Thanks to the growing rupture of US–Russian relations, including Russia’s expulsion from the G8 this week and the imposition of tit-for-tat economic sanctions, the Obama administration’s main diplomatic ventures, the Geneva process on Syria and the Iranian nuclear talks—both of which are contingent on Russian support and cooperation—are in jeopardy. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, indicated last week that critical areas of cooperation between the two states are under review. As a result, a window of opportunity has arguably opened for the Syrian and Iranian governments to advance their interests.
For Damascus, which has never been fully committed to the Geneva process, the breakdown in these relations has further emboldened President Bashar Al-Assad to turn away from the diplomatic process. Assad’s scheduling of the Syrian presidential elections for the summer of 2014 is a clear sign of his intention to take advantage of this new diplomatic environment. Assad could also use these new tensions as an opportunity to seek more assistance from Russia in terms of arms and support. This would not be the first time the Syrian government has benefited from tensions between the United States and Russia, as evidenced by Hafez Al-Assad’s tenure as president of Syria during the Cold War.
Tehran also stands to benefit substantially from this chill in US–Russian relations. Moscow could seriously undermine the P5+1 nuclear talks by either directly withdrawing from the talks altogether, or by indicating that Russia was no longer willing to support the economic sanctions regime. Such actions would give the Iranian leadership a potential window of opportunity to try to negotiate a nuclear agreement on more favorable terms. In this stalled diplomatic environment, Tehran could also take steps to further tilt the balance of power on the ground in Syria in its favor, so that if there was a return to negotiations, Assad would be in a stronger position to ensure that their interests were protected in any post-conflict settlement.
Instead of addressing these changing currents, Obama’s Middle East policy remains stagnant and brittle. Obama and his national security team have offered no clear strategy to address the knock-on effect of this chill in US–Russian relations in other areas, sidestepping the reality that the P5+1 nuclear talks may be on the verge of rupturing. By tying the entire US–Russian relationship to Moscow’s actions in Crimea, the Obama administration has taken the risky gamble that a breakdown in US–Russian relations will not spread to these nuclear talks, a bet that increasingly seems misjudged.
Washington also has yet to articulate a new strategy and diplomatic process to bring Syria’s parties to the negotiating table. The Obama administration has failed to address a critical question: if the path to peace does not run through Moscow, then where does it go? By failing to address this, Obama has sent a message that the US isn’t seriously committed to a political solution to the Syrian conflict, and is willing to let Assad and his patrons gain a stronger position in Syria at the expense of America’s national interests in the region and the security and stability of its allies.
As the Syrian government and Iran gain traction in the region at the expense of the US and its allies, the US has become increasingly bogged down in an incident in Crimea, in which Washington stands to gain very little while losing sight of its wider strategic priorities and the diplomatic architecture that has underwritten Obama’s Middle East policy. While Russian cooperation is not the only way forward for the US in securing its interests in the Middle East, the failure to articulate an alternative strategy illustrates both how reliant Obama still is on Russia’s participation and how his foreign policy tends to be more reactive than proactive. As this window of opportunity for Syria and Iran opens, the US runs the risk of missing another critical opportunity of its own to re-position itself.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.