Russia reshapes the Middle East

Just before Christmas, a summit in Moscow brought together the leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey. President Vladimir Putin of Russia orchestrated this major meeting. After the discussions, his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced significant agreement to extend a ceasefire beyond the devastated city of Aleppo, and to guarantee humanitarian aid and safety of civilians. His government may or may not live up to these promises.

Undeniable is that Putin’s power in the Mideast is now dramatically confirmed. Russia and Turkey are traditional enemies. Syria and Turkey have been at odds since 2011. The United States had no role in this important summit.

The decision last year by Putin to intervene with military force in the brutal combat in Syria furthered this expansion of regional influence. In the short term, Moscow greatly increased the staying power of the beleaguered regime of Syria President Bashar al-Assad.

Historically, Moscow has been preoccupied with secure national borders, especially in Eastern Europe, and generally abstained from sending military forces long distances. This traditional approach has now been abandoned by Putin, who has become a daring military gambler in the Mideast.

Russia has a long history of involvement in the volatile region, especially Syria. The profoundly serious Suez Crisis of 1956 resulted in sharp rupture among western allies, as the Eisenhower administration refused to support a combined military assault by Britain, France and Israel to retake the Suez Canal and seize the Sinai Peninsula from nationalist Egypt.

From that time until the end of the Cold War, Moscow had significant influence. Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, helped instigate a successful 1963 coup. By 1970, he consolidated his position and ruled until 2000. Ironically given developments today, he was regarded as relatively moderate and an economic modernizer, though in the context of a dictatorship.

Syria developed close military partnership with Egypt, and the two nations went to war together against Israel in October 1973. The Yom Kippur War also witnessed American-Soviet nuclear confrontation. This crisis arguably was as serious as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, though conducted almost entirely outside public view, in great contrast to the confrontation over missiles in Cuba.

The Watergate domestic political crisis colors recollections among some Nixon administration officials. Nevertheless, reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

First, Nixon aggressively pursued the essential need to get aid to Israel. At the same time, Israel was pressured successfully to show restraint regarding encircled Egyptian forces. In short, vital U.S. interests in the region were recognized clearly and protected.

Second, visible actions were taken to demonstrate U.S. military resolve: B-52 bombers were moved from Guam to the U.S., the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was placed on alert.

Third, the U.S. ultimately did not pursue a proposed joint ‘condominium’ proposed by the Soviets. Interests were too divergent on both sides. This bears directly on diplomatic efforts by Putin for international collaboration regarding Syria. The Moscow summit is a culmination of his strategy.

President Jimmy Carter brokered Egypt-Israel peace. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker initiated complex multilateral negotiations which resulted in partial Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Moscow was involved.

President Barack Obama declared use of poison gas by Damascus would be a “red line,” and indicated military retaliation. When poison gas was used, he did nothing.

Putin seized the opportunity and persuaded Syria to abandon nuclear weapons. In the future, this event may be seen as the beginning of declining American influence.


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