The way that history has a tendency to repeat itself is intriguing. In Alfred Lilienthal’s The Other Side of the Coin, published in 1965, he said that the “Soviet Union has taken advantage of the resultant decline in American prestige in a suspicious Arab world to establish itself on the eastern Mediterranean shore.” Other than an end of the bipolar international order and the Soviet demise with it, not much else is different today, if we replace “Soviet Union” with “Russia” in that sentence. The implications of a resurgent Russia have been both welcomed and feared, depending on one’s political leanings; at the very least, this has garnered interest at the academic level. The status quo since the 1990s has been one of unchallenged Western dominance in international affairs, known as the “unipolar moment”.
The meeting between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in mid-July 1990 paved the way for the reunification of Germany and was seen as a Soviet “surrender” in the Cold War, ushering in America’s unipolar moment of unchallenged hegemony. The key word was “moment”, as predicted by Charles Krauthammer, who wrote at the time: “This surrender marks a unique historical phenomenon, which might be called the moment of unipolarity. The bipolar world in which the real power emanated only from Moscow and Washington is dead. The multipolar world to which we are headed, in which power will emanate from Berlin and Tokyo, Beijing and Brussels, as well as Washington and Moscow, is struggling to be born. The transition between these two worlds is now, and it won’t last long. But the instant in which we are living is a moment of unipolarity, where world power resides in one reasonably coherent, serenely dominant entity: the Western alliance, unchallenged and not yet (though soon to be) fractured by victory.”
The unipolar moment probably lasted longer than expected, although another pivotal moment occurred recently, which has ushered in the multipolar era about which Krauthammer theorised. This, of course, was the abandonment and withdrawal of US troops from “northern Syria” (the US has the vestiges of its presence at Al-Tanf near the Jordan border) thanks to President Donald Trump’s Twitter diplomacy which shocked and dismayed senior members of his own party with his inevitable betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. It boils down to a realisation of skewed election promises and the reality of it being untenable to bolster US military presence in the country. “Bringing home the troops” to Saudi Arabia will have no strategic impact in the Gulf either.
Several mainstream commentators have spoken of Trump’s decision as handing Syria over to Russia and Iran and potentially enabling a revival of Daesh. This is simplistic as it ignores the conflicts of interests between, say, Tehran and Ankara, with regard to the latter’s intention of settling Sunni Arab refugees in the areas which were under Kurdish control (the areas are in fact majority Arab) which goes against Iranian interests, especially if such a demographic received US support in the past. However, the progress towards a lasting settlement and stability in Syria is a result of co-operation between Russia, Iran and Turkey in the form of the Astana process, and Russia’s brainchild the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
Officially, Iran has voiced its opposition to Turkey’s Operation Spring Peace while acknowledging Ankara’s security concerns. Russia, despite some news outlets twisting words and exaggerating tensions, has actually adopted a cautious approach and has given Turkey some space to manoeuvre, within reason and so as not to affect Moscow’s position nor Syria’s political integrity. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Turkish operation “is a consequence of US actions in the region.” During a recent interview on Rossiya-1 TV channel, Lavrov went as far as to say that the actions are “legal”.
The lightning speed developments in northern Syria we are witnessing are a result of deals made between the Astana trio. Turkey gets its safe zone which it has long envisioned and eradicates the threats of Kurdish militant nationalism reaching its own Kurdish population again, whilst alleviating its refugee burden. The Kurds for their part are left realising, once again, that the US is not a trusted ally, and are turning to Damascus for protection, which will lead to them being co-opted into the armed forces with little room left for negotiating anything remotely close to autonomy; they had previously shunned calls by Syria and Russia to return to the umbrella of the Damascus regime’s authority. Critically, the Syrian government gets to reclaim its sovereign territory which the Kurds siphoned-off illegally by crossing east of the River Euphrates into a part of the country off limits to Damascus since 2012. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad can now focus his attention on sweeping up Idlib, a hotbed of takfiri-jihadists.
