Could a new US-Russia cold war erupt over Syria and Libya?

Could a new US-Russia cold war erupt over Syria and Libya?
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The U.S. and Russia appear to be heading for some sort of confrontation in Syria and Libya, as tensions grow in both countries and Turkey pressures the U.S. to play a larger role. On June 8, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan phoned President Trump to discuss Libya, among other issues. The Pentagon has been spotlighting Russia’s growing involvement in Libya, where a 10-year civil war once claimed the life of a U.S. ambassador, and Washington is concerned.

At the heart of this new Middle Eastern cold war may be the desire to bog down the Russians in numerous conflicts. Like most countries, Moscow still is dealing with COVID-19 at home, and its ally in the Syrian regime has failed to right a rapidly declining economy. James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria, has said he wants to make Syria a “quagmire” for the Russians. That conjures up images of Afghanistan in the 1980s, made famous in the film “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

How did the Russians end up in Syria, and now in Libya? Russia has been a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, working with the Assad family since the 1970s. Russia has naval facilities and an air base in Syria. In 2015, Russia intervened to aid the Syrian government on the ground and in the air. Russia has clashed with Turkey several times there, most recently in February this year. But Russia also has worked with Turkey to put in place ceasefires and joint patrols and a peace process for Syria. 

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Earlier this month, Russia sent MiG-29s to Syria, some of the first deliveries of a powerful aircraft in many years. Russia also has supplied the S-300 air defense system to Damascus. Russia has challenged the U.S. in Syria, spreading misinformation via Russian media and sending armed contractors to Syria who clashed with U.S.-backed forces in February 2018.

In Libya, Russia has been backing the eastern Libya opposition led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. His fighters also are backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and get support from France and Greece. Haftar is opposed by the Government of the National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which is backed by Turkey and Qatar. At first glance, the Libyan conflict looks like a proxy war between different Middle Eastern alliances, and it has gone back and forth for years. The U.S. has appeared gun-shy about taking a strong role in Libya ever since Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi in 2012, an incident that became a major political scandal in Washington.

However, the Libyan conflict has been on Washington’s radar recently because Turkey intervened by sending drones and Syrian fighters to Tripoli. Russia, in turn, sent warplanes to Libya and the United States Africa Command sounded the alarm by releasing details of the weapons transfers.

The White House must decide whether it is serious about confronting Russia in these countries. Tensions with Iran loom large and it would be difficult for the Trump administration to juggle domestic issues such as COVID-19 and massive protests about police power while dealing with the Iranians and Russians. Egypt, France, Germany and others are pushing for a ceasefire in Libya. Senior U.S. and Russian officials are supposed to meet in Vienna on June 22 for arms control talks. Libya isn’t on the agenda, but if the U.S. tries to push Russia in Syria and Libya it may affect the discussions. The U.S. should lay out clear, attainable goals for Syria and Libya, so that citizens of those countries are not caught up in a new proxy war that involves not only the Russians but Iran and Turkey in Syria, or Egypt and Turkey in Libya.

More broadly, there’s the question of whether the U.S. will continue to play arbiter in Middle East conflicts, or if it has decided to let Russia, Turkey and others take the driver’s seat in these conflicts. So far, it appears that Moscow and Ankara are driving while Washington sits back, watching and expressing concern but reluctant to get more deeply involved.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.