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Russia's path to newfound power has been through Syria

Russia's path to newfound power has been through Syria
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Russia has been on a roll recently. It heated up tensions with Ukraine, deploying tens of thousands of troops, only to then withdraw them and claim it was merely a drill. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been globetrotting as well, in India and Pakistan and then visiting Iran. Russia appears to be positioning itself to gain influence as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, and as the U.S. considers re-entering a nuclear deal with Iran.  

How did Russia come to be an arbiter of global issues from Afghanistan to Iran, seemingly outplaying the U.S. as the Biden administration fumbles for a policy in the Middle East and around the world? That Russia’s foreign minister is greeted with open arms in a large part of the world, except a few Western countries, is an extraordinary reversal for Russia in the past few decades. Its clout has grown rapidly and much of that clout comes from its gamble to increasingly insert itself in the Syrian civil war. 

Russia’s show of force on the frontiers of Ukraine, where it occupies Crimea and has a role in two small separatist regions, is exactly the kind of role Russia wants. It wants to show that a mere military drill can cause NATO, the U.S. and European powers to run in circles to try to stave off a Russian invasion. This is in stark contrast to the early 2000s when there were questions about how well Russia had performed in its own country against separatists in Chechnya, or whether it would confront former Soviet republics such as Georgia. In 2008, Russia and tiny Georgia fought a war. Russia won. Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden, Macron huddle on sidelines of G7 summit Biden must up the ante to get what he wants from Putin MORE, who has led Russia for two decades, used that as an example of Moscow’s new modernized army.  

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For Moscow, the next turning point was Syria. Syria was different because it wasn’t part of the historic USSR. However, a civil war in Syria threatened to bring down Bashar al-Assad’s government, a key ally of Russia. Moscow had citizens in Syria and also access to a port in Tartus. It leveraged this in 2015 when it intervened with air power and special forces. Russia was suddenly on the world stage, and this came partly as a result of its perceived success in Syria. 

Moscow clashed with Ukraine in 2015, sent mercenaries or military contractors to central Africa and Libya, and was accused of meddling in the U.S. election in 2016. Soon it was having talks with the United States about a ceasefire in southern Syria, working with Iran and Turkey to broker a Syrian “deconfliction” agreement and hosting talks to solve the Syria conflict. It used this conflict to make its mark internationally, and today it is clear that Russia is working with Iran, Turkey and China to challenge the U.S. It is also challenging Europe and other states.  

This rapid increase in Russia’s clout comes alongside economic initiatives, as well as arms sales such as the S-400 air defense system to Turkey, a member of NATO. The real Russian clout goes beyond Turkey and Syria. It also has opened doors throughout the Middle East where traditional U.S. partners such as Egypt, the Gulf states and Israel have listened to Russia, or consider Russia in ways they didn’t just 10 years ago.  

The Syrian conflict was transformational for Moscow. Russia not only helped to prevent the fall of the Assad regime but rapidly became a power broker in Syria, working with Iran and Turkey. Even though American forces play a key role in one-third of Syria, the U.S. essentially was sidelined by Russia. It appears that Russia and other countries may enter Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves. The Taliban visited Moscow in January, just days after the Biden administration took office. That is quite a role reversal for Moscow, which left Afghanistan in the 1980s under a cloud of failure, after the U.S. aided Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets.  

If the U.S. and Western countries want to confront Russia successfully they will need to understand how Moscow leveraged its Syrian model for influence and became a power broker around the Middle East and further afield.  

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 Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.