Russia’s air raids in Syria, launched from Iranian territory this week, were received by Washington with a mixture of consternation and disappointment.
Understandably, too. It marks a breakthrough in Russia’s standing in the Middle East.
Russia is working closely in a quartet that includes Iran, Iraq and Syria. We can add Lebanon because of the cooperation on the ground in Syria with Hezbollah, which is one of the governing coalition partners in Beirut.
Even Middle East countries, thought of as Washington’s partners, are showing a newfound appreciation of Russia and the leadership provided by President Vladimir Putin. The notably conciliatory relations between Turkey and Russia – in the wake of a failed coup that Ankara implicates a cleric who lives in the US in – speaks of a tectonic shift in regional geopolitics.
Despite deep differences over Syria, Russia has managed to retain cordial relations with other states normally considered American proteges and enemies of Moscow’s ally in Syria. Putin has over the past year warmly received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while also respectfully hosting Saudi leaders in Moscow.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was recently welcomed in the Persian Gulf’s Qatari capital, Doha, for high-level talks on Middle East conflict resolution.
Contrast this all-round respect for Russia with America’s increasingly dismal reputation.
Decades of US-led destructive wars, failed nation-building schemes and regime-change machinations have diminished Washington’s standing in the region, even among its supposed partners. Privately and publicly, the Israelis, Turks and Saudis seem to harbor contempt towards their American patron in spite of official designation as allies.
When Russian long-range Tu-22M3 bombers took off from western Iran this week to conduct missions in Syria it signaled that Moscow is the emerging dominant player in the region after decades of presumed American hegemony.
The very fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran for the first time since the 1979 revolution made the unprecedented provision to its constitution to allow a foreign power to use its territory for military purpose is testimony to Russia’s sway in the sensitive region.
Even official enemies of Iran – Israel and Saudi Arabia – cannot but acknowledge the significance. Iran, which has defied decades of Western-imposed sanctions out of principle for its sovereign rights, is willing to trust Russia’s military with territorial access.
This must be seen as a measure of Russia’s integrity in conducting international relations. Unlike Washington which is mired in double dealing and treachery as even its supposed closest allies all too well know. In short, Washington has a trust deficit.
Whereas Russia – whatever some states may feel about its allies in Syria and Iran – can nevertheless be seen for genuinely sticking by its commitments.
Before Vladimir Putin ordered Russian military intervention in Syria at the end of last September, the government of President Bashar Assad was on the ropes. Rebels and foreign-backed militants were threatening to topple Assad in accordance with the objective of regime change supported by Washington and its NATO allies, Britain and France, and partners across the region – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel.
Putin’s bold intervention in defense of Russia’s longtime ally in Damascus completely reversed the tide of war. In less than a year, the Syrian state has recovered much of its territory, and it is the foreign-backed militants who are now facing defeat.
The recent about-turn by Turkey – once a gung-ho backer of the militants in Syria – to call for closer cooperation with Russia and Iran in settling the Syrian conflict is tacit admission that the covert war for regime change is all but over. And it is Russia’s power that achieved the outcome.
A New York Times report earlier this month was candid in its assessment of Russia’s strategic success in Syria.
Alluding the wider geopolitical ramifications, the newspaper editorializes: “For the first time since Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Russian military for the past year has been in direct combat with rebel forces trained and supplied by the CIA. The American-supplied Afghan fighters prevailed during that Cold War conflict. But this time the outcome – thus far – has been different.”
The NY Times added: “Russia’s battlefield successes in Syria have given Moscow, isolated by the West after its annexation [sic] of Crimea and other incursions into Ukraine, new leverage in decisions about the future of the Middle East.”
This is why Washington’s reaction to Russia’s breakthrough military cooperation with Iran in the Syrian war was weirdly downcast.
The US State Department described the more effective deployment of Russian air power in Syria as “unfortunate”. And it decried the closer liaison between Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria as “doubling down” to prop up the Assad “regime”.
Russia had notified the US of its overflights from Iran through Iraq to Syria in accordance with their “deconfliction procedure”. But it was evident that Russia was not seeking consultation from Washington. Moscow had determined the plan and was going ahead with it regardless of Washington’s misgivings.
American disquiet over the Russian-Iranian move was revealing. At first, Washington tried to quibble about legalities, claiming that the Russian military flights contravened a UN Security Council resolution barring “supply, sale or transfer of combat aircraft to Iran”.
But as Russia’s Sergey Lavrov pointed out the arrangement involved none of these.
“These military aircraft are used by air forces after Iran’s authorization for taking part in the anti-terrorist operation in Syria after a legitimate request from its government,” he said on Wednesday.
Then Washington objected with the threadbare trope that the Russian air raids on Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo and Idlib were striking “moderate rebels”. State Department spokesman Mark Toner assured reporters that the Russian targets were not extremists belonging to Islamic State or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (rebranded from Al-Nusra), but rather were “predominantly moderate” rebels supported by the United States.
Strangely though in his press conference response to the Russian operations, US military spokesman for Syria and Iraq, Colonel Chris Carver said that he did not know where the proscribed terror groups were located in the targeted areas.
So how come the State Department knows it was “moderates” that the Russians were hitting but the Pentagon can’t say where the “terrorists” are?
While Russia is winning the war in Syria on behalf of the sovereign authorities with the majority support of the Syrian people, Washington is seen doubling down on double talk and double think in its collusion with terrorist proxies.
Washington is losing all credibility in the strategically pivotal region because it has for too long pivoted between criminal schemes and duplicity. Even traditional partners and clients can see this unedifying spectacle of sordid US conduct. Feckless, unreliable American power is something to disdain, if not dread.
Russia has stood firm with its allies, and, as Syria attests, has carried out the mission it said it would, without mendacity or intrigue. That integrity is surely worthy of respect among allies, non-aligned states and foes alike.
For too long Russia witnessed the Americans carve up and mutilate the Middle East with wars and subversions, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya and Syria. Syria has marked a historic turning point in Washington’s depredations in the Middle East.
And Russia has emerged as a serious countervailing force to be reckoned with. Fortunately.