The Lesser of Two Evils: Russia or Iran
The Obama administration’s policy of disengagement from the Middle East during the ‘pivot to Asia’, has left Russia and Iran free to expand their influence and presence in the region. Even worse, from a realist United States’ perspective, their cooperation in the Syrian Civil War seems to have deepened the ties between the two perennial U.S threats. It is too late for the Trump administration to unilaterally rollback the influence of both powers without incredible military commitment.
Therefore, President Trump must finesse a wedge between them. Russia and Iran starkly differ ideologically and only have a shared interest in regional control over the Middle East and economic gains. The U.S. must court, not eschew, the biggest individual national security threat to the United States, and the most rational actor out of the two: Russia.
Currently, the United States’ relationship with Russia is one of slight antagonism. The U.S. placed sanctions on Russia in response to their aggression against Ukraine, and imposed even more after the controversial “hacking” of the U.S. presidential election. Putin has been careful to not make any recent demands or criticisms of the United States in the wake of domestic suspicion over Trump’s ties to Russia.
Domestic media and public scrutiny have been focused on a possible nefarious relationship between Trump and Putin. Nevertheless, whether or not a connection exists does not discount the fact that it could be used to the U.S’ advantage. Russia has always been an actor with little loyalty; whom acts only in its own optimal, short-term interests. This, coupled with two centuries of historical agitation against one another, gives the U.S. a shrewd opportunity for the U.S. to capitalize upon..
The Russian economy is declining at a troubling rate, so Putin uses “small, easy wars” in order to distract the populace from domestic problems. These compact wars have also been used in order to secure resource gains and bolster the Russian economy. Russia and Iran have both suffered under the declining oil and natural gas prices, and U.S. sanctions. Russia needs a small easy war and a way to bolster their economy.
The U.S. needs Russia to break ties with Iran, and complicity with the interests of U.S. allies in the Middle East--namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. As of now, the only thing Iran has to offer Russia is the small economic benefit of weapons trade and a shared interest in keeping their mutual border safe. Since Russia’s foreign policy operates strictly on the basis of what relationship it can gain the most from, and not loyalty or national security threats, the U.S. just has to make an offer of friendship which is more beneficial to Russia than an Iranian partnership.
While the U.S. obviously cannot and should not relinquish Israel or Saudi Arabia to Russian influence, it can allow a Russian sphere of influence to expand into a country which would satisfy both of Russia’s foreign policy goals -- Yemen.
Although Yemen is one of the few non oil-rich states in the Middle East, it does have control over the Bab-el-Mandeb strait that separates Africa and Asia. Even if Yemen was an oil state, Russia is already an economy based upon natural gas exports, so the marginal benefit of economic diversification wouldn’t be as attractive.
Yemen is currently a failed state and in the depths of a chaotic civil war. The Yemeni civil war between the Houthis and President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s UN-recognized government, acts as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but neither have committed the full power of a modern force to fight in the conflict. Russia has four times as many tanks as the United States, and maintains the second strongest airforce in the world. It would be an easy war for the full might of Russia to win and, after garnering significant control of the Yemeni government, it would gain a strategic military and economic benefit.
Allowing Russia a strong sphere of influence within the Hadi government also places them at odds against Iranian interests, which actively support the Houthi uprising, thus serving the U.S. goal of further driving a wedge between the two. Russia would likely take this deal, as it has already demonstrated in Crimea that it believes the material cost of invasion and occupation is an acceptable sacrifice for access to a strategic peninsula.
Another benefit of giving Yemen to the Russians, is that it has become the new center of operations for Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups after their ousting from Iraq and Syria. President Trump has already begun using special forces groups to target Al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen. Trump wanting to extricate the U.S. from the Middle East yet combat terrorism, and Russia’s recent trend of intervention coincide.
Both countries benefit from an eliminated threat of Sunni Islamist terrorism, in fact Putin has even hinted at working with the West to combat the jihadists. Thus far, the U.S. has been unable to quickly and effectively destroy Islamist groups because of a moral aversion to humanitarian violations and mass civilian casualties. Contrarily, Russia has no qualms with brutally using totalitarianism and censorship to subdue a populace, and Trump has no issue with despot-created stability, so a new Russian vanguard in the war on terror suits both parties.
After former President Obama’s “red-line” bluff was called, Russia intervened and ostensibly undertook a massive bombing operation against ISIS. However, Russia has hardly targeted ISIS at all, and instead bombed Syrian rebel groups out of a likely victory and into a nearly-assured defeat. With the U.S. already discredited and Assad deeply indebted to Russia, it is essentially too late for the U.S. to do anything that would significantly deter the Russian, Syrian, and Iranian coalition from destroying the last vestiges of the FSA and incurring massive civilian casualties.
Without a pragmatic ability to change current circumstances in Syria, but a moral desire to prevent genocide, the U.S. has only one option. The remaining rebel groups in Syria will be annihilated by the end of 2017, and there is nothing short of military intervention that the U.S. can do to stop it. Thus, voicing opposition to Russia or Assad is completely futile and counterproductive at this point; it would only serve to reinforce U.S. reputation as a paper tiger which is ‘all bark and no bite’, like the United Nations. Instead, in order to prevent future innocent loss of life in Syria, the U.S. should create a Bilateral Investment Treaty with Syria and offer them special trade benefits — bypassing the World Trade Organization’s potential backlash by declaring Syria as in a state of economic emergency.
The U.S can then use this enticing trade deal, coupled with the promise of no democratic meddling in Syria, to bargain with Assad so that he does not commit genocide against the remaining Syrian Sunnis after the war is concluded. Picking wise battles is an imperative part of all strategic planning and this becomes especially important when navigating the future of U.S.-Russian policy.
Trump’s cruise missile strike on Shayrat air base—the base responsible for Assad’s most recent egregious use of chemical weapons — is the maximum amount of force that the Trump administration should use to curtail civil war violence.
Putin responded to the attack by calling it a “significant blow” to Russian-American relations, but has not called for any significant retaliation against the U.S., nor removed any Russian diplomats from the United States. It can therefore be concluded that the attack will not be the proverbial straw that breaks the diplomatic camel’s back, and that a U.S.-Russian cooperation is still salvageable.
4In fact, one could assess that the attack actually provides more benefit to the U.S., from a bargaining standpoint, because it restores the credibility of U.S. deterrence—a much needed restoration in the face of a recently more aggressive North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia.