moscow claims it is trying to stifle actions that could precipitate a war. In the several meetings Benjamin Netanyahu has had with Mr. Putin, an understanding was reached to notify Mr. Putin’s troops should they be in harm’s way.

Clearly the Russian leadership wants it both ways: Continued ties with Iran that deploys troops on the ground and the ability to prevent Hezbollah from establishing a presence on the Golan Heights. Mr. Putin wants to maintain the status quo in the region, but Iranian imperial ambitions and Hezbollah aims may thwart his diplomatic intentions.

Can the Russians conduct themselves as a responsible regional power? Will Iran live with a reduced Shia signature in the region? Is there space for U.S. intervention? And does Mr. Trump intend to withdraw from a region he considers a quagmire?

These are questions sitting on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s desk. At the moment, they are back-burner matters, but in the Middle East you can never be sure when they will be set aflame by overeager judgment and overbearing decisions.

• Herbert London is the president of the London Center for Policy Research.

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