By: Matthew Wollen, F GS-13 USAF AFSOC OC/SPDP
14 June 2021
Throughout the decades following WWII, the U.S. was the dominant economic, political, and military influencer in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran all benefitted from one form of U.S. assistance or another. No other major power rivaled the leverage the U.S. government possessed with regard to regional issues. That has changed.
Vladimir Putin has accelerated Russia’s efforts to influence beyond its borders. As such, Russia has capitalized on its relationship with the Bashar Al-Assad regime to establish a welcomed military and economic presence in Syria. Assad has remained in power throughout the Syrian civil war primarily due to Russia’s presence and support. This significant presence provides Russia with an opportunity to assert influence throughout the Middle East. The mutually beneficial relationship between Damascus and Moscow will make Syria the next key player in Middle Eastern politics.
Russia’s Play in Syria
As Mona Yacoubian points out in a February 2021 United States Institute of Peace article entitled “What is Russia’s Endgame in Syria?”, Russia “seeks to promote Moscow’s interests in three concentric arenas: (1) Syria’s multi-layered conflict; (2) Russia’s role in regional/Middle East dynamics; and (3) Moscow’s broader conception of an evolving global order.” As Moscow asserts its position as a defender of the Syrian government and a contributor to the eradication of regional terrorism, it extends its influence in the Middle East and furthers its desires to weaken U.S. hegemonic influence.
Russia is growing a naval force in the region having secured a 49-year lease of a naval base in Tartus, Syria in 2017. Russia continues to accelerate its military presence within Syria, repeatedly contending that its forces are the only forces in the country under invite from the Syrian government. Additionally, Russia has fostered trade agreements with Syria and has assisted the government with its response to the COVID pandemic. In the name of supporting Syria, Russia has expanded its international influence and specifically its role in the Middle East. Russia has established an entrenched military, economic, and political foundation in Syria, and as such, has postured itself to counter U.S. influence.
The Iranian Impact
For decades, Iran has asserted its influence in Syria and now, as a Moscow proxy, is bolstered in its ability to impact stability in and around the region. Iran’s tacit support from Russia only strengthens its ability to operate within Syria and furthers its outreach aiding its efforts to counter Israeli and Saudi power in the Middle East. A continuing Iranian presence in Syria further disrupts U.S. efforts to foster stability within Iraq as well, as Iran maintains the freedom to promote terrorism within that nation. Russia’s alliance with Syria only heightens the Iranian threat to U.S.-friendly nations in the Middle East and presents a significant security dilemma for U.S. leadership.
Assad Will Remain in Power
Were it not for Russian support during the Syrian civil war, it’s likely Assad would have either been overthrown, or succumbed to some form of government reform as brokered by the Obama administration and a collection of European nations. Russia needs Assad to remain in power as their support to the regime legitimizes a Russian presence. Assad’s power rests on Russia’s ability to provide military, economic, and political support as opposition forces cannot combat a Russian-backed Syrian government.
Additionally, removing Assad from power at this point would likely require a major military effort backed by a government willing to directly engage Russian or Russian backed forces. Doing so has the potential to overextend U.S. military and economic resources, for example, and it’s unlikely any European nation, or coalition of nations wants to mount that challenge either. Despite the fact that the Assad government has carried out well-chronicled atrocities to protect its power, no nation seems prepared to invest its blood and treasure defeating this regime by way of a military confrontation with Russia.
This growing Russian/Iranian presence in Syria places Syria at the very forefront of the Middle Eastern power discussion. Syria, by way of Russian power and covert Iranian activity, now poses a very direct and legitimate threat to nations like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. This enhanced strategic position will transform Syria and the Assad regime from bit player to a dominant voice in the Middle East. This power shift will transition the region from one where the U.S. dominated through favorable relationships to one of immense competition for influence and indirect control. The Russian expansion beyond the near-borders will give the Assad regime a firm grasp on power now and well into the future and will enable Russia’s ability to promote its regional and global interests.
Given these significant relationships, it’s likely the Assad regime will remain in power and that Syria will become the centerpiece for regional competition in the Middle East. It’s doubtful Russia or Syria would launch any major military operation in the Middle East, but it most decidedly will have the ability to coerce nations militarily and economically within the region. In the absence of a major U.S. or European presence, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel will likely be placed in a position of constant guard influenced directly by the Syrian government and Moscow’s international aspirations. In that context, “Syria Next” represents a unique and challenging security dilemma for the U.S. and the world.
The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.