As US Clout in the Mideast Declines, Russia and Iran Muscle In

As US Clout in the Mideast Declines, Russia and Iran Muscle In

REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

It has long been clear that the Obama administration will hand its successor a dangerous mess in the Middle East, centering on Syria and emanating outward. Is it now ceding so much initiative that it risks delivering the next president an outright failure?

That prospect’s just a little way out in the middle distance. All of the region’s major powers now appear intent on pushing the Americans to the side, or they stand in open defiance of U.S. policy (such as anybody can make one out). Or both.  

Related: Obama Faces Painful Choice in Syria as Peace Talks Falter

Secretary of State Kerry’s continuing ceasefire and cooperation talks with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, are just about the only American initiative left. While the success of this effort remains far from certain, working carefully but more closely with Moscow now emerges as the best chance Washington has to influence the outcome in Syria.

At this point, the magnitude of the fix the Obama administration is in, primarily due to its mistakes, can’t be exaggerated. Amid stunningly rapid realignments across the Middle East, the pre-eminence Washington assumed after the Suez crisis in 1956 suddenly appears at risk.

Big changes portend historic shifts, and those early signs are in the making.

The events of just the past few weeks must have a lot of heads spinning at State. Turkey, Iran, Russia, and even Syria—four non–Western powers—are all converging in one way or another to advance toward a solution in Syria.

There are some shockers here. Sunni-nationalist Turkey is reconnecting with Shiite Iran—this after President Erdoğan’s startling new rapprochement with Russia. Now we have reports that Turkey is conducting back-channel talks with the Assad government in Damascus; Sputnik, the Russian wire service, just published an interview with one of the Turkish mediators.

Related: China Aligns With Russia in Syria, Creating a Headache for the US

Now there’s a set of proper pivots for you.

Iran’s relations with Russia, which have been on again, off again since the Safavid and Russian empires established ties in the 16th century, are now on again. Given all the effort Kerry put into the nuclear accord with Tehran two years ago, it must have been bitter when Russian bombers flying sorties into Syria took off from Iranian airfields two weeks ago.

Still absorbing that out-of-nowhere news, the spokesperson at State managed no more than an embarrassing splutter at his daily presser the next day. The Iranians, increasingly angry as they allege the U.S. is blocking much of the business they expected to come their way, have since moved provocatively against U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf—an unmistakable poke in the Obama administration’s eye.

The ever-unpredictable Erdoğan, meantime, has Obama and Vice-President Biden in knots by way of a take-it-or-leave-it new military arrangement. Turkey, which is deeply committed to crushing the Kurdish autonomy movement in Syria and Turkey both, sent special forces into Syria last week for the first time, nominally against the Islamic State.

In evident gratitude, Biden turned on the Kurds—the best ally Washington has against ISIS—and demanded they retreat during a visit to Ankara last week. Now look: By last Friday, it was clear that Erdoğan’s priority—as it always has been—is attacking the Kurds, not the Islamic State, first and most vigorously.

Related: As Syria Talks Flop, Obama Is Painted Into a Corner

On various battlefields, the Assad government just retook a key suburb of Damascus from U.S.–backed opposition forces. On the other side of the border, since Baghdad retook Fallujah earlier this summer, it’s awkwardly obvious that Washington’s effectively dependent on Iranian militias.

That’s quite a list of mishaps, bad calls, and reversals. But it’s what Kerry must keep in his attaché case while he’s talking to Lavrov in Geneva, as he did once again last week.

A few new realities are attaching to these talks now.

One is that Kerry has no chance of success until Washington clarifies its intentionally blurred position on Assad. Moscow has no great affection for him, but there’s no chance in hell it will accept removing him before political processes and institutions are in place to prevent Libyan-style chaos.

Another concerns the Pentagon. Kerry needs to face down those at Defense who have been effectively sabotaging his talks with Lavrov to establish some form of on-the-ground military cooperation. Generals are supposed to execute orders; policy is the purview of diplomats.

Related: Syria’s Civil War Has Spawned a Huge Mental Health Crisis

Looming over all are Washington’s hostile relations with Russia. It’s time to stop dismissing its aspirations to global influence out of hand and recognize that, like it or not, Moscow has quite a lot of clout. “It should be obvious, then, that Washington needs a better Russia policy,” Foreign Policy wrote in a clear-eyed essay published last week.  

This is now very key. And that’s nowhere clearer than in Syria and in all the political jockeying the Syrian crisis prompts. Absent a rethink of U.S. relations with Russia—toward cooperation and away from confrontation—the word we’re looking for amid the rapidly realigning Middle East may be “marginalization.”