Russia Elbows US aside in Middle East

Harvey Morris

LONDON — After a Moscow meeting on the Syrian crisis in mid-December — a meeting notable for the conspicuous absence of the United States — Washington felt obliged to insist it was not being sidelined from international efforts to resolve the conflict.
A new troika of Russia, Turkey and Iran, which would have been unthinkable a year ago, gathered to draw up a Moscow declaration on extending a ceasefire in Syria. The Americans were not invited.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby was on the defensive, explaining that his boss — US Secretary of State John Kerry — “doesn’t see this as a snub at all”.
The Russians could scarcely disguise their glee at having frozen Washington out of the Syrian question.
“All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said ahead of the Moscow meeting. “None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground.”
Just a year ago, Shoigu was deploying missiles in response to Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane. Here he was now sitting down with his Turkish counterparts to determine the future of Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, another participant, said trilateral cooperation between Russia, Iran and Turkey was the most effective way to settle the Syrian crisis. Again, no mention of the United States.
NATO-member Turkey, once the most intransigent opponent of the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus, appears to have accepted the inevitable and has effectively dropped its demands for regime change.
Its new-found relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no sign of being disrupted by the assassination in Ankara of Russia’s envoy on December 19, the day before the Moscow meeting.
On the contrary, the killing of ambassador Andrei Karlov prompted some unsubtle suggestions in both countries that the United States was somehow to blame.
One lesson that might be taken from the tripartite Moscow gathering is that half a century of US hegemony in the Middle East is disappearing with a whimper rather than a bang.
Russia, which had been reduced to a diplomatic lightweight in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, appears to be calling the shots and cementing ties not only with Iran but with America’s NATO ally Turkey.
It might be premature, however, to mourn or to celebrate the United States’ retreat.
The United States is going through the dying, lame-duck days of the Barack Obama presidency. Both he and Kerry will be out of office on January 20.
As for President-elect Donald Trump, his policies towards the Middle East, as on a range of other issues, remain what former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would have described as “known unknowns”.
Obama has been castigated at home and abroad for his reticence in tackling the Syrian crisis, most notably with his failure to follow up on the threat of action if Damascus crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons.
In Obama’s defence, it could be said that at the time he prioritised an international nuclear deal with Iran, which he successfully reached despite a reluctant Congress. Action against Iran’s Syrian ally might have scuppered that.
He showed markedly less enthusiasm than France and Britain about getting embroiled in Libya in 2011, although the United States is overwhelmingly blamed for the consequences of that messy intervention.
In Iraq, the United States stood by as Islamic State (ISIS) forces swarmed into the country, intervening only in response to frantic appeals from its Kurdish allies that they were about to be overwhelmed.
Nevertheless, Obama is portrayed in the parallel universe of internet conspiracists as a war-monger who deliberately created ISIS to promote US interests in the region.
When it comes to interfering in the affairs of other states, Obama might conclude that an American president is damned if he does and damned if he does not.
The Russians may be, for the time being, enjoying the benefit of the doubt. They acted decisively to fill the vacuum of US inaction in support of their Syrian ally and now it looks as if Assad might survive. That, however, has come at the cost of a brutal campaign to recover Aleppo that has been widely condemned — and not only in the West.
Trump has said positive things about Putin but that does not necessarily mean the United States will just accept that there is a new Russian hegemony in the Middle East.
For all the recent focus on Aleppo, there is still a battle going on for Mosul, where the United States is leading an international coalition supporting Iraqi forces moving slowly to recover the city from ISIS.
So the one “known known” surrounding the change of guard in Washington is that the United States is not about to retreat from the region just yet.
Harvey Morris
has worked in the Middle East, including Iran and Lebanon, for many years and written several books on the region, including No Friends but the Mountains published in 1993.
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