Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989-1993. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.
Geopolitics has returned to the Middle East with a vengeance. Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing kingmaker in this deadly gambit to ensure that his pawn, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, stays on the chessboard. Since czarist times, Russia has sought to control access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. That is not an option given Turkish control over the Bosporus strait. Second-best is Russia’s naval-basing rights at the Syrian port of Tartus, which it would lose if Mr. Assad were to fall.
But Russia’s ambitions do not stop with Syria. It has long played nice with Iran’s ayatollahs, well before Western powers decided to lift sanctions as part of the nuclear deal with Tehran. Iran is an important counterweight to Turkey, which, although a NATO member, is increasingly sullying its democratic credentials under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Russia has also courted Saudi Arabia, which feels abandoned by the United States as a result of the nuclear agreement and subsequent lifting of sanctions against its Persian adversary.
It is also benefiting from the humanitarian catastrophe that is engulfing Europe and unravelling the union’s painstaking efforts to eliminate borders under the Schengen Agreement, which now lies in tatters as major countries erect border controls.
Russia has long feared and deeply resented the European Union’s powers of attraction, especially when it comes to Ukraine. Mr. Putin and his cronies have chafed at the sanctions that Russia came under following its seizure of Crimea and “invasion” of Eastern Ukraine. The mounting refugee crisis from Syria’s civil war is payback. Mr. Putin clearly feels little sympathy for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders who wagged their fingers at him over Ukraine and are now feeling the heat from their own constituents, who believe they have grossly mismanaged the refugee crisis by being far too lenient in admitting claimants from Syria and elsewhere.
Although the Russian economy may be tanking with the falling price of oil, you would never know it because of Russia’s growing assertiveness over its near abroad.
Western – and particularly U.S. – efforts to manage the Syrian crisis and events in the region have been inept from the start. Support for the “moderate factions” who oppose the Assad regime came to naught because the moderates never got the level of U.S. support –military and diplomatic – they needed to fight Mr. Assad. They have now vanished into the ether and into extremist groups such as al-Nusra Front and Islamic State, which are not parties to the ceasefire but have filled the vacuum.
Watching events unfold, one comes to the inescapable conclusion that Washington is relinquishing Syria’s future to Moscow because it believes that is the best among a worst set of options. If Russia wants Mr. Assad to stay in power that badly, the U.S. won’t stand in the way – an interesting variation on the (former secretary of state Colin Powell’s) Pottery Barn doctrine: “If you break it, you own it.” But by giving Syria’s carcass to Mr. Putin, the U.S. is also undermining its own role and influence, not to mention the reputation of all those associated with its ramshackle coalition against IS.Report Typo/Error