The administration’s worries about Russia were voiced in an unusual on-the-record briefing Thursday by three senior State Department officials. Henry Wooster, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East, summed up the concerns this way: “The Kremlin uses . . . military power, proxies and disinformation . . . to expand its influence across the [Mediterranean].”
Russia has been opportunistic toward the conflicts in Syria and Libya, using a mercenary army known as the Wagner Group, run by a friend of President Vladimir Putin. The local combatants in these wars are exhausted, but efforts to negotiate peace deals have failed, as they have in Yemen. The result may be de facto partitions in all three countries — and frozen conflicts that leave the nations fragmented and vulnerable.
Russia is likely to emerge with several important military bases in the Mediterranean, achieving a centuries-old dream. Russian forces control Khmeimim air base and the port of Tartus in Syria, and they helped seize al-Ghardabiya air base near Sirte in Libya in January. “No one should think that Russia is going to pack up and leave now,” said Wooster.
Moscow’s hopes of bringing order to this fractious region have been no more successful than those of the United States. The “Astana process” failed to bring peace to Syria, and talk of a similar Russian-Turkish accord to stabilize Libya is probably doomed, too.
Russian impatience, especially with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is obvious. Ambassador Aleksandr Aksenenok, in an essay published last month by the Russian International Affairs Council, trashed the corruption of Assad’s regime and “outrages” by its security services. “There’s obvious growing Russian frustration with Assad because he will not bend,” said James Jeffrey, Trump’s special representative for Syria.
But the Russians have less at stake. Their investment of blood and treasure is relatively small, and they’ve left much of the dirty work to others, like the Wagner Group. This is empire on the cheap.
One modestly hopeful development for the United States comes in Iraq, where Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an America-friendly former chief of intelligence, has formed a new government. U.S. commanders will hold a strategic dialogue with Kadhimi in June, and they expect some U.S. troops will remain in Iraq training its military. The number will be less than the current 5,000 but still in the thousands, U.S. officials believe.
Saudi Arabia, historically the United States’ most important ally in the region, is struggling from the double whammy of covid-19 and the global crash in oil prices. Saudi officials are weighing major budget cuts, including possible delay of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform projects.
The Saudis are also discussing with the United States and Russia additional oil-production cuts to bolster prices. One possibility is a small unilateral Saudi cut for July, which would be increased if other major producers agreed to similar reductions.
With an embattled Iran posing less of a threat to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon is withdrawing some Patriot missile batteries and fighter jets that were rushed to the kingdom last summer. Yemen remains a ruinous conflict that the Saudis want to exit, but peace efforts have failed; the Saudis may have no alternative but joining the United Arab Emirates in accepting a de facto partition of Yemen’s north and south.
The United States’ dilemma this year will be how and when to extract U.S. forces from northeastern Syria. Russian and Syrian regime forces that have been fighting rebels in the western province of Idlib will move east. U.S. commanders would probably prefer a withdrawal deal with Russia to a shooting war over territory they plan to leave eventually anyway.
Libya is the most cynical Russian power play. It has been backing the Benghazi-based forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter in an unlikely coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, against the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli.
Middle East analysts speculate that Russia may try to broker a Libya peace deal with Turkey. But Libya, like the region overall, looks too fragile and fragmented for any diplomatic breakthroughs now, and what’s more likely is continued stalemate and de facto partition.
Russia is picking up the pieces in the post-pandemic Middle East, not so much to further a grand strategy as to poke its deflated rival, the United States. This is scavenger diplomacy, feeding off the carcasses of these broken states.