Syria -- Battleground of America and Russia
On September 12, 2001, the prestigious French newspaper Le Monde published an article by Jean-Mary Colombani. The main message reverberated around the world in just one memorable phrase: "We are all Americans." The Russian government didn't make any exception in expressing their solidarity with the victims of the Islamo-Totalitarian assault on New York City.
There are two important questions born out of the developments that took place during the decade that followed 9/11. The first one is: What were the main factors for the drastic deterioration of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia? Secondly: Is there a positive scenario for the United States to find an exit out of the seemingly hopeless situation involving the catastrophic loss of American influence in the Middle East?
Undoubtedly, there was a short period of brief mutual understanding between Washington and Moscow coinciding with the early stage of the presidencies of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Russian leader turned out to be the first foreign statesman who offered his country's condolences to a shocked and grieving America. Vladimir Putin was also immensely helpful during the first victorious round of the American military involvement in Afghanistan during the fall of 2001. In the period encompassing the end of 2001 and early part of 2002, it seemed that the personal relationship between George Bush and Vladimir Putin had almost reached the gates of friendship.
This gate turned out to be too narrow for the wildly escalating problems and conflicts that suddenly made their appearance. The alliance between Washington and Moscow which Boris Yeltsin had dreamed about, and the potential friendship between Bush and Putin, was engulfed by the fire of the Iraq War. In addition, the deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia was heavily influenced by the conflicts that erupted in the Balkans and Georgia. In both cases the United States and Russia found themselves on opposite sides of the political divide. The confrontation between Washington and Moscow acquired particularly acute dimensions with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria.
It was at this moment when American and Russian policymakers had to determine their priorities and the strategy designed to achieve them. The difference between the choices related to the Syrian conflict made by Moscow and Washington had a very important, completely unexpected, but impeccably logical consequence involving both the prestige and the ratings of the leaders involved.
The polls taken throughout different parts of the world were unanimous, although ignored by the mainstream American media. It turned out that Vladimir Putin had acquired the image of the most successful statesman in the world, while public opinion was also unanimous with regard to the lower ratings of President Obama and the decrease of the American influence, particularly visible in the Middle East.
The most obvious consideration for President Putin with regard to the Syrian crisis was connected with the preservation of the long and close relationship established decades ago between the Soviet Union and the founder of the Assad dynasty, Hafez Assad.
A very important factor shaping President Putin's policy towards Iran and Syria is the role of the internal problems of Russia. The most serious issue the country is facing is the intense terrorist activities of the Islamists in the area of the Caucasus.
In short, the situation President Putin definitely doesn't want to face would be an increase of the Islamo-totalitarian threat by adding a Shiite component supported by Iran to the fanatical Sunni insurgents acting in the Caucasus. In order to prevent such a danger the maintenance of normal relations with Iran would be a minimum requirement for Moscow.
Last but not least, an important reason for Russian support of the Assad regime is the fear that the most probable consequence of its potential fall will be the establishment of an anti-Russian Islamic state in Syria. Let's not forget the fact that hundreds of Jihadists from the Caucasian areas of Russia are fighting against the army of Bashar Assad.
Nobody can deny that all Russian actions with regard to the Syrian crisis were and are based on a carefully planned and masterfully executed strategy. Some examples: the connection between Moscow and Teheran within the context of the Syrian crisis didn't affect at all the relationship between Moscow and Tel Aviv, which has not been any better. Another impressive achievement of Russian diplomacy was the way it managed to fill the void created by deterioration of the relations between Washington and Cairo in the aftermath of the removal of the Islamic regime of Morsi by the leaders of the Egyptian Army.
Speaking about American actions with regard to the Syrian crisis, even the most superficial look at Washington's involvement in Syria would reveal the stunning fact that there was no consistent strategy designed to protect American interests. The deliberate blindness, typical of the Obama administration, to the main danger epitomized by radical Islam, determined the lack of effective Syrian strategy. The change of leaders at the State Department didn't produce any improvement. The difference between Hillary Clinton and John Kerry was a difference in style not in the substance.
Both top diplomats of America remained fixed on the mantra expressed by Clinton with the words "Assad must go!" Madam Secretary never revealed what her expectations were in case her dream came true. Wasn't she worried that the Jihadists, who would have been the main beneficiaries amidst the inevitable chaos, would have seized the country? As far as the intentions of Kerry during the intense summer of 2013 were concerned, people like him and Senator McCain were ready to involve the United States in an extremely dangerous action with outright negative consequences. An American missile attack on Syria would have helped the Jihadists and would have flooded the neighboring countries (primarily Lebanon and Jordan), with even more refugees than they are coping with right now.
This disaster was prevented not by the vacillating President of the United States, who didn't know what to do or how to do it, while the entire world was watching, but only by the initiative of President Putin to eliminate the stockpile of chemical weapons that were in possession of Bashir Assad.
The only area of similarity between American and Russian foreign policy strategy is the tragic lack of understanding of the scope of the Islamo-totalitarian danger which threatens both countries. The moment Washington finally realizes there is a far more serious threat to the United States than Russia, and the top decision makers in Moscow grasp the fact that the United States is not the main enemy of Russia, it will have an enormous impact on the entire system of international relations.
The realization of this truth will offer opportunities for the solution of the problems dividing both countries, including the ones related to the future of Syria.
Georgy Gounev, Bulgarian-born historian, received his PhD from the Institute of Foreign Relations in Moscow, Russia. His most recent book, The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon, is to be released later in 2014.