How Putin Turned Moscow Back Into a Middle East Powerhouse

It took a mix of religion, guile, and a stumbling Obama to pull it off.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Arab Spring, from the viewpoint of the Kremlin, has been one prolonged headache. Russia has sustained a battering across the Middle East: It was unable to stop the 2011 NATO intervention that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi, and it has been excoriated by its former friends in the Arab world for its continuing military support of President Bashar al-Assad, even after more than 120,000 people have lost their lives in Syria.

But today, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can celebrate the end of their best week in the Middle East in the past two and a half years. Rather than being dismissed as irrelevant or supporters of the region's most brutal dictators, they're being described with a different sobriquet -- statesmen.

The proximate reasons for this change, of course, lie with a Russian-brokered proposal that would see Assad relinquish his chemical weapons. But Moscow has been quietly building support from Cairo to Beirut to Damascus -- putting Putin in a position to pounce.

In one fell swoop, Putin shielded Assad from a U.S. military strike, and presented himself as the sole figure on the international stage who could achieve a breakthrough in the region's most intractable crisis. The Russian leader has also been helped by President Barack Obama's stumbles: Observers in Moscow believe the president trapped himself by committing to military strikes that neither Congress nor the American public really wanted -- giving Putin the opportunity to devise a solution.

"We have an American president who pronounces strong words, but his face says 'What am I doing?'" said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. "The Russian success will be primarily the manifestation of Western failure."

It's not only in Syria that Russia has capitalized on anger toward the United States. In Egypt, where the military-backed government has accused Washington of sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood, some protesters have hailed Putin as a potential diplomatic counterbalance to the United States. Pro-military demonstrators have even drawn parallels between the former KGB operative and their own strongman: During a July protest in the city of Alexandria, pro-military demonstrators unveiled a large poster of the Russian president wearing a naval uniform beside that of army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, bearing the inscription "Bye bye, America."

In Lebanon, too, Russia has strategically built ties with the country's Greek Orthodox community, which maintains ties to the Russian Orthodox church. Moscow's Amb. Alexander Zasypkin regularly attends Greek Orthodox political and religious gatherings, asserting that "we have a special relationship" with the community. And it appears to be working: As one Lebanese politician put it, when Zasypkin visits Greek Orthodox communities, "they greet him like when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Akkar [a north Lebanon district with a large Sunni population] a few years ago."

But it's Syria that will make or break Russian ambitions in the Middle East. The initiative to remove Assad's chemical weapons was greeted as a rare diplomatic win-win scenario: It provided Obama with a graceful way to avoid launching military strikes that remain deeply unpopular among the American public, and provided both Washington and Moscow with a path to achieve their shared goal of limiting the spread of chemical weapons.

"This should be seen not only as a win for Putin, but also for Obama," said Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert in Russian politics at the Center for Naval Analyses. "Everyone has latched onto it because it seems like a way out for Western countries that want to be seen as doing something, but were finding a lot of domestic resistance toward actual intervention."

The benefit for Putin in cutting this deal, multiple analysts say, is not only that it protects Assad from American military might -- Moscow also hopes that it will strengthen a norm against unilateral intervention. Russia aims to delegitimize military strikes not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, where it holds a veto, and fears that this principle was badly eroded by the NATO campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the Libya campaign more recently. Putin harped on this point in an op-ed published in the New York Times this week, where he argued that Moscow was "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law," which was one of the only tools to "keep international relations from sliding into chaos."

The chemical weapons deal, therefore, provided Putin with an opportunity "to make sure that the U.S. is more firmly embedded in international institutions," according to Gorenburg. "They are the weaker power, and throughout history weaker powers have tried to use international powers to constrain stronger powers."

The Russian resurgence carries echoes, in some ways, of the dynamics of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union enjoyed strong influence with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, Iraq, and Hafez al-Assad's Syria. As Lavrov told Foreign Policy earlier this year, "Russia feels more assertive" than it has since the Soviet collapse, and "can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests."