Inevitably the onslaught will send Syrians into Turkey; they are accused of failing to rein-in the terrorists there, so this could undoubtedly pose problems for the alliance. Iran will welcome the expected complete withdrawal of the illegal US military presence in Syria, especially once Washington abandons Al-Tanf, which “has some impact on the land corridor linking Iran and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon… An evacuation of that base would greatly worry Israel.”
Thus, Iran’s “axis of resistance” will face fewer logistical impediments and security challenges, especially once Syria’s air defences are bolstered by further deals with Moscow. Syria will naturally also be lost to Riyadh’s sphere of influence for the foreseeable future. Additionally, Iraq recently re-opened the key Al-Qaim border crossing with Syria, closed since 2012, much to the annoyance of Washington, providing the latter with another reason for its attempts to steer the legitimate Iraq protests towards a failed coup. This will bring about increased interactions between Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Israel’s neighbour Syria, where the Israelis still occupy (and have annexed) the Golan Heights.
In fact, Israel has largely been silent as it observes events in Syria. Perhaps it sees what has happened to the Kurds, and is realising that the US under Trump is an unpredictable and unreliable guarantor of security. That would explain why Israel is seeking to increase its defence budget, especially in the wake of the Saudi Aramco attacks, attributed to Iran, albeit without credible evidence. Turkey has provided assurances that it will adhere to Syria’s territorial integrity and will not occupy territory for the long-term, if the alliance is to be maintained.
This leaves Russia, which will act as a mediating force to ensure that Turkish and Syrian forces do not clash, as “the new referee in the Middle East”, according to the Moscow Times. Whereas the Soviet Union propped up revolutionary forces in the region, today Russia supports the status quo, with Libya being an exception due to a lack of a legitimate government, thanks to Western intervention.
Russia believes firmly that it has boosted its prestige as a recognised force in international politics. President Vladimir Putin’s visits to Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbour the UAE have yielded billions of dollars’ worth of trade agreements despite both countries supposedly being well within the pro-West camp. Indeed, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) recently opened its first foreign office in Saudi Arabia. Moscow is gradually bridging the Middle East with those parts of Eurasia under its wider sphere of influence. Increased cooperation with China also adds to US concerns, such as the provision of Russian Su-35 fighter jets to the Chinese air force, bolstering its capabilities over the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits.
As the US retreats from the region, Turkey and Iran are locals who will fill the void left behind and exercise their authority in their natural spheres of influence. These are historical, given that Western colonialism disrupted the fine balance of power which once existed between the Ottomans and the Safavids. Symbolically, the Russians have taken over an abandoned, but functioning, US base in Manbij, a strategic city back in the hands of the Syrian government. There is also room for the incumbent superpower China to operate as it tends to do, primarily through trade.
The unipolar moment is indeed over, but today’s Middle East is still reeling from the unilateralism of the George W Bush years which destabilised the region and contributed to the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and ultimately Daesh in both Iraq and Syria and beyond, not to mention inadvertently “handing Iraq to Iran”. I do not expect there to be less warfare or fewer proxy wars as a result of the multipolar era. However, in the bipolar age of the Cold War, there were at least checks and balances between the superpowers which some argue reduced state to state warfare thanks to the added dimension of nuclear deterrence. Whether or not the new order will bring more or less peace and stability is debatable. It was argued erroneously in The Diplomat in 2016 that the balancing acts of Russia and China are extending US hegemony and the unipolar moment, claiming that Russian revisionism is uniting NATO; the US sanctions on NATO member Turkey would suggest otherwise. Turkey’s stockpile of US thermonuclear warheads being held “hostage” may also further complicate its relationship with Washington.
Now that Syria is gradually reclaiming its sovereign territory, and as the Astana process works towards a sustainable solution, the long suffering Syrian people will hopefully one day get to experience the peace that they deserve. However, as I mentioned in my previous article, one can expect the anti-Iranian alliance to set its sights on destabilising Tehran’s other allies, having failed in Syria. With the annual Arba’een pilgrimage underway in Iraq, there is a relative calm, but it could well change thereafter with a return to civil unrest. Lebanon has been peaceful and stable for far too long, so I’d treat the next popular “revolution” with some healthy scepticism.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.