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Syria Intervention Portends a Russian-Iranian Mastery of the Middle East

  • One US analyst belives - and if it does the US only has itself to blame
  • By throwing the region's minorities under the bus of radical Salafism US opened up an opportunity for Russia to zoom in as their protector

Robert G. Rabil is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism

Originally appeared in The National Interest

"Putin has been extremely concerned about the expansion of radical Salafism and Wahhabism into Russian heartland, potentially affecting the ideology of the growing number of Russian Muslims."

On the other end of the spectrum, Putin has been moved by two factors, which analysts and observers of the Syrian crisis have either underestimated or ignored. Putin has positioned himself as the protector of the minorities in the greater Middle East.

The Islamic State has deepened sectarian divides and impulses to levels not seen before in the history of the modern Middle East. A significant number of Christians, Yezidis, Ismailis, Druzes, Shi’ites and Alawis have virtually lost their faith in Western determination to protect them. They have been left behind to the merciless claws of totalitarianism and radical Islam. 

Fears of past and historical life under Sunni serfdom and occasional persecution have been put on display by the Islamic State’s unprecedented use of violence in the name of orthodox Islam. 

Gone are the days of French, British and American resolve to protect vulnerable minorities. I have been scornfully reminded of this fact by many members of these minorities, whose feelings of betrayal by and distrust towards the West have become viscerally deep.

Not only did Putin fathom, unlike many in the Western world, the deep crisis into which the Sunni world finds itself; but also realize the reliability of minorities as both a foil to Sunni radicalism and a bridge to Russian influence.

Significantly, Russia and Iran have come to see eye to eye the importance of shaping a new regional order in the Middle East not bounded by Western and Sunni dictates. Herein lies the determining factor of Russian strategic decision to get militarily involved in Syria.

Putin’s fight to protect the Assad regime is part and integral to his strategy of creating a sphere of influence in the greater Middle East. His is a strategic vision that coincided with Iranian strategic desire to have an uninterrupted land access from Tehran to the Mediterranean ports of Tartus, Beirut and Tyre.

This is what Alexander the Great had done by defeating the Persian capital of Persepolis and forcing the surrender of the Persian fleet following his successful siege of Tyre. History dies hard in that part of the world.

In fact, this strategy of bringing about what King Abdullah of Jordan called the Shi’a crescent has been actively pursued by Iran. But it was easily planned than carried out. The recent military setbacks suffered by the Assad regime at the hands of an energized Salafi-jihadist movement, supported by an Islamist government in Ankara and a Saudi-Wahhabi leadership, have threatened the very essence of this strategy.

Moreover, rarely a Middle Eastern power has been able to extend its influence throughout the region without the support of a world power. This explains the conflation of Russian and Iranian national interests into a common strategy, whose significance has been enhanced by Iran’s nuclear deal with the international community and the expected reentry of Tehran into the world economy.

Based on this analysis and past Russian actions in Chechnya and Ukraine, Washington must realize that Putin will strike indiscriminately at all Syrian opposition groups posing a threat to the gateways of the future minoritarian state whose borders would include the Alawi heartland (Latakia and Tartus) and the major urban centers and their countryside in the Northeast (Aleppo and Hama), the center (Homs) and the southeast (Daraa and Suwayda).

Most importantly, as Moscow carries out its plan to try to mercilessly bomb into submission the various Syrian opposition groups, at the forefront of which are the Islamic State, al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, Washington should expect a push by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iraq’s Shi’a popular mobilization units into the Sunni heartland of Iraq towards the Salafi-jihadist hub border city of Abu-Kamal in preparation to creating a corridor linking Baghdad with Homs, the future capital of this minoritarian state.

Making Homs the capital of an Alawi state had been the objective of the Ba’thi state following an attempt to dislodge it in 1964 by Arab Sunni nationalists. Put simply, while Russia disrupts and destroys the command and control centers of Syrian opposition groups, Iran, under the flag of its proxy forces in Iraq, would most likely forge its way from Baghdad towards Homs (and not Mosul). This is what makes the agreement of sharing intelligence among Iran, Iraq and Syria strategically sensible. 

Only in this way can both Iran fulfill its historic ambition of having an outlet to the Mediterranean, and Russia acquire a sphere of influence deserving of a resurgent world power, projecting itself as the protector of minorities.

No doubt, this strategy is ambitious and fraught with danger. Nevertheless, it is the duplicity, hypocrisy, impotence, and selfishness of Arab Sunni leadership that will mostly underwrite this strategy.

The question is what United States is going to do about it? Creating red lines in both Iraq and Syria and enforcing them as part of a strategy cognizant of Russian and Iranian ambitions are past due for Washington.


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