Trump’s Gift to Putin in the Mideast

Russian military commanders at a briefing in June on the war in Syria. Credit Vadim Savitsky/Russian Armed Forces Press Office, via TASS, via Getty Images
Russian military commanders at a briefing in June on the war in Syria. Credit Vadim Savitsky/Russian Armed Forces Press Office, via TASS, via Getty Images

Over the past two months, even as American-trained forces were driving Islamic State insurgents out of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, the war next door in Syria was taking a dangerous but little-remarked turn — one far more favorable for Russia’s ambitions to regain a position of broad influence in the Middle East.

First, a major gaffe by President Trump helped Saudi Arabia split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight against the Islamic State — so much so that Qatar and Turkey moved closer together and became open to cooperation with Iran and Russia. Later, when Mr. Trump sat down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany, the American president virtually handed the keys to the region to his adversary by agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed a lasting presence of Russian influence in that conflict — which only consolidated the likelihood of wider regional influence.

With Mr. Trump’s inner circle often at odds with one another and the president going his own unpredictable way, Mr. Putin seems never to miss an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the region. That has helped to blur even the longstanding lines of sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite states and to complicate America’s strategic position.

To be sure, Mr. Trump sent his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to the region to sort out the mess. But among the monarchs of the Middle East, an underling’s voice stood no chance of undoing the damage already done by his master’s tweets.

The most egregious mistake, of course, occurred when Mr. Trump scolded and helped isolate Qatar to curry favor with Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s rival in the region. The move effectively divided a Sunni alliance into two camps, with Qatar and Turkey — both essential to America’s military presence in the region — estranged from a Saudi- and American-led axis that included other Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan. The leaders of a third group with ties to the West — Kuwait, Oman and Iraq — reacted with alarm.

The extent to which Russia felt newly emboldened became evident on June 19, when it responded to the American downing of a Syrian fighter jet by declaring western Syria a de facto no-fly zone for American-led coalition aircraft. That issue was quickly addressed, but it led to a deal in Germany that pronounced a cease-fire in southwestern Syria, which President Trump simplistically welcomed as a sign that the United States and Russia could work together.

Instead, he should have asked why Russia is so interested in the region now. The answer: Consider how much oil flows from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian deserts to the West; for Russia, that alone makes the region’s countries either its rivals or its partners, oil being the one plausible resource on which to pin Mr. Putin’s hopes of restoring Russia’s status as a global power capable of challenging the United States.

In addition, if Russia were to become a protector or a provider of military goods for struggling Middle Eastern regimes like those in Turkey and Iran, it would enhance its access to the open warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf — critical not just militarily, but also for the flow of global energy supplies.

So while the war in Syria has provided Mr. Putin with a Middle Eastern foothold, his interests are not limited to Syria. He has already forged a working strategic partnership with Iran and, increasingly, a common understanding with Turkey.

And the Trump administration has provided him with the means to dream even bigger — a chance to lead a broad-based alliance with countries leery of the Saudi-American axis. This includes not just Qatar and Turkey, which are Sunni, but also Shiite Iran and its regional friends, as well as Shiite-majority Iraq and potentially Oman (whose majority practices a third form of Islam, Ibadi).

Together, those countries could wield significant power in the region and in global energy markets. Their coalescence would also raise the prospect of bringing together Shiite and Sunni populations behind a future for the Muslim Brotherhood, a surviving precursor of the wide variety of today’s political forms of Islam and still a force in much of the Arab world. While that movement remains widely popular in the region, it is anathema within the Saudi-American axis.

With prospects like that, Mr. Putin’s star in the region is clearly ascendant.

How did this happen? Mr. Trump’s open support of Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar was taken as a warning to Turkey, Iraq and Oman that they too would face ostracism by the Saudis — and America — if the Saudis were to accuse them of supporting extremism or getting too friendly with Iran.

Indeed, Qatar and Turkey have differed with Washington and Riyadh on how to confront Islamic State forces while helping Syrian rebels try to topple President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia and Iran protect. Despite having criticized Iran’s role in the conflict until now, Qatar and Turkey have both begun to see Syria through the lens of their resistance to the Saudi-led bloc. This does not bode well for hopes to de-escalate the Syrian war; it is much more likely to solidify a Russian-led alliance.

Washington may hope that there is a path to quick mediation and reconciliation. But Qatar is not about to wave the white flag. Indeed, its immediate reaction was to seek — and get — support from Turkey and Iran. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pushed through his Parliament a bill that lets Turkey deploy troops in Syria. Iran began airlifting food and gave Qatar access to three Iranian ports to circumvent the Saudi-American blockade.

Russia chimed in, too, quickly offering Qatar aid after its foreign minister visited Moscow. Meanwhile, it continues to woo Turkey to cooperate with Iran in Syria.

Clearly, President Trump acted without understanding the complexity of Middle East politics — how quickly entangled they become with great-power politics and how profoundly his own actions can affect them.

Now he faces the difficult task of preventing Mr. Putin from weaning Turkey away from its allies in NATO, as Russia expands its influence in the Middle East. That will not be achieved by escalating the conflict in Syria and backing Saudi Arabia against Qatar. Rather, the United States must quickly end the intra-Sunni spat by backing away from taking sides and returning to its traditional role of an impartial broker among its allies. In the process, the Trump administration would acknowledge that America needs all of the region’s powers to cooperate if it is to push back against Russia while also bringing the Islamic State to heel and ending the raging conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

That adds up to a forbidding task, made even more difficult by ill-considered surprise moves based on impulse, rather than deep thought and wise advice.

Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

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