Putin’s Middle East power play

The defeat of the Islamic State in the Middle East and the end of its so-called caliphate may prove a turning point in Middle East politics — but not the one that many anticipated. The chief beneficiaries of these developments are Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. More worrisome still, this turn of events could foreshadow a new order not only in the Middle East but elsewhere in the world as well.

The horrors perpetrated by IS have allowed many people to forget that the vacuum that the radical group filled was created in part by the civil war in Syria. IS proved to be the most formidable opponent of the Damascus regime, and Assad and his allies, Putin in particular, were quick to seize on the threat posed by IS to rally other forces behind the proverbial lesser of two evils. Indecisiveness on the part of the United States over yet another external intervention as its forces struggled in Afghanistan and Iraq gave Russia an opening to assert itself fully in the Syrian maelstrom.

Almost as soon as the civil war began, Russia began pushing for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, which was premised on the survival of the Assad regime. Peace talks began in Geneva in 2014, but they only sputtered along. More important than discussions in Switzerland was the situation on the ground in Syria: Since the talks began, the Assad government has reclaimed virtually all the territory it had lost and is now again the pre-eminent power in the country.

Working with both the Syrian army and Iranian militias, Russian might and diplomatic cover allowed Assad to regain the initiative on the battlefront. When Donald Trump became U.S. president last January, Washington sought to work more closely with Moscow to defeat IS, to limit U.S. involvement in the conflict and to lay the foundation for a more robust partnership with Russia.

That change in fortune has transformed the dynamics of the negotiations and Putin has seized the moment. When he met Trump at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting earlier this month in Vietnam, the two men issued a joint statement calling for a political rather than military solution to the war in Syria. Soon after, Assad flew to Moscow to meet Putin and work out a political settlement that would keep the Damascus government in place.

Shortly after that meeting, Putin, Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Sochi, Russia, to work out their preferred solution to the conflict. They are united in support of Damascus as well as limiting U.S. influence in the region. One important indicator of the solidarity among the three governments is their ability to arrange a cease-fire for Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria. Such a deal would prevent a clash between those three armed forces.

With IS defeated, the governments of Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey are eager for U.S. forces to withdraw from the region. And even though Trump campaigned against overseas adventures, U.S. officials now speak of an ongoing American presence, officially to mop up IS remnants, but also to shape political outcomes in Damascus and to prevent Tehran from extending its influence in the region. For its part, Tehran insists that foreign forces should remain in Syria only with the permission of the Syrian government. As the U.S. presence is assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces, an opposition group, Damascus is unlikely to approve.

Talks will resume in Geneva this week and attention will be focused as much on Putin as Assad. The Russian leader’s activism has produced a flurry of diplomacy that appears to be making progress — in sharp contrast to the Geneva process. The deals he has struck can be adopted by participants in Geneva, even if they challenge some of the fundamental premises of the negotiations, in particular the future role of Assad.

The question now is whether this will prove to be a model for crisis resolution elsewhere in the world. If so, it would effectively marginalize the U.S. in working out regional disputes, leaving that role to other governments with a keener appreciation of the equities and the stakes in each crisis. After all, Trump has argued the U.S. should pull back from foreign entanglements since they risk squandering national assets. He has also dismissed the value of multilateral negotiations, preferring bilateral settings to maximize his leverage. For decades, one goal of U.S. foreign policy has been to reduce Russian influence in the Middle East. This Syrian solution not only abandons that long-standing objective, but it sets a precedent that could do greater damage still to the interests of the U.S. and its partners around the world.