RealClearWorld Newsletters: Mideast Memo

Russia: Superpower or Proxy?

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Moscow blindsided the international community on Wednesday, launching airstrikes on a number of rebel-held positions throughout Syria, including those aligned with the West and Arab Gulf states.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly insisted that his country's efforts in Syria are solely intended to defeat jihadists and restore stability to the Syrian state, however, the Russian air force's target selection raised immediate concerns about Moscow's true intentions in the country.

"Northern Homs countryside is home to various factions from [those under the] FSA flag to Nusra," said Syria expert Thomas Pierret in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "For sure there is no [ISIS] there. And overall it is rather moderate."

Indeed, while Moscow insists that it targeted ISIS encampments in its inaugural round of Syria strikes, the list of opposition forces hit on Wednesday by Russian warplanes -- Free Syrian Army, Jaysh al-Fateh, among others -- suggests that Russia, rather than entering the war as a neutral arbiter, is in fact ramping up the war against the most immediate enemies of Syria's nominal president -- and longtime Russian client -- Bashar Assad.

"We need the Russians to understand that in coming to defense of the regime to attack [ISIS], what they will do is forge a single united force under [ISIS] leadership against the regime," said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. His American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, added that the United States "would have grave concerns should Russia ... strike areas where [ISIS] and al-Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating."

But there are bigger concerns about Russia's foray into the Syrian theater, largely stemming from strategic opaqueness in both Washington and Moscow.

"Russia has the same fundamental problem that the U.S. is facing in Syria -- neither is matching means to ends or, conversely, ends to means," said Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, in an email exchange with the Mideast Memo. "Moscow is almost certainly militarily incapable of defeating ISIS (primarily due to distance, time, and logistics) and Washington is probably politically incapable (at least today)."

Saunders, who specializes in Russian foreign policy and served in the U.S. State Department from 2003 to 2005, advises caution in ascribing too much, too early, to Russian machinations in Syria, and encourages Washington to take advantage of Mr. Putin's actions and rhetoric.

"Russia is much more interested in the survival of the Syrian state as a guarantor of order than it is committed to Assad personally," said Saunders. "If the [Obama] administration is prepared to engage with Moscow, and to be more realistic about its own goals in Syria, I think there could be ways to better align U.S. and Russian military action and then to engage Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran."

Much, in that case, appears to hinge on Putin's sincerity and true intentions in the Middle East. If Russia is waging war, as it claims, to restore order, then that just might present the United States with an opportunity to end years of bloodshed and displacement. If, however, Moscow is simply working to preserve the Assad regime, and buffer the Syrian government from possible attacks by Israel or the United States, then the likely outcome will be more of the same: entrenched conflict and chaos.

Is it Russia's intention then to act in Syria as the great power that it claims to be, or to instead serve as a proxy for a besieged dictator? That, as they say, remains to be seen.

Around the Region

Bombshell or stink bomb? The Memo reported yesterday on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' highly anticipated "bombshell" announcement before the U.N. General Assembly, which ultimately turned out to be a more equivocal bombardment. But that doesn't mean, argues Haaretz's Barak Ravid, that the Palestinian leader's threats to untether Palestinians from the Oslo Accords should be taken lightly:

"Abbas indeed threw a bomb, but he hasn't yet pressed the detonator. He'll wait a little longer to see what impact his words have. If some dramatic change occurs, he can dismantle his bomb and put it back in the attic. But if nothing happens, the bomb is liable to go off, and then the already sensitive situation in the territories will deteriorate further."

Iranian bombs in Bahrain. The Interior Ministry of Bahrain claimed Wednesday to have discovered a large bomb-making facility supplied and funded, it said, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in addition to "an elaborate network of hidden underground bunkers." Reuters has the story:

"The report comes as part of campaign by security forces to crack down on militants behind recent bomb attacks on security forces that had killed or wounded several people this year. Last July a bomb killed two policemen and wounded six others in the worst attack of its kind in months.

"The interior ministry said that the bomb-making facility in Nuweidrat, a residential district south of the capital Manama, contained more than 1.5 tonnes of high-grade explosives, making it one of the biggest finds in the kingdom."

The Heir Apparent. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution profiles Saudi counterterror chief, and heir to the family throne, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, or MBN:

"Washington should have no illusions that MBN will take Western advice to reform the kingdom. Saudi Arabia makes no bones about being the leading opponent of everything the Arab Spring stood for when it began in 2011 and everything that so many in the West were cheering for. The Saudis helped engineer the 2013 coup in Egypt that restored military rule to the largest Arab country and dealt the Arab Spring a fatal blow. They are skilled counterterrorists, but they are also accomplished and unabashed counterrevolutionaries."

Read all of Riedel's must-read essay here.

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