SITREP on Russia’s strategic stance in Syria-Iraq-Iran

On 14 October, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Moscow that Russia was closely monitoring the situation in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, but that only Syria had asked for direct support. Lavrov added that any such requests, if they are made, will be decided on by President Putin.

At least one western news agency reported that Russia was providing troops to Iraq with the approval of the Iraqi government. That is not accurate, at least not yet. Iraq has permitted the creation of the four-party intelligence center in Baghdad. However, we should expect that other forms of cooperation also are in discussion.

A significant divergence of policy and strategy between the US and Russia is now apparent in Syria, Iraq and other Mid-eastern countries. The US strategy since 2011 mostly has focused on building up opposition entities to replace authoritarian governments with democratic systems. That has backfired by contributed to widespread instability; civil war and state fragmentation; legitimation of elected Islamist regimes and a backlash among the local populations in favor of stability, exemplified by political developments in Egypt.

Notable exceptions to this strategy are Afghanistan and Yemen. The Afghanistan conflict predates the current US administration whose policy has bee to reduce the US presence to an embassy by the end of 2016. In Yemen, the US tends to support the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia against the Houthis, possibly because all the Gulf state air forces fly US combat aircraft.

The Russian strategy is built on supporting the governments in power in order to stabilize the existing order. Russia lacks the resources of the US, but President Putin has used his limited resources prudently and maneuvered deftly to advance Russian military presence and influence. Putin’s timing has been almost superb.

For old hands, the Russians and Americans appear to have reversed their traditional roles and swapped strategies and roles. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviets were destabilizing regions by supporting opposition elements in states friendly to the US. Now they are on the side of regional stability.

The Russians/Soviets have been steadfastly on the side of the Syrian government for decades. The Soviet Union also was an important arms supplier to Iraq for many years. President Putin has positioned Russia to take advantage of Iran’s expected strategic breakout, now that the Iranian Majles has approved the nuclear agreement.