It is tempting to watch American foreign policy and Russian foreign policy and assign all the naiveté and sloppy thinking to one and all the clever, chess-playing skills to the other. But that would be wrong. Neither side is very clever and Russia’s hand — and that of the Arabs, Turkey and Iran — looks even less good today than it did a month ago.
The Russian government has announced the pullout of all Russian military forces from Syria, including those who were in the naval base at Tartus, Russia’s only (small) toehold in the region. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the pan-Arab newspaper al Hayat last week, “Today, the Russian defense ministry does not have a single person in Syria.” He also downplayed the significance of Tartus, saying the base “does not have any strategic importance.” Bogdanov was not including “technical experts” remaining in Syria to teach soldiers to use their Russian-origin weapons, but he did mention that about 30,000 Russians still live there. The Russian news agency Interfax reported that 128 of them left on Wednesday.
Russia finds itself in a predicament, having counted on Assad overcoming the resistance and quickly regaining control of the country. His father, after all, had killed 35-40,000 people in 1983 in Hama and driven the Muslim Brotherhood and any other opposition underground. Syria had been considered entirely “stable” since then, a notion reinforced by numerous American politicians who worked assiduously to end Bashar Assad’s isolation. The Russians had no reason to think the West would intervene in Assad’s suppression of the rebellion either directly or by offloading the responsibility to regional allies Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
For the Russians, a quick end to the fighting would have been a “double win.” First, radical Sunnis would be defeated on a battlefield. This, for Russia, is a strategic issue, as Russian Muslims in Chechnya and Dagestan are Sunni, increasingly Islamist, and funded by Saudi Arabia. Second, Russia would prove that it was a loyal Superpower patron while the U.S. was still stumbling around after abandoning Hosni Mubarak and supporting al Qaeda elements in the overthrow of Gaddafi.
Putin thought he couldn’t lose. But Russia is losing — as are Iran, Hezb’allah, Hamas, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Assad didn’t score a sharp, decisive victory. Quickly seeing an opportunity to help Sunnis against the heterodox Shiite Alawite Assad (and with a “wink and a nod” from Washington) Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia began arming and training rebel factions, including some considered terrorist by the U.S. Not enough thus far to enable the rebels to win, but enough to keep them on the battlefield and open the gates to foreign intervention, including from al Qaeda-related militias.
The shift in the Syrian revolution into a Sunni-Shiite battlefield has led to an open rift between Syria, Iran, and Hezb’allah on one side and the Arab world and Turkey on the other. Countries that used to come together to denounce Israel are now denouncing one another (a silver lining in a very dark cloud). Egypt broke relations with Syria. Syria threw Hamas out of Damascus — or Hamas left, depending on whose story you believe. Iran has cut back its financial support and arms to Hamas (another silver lining) and appears to be instigating friction between Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza by encouraging Islamic Jihad to launch rockets at Israel knowing Israel will hold Hamas responsible.
Even Sunni coreligionists Saudi Arabia and Qatar are falling out. Qatar, flush with cash, has been tweaking its larger, more influential historic rival. Longtime analyst of Muslim politics Harold Rhode recently wrote in inFOCUS magazine:
Roughly speaking, the Qataris, along with the now only nominally secular Turkish Republic, support the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis support Salafi, i.e., other radically anti-Western fanatical Sunni fundamentalist groups. They disagree on the nature and theological principles of the future Muslim Caliphate that they believe will rule the entire world… Qatar continually looks for ways to poke the Saudis in the eye.
And Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith posit in the Financial Times that Qatar may not have been prepared for the level of diplomatic maneuvering required to manage the Syrian opposition — or even the part of the opposition that the country funds. “Qatar finds itself pulled into a complicated and fractured conflict, the outcome of which it has a decreasing ability to influence, while simultaneously becoming a high-profile scapegoat for participants on both sides. Among the Syrian regime’s numerous but fragmented opponents, the small Gulf state evokes a surprisingly ambivalent — and often overtly hostile — response.”
The choices made by Qatar and Saudi Arabia have caused both Russian nightmares to come to pass: First, the influx of foreign fighters to Syria includes Chechens, both directly from Chechnya and from elsewhere in the Middle East. They bring fighting skills with them, but will also learn new ones that can be taken back to the Caucasus along (perhaps) with more weapons and more international support.
Second, instead of being a loyal friend to an Arab leader, as opposed to the fickle United States, the fact is that Russia is now mired in support for a genocidal bastard in a war that has led to more than 100,000 deaths, the apparent use of chemical weapons, and the decided use of artillery, helicopters, and aircraft to bombard civilian centers.
No one in the Arab world wants to be Putin’s friend.
Oddly enough, although President Obama has done his very best to retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, lead from behind in Libya, outsource the Syrian revolution to the Gulf States, and find common ground with Putin, the regional players are all certain that it is the United States that has to exercise political leadership, provide weapons for the rebels, and maybe undertake direct American military action, to bring the Syrian war to a close. We may do none of those things — America’s policies have been awkward, grudging, stumbling and sometimes working at cross-purposes — but the fact that the Arabs think we can and should leaves Putin’s belief in Russian political supremacy in the Middle East in tatters as well.