Putin and the Shiite 'Axis of Resistance'
© Getty Images

In the summer of 2006, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah went toe to toe with Israel for 34 days. When the smoke cleared, Hezbollah declared "divine victory," and soon after, Middle Eastern capitals were plastered with posters featuring militia leader Hassan Nasrallah alongside his benefactors Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This Shiite so-called "Axis of Resistance" achieved widespread regional popularity, including unprecedented support among Sunni Muslims, which lasted until 2011, when Assad, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, began his campaign to eradicate Sunni regime opponents.

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In the aftermath of Russia's deployment of an expeditionary force in Syria, a new slew of posters have appeared. The current iteration features images of Nasrallah, Assad, Khamenei, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with an Arabic caption that roughly translates "Men who bow to no one but God." The poster, reportedly displayed in central Damascus, suggests another emerging regional "Axis of Resistance." Unlike 2006, however, this new axis — which targets Syrian Sunnis instead of Israel — is deeply polarizing. Worse, the Obama administration, through acts of omission and commission, risks implicating the U.S. in the new alliance.

According to Putin, Russia has deployed to Syria to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But the public diplomacy belies a more limited Russian objective focused on protecting an increasingly vulnerable Assad regime. Indeed, Moscow holds that all of Assad's opponents are "terrorists" and has no compunction targeting Islamic and secular militias alike. Confirming Russia's unofficial agenda, the first week of airstrikes were directly almost exclusively at Idlib, Homs and Dera', regions of Syria absent significant ISIS presence. The administration says that Moscow is "intentionally" hitting CIA-backed rebels.

Meanwhile, as Russia has moved into Syria, Washington's position on the Assad regime has evolved. Four years ago, the administration's position was that "Assad must go." This month, Secretary of State Kerry suggested that the timing of Assad's departure was negotiable. While the administration won't admit it, the subtle shift highlights a growing ambivalence about the survival of the Assad regime in the shadow of ISIS territorial gains. In the region and particularly among Washington's erstwhile Sunni allies, the progression is being seen as the antecedent to U.S. acquiescence of continued Assad rule.

The Middle East has long harbored a predilection for conspiracy theories. Objectively, though, the regional perception of the U.S. policy shift is accurate. President Obama hinted at this new "equilibrium" between Sunni Gulf states and Iran in January 2014, more than a year before the nuclear agreement was signed. Now, Foggy Bottom is talking with Iran about Syria, and the Pentagon is de-conflicting air operations with Russia.

This nascent U.S. regional realignment has been operationalized in a de facto division of labor between Russia and the U.S. on Syria. The awkward arrangement has Moscow whacking the most proximate threat to Assad's regime, the relatively more moderate opposition — including militias purportedly receiving U.S. support — and Washington bombing ISIS. Working in tandem, the U.S. and Russian campaigns are targeting the broad range of Assad's foes, effectively insulating the regime from the threat of imminent collapse.

To be sure, the chief benefactor of this dynamic is Assad. But the campaign also offers Moscow a useful diversion from Ukraine and a chance to reestablish a foothold in the Middle East, something U.S. policy for the past four decades has worked to deny. At the same time, the U.S.-Russian understanding preserves Iranian equities in Syria and protects Tehran's proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. It could also potentially limit Israel's ability to target Hezbollah operations in South Syria. Not surprisingly, many of the region's Sunnis view the developing U.S.-Russian condominium in Syria with great concern, a sign that Washington now views Russia and Iran as forces for stability.

While this arrangement may achieve perhaps the primary administration objective of preventing a U.S. quagmire, it has little chance of stabilizing Syria or stemming the flow of refugees. Surveys suggest that most of the 4 million refugees have fled the savagery of the regime, not ISIS. The ferocity of Russia's air campaign will all but certainly exacerbate the crisis, fuel additional support for ISIS and further cleanse Syria of Sunni Muslims, improving the demographic balance for the nominally Shiite Assad regime.

Whether the administration was, as The Washington Post reported, "blindsided" by Russian military operations, or whether it quietly welcomed the bombing as some kind of macabre burden-sharing, Moscow's Syrian initiative makes matters worse. As Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast recently tweeted that she "overheard" at the Pentagon, "Right now, we are Putin's prison bitch."

Russia's military deployment in Syria is a strategic boon for the Shiite "Axis of Resistance" and its new partner, Russia. This resurgent axis was in part made possible by the absence of a credible U.S. Syria policy, but it will only be bolstered should Washington embrace Russia and Iran as its regional security partners. Already in the Middle East, there is a widely held perception that the U.S. has made this decision. No doubt, the administration will continue to insist that the Iran nuclear deal doesn't signal a broader regional realignment. Should the U.S. tilt toward Russia and Iran persist, President Obama might find himself alongside Assad, Khamenei, Nasrallah and Putin on the next run of posters.

Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.