When protests broke out in Syria in late 2011, Russia hoped for a short, nasty war as a matter of Russian national interest — just enough to put the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted Sunnis in their place. Violence from its own Sunni Muslim population has plagued Russia for decades. Saudi Arabia took over the defeated nationalist Chechen rebellion in the late 1990s, infusing it with money and Islamist overtones, prompting the second Chechen war. More recently, there has been open fighting and rioting in Moscow between Muslims and Slavs.
Iran counted on a short war as well — something to shore up the Shi’ite crescent from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon out to the Mediterranean Sea.
It didn’t work. Turkey and the Gulf States armed and trained various Sunni militias, including the Free Syrian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and “foreign” jihadists of many stripes, including al-Qaeda and Chechens. Keeping Assad armed, fed, and reinforced with Iranian and Hezb’allah troops was an immense drain on the Iranian treasury, already under duress from Western sanctions. More sanctions were brewing in the U.S. Congress, and Iran needed relief at many levels. The question for the Islamic Republic was whether it was possible to protect Assad, put money in the bank, and shore up the Shiite axis without giving up its nuclear program.
Enter the United States, seeking and needing a diplomatic success. According to David Ignatius of The Washington Post — the administration’s favorite reporter — the U.S.-Iran deal was cooking in secret as far back as March.
Could that account for the fact that although Secretary Kerry announced in April that the U.S. would “arm and train” Syrian rebels, nothing arrived for them throughout the summer? The first shipments arrived in September, while the terms for the nuclear deal were being negotiated. Could that have been to “remind” the Iranians of American leverage? Ignatius approvingly called Obama “the covert commander in chief,” acting “most effectively out of sight.” Maybe, or maybe he was used by those whose understanding of intrigue exceeds his. Either way, the president ended up the guarantor of Iranian, Syrian, and Russian interests in the Middle East. Shi’ite interests.
No wonder the Saudis and the Gulf States, the Israelis, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians are all furious with the administration, and Turkey finds itself having to cozy up to the Iranians — something anathema to a Sunni internationalist leader.
The White House said it was “outraged” over Syrian chemical weapons use in July, but was the administration being disingenuous when it pleaded with Britain’s David Cameron and France’s François Hollande to support American military strikes on Syria? (Cameron became the first British prime minister to be denied a war vote in the Parliament since 1782. Hollande won his vote, but it was tough.) The White House also asked American Jewish organizations, which had determinedly stayed out of the Syrian civil war, for support on Capitol Hill, and they agreed. Did the president pull the rug out from under them and legislators of both parties by urging support for a military option when there would be none as long as the Iranian negotiations were the top priority?
Russia was holding a poor hand at that point. The U.S. had for months roundly criticized Putin for supporting Assad and for obstructionism in the U.N. Saudi Prince Faisal al-Turki, asked in an interview in the Washington Post whether Russia could fill the gap left by the apparent American withdrawal from the region, replied, “I don’t think Russia will ever fill the gap. [Russia’s support of Syria] is costing the Russians the rest of the Muslim world. They are fighting on the wrong side.”
What was meant to be steadfastness that would impress Arab countries worried about American withdrawal had begun to look like sole superpower support of a homicidal maniac. Putin needed American help to make Assad look legitimate and so proposed a deal on Syrian chemical weapons. The White House quickly deferred to the Russian-sponsored proposal that allowed Assad to morph from an “illegitimate” ruler to a partner in the management of his chemical weapons arsenal. Elements of the deal ensure that Assad will be working with the United States, the Russians, and the U.N. until at least the middle of 2014.
Thus did the U.S. save Russia from superpower isolation in support of Assad. And thus has the United States become the guarantor of Assad’s continued rule, allowing Damascus to concentrate on the rebels and perhaps win the war — later than Assad’s patrons (Russia and Iran) had hoped, but win it nonetheless.
But there was still the question of money. Iran was increasingly desperate throughout the fall — not only was Syria draining the coffers at an increasing rate, but international sanctions were collapsing the economy at home. The mullahs were not happy with the thought of a civil uprising.
The outlines of a deal emerged: Assad would stay, Iran’s coffers would be refilled and its nuclear project continued in most of its important aspects, and Russia would have a partner. And President Obama would get his deal. Not a perfect deal. Not a “this justifies the Nobel Peace Prize” deal. But a deal.
Oh, yes, and the Iranian regime would be safe from military action as long as the conversation continues. Indeed, at least one report indicates that the White House made clear to Israel and Saudi Arabia, who have been huddling in the corner a lot of late, that military action against Iran will not be tolerated.
Thus has the United States become the guarantor of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and of Russian interests in the Middle East. How far we’ve fallen.