It’s not what it looks like
When watching the weather forecast, we all focus just on the place we live and pass over the rest of the world. Yet this is not the case for Russians these days. Last week, a Russian TV presenter at a state-owned news channel specifically talked about weather conditions in far distant Syria. Her conclusion was the highlight: “So conditions are excellent for bombing Syria.”
It is not only the Syrians and Russians who are interested in the weather conditions in Syria these days. Americans are also focused on Syria’s weather, or, in other words, its airspace.
So what is happening in Syria’s skyline? Are the U.S. and Russia on the brink of a combat?
Certainly Russia killed too many birds with just one stone. First of all, it gained the edge over the U.S. in Syria and increased its international status to its highest level since the end of the Cold War, positioning itself on the same platform as the U.S.
It also held sway over Syria’s airspace in just a couple of days, becoming a “game-changer.” It strengthened Assad, integrated Iran much deeper into the game and winked at the Kurds who have been under U.S. “tutelage.” It also attacked the rebel groups who have been supported by the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf countries for years.
Secondly and more importantly, Russia has blocked the U.S.’ way to its strategic objectives. Obama has declared many times that U.S.’ strategic priority is Asia-Pacific, because of which he wants to completely withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Putin made life much more difficult for Obama by deepening the Syria war.
Ukraine is another key factor. Russia has recently taken eastern Ukraine and Crimea under its influence and blocked Ukraine’s and Georgia’s path to NATO and EU membership. In other words, it prevented the West’s expansion eastward, which had been the Western club’s main long-term strategic goal in the aftermath of the Cold War.
So is Russia’s operation in Syria then a smackdown for the U.S.?
From the U.S. perspective: Not at all. First and foremost, as I wrote above, Syria is not a strategic priority for the U.S. It is handing in the conflicts in the Middle East to Russia one by one.
Moreover Obama doesn’t expect Russia’s move to harm the U.S.’ image in any way. He has said many times that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have greatly harmed the U.S.’ image around the world. He thinks that more engagement with Syria would only worsen this. Hence this time he wants Putin to take the same lesson and transfers the negative consequences of the Syria conflict to Russia in advance.
In addition, the U.S. is content that Russia hits Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Nusra targets in Syria, both of which it considers terrorist groups.
As a result of all these, the U.S. and NATO are managing the current tension and not increasing the voltage at all.
Yet what about the fact that Russia hit the rebel groups supported by the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf? Apparently Obama won’t confront Putin because of these opposition groups. Furthermore, they have not been useful for the U.S. so far, even though the main reason of this is Obama himself (in other words, his insufficient support).
It is even widely spoken and written that the U.S. has withdrawn its support for these groups completely. I talked to Joshua Landis who is a leading expert of the Syrian crisis in the U.S. and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who verified this allegation.
According to Landis, the U.S. stopped supplying weapons or training to all militias in Syria right after the “moderate” militias were overrun by al-Nusra at the end of July and all their U.S.-supplied weapons were confiscated by the group.
He says that another reason of this policy shift is that the U.S. doesn’t want to “own” particular rebel groups. This is because in response to Russia, the rebels are now all trying to coordinate, including al-Nusra. “So the U.S. cannot separate the moderates from the extremists anymore and would be accused of supporting terrorism,” he says.
Yet on the other hand, the U.S. will continue to rhetorically support the Free Syrian Army and other “moderate” groups, first of all not to upset Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This would also maintain the Sunni-Shia balance in its approach to Syria and prevent the balance of power in Syria to shift completely in favor of Iran.
Beyond this, both the U.S. and Russia approach Syria not as a unified country anymore, but as three separate regions which have de-facto emerged. In other words, Russia acts to safeguard President Bashar al-Assad’s control over his coastal stronghold, which is about 20 percent of the country.
The U.S., on the other hand, focuses on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria who are its strongest ally on the ground. This is why Obama indicated last week that from now on the U.S. will give weight to Kurdish forces.
In short, the two countries are obviously not putting their nose into each other’s zone of influence. And it is crystal clear who is focusing on where when watching the weather forecast.