The day after Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed his forces on Ukraine, Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, launched a retaliatory barrage at Moscow—a barrage of adjectives. The invasion was “needless, unprovoked, unnecessary, [and] brutal,” Price said at a press conference.  Relations between the United States and Russia “had fundamentally changed” as a result. “Moscow is now a pariah on the world stage,” he continued. “President Putin is a pariah.” 

Moments later, however, Price backtracked. The Biden administration, he explained, would continue to cooperate with Moscow on the Iran nuclear deal, which, after more than a year of arduous negotiations, was supposedly within days of completion. Russia may have achieved “pariah” status in Europe, but in the Middle East Moscow was still a partner.

The invasion of Ukraine has led the West to impose economic sanctions on Moscow; the Germans to revise fundamental tenets of their defense and energy policies; and the Finns and Swedes to resolve to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after decades of reluctance to do so. It has led to all these changes and more, but it has not convinced the Biden administration of the need to compete with Russia in the Middle East.

This business-as-usual approach generates major contradictions in President Biden’s foreign policy. Although the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is known, failed to rise from the dead last March, this week it once again looked ready to emerge from its tomb.  The effort to revive the deal is not just helping Russia avoid isolation; it is offering it a means to evade sanctions. Matthew Karnitschnig reports in Politico that, once Tehran is freed from US sanctions by the nuclear deal, Putin plans to use Iran “as a backdoor to circumvent sanctions over Ukraine.” Through a “swap” arrangement, Russian oil will flow to Iran, which will then export an equal amount of Iranian oil abroad. 

What the United States snatches with the right hand it replaces with the left. It is in Syria that this contradictory approach will do the most harm. Although Russian-Iranian relations there are not perfectly harmonious, Moscow and Tehran do share a fundamental commitment to save the Assad regime and have been cooperating closely for years to achieve that aim. The hundreds of billions of dollars that the nuclear deal will channel to the Iranian regime, and the billions that Russia will receive thanks to the oil swaps cannot but help them strengthen Assad’s grip on power.

For the United States to advance the Russian-Iranian joint project is even more striking because Syria and Ukraine are umbilically linked. In October 2015, the US Navy’s top commander in Europe, Admiral Mark Ferguson, tried to raise awareness of this fact in Washington. As the Russians began their campaign to shore up Assad, Ferguson referred publicly to an “arc of steel,” by which he meant a network of new bastions of Russian naval power. The hottest segment of the arc, at that moment, was the naval bridge, stretching between the port of Sevastopol in Russian occupied Crimea and the port of Tartus on Syria’s coast, that supplied the Russian-Iranian campaign to save Assad. But before long Putin was also using Syria as a base extending the arc—deep into the Mediterranean. In 2020, for example, Russia flew more than a dozen attack jets from Syria to Libya to support Russian forces aiding warlord Khalifa Hafter in his effort to seize Tripoli, the capital. 

In short, without the naval bridge between Sevastopol and Tartus, Russia’s capacity to project power into the Mediterranean would be circumscribed. Ukraine’s aspirations to retake Crimea, therefore, threaten Russia’s status as a Middle Eastern power—yet one more reason why Putin seeks to turn Ukraine into a satrapy of Russia. Even if Kiev were to cede Sevastopol to Russia permanently, the rise of a fully independent Ukraine would still worry Moscow, which fears that Ukraine might build a serious navy, or might acquire surface-to-ship missile batteries and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of threatening the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Or, what if Kiev were simply to expand its growing security cooperation with Ankara? Possessing the second largest military in NATO, Turkey represents the only serious counterbalance to Russia in the Black Sea, and it sits astride the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits, Russia’s access routes to the Mediterranean. If Ankara and Kiev were to grow closer militarily, and if they were to coordinate their alliance closely with NATO, they would have the capacity to squeeze Sevastopol from the north and the south simultaneously, threatening Moscow’s ability to resupply its Middle Eastern positions in a crisis. 

Flattening Ukraine is one way to prevent this scenario from materializing. Neutralizing Turkey is the other. From Putin’s point of view, Syria is the ideal base from which to erode NATO’s southern flank—by forcing Turkey to show Moscow greater respect. For the last fifteen years, the major theme of Russia’s military operations is the effort to circumscribe Ankara’s power by placing a network of Russian military bastions on Turkey’s borders and next to its foreign assets.  In addition to Ukraine, Russia today has forces—either by invitation or occupation—in Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, and Libya. These forces flank Turkey directly on three sides, while also countering its proxies in Libya and pressuring its ally, Azerbaijan.

