For better or worse, the US defeat in the Syrian issue is not a sign of any “decaying hegemony” of the US in the Middle East. It is rather the mere result of a strategic game, egregiously played by Russia, and partially mismanaged by Washington. For better or worse, Russia has succeeded at cornering the US and any outcome of the Syrian conflict can and will be counted as an American defeat. If the dictator Bashar al-Assad stays, the US lose; if the Sunni rebels win, the government will be coerced by Islamists. If a democratic coalition wins – which would certainly be an artificial product of the West – it would require a couple of decades of foreign military presence to avoid massive bloodshed (if that is even possible). Put simply: The US will be damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.
The Russians, however, played it cynical and smart: they managed to extend the conflict long enough to reinforce and strengthen the position of Assad, and to have Islamist fanatics infiltrating insurgent groups. This approach was not only effective; it was also cheap. Russia didn’t grant the Syrian government any free weapons. The MiG-29s and other toys have been paid for – possibly with loans and credits. Even the delivery of the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles – that could endanger US or Israeli missions on Syrian territory; that prevent the West from reaching Iran’s nuclear bases from the Mediterranean; and that had John Kerry harshly criticizing Putin – even those will be paid for by the Syrian government.
The big discussion since the outbreak of the conflict was that the US would not intervene because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had been too long and costly for the country to start yet another military operation. Still, it is surprising how a country like Russia, whose military budget is a fraction of the American one (Washington spends more than 7.5 times the amount Moscow in its military), could carry the day. After the Afghani experience in the 1980s, Russia became reluctant to intervene in the Middle East. So, ironically, the Russians cannot land troops, have even less budget than the US, and yet they are winning in Syria. “US hegemony” and its health is not what really matters here; hard-tactics do.
Between a rock and a hard place
Right from the start, Washington was stuck between a rock and a hard place in Syria. Due to political affinities, the Kremlin has no decisive problem to support regimes – and Assad’s rule can certainly be counted as one. As a result, when the conflict broke out, the Russians had already somebody to sustain, whereas the US had to choose between a diverse offer of some one hundred rebel brands. Ever since the start of the conflict, the US knew they could not intervene (and maybe also guessed that intervening would not be useful or successful, as Fareed Zakaria recently noted).
For the first time in the Middle East, the Soviet Union –ehm– I mean Russia, got to dictate the rules of the strategic game and the US were forced to simply go with it. Russia issued a number of sardonic diplomatic replies in response to the protests of the international community (“It is a domestic matter” or “Civil war? What civil war?”). Then, they leveraged all the tools of international law to make the conflict last longer: a zero-cost veto at the UN to block a condemnation of Assad, a second veto about more or less the same matter, followed by a third one; and then engaging in continuous diplomatic chitchatting with the corollary of arms sales, just to make sure the game stayed Russia’s own. Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov played a great Vyacheslav Molotov (Stalin’s own), with his merry-go-round of flirts with dictators and calls to defend some sort supernatural “domestic autonomy” of leaders.
Play it Russian
One may call it “guerrilla diplomacy,” but one thing’s for sure: Such Russian diplomatic mastery does not come by chance. Moscow has been forced to play it ever since the end of the Second World War. After a first crisis in Iran in 1946, the Red Army was pushed out of the Middle East and had to face the increasing influence of the US-built anti-Soviet alliances (like the Baghdad Pact – CENTO), installing bases here and there, and intervening when it was considered necessary. Russia could only answer by selling weapons to countries like Iran, Egypt, Iraq or Syria. It infiltrated secret agents; sustained political parties trying to install unlikely socialist Islamic republics (it happened in Yemen and somehow also in Afghanistan); and was, in the end, able to open a naval base in Syria. Yet, Yemen and Afghanistan were disasters. The Russians were good at guerrilla diplomacy but not at diplomatic open-field battles.
That is how the Russians became good at making the best out of little resources. In the end – notwithstanding a fatal defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sense of Boris Yeltsin for vodka, the Russians managed to remain in the Middle East. The US is not facing such existential problems – we may safely exclude that Barack Obama has the same passion than Boris Yeltsin. We cannot measure US power in the Middle East by Washington’s ability to intervene: that’s a game of the past. Now success is measured by the ability to play Russian.
Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes