The Syria Crisis Has Evolved into an International Power Struggle

The prospect of an accidental military confrontation with Russia and its allies have never been greater

It’s noteworthy that Crimea is of strategic and historic importance for Russia. Gained following a brutal war with the Ottoman Empire in 1774, Crimea served Tsarist Russia as a base from which it extended its influence in the Black Sea and completed its control over the then contested North Caucasus. The Crimean battle also catapulted Russia into the role of the protector of the Greek orthodox community in the Empire—a role that Putin has been trying to revive. Significantly, many Salafi jihadis from Chechnya and Dagestan of the North Caucasus have traveled to Syria to fight under the banner of the Islamic State. In this respect, Russian military involvement in Syria is strategically linked to fighting North Caucasus jihadis, reviving Russian role as protector of Middle East minorities, and using Syria as a leverage to maintain Moscow’s grip over Crimea.

Parallel to this development in the Black Sea region and Eastern Europe, the United States has been establishing military bases in northern Syria, including in Kobani, Qamishli and al-Tabqah. It has also acted, unlike in Iraq, in a military capacity rather than an advisory capacity. American troops have participated in some battles against the Islamic State in Syria and have deployed in areas separating the Kurds in Manbij from the Turkish forces (and their Arab allies) in al-Bab. From the perspective of the Russians and Iranians, these bases are meant to become a beachhead for American power. Their objective appears to be to undercut Iranian projection of power, as represented by extending the Shia crescent from Tehran to the warm waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, counter the influence of Russia in its only bastion of influence in the Middle East, and protect the Kurds as a spearhead of American power.

No less significant, Hezbollah has perceived any attempt to undermine the Syrian regime as equivalent to a potential coup de grâce to the Islamist party. Hezbollah regards Syria as its own strategic depth and an essential overland supply route for its weapons. As part of its military preparation for a possible future war with Israel, Hezbollah has been trying to expand its front to Syria so as to prevent Israel from severing the Islamist party from Syria and dealing it a severe blow in Lebanon. Consequently, Hezbollah has been entrenching its military positions in the Bekaa Valley, in the Qalamoun area straddling the Lebanon-Syria border, in southern Lebanon along Israel’s border and alongside the Israeli-Lebanese-Syrian border adjacent to the Golan Heights. It’s no secret that the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces and Hezbollah are preparing for a potential asymmetrical confrontation with American troops in both Iraq and Syria.

Taking all this into consideration, it becomes clear that Russia and its allies have common strategic interests in supporting the regime in western Syria and preventing the United States from changing the military equation of power. Accordingly, Russia and its allies will undoubtedly confront any American attempt in Syria that could threaten what they consider their strategic national interest. In fact, the prospect of an accidental military confrontation with Russia and/or its allies has not been greater. Apparently, the Syrian regime cannot stop its attacks on opposition groups, especially Salafi jihadis, before controlling the major urban centers from Aleppo in northwestern Syria to Daraa in the south, thereby protecting the capital and the approaches to the Alawi heartland of Latakia and the outlet to Eastern Mediterranean. This was clearly revealed when Syrian jets took off from al-Shayrat base virtually the next day after it was attacked. Significantly, Russian personnel, alongside their allies, are present across Syria’s fourteen major military bases to support the Syrian regime. Moscow has also placed the sophisticated S-400 air missile defense system in Syria, and in response to the American strikes it has suspended the hot line “deconflicting” agreement with the United States to prevent any flyover accidents over Syrian airspace.

Consequently, the United States, if it decides to follow up on its strikes as part of a strategy to undermine the Syrian regime or solely to help innocent Syrians against the indiscriminate violence of the regime in Western Syria, will run the risk of confronting Russia and/or its allies, let alone providing succor to the Islamic State.

The raving about the strikes across political aisles and the clamoring for more action in Syria by congressional and former official hawks, such as Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, are ideally and morally commendable, especially as it relates to defending innocent Syrians. Still, their cries for action are also realistically disastrous drumbeats of war. At the time being, it is necessary and safe to argue that removing the Syrian regime is not in the interest of United States. The focus should be, as President Trump initially expressed, on harnessing American power as part of a regional and international alliance against the Islamic State and other Salafi jihadi organizations to free eastern Syria. A compromise with Russia in Syria and over the Crimea is essential for defeating the Islamic State and its myriad sister Salafi-jihadi groups. Once Eastern Syria is freed and American strategy rendered predictable, then United States will have far better chances in checking both the power of Iran and the Syrian regime, as well as providing a safe haven for Syrians.