Here, again, elements of the American military attempted to alert the Obama administration to the danger, but to no avail. In 2015, a few weeks before Admiral Ferguson raised the alarm about the rise of Russian naval power, General Philip Breedlove, who was serving as the top commander of NATO, drew attention to the rise of Russian ground and air forces.  Contesting Putin’s professed intention to battle the Islamic State, Breedlove warned that Russian forces in Syria were establishing an “anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble,” one of many bubbles in a growing network. The Black Sea, he noted, was already forty to fifty percent covered by Russian air defense missiles. With the arrival of sophisticated fighters and air defense systems to Syria, a significant portion of the Eastern Mediterranean was now enveloped by a new bubble. “As an alliance, we need to step back and take a look at our capability in a military sense to address an A2/AD challenge,” Breedlove said.

The failure of NATO to contest the rise of Russia on the borders of Turkey has meant, increasingly, that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot adequately address security challenges without engaging regularly with Putin. Many influential voices in Washington attribute Erdoğan’s hedging toward Moscow to his supposed anti-Western “Islamism” rather than to its true cause, namely, the uncontested rise of Russian power in Syria.

Turkey is hardly the only American ally to hedge. Between 2015 and the present, Israeli leaders, too, have been frequent guests of Vladimir Putin, with whom they have entered a number of mutually-beneficial understandings. No wonder, then, that Israel hesitated to join the United States and Europe in sanctioning Russia when Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Washington was quick to rebuke Israel for this reluctance. “You don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told an Israeli media outlet last March. The brow beating worked this time around. Israeli policy adjusted accordingly.

In the long term, however, geography is a cruel and unforgiving mistress. The Russian military is now Israel’s neighbor to the north and Turkey’s to the south. As Russian power grows in Syria, America’s influence declines.

Yet American policy seems oblivious to this iron law of political physics. The nuclear deal is one path by which American policy is likely to channel money into Russian coffers. The maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon is another. In recent months, the Biden administration has all but completed the agreement, which paves the way for an international consortium of energy companies to begin exploiting gas reserves in Lebanon’s territorial waters. In addition to France’s Total and Italy’s Eni, the consortium includes Russia’s Novatek.  The explicit goal of the deal is to generate investment in “southern Lebanon” – which is dominated politically by Hezbollah, the Lebanese arm of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.  In sum, the Biden Team is working to help a Russian company strengthen Iran in Lebanon.

Why? Why doesn’t the Biden administration recognize the contradictions in its policies? Why does it oppose Russia vigorously in Europe yet facilitate its activities in the Middle East Why doesn’t the White House seek to impose costs on Russia in Syria for its aggression in Ukraine? 

In seeking to answer these questions one must take care to impute neither fecklessness nor confusion to the administration. Team Biden acts with purposefulness according to a preconceived plan, a flawed strategic concept. President Obama first developed the concept in 2013 and even now it continues to guide the Biden administration, which is staffed by former senior Obama officials. The Obama-Biden Team aspires to build a concert system in the Middle East, a new regional order in which Russia, Iran and the United States sit together at a round table and work cooperatively to stabilize the region. Because this vision is anathema to the American people, the administration refrains from discussing it out loud. Implementing the strategy quietly, it avoids any policy that will compete seriously with Russia and Iran in the Middle East. Meanwhile, it pays lip service to countering their malign activities.

Obama first developed this disingenuous approach in 2013, at the moment when he reneged on his promise to retaliate against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. Vladimir Putin, it will be remembered, helped him erase his red line by agreeing to work with the United States to strip Assad of his chemical weapons. The joint Russian-American operation never achieved its stated aim: Assad still has - and still uses - chemical weapons today. But the operation did achieve Obama’s secret goal of turning Russia into America’s silent partner in stabilizing the Middle East. 

The line from the chemical weapons deal between Moscow and Washington to the JCPOA is simple and direct.  The negotiations for what became the JCPOA were just getting underway in 2013, when Assad conducted the sarin gas attack that might have triggered American retribution. Obama, however, feared that an American attack on Assad, the protégé of both Russia and Iran, would derail the nuclear deal and the vision of a concert system that the deal was supposed to advance. The Potemkin operation to strip Assad of his chemical weapons shielded Obama, in domestic American politics, from the pressure to confront Russia and Iran.

When Obama first began moving down the path of cooperation with Moscow and Tehran, the idea of a pact of mutual non-belligerence seemed worth testing to many observers. But the test failed. Time and again, Russia and Iran have pocketed American concessions and then demanded more. For proof, one need look no further than Ukraine. Failure to confront Putin over Crimea in 2014 encouraged him to invade Syria in 2015. Treating him as a partner in stabilizing Syria paved the way not only for his intervention in Libya but also for the renewed effort to dominate Ukraine now. Putin’s latest war is not simply an effort to redefine the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. It is part of a larger effort to resurrect the sphere of influence in the Middle East that Moscow enjoyed under the Soviet Union.      

When discussing Putin’s Syria policy, a countless number of pundits have observed that he is “playing a weak hand expertly.”  The assessment is not so much wrong as incomplete. He has been aided by American leaders who have pursued a flawed strategic concept, which, especially in Syria, refuses to treat Russia and Iran as pariahs.

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