But it's still far too early to talk about Moscow's return to the influence it had under the Soviet Union. While Putin has had a good week, there is no guarantee that his luck will continue in the months ahead. There are legions of challenges in destroying Assad's chemical weapons: His arsenal has been spread across the country in as many as 50 sites, the United States is not sure it knows where all the stockpiles are, and destroying such toxic agents is an expensive and time-consuming effort even in peacetime. As Secretary of State John Kerry made clear yesterday, military intervention is still on the table if diplomacy fails.

At the moment, however, things are looking up for the Kremlin. Putin's support for Assad, which has brought him so many problems in the Arab world, is even earning him the grudging admiration of critics tired of the fickleness of U.S. policy in the region.

"Here's what I heard from many people, [who are] not very sympathetic with the Russian position: OK, the Russian line is horrible -- but at least Russia has one. Compared to Europe, compared to America, compared to all the rest," said Lukyanov. "And in a way, this didn't give more popularity and more sympathy to Russia in the Arab world, but it produced a certain respect. Russia at least knows what it wants."

Mikhail Kireev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images


Absent Without Leave

America's politicians are abandoning their responsibilities in the Middle East. What follows could be very dangerous.

In the late 1960s, Britain signaled the end of its long run as a world power by withdrawing from major military bases east of the Suez Canal. Today, as the White House confronts the crisis in Syria, could America be facing its own "east of Suez" moment?

The historical parallels aren't exact. Britain was an empire; the United States isn't -- despite the tendentious polemics of inveterate anti-Americans, from Noam Chomsky to Glenn Greenwald. Britain had already been surpassed by bigger superpowers by the 1960s. That hasn't happened to America and isn't likely to happen in the foreseeable future. But the debate over intervention in Syria has illuminated large and growing cracks in the internationalist consensus that has underpinned U.S. global leadership since World War II.

That consensus has been strained to a breaking point by feral partisanship and by a Republican Party increasingly in thrall to libertarian ideas. As a skeptical Congress awaits a possible vote on President Barack Obama's proposal to use military force against Bashar al-Assad's regime, the big question is whether the United States can still muster the internal cohesion to play a decisive role in world affairs.

In his prime-time address Sept. 10, Obama asked Congress to postpone the vote pending a possible deal with Russia that would transfer Syria's chemical arsenal to international custody. The scheme could spare Obama the embarrassment of being rebuffed by Congress, where sentiment against a U.S. strike has been hardening. But the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's enabler and the U.S. president's tormentor in chief, is the one throwing Obama a political lifeline should give us pause about the deal's merits. To be sure, the deal would be good for Obama, allowing him to boast that his threat to use force compelled Assad to give up his chemical weapons. It might also earn Putin a Nobel Peace Prize. But it won't end the agony of the Syrian people, because it would leave Assad free to go right on killing them with conventional weapons.

If Washington forswears the use of force against Syria, as Putin is demanding, it will have paid a very high price for reinforcing the norm against chemical warfare. The Russian gambit, moreover, may founder on its sheer impracticality: Will Assad, his back to the wall, really give up his most fearsome weapon? And how will U.N. weapons inspectors be able to find and remove all the regime's chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone? Even from a purely logistical standpoint, the Russian proposal may be close to impossible.

As that drama plays out at the United Nations, the battle for the Republican Party's foreign-policy soul continues at home. Since the folly of isolationism was exposed in the 1940s, Republicans have rarely been reticent about projecting American power. On the contrary, they have advertised themselves as the party of military strength and unapologetic nationalism, especially after the Vietnam War provoked a schism within the Democratic Party over U.S. military intervention.

But that was then, when the Soviet bear lurked in the woods. Today's Tea Party Republicans are more concerned about the threat from Big Government. They've allowed the budget sequester to gouge big holes in U.S. defense spending -- cuts that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns "are weakening the United States' ability to respond effectively to a major crisis in the world beyond the war zone in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, the view that the United States should quit wasting money and lives trying to provide collective security, uphold liberal values, or sustain a parasitical international system has migrated from the libertarian fringe to the Republican mainstream.

While the anti-war left mostly avoids the barricades, it's arch-libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) who are leading the charge against Obama's proposed strike on Syria. "War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened," Paul wrote recently in Time. Ethnic cleansing? Genocide? Sarin gas attacks on civilians? Sorry, that's not our problem.

