The ‘Great Game’ Replicates Itself within Syria
By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
The “Great Game” is synonymous with the British and Russian geopolitical power rivalry in central Asia of the 19th and early 20th century. Now, that same rivalry has replicated itself in Syria, with the United States replacing Britain as Russia’s geostrategic adversary.
So far, President Trump has cobbled together a narrowly focused strategy for Syria, eerily similar to the policy pursued by the Obama administration. Russia is testing the very foundation of U.S. and international security. How Washington responds will have consequences for other regions of the world, including U.S. adversaries such as China and North Korea.
Trump Forms International Coalition and Strikes Syria
Early this year, Trump sent a message that was different from those of his predecessor. Trump mobilized an international coalition to strike back at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons against his own people, while minimizing Syrian civilian, Russian and Iranian casualties.
The military strike set back Assad’s chemical weapons program, but it didn’t destroy his ability to use and produce chemical weapons. Also, it didn’t deter Assad from using his conventional forces to attack civilian populations. Those military forces, aided by Russia and Iran, have been his primary tool for attacking anti-regime forces.
Trump Contemplates Leaving Syria
Trump has signaled that he has no intention of prolonging U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. However, U.S. allies, senior military commanders and government officials have openly advised the President that it would be a mistake to prematurely remove military forces from northeastern Syria without any semblance of stability there.
One only has to look at what happened when the Obama administration removed American combat troops from Iraq in 2011. To America’s detriment, their departure left a vacuum that ISIS and Iran were able to fill.
The Trump administration’s inconsistent policy has confused our core allies in Europe and the Middle East. They are unsure what direction the United States will take next. The U.S. has lost key leverage, which undoubtedly will be viewed as a win for Russia and Iran.
Russia Becoming Further Entrenched in Syria
Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015, along with the Obama administration’s acquiescence, brought the Assad regime back from the brink of extinction, giving Russia the opportunity to consolidate its position in western Syria.
Russia is doing more in Syria than most national security experts care to admit. Moscow has used the Syrian conflict to learn how to disrupt U.S. military activities inside Syria. This knowledge can later be used in other areas where the U.S. operates.
As Melissa Dalton, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes: “Russia’s support to Assad, tolerance of the regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons and conventional onslaught against Syrian civilians, and its obstructive actions within the UN Security Council contrast with its attempts to use the Astana diplomatic platform with Iran and Turkey as an alternative to the UN-backed Geneva peace effort.”
Even General Joseph Votel, the U.S. CENTCOM commander, is aware of the duplicitous nature of Russia’s involvement in Syria. He says, “Diplomatically and militarily, Moscow plays both arsonist and firefighter, fueling tensions among all parties in Syria…then serving as an arbitrator, to resolve disputes, attempting to undermine and weaken each party’s bargaining positions.”
French President Lobbies Trump to Stay in Syria
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Washington. One of his chief concerns was to convince Trump to rethink his desire to remove U.S. combat forces from Syria and not to leave it to others to sort out.
This lack of strategic thinking will only strengthen Russia’s hand in Syria. Also, it strengthens the perception that U.S. influence is in decline in the region, while Russia’s influence grows in the Middle East.
The United States must be mindful also of Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. Iran’s support of the Assad regime has prompted successive and escalating Israeli incursions into Syria to counter Tehran’s backing of various militias. Syria’s various missile and weapons capabilities are an existential threat to Israel.
US Faces a Fractured Relationship with Turkey
To further complicate matters, the United States has to deal with its strained relationship with Turkey. Ankara recently hosted a summit with Russia, Iran and Syria on how to end the ongoing civil war. However, the U.S. was excluded from this summit.
Tensions with Turkey, a NATO ally, have been further exacerbated by U.S. support of Kurdish militias’ counterterrorism and stabilization missions in northeastern Syria. These groups have a strong connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara regards the PPK as a terrorist group and has battled the organization for decades.
Syria Remains an Ongoing and Complex Political Situation
Should the U.S. abandon its Kurdish partners who have been instrumental in our fight against ISIS? U.S. leaders still must work with Turkey in various opportunities that benefit both countries in eastern Syria.
The situation in Syria is complex, to say the least. Dealing with the Syrian civil war from the onset has been challenging, but the abdication of U.S. leadership by the Obama administration made a difficult decision worse.
The United States needs to think through its decision to possibly extract itself from Syria. The Trump administration must realize that any way forward needs Washington’s leadership. We must work in conjunction with our European allies and especially our partners in the region.
A failure to come up with a comprehensive long-term strategy will only strengthen Russia and signal to the world that the U.S. is a diminished superpower. If that’s the case, the world will be less safe, not more.