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Herbert London: Fraying Alliances In The Middle East

Alliances in the byzantine Middle East have a life span roughly equivalent to how long it takes for the ink to dry. In 2013, when the Obama administration invited the Russians into Syria to monitor and control Bassar Assad’s use of poison gas, Putin used this occasion to cement an alliance with Iran, the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah. From the standpoint of the parties involved, this alliance made eminent sense.

The alliance defeated rebel forces opposed to Assad. Assad’s government became a puppet entity controlled by ventriloquists in Moscow and Tehran. A Shia agenda was inserted into Syria, notwithstanding Assad’s Alawite tradition and the Shia quest for an imperium in the area moved on unabated. The Russians, with a modest investment of military assets: reinforced its carrier base in Tartus, built a major airport in Latakia, established long term economic development projects in Syria, organized arms deals with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and supplanted the U.S. as “the strong horse” in the region.

That said, the alliance is starting to fray at the edges. It was recently reported that the Israeli Air Force intercepted Syrian rockets using the Arrow defense battery for the first time. The firing of missiles from Syria, most likely by Hezbollah, toward Israeli aircraft is unusual. Another report found on the website Ya Sour, quoted Hezbollah sources as saying the group intends to fire long range projectiles at the Jewish state from mountain ranges under Shia control on both sides of th Sudan and Lebanese borders. U.S. officials noted that Iran poses the most significant threat to U.S. Central Command’s complex area of responsibility. What these events suggest is that Hezbollah and Iran have goals that may be beyond the scope of Russian interests.

It is instructive that on March 7, 2017 the chief of staff of the U.S., Russian and Turkish militaries met in Antalya, Turkey to discuss security problems in Syria and Iraq. Conspicuous in its absence at the meeting was any Iranian representation. In fact, there appears to be evidence of a Russian rapprochement with the U.S. and Turkey at the expense of Iran. It would seem that Iran’s role in the arena of Syrian developments is being eliminated or restricted. After all, Russia played its assigned role in the fall of Aleppo and the defeat of the rebels, but it did not sign on to the strategic goals of Iran in the region.

A Russian news website Pravda.ru indicated “Iran is becoming a major problem, first and foremost for Russian interests.” Other sources said Iran is “an unpredictable partner.” Although this stance may be beneficial for the Trump administration, it is best to recall that Russia will not be swept up into the pathologies of Middle East battles. Iran could also be seen as a bargaining chip in which Russia expects the U.S. to lift sanctions in return for opposing Iranian sponsored terrorism.

In order to mitigate the risk of miscalculation an open line of communication among the three states has been established (U.S., Turkey and Russia). There is little doubt this seemingly benign gesture has the Iranian leadership upset. What it will do to counter the emerging demarche remains to be seen. But on one matter there cannot be any doubt: Putin achieved his goal in the Eastern Mediterranean and will not sacrifice that leverage for Iranian imperial objectives. That may be good news for the United States, but it is too soon to give it a firm thumbs up. 

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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