The world is getting into the habit of making Obama look inept.
The U.S. sends a delegation to Damascus to wean Syria from Iran, and Syria promptly responds by inviting Iran’s president to the country and tightening the relationship. The U.S. praises Pakistan and sends billions in aid, and Pakistan responds by being less than cooperative in dealing with the Times Square bomber.
Now it’s Russia’s turn. Just hours after the Obama administration praised Russia for allegedly cooperating on sanctions against Iran — to justify pushing forward a bilateral nuclear weapons limitation agreement with Moscow — Russia eagerly responded by subverting U.S. Middle East policy.
Russian President Dimitry Medvedev visited Syria and Turkey, taking a very large entourage with him to work on trade and military cooperation agreements. In effect, these meetings marked another step in the creation of an anti-American alliance in the region with Russian backing.
How do we know about this alliance? Because Turkey, Syria, and Iran are openly declaring its existence. How do we know Russia is backing it? Because Medvedev is openly claiming this.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be a “friend,” and that Iran is using its nuclear program “for civilian purposes only.” He also said that Israel, not Iran, threatens regional stability.
Syrian government newspaper al-Baa’th declared, in so many words, that the Middle East is coming together in an alliance to reject Westernization, artificial borders, America, and Israel, while embracing various anti-Western conspiracies. What countries are in this new alliance?
Syria, Iran, and Turkey, with their great peoples and their lively peoples and their rejectionist [the Syrian term for radical, anti-Israel, and anti-American] policies are moving toward brotherhood.
The comments from Iran? President Ahmadinejad declared:
[The Americans] are forced to leave the region. … [The U.S.] government has no influence [to stop] … the expansion of Iran-Syria ties, Syria-Turkey ties, and Iran-Turkey ties. God willing, Iraq too will join the circle.
In its own way, Russia is joining the circle as well. Medvedev signed deals suggesting that Russia might help Turkey and Syria build nuclear reactors. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Russian parliamentary foreign liaison committee, called Syria “a strategic partner” with Russia.
In Turkey, Medvedev and his hosts agreed to support Hamas merging with the Palestinian Authority, and insisted that the radical terrorist Islamist group be a full participant in any negotiations on Israel-Palestinian issues.
In the words of Turkish President Abdullah Gul, while standing next to Medvedev:
Unfortunately Palestinians have been split into two. … In order to reunite them, you have to speak to both sides. Hamas won elections in Gaza and cannot be ignored.
Obviously, bringing Hamas into negotiations or melding it together with the existing Palestinian Authority would guarantee the failure of any talks, and possibly result in Hamas takeover of the West Bank, anti-American Palestinian leadership, and the renewal of war with Israel.
Why is Russia doing this? Clearly, there are commercial considerations involved. Russia is desperate for money and export markets, including the ability to sell its weapons which — being inferior to those of the United States — only have a market of countries ineligible to buy American.
Yet commerce is only part of the picture. The current Russian leadership sees the United States as a rival, is jealous of its power, and is angry about losing the Cold War. The shrinking of their country from a mighty superpower to an impoverished wreck makes them steam, and they blame their fall on U.S. machinations. Building up Russian nationalism and returning the United States to enemy status is a way to mobilize popular support for the government.
And finally, there is a genuine ambition to rebuild the old Russian/Soviet empire and spheres of influence.
In short, this is a problem for U.S. leaders that isn’t going to go away. On her first visit to Moscow, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously declared that the Obama administration was going to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations. Now, Russia has defined that reset as to be largely — of course, not fully — a return to the pre-1991 era.
A false issue is the idea that Russia is going to have a problem with the Islamism of its new partners because of its own internal Muslim problem. On the contrary — this alliance is a way to reduce the domestic threat.
By giving Turkey, Syria, and Iran an incentive to be friendly with Russia, Moscow is ensuring that they won’t intervene by backing revolutionary Islamist groups. Indeed, Iran has stayed away from such involvements — Tehran even supports Russia’s ally, Christian Armenia, against Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.
Of course, there is no way that the United States can truly compete with Russia (and Iran) over Syria’s loyalties. The Russians are prepared to fully back Syria’s policies of allying with Iran and returning Lebanon to the status of colony. Russia is happy to sell Syria arms (paid for by Iran).
Presumably, the Russians would encourage Syria not to launch even a Lebanon-based war against Israel, but that is one of the few positive notes.
The situation with Turkey is a bit more complex, since even the Islamist regime is wary of Russia. Yet here too, the Russians have sizable influence with a Turkish regime that has already moved much closer to Iran and Syria.
The big picture? The United States is being edged out of the position of primacy it has enjoyed in the Middle East for twenty years, which dates — and this is no coincidence — from the time of the USSR’s collapse.
With Iran on the verge of nuclear weapons, the strategic balance will shift even more. This outcome also makes Tehran even more attractive as a partner to Moscow.
The situation is very bad, heading towards worse, and made all the more worrisome by the failure of the current U.S. government even to realize what’s occurring.