- - Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Iran (read: Persia) invented chess, but the present Grand Master of the Middle East chessboard is Russia. When the Syrian government launched an offensive against a rebel-held suburb of Damascus some have called a massacre, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Russians to rein in their client. She noted as well that, as Syria’s main backer, Moscow has a “particular responsibility” to address the situation.

Despite desperate attempts to pull Turkey out of its deepening ties to Russia, U.S. diplomacy seems to be failing. When Turkish troops invaded Kurdish territory in an effort to secure the Syrian border, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked Russia for “a green light.” The U.S. was not in negotiating sight. How can this be?

Stated U.S. doctrine is based on support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, but American diplomats have yet to figure out how to balance what seems like irreconcilable differences with Turkey. President Trump isn’t willing to meet Turkey’s public demand that has the administration stop assisting Kurdish forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t have any qualms about doing so. Hence the unlikely Turkish-Russian detente.

While Iran has not concealed its imperial ambition for a Shia Crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean, the Russians in their alliance with Iran maintain clean and unambiguous guidelines on how this can occur.

A wide regional war that pits the U.S. against Russia is not in Mr. Putin’s interest. In fact, the Russians recently vetoed an Iranian base in Syria as a “provocative escalation” in regional activity. Moreover, the loss of Russian troops as recently occurred when its “mercenaries” confronted and were devastated by U.S. Marines could presage other disasters.

In Israel there is general support for the Trump administration of a kind unprecedented in the last few decades. However, President Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Mr. Putin routinely the last couple years indicating that if war against Hezbollah breaks out, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) will be obliged to attack Russian troops in harm’s way. Only Russia can constrain Hezbollah-Iranian forces.

When President Obama invited Russia into the Middle East to deal with the poison gas unleashed by Syrian President Bashar Assad against home-grown rebels, it revealed the fecklessness of a president who did not consider the consequences of his decision. Since then, Russia has become the strong horse in the Eastern Mediterranean even recognized by Saudi Arabia and Egypt with major arms deals.

By comparison the U.S. seems weak and confused. Although U.S. Special Forces defeated ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, the subsequent period has been laden with uncertainty including, of course, the lack of U.S. support for the Kurds. When in 2016, prior to the presidential election, there was an outpouring of support for citizens of Aleppo being relentlessly bombed by Russian jets, the U.S. stood by supinely fearful that the B-2 could not penetrate advanced Russian radars.

You can be sure Russian military planners took note. Mr. Putin now claims Russia has developed a new generation of nuclear weapons that can bypass our missile defense system. Some analysts are persuaded the bellicose tone of this statement appeared to bolster a tough image in advance of this month’s presidential election and to reinforce Russia’s influence in the Middle East.

Pentagon officials have heard all of this before and do not believe it alters the strategic balance in any meaningful way. However, rhetorical tone matters. Mr. Putin’s aggressive language is not only designed for consumption by Americans, but by Middle Easterners now reliant on Russian presence in the region.

As he stood on the podium delivering his speech Mr. Putin projected animated videos on the big screen that showed cruise missiles, underwater drones and hypersonic missiles in various stages of activity,

The enigma wrapped in a conundrum we call Russia is dying at home — notwithstanding this new generation of weapons;. Life expectancy is decreasing and alcoholism is at an all-time high. But in the Middle East, the Bear is growling. Forced out of the region in 1973, Russia is back with a vengeance. It is instructive that Mr. Obama invited this changing balance, but Mr. Trump is seemingly confused about how to address it.

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

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