Steven A. Cook at Foreign Policy reminds us that the Syrian civil war is all over but the shouting, and while there's an untold number of losers in the seven-year conflict, the winner, by knockout, is Vladimir Putin.
There probably isn’t anyone inside the Beltway who hasn’t been told at some point in their career about the dangers of reasoning by analogy. But that doesn’t mean such lessons have been regularly heeded. The Syrian uprising came at a fantastical time in the Middle East when freedom, it seemed, was breaking out everywhere. The demonstration of people power that began in Daraa—coming so soon after the fall of longtime leaders in Tunisia and Egypt—was moving. It also clouded the judgment of diplomats, policymakers, analysts, and journalists, rendering them unable to discern the differences between the region’s Assads and Ben Alis or between the structure of the Syrian regime and that of the Egyptian one.
And because the policy community did not expect the Syrian leader to last very long, it was caught flat-footed when Assad pursued his most obvious and crudely effective strategy: a militarization of the uprising. In time, Syria’s competing militias, jihadis, and regional powers, compounded by Russia’s intervention, made it hard to identify U.S. interests in the conflict. So, Washington condemned the bloodshed, sent aid to refugees, halfheartedly trained “vetted” rebels, and bombed the Islamic State, but it otherwise stayed out of Syria’s civil conflict. Lest anyone believe that this was a policy particular to U.S. President Barack Obama and his aim to get out of, not into Middle Eastern conflicts, his successor’s policy is not substantially different, with the exception that President Donald Trump is explicit about leaving Syria to Moscow after destroying the Islamic State. While the bodies continued to pile up, all Washington could muster was expressions of concern over another problem from hell. Syria is, of course, different from Rwanda, Darfur, and Srebrenica—to suggest otherwise would be reasoning by analogy—but it is another case of killing on an industrial scale that paralyzed Washington. It seems that even those well versed in history cannot avoid repeating it.
Many of the analysts and policymakers who preferred that the United States stay out or minimize its role in Syria came to that position honestly. They looked at the 2003 invasion of Iraq and decried how it destabilized the region, empowered Iran, damaged relations with Washington’s allies, and fueled extremist violence, undermining the U.S. position in the region. It seems lost on the same group that U.S. inaction in Syria did the same: contributed to regional instability, empowered Iran, spoiled relations with regional friends, and boosted transnational terrorist groups. The decision to stay away may have nonetheless been good politics, but it came at a noticeable cost to Washington’s position in the Middle East.
The waning of U.S. power and influence that Syria has both laid bare and hastened is a development that the policy community has given little thought to, because it was not supposed to happen. By every traditional measure of power, the United States, after all, has no peer. But power is only useful in its application, and Washington has proved either unable or unwilling to shape events in the Middle East as it had in the past—which is to say, it has abdicated its own influence. That may be a positive development. No one wants a repeat of Iraq. In Washington’s place, Moscow has stepped in to offer itself as a better, more competent partner to Middle Eastern countries. There haven’t been many takers yet beyond the Syrians, but there nevertheless seems to be a lot of interest, and the conflict in Syria is the principal reason why.
Contrast the way in which Russian President Vladimir Putin came to the rescue of an ally in crisis—Assad—with the way U.S. allies in the region perceive Obama to have helped push Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office after 30 years, much of it spent carrying Washington’s water around in the region. The Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Israelis, and others may not like Assad very much, but Russia’s initial forceful response to prevent the Syrian dictator from falling and then Moscow’s efforts to will Assad to apparent victory have made an impression on them. Syria is now the centerpiece and pivot of Russia’s strategy to reassert itself as a global power, and its renewed influence in the Middle East stretches from Damascus eastward through the Kurdistan Regional Government to Iran and from the Syrian capital south to Egypt before arcing west to Libya.
This is all Putin's sandlot now, for better or for worse. We're on our way out, because the new boss controls the old boss as it is. Sure, the US used to be a lot better at propping up dictators, but that was then. Now it's Assad and Erdogan, Kim and Durterte, with Eastern Europe looking on and Moscow laughing at all of it.
The Great Realignment is coming, and when the dust settles, we're going to be several chairs down the row in the pecking order.
And Russia will be ahead of us. That, you can count on.