Is Driving Mideast Allies Toward Putin
Josh Rogin and Eli Lake
America’s traditional Middle East allies, having run out of
patience with President Barack Obama's policy in Syria, are now reaching out to
a resurgent Russia -- even though it is bolstering the very dictator so many of
them have pushed to leave power.
Some in Washington see the new ties as a threat to U.S.
interests, especially because the U.S. has worked since the 1970s to keep
Russian influence out of the Middle East. But the Obama administration sees an
opportunity. The State Department is now quietly encouraging U.S. allies to
engage with Moscow, as part of Secretary John Kerry's quest to win Russian
support for a political process in Syria.
Kerry is the main U.S. official still arguing for cooperation
with Russia to start peace talks that could resolve the Syrian civil war. But
the Russian response has been consistently to rebuke Kerry’s offers. Since
Kerry began his latest diplomacy push in the spring, the Russians have
sent tanks, bombers and soldiers to Syria. The Russian air force has focused its
bombing on the U.S.-backed opposition instead of the Islamic State, the
terrorists whom Kerry believes present a common enemy for Russia and
Nevertheless, Kerry has been pushing forward with his plan to
convince Russia to be a partner in stabilizing the Middle East. He convened a
meeting in Vienna last Friday between the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi
Arabia and Turkey and expressed optimism the four countries could work together
“While we can agree to disagree on what and when might occur
with respect to the resolution of the Assad problem, we clearly can agree on a
process that helps to bring about a resolution of that question. And that is a
very important starting place,” Kerry said.
After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in
his remarks to the press briefly focused on common objectives Russia shared with
the U.S. But Lavrov used the opportunity mainly to launch into a broad criticism
of U.S. policy in the region. He complained about the U.S. interventions in Iraq
and Libya and said that Russia would never support a plan that included regime
change in Damascus.
“I have already heard rumors that deals are being or will be
made here that in a certain time period President Assad will go,” he said.
“All this is not so.”
A senior administration official told us last week that this
time around Kerry is trying to start a political process despite the
disagreement over Bashar al-Assad. Kerry has said recently that the U.S. could
accept Assad remaining in power for a transition period, but the official said
the Russians won’t concede to that.
“If we can get into a political process, sometimes these
things have a way of resolving themselves,” Kerry said Friday.
But while Kerry focused on convincing Russia to join with the
West, Putin has been working to convince America’s Middle East allies that
Moscow is the new power in the region.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to
Washington and former intelligence chief, said as much Friday at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington. There he gave President
Vladimir Putin credit for outmaneuvering the U.S. and said Russia was now in a
position to demand attention and respect.
“Putin is a man who has done so much harm to innocent people
throughout the area in Syria. But I must also consider that he is the head of a
state, and that state is a big state, and he feels that state should have a
decision-making role in the world,” he said. “And we have to deal with him.
And it’s not that you ignore him or cast him off as a megalomaniac. He has a
vision of the world and a strategy to put that vision in place.”
By hosting Assad in Moscow, Turki said, Putin sent a message
to the region that anyone who wishes to oust Assad must go through him. Putin
may not be sincere when he says he wants to fight the Islamic State, but the
U.S.-led coalition has not committed the resources necessary for the mission
either, he said.
While Russia participates in the new U.S.-led discussions over
Syria, it is simultaneously striking side deals with U.S. allies to further its
military presence there, which the U.S. government has called counterproductive.
On the same day as the Vienna meeting, Russia signed
an agreementwith Jordan to coordinate militarily against the Islamic State.
The next day, Kerry traveled to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria with
leaders there. (Putin didn’t have to go to Saudi Arabia; the Saudi defense
visited Moscow earlier this month.) And while Kerry was in the region,
the government of Iraq announced it had given Russia the green light to begin
airstrikes there too, over
Other gulf states have sent senior diplomats to Moscow in the
last two weeks to discuss Russia's recent moves into Syria. One senior Arab
diplomat told us that these discussions were mainly to gauge Russia's
long-term intentions in Syria and to try to persuade Moscow to bomb Islamic
State targets rather than more moderate rebels.
American allies who are not active in multilateral diplomacy
over Syria have been establishing closer ties to Moscow as well. This month,
after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to see Putin,Israel
established a hotline with Russia's military to avoid an
accidental confrontation between their forces. After Egyptian President Abdel
el-Sisi visited Putin in August, he
pledged Egypt would work with Moscow against the Islamic State.
Retired General Jack Keane testified last week that Moscow is
betting on U.S. inaction.
“Putin is counting on the United States’ fear of
escalation and fear of confrontation to scare off any U.S. retaliation,” Keane
said. “We need to continue to push for Assad to go, but lets be realistic.
Russia, as Assad’s protector, will now play the decisive role.”
Some within the Obama administration tell us that Putin and
Lavrov are leading Kerry on and that the only way Russia would become a
constructive partner in Syria would be through coercion, such as sanctions
against Putin or more military aid to the rebels Putin is attacking. But the
White House is unwilling to escalate pressures against Russia because the
guiding principle is to avoid a new crisis with Moscow.
The immediate problem with Kerry's approach is that it forces
America’s friends in the region to hedge their bets and move closer to Russia.
Over the long term, there is a contradiction in Kerry’s plan. Putin is either
the key to a peaceful resolution in Syria or the main obstacle. He can't be