The libertarians' resolute anti-interventionism is of a piece with their demands for radical spending cuts and tax cuts. Both are predicated on the view that Washington needs to be cut down to size in order to prevent it from interfering with private markets, snooping on citizens, and intervening in foreign conflicts that don't concern the United States.

Although often couched in the language of realpolitik, this stance is really a kind of neo-isolationism. It posits that America can no longer afford to maintain military forces with global reach, that the very existence of such capabilities only tempts it to meddle fecklessly in other peoples' quarrels, and that the blowback from such global hyperactivism creates new enemies and feeds anti-American sentiment. That this critique sounds like it could belong to the anti-war left doesn't seem to bother the peaceniks of the right. Said Ron Paul, the grand old man of resurgent libertarianism: "I think there's a historic event going on here, and if this vote is won -- that is, defeat [of] the request to have more military approach to Syria -- I think it will be historic because it'll be a grand coalition of the libertarian Republicans and the Democratic progressives."

This improbable outbreak of Republican dovishness can be partly explained by reflexive partisanship: If Obama is for military intervention, it must be a bad idea. After previously flailing Obama for "dithering" while Assad massacred civilians, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- no doubt with an eye to the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination -- opposed Obama's plan to use force in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote. The usually hawkish Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, objects to a limited strike on Assad's forces so long as it's framed as a moral gesture, rather than a U.S. strategic necessity.

In fact, there's a strong case to be made that vital U.S. interests are on the line in Syria. What began as peaceful Arab Spring protests has morphed into a proxy war that cleaves the region along sectarian lines and has made Syria a magnet for jihadists. A flood of refugees threatens to destabilize neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. And if Assad prevails -- with the active backing of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia -- it will be a huge setback for America's core security interests in the Middle East: banking the fires of Sunni extremism, shutting down Iran's nuclear program, and ensuring Israel's security. America's influence will shrink, Russia's will grow, and America's friends in the region will seek accommodation with the ascendant Iran-led axis.

Yet Obama has made no such case. He's counting instead on fear of -- and moral revulsion against -- weapons of mass destruction to sway the minds of lawmakers -- ironically, the same tactic George W. Bush used to get the United States into Iraq (though Obama, at least, appears to have better intelligence). By forswearing the goal of regime change and stressing a limited strike -- "unbelievably small," in Secretary of State John Kerry's now infamous slip of the tongue -- designed to punish and deter Assad, Obama has won support from some prominent liberals, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Howard Dean.

But many other liberals aren't buying the case for war, and the fact that Obama has radiated ambivalence over Syria for the past two years hasn't helped his cause. In insisting on a punitive strike, he's making America look like some kind of Victorian headmaster, paddling miscreant schoolboys to teach them a lesson. But Assad is no schoolboy. He's a ruthless tyrant who is daily committing atrocities against unarmed civilians in Syria -- with and without sarin gas. Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad is Syria's ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

By all means, let's test his willingness to yield his chemical weapons. But Washington should also make a serious commitment to providing non-extremist Syrian rebels the weapons, training, intelligence, and other support they need to either topple Assad or force him to the table for a negotiated settlement. That wouldn't require U.S. boots on the ground, congressional authorization, or a green light from the U.N. Security Council. But it would advance U.S. security interests in the region while also reinforcing international laws against waging war on civilians, by whatever means.

Unfortunately, the baleful legacy of the "Iraq syndrome" hangs over this administration, whose spokesmen run like scalded dogs from any suggestion that "regime change" should be the U.S. goal in Syria. This means that, if the Russian deal falls through, Congress will face an unpalatable choice between authorizing a militarily meaningless strike and undermining the commander in chief. "The refusal to authorize force would be taken as an ideological pivot point," argues former Bush White House aide Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. "Nations such as China, Russia and Iran would see this as the triumph of a political coalition between the peace party of the left and the rising isolationists of the right. And they would be correct."

If this coalition gets its way, the resulting retraction of American power will leave the international system rudderless. When Britain pulled back from the East, it could count on the United States to fill the vacuum. But if America disengages, from the Middle East or elsewhere, there's no powerful democracy waiting to take its place.

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