This publication is from the Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia project.
U.S. Objectives and Interests
U.S. objectives and interests in the Middle East have been largely constant over time. The main difference between the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations’ Middle East policies revolves around democracy promotion. Democracy promotion had begun to wane in Bush’s second term, was revived to a degree in Obama’s first term amid the Arab Spring, and has since declined. The Obama administration lacked the resources and diplomatic clout to sustain the Mohamed Morsi government in Egypt or deter, let alone roll back, the majoritarian coup that toppled it. Similarly, the administration lacked the capacity to reconstitute a unified and functional Libyan political order in the aftermath of the NATO intervention. Owing in part to this experience and the difficulty of defining a favorable resolution that U.S. involvement could plausibly bring about, the administration was unwilling to intervene in the Syrian civil war that unfolded in late 2011 and 2012.
Long-standing strategic interests—the integrity of oil flows from the Persian Gulf, nonproliferation concerns about Iran, counterterrorism operations amid larger deployments in the Middle East and South Asia—necessitated an accommodation to the suppression of Arab Spring protests in Bahrain and repression of Shia in Saudi Arabia. Pressure for political reform in Jordan declined, while a more cautious approach to human rights and civil liberties in the UAE regulated interaction with Abu Dhabi. Democracy promotion took a backseat to the quest for stability as anarchic conditions spread and the resources the United States could muster dwindled.
In addition to fostering the arrangements needed to secure the flow of oil and conduct military campaigns against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the Taliban, the Obama administration prioritized the Middle East peace process, as had the Bush administration in 2007–2008. This effort unfolded in several consecutive phases, beginning with an effort to bring a temporary halt to settlement construction in the West Bank. Following the collapse of this effort and a subsequent foray in 2010 to restart direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the president laid out his conception of the problem and a path to a resolution on issues related to territory and security, but Israeli resistance to this approach proved insurmountable. As an indication of the importance of the issue to the United States, another major effort was launched in 2013 despite the unpromising context. This too failed.
At the end of the Obama administration’s second term, however, the peace process is no longer a U.S. objective, even though Obama’s successor might revive it. Rather, the primary objectives of the United States will be to repair relations with the Arab Gulf states; ensure Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Syria; dissuade Turkey from entering the war to contain Kurdish ambitions; beat back the Islamic State in Iraq, Libya, and Syria; and build counterterrorism capacity in other regional at-risk states, including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia.
The U.S. Government’s View of Russia’s Role in the Region
The U.S. view of Russia’s role in the region varies with perceptions and realities of local Russian activism and, of course, a broader understanding of Russian foreign policy and security objectives in Europe and Central Asia. There are grounds for concern about a more serious clash between Turkey and Russia. The shooting down of a Russian aircraft followed by Russian retaliatory raids against Turkmen population centers in Syria are emblematic of the inherent dangers of escalation. Turkey’s status as a NATO member state could draw the United States into a conflict over which it has no control. Both President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are motivated by domestic political factors that incentivize risk-taking behavior, which, in turn, holds Brussels hostage.
This problem is organically linked to the partially conflicting interests Russia and the West have in the Syrian civil war. Russia is clearly committed to the survival of the regime, while key U.S. regional allies, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE, favor regime change. There was never any basis for the U.S. expectation of Russian cooperation in this project. Indeed the differences that emerged between the United States and Russia in July 2012 immediately following completion of the Geneva Communiqué were a clear signal that Moscow was not prepared to go down that road. Russian military intervention had been foreshadowed by Moscow, but studied Russian ambiguity had over time succeeded only too well in persuading U.S. policymakers that Russia would work toward President Bashar al-Assad’s near-term departure. Ironically, the high-water mark of U.S. confidence in Russian cooperation just preceded the intervention.
In the event, the White House sought to preserve as much flexibility as possible. Partly owing to a lingering view that the United States and Russia were basically on the same side regarding the need for Assad to leave office, the initial reaction was that Russia’s intervention would give Moscow greater leverage over Assad’s destiny. One way or another, the U.S. president was explicit in rejecting a proxy war with Russia over Syria, despite countervailing signals in the form of larger tranches of TOW antitank missile transfers to rebel groups, some of which were used against Russian vehicles. Views of the Russian intervention soon darkened as Russian aircraft struck armed opposition groups supported by the United States. Calls from outside the administration for safe havens coupled with no-fly zones were unheeded by the White House, almost certainly because they carried the risk of inadvertent military confrontation with Russia over an issue that did not rise to the strategic level.
The United States was nevertheless willing to work with the Russians both bilaterally and under UN auspices (the Vienna process) to produce a cease-fire in Syria that, while not comprehensive, is more widespread and durable than many anticipated. In the meantime, the administration has opted to dismiss the lasting importance of Russia’s presence in Syria by comparing it to the experience of Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The view from the White House, which may not be shared throughout the U.S. government, is that Syria is a quagmire and the commitment to undergird the Assad regime will outstrip Russia’s ability to maintain the necessary effort. While it is possible that the administration has access to information on Russian weakness that is not publicly available, the claim of unsustainability seems questionable, given the limited scope of the intervention, the vulnerability of rebel forces, the existing degree of regime cohesion, the low casualties Russia has so far suffered, the domestic popularity of the intervention, and the ongoing cooperation of Kurds and Iranians.
The U.S. view of Russian involvement elsewhere is unlikely to be very well developed, primarily because decisionmakers are distracted by bigger challenges and because Russian meddling outside of Syria is fairly insignificant. The exception might be energetic diplomacy with Egypt, buttressed by arms sales and reciprocal presidential visits. But unlike the previous Cold War with the Soviet Union, it is scarcely likely that the Russians are using their access to urge an Egyptian attack on Israel or to lead a region-wide propaganda campaign against the United States and the conservative monarchies in the Gulf. Arms sales to Iraq will soak up resources that might otherwise accrue to the United States. But Russian sales of mobile SAMs, combat helicopters, and antitank missiles will not confer an offensive capability on Iraqi forces, and they could conceivably help Baghdad assert greater control over contested areas within Iraq. Sales to Algeria, Libya, and Jordan will not alter the shape of U.S. relations with these countries. Washington no doubt keeps an eye on Gazprom and Rosatom activities, but these too will not challenge the U.S. position where they are taking place. There have been several high-level meetings between Russia and Iran, including between Putin and the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s defense minister. But these meetings have yielded few concrete results.
Russia’s Importance to U.S. Goals in the Middle East
The U.S. administration’s primary objective in Syria has been to avoid entanglement in the civil war. To be sure, the United States is backing armed opposition groups whose main purpose is to attack the regime. But the support for moderate rebels, which has included weapons transfers, is subordinate to a more fundamental U.S. opposition to involvement. The more tangible and urgent U.S. objective is the destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and, in that respect, Russian intervention could prove somewhat helpful. The United States and Russia coordinate their strike missions to avoid fratricidal incidents, and the Russians are attacking Islamic State targets alongside a range of opposition formations that threaten the Assad regime, including groups supported by the United States. Washington’s diplomatic objective would be unachievable without Russian cooperation, but a degree of collaboration seems to be at work under the framework of the Vienna process.
Elsewhere, Russian cooperation is unessential to U.S. initiatives, for example, supporting Iraqi and Kurdish combat operations against the Islamic State in Iraq or backing Saudi operations in Yemen. In Egypt, relatively narrow U.S. objectives—maintaining access to the Suez Canal, countering terrorism, and supporting the Egypt-Israel peace treaty—do not require Russian help. In contrast, Russian cooperation in implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is probably indispensable.
Potential Opportunities for U.S.- Russian Cooperation
U.S.-Russian cooperation is conceivable in several areas. The most obvious is counterterrorism, where there is a clear convergence of interest in combating jihadists. Cooperation, however, ultimately depends on intelligence sharing. Both sides have been reluctant to tread this path out of fear of compromising sources and methods. Targeting is yet another obstacle insofar as Russian targeting is broader and less discriminating than U.S. targeting. Moreover, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have established a role for counterradicalization that appears absent from the Russian approach. Despite these obstacles, the degree of shared interest in degrading the jihadist threat suggests that a strategic and operational sweet spot for cooperation might yet be found.
Second, both Russia and Israel have signaled a degree of close cooperation and an alignment of worldviews. Israel seeks cooperation vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran as well as practical measures to ensure freedom of maneuver for Israeli aircraft carrying out strike and/or reconnaissance missions in Syrian airspace. Russia might foresee regional gains if it were to cooperate with the United States in using its leverage with Israel to push it toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. At this juncture, Israel envisages the possibility of a web of useful strategic ties with governments that do not care about a peace process. Israel’s perception of diplomatic depth diminishes its incentive to bend to U.S. peace efforts. If, however, the United States and Russia were to jointly press Israel for compromise, Israeli cooperation might be somewhat more likely. By contrast, the prevailing neo–Cold War environment might make a cooperative effort unpalatable to both sides. The United States has long been reluctant to share responsibility for the peace process. Although Russia might be more inclined to recognize Israeli concerns than it has in the past, it is unlikely that Washington’s determination to maintain its diplomatic monopoly will soften.
Third, looking at assiduous Russian efforts to reestablish influence in Egypt and assertions by Egyptians that Egypt needs alternative options to the United States, it could be worth exploring what Washington and Moscow might accomplish by joining forces. For example, U.S. and Russian (and Israeli) interests would be served by a wiser and more effective Egyptian counterinsurgency campaign in the Sinai Peninsula. The United States alone has found it difficult to move the Egyptian government in the direction of sounder counterinsurgency operations in Sinai or domestic political steps that will lessen the risk of jihadist blowback in Egypt proper. To the extent that Cairo does look to Russia as an option —even if it is intended to play Russia and the United States against each other and derive more substantial strategic rents—a combined Russian and U.S. push for more effective counterinsurgency tactics and a loosening of the noose around the Muslim Brotherhood might conceivably have an effect. Yet, a more appropriate campaign in the Sinai would require an acquisition strategy that would run counter to Russian arms sales goals. And a meeting of U.S. and Russian minds regarding counterinsurgency methods should not be taken for granted.
Fourth, Syria represents a context for cooperation that is already playing out, if haltingly and beset by much friction. Neither Russia nor the United States is particularly interested in a reset, and they do not necessarily look at Syria as a test bed for cooperation in other domains. But thus far both capitals are protecting their respective, partly overlapping interests in Syria without clashing. Russian restraint in this instance has been notable. Moscow was, after all, the last of the external players to leap into the conflict. President Obama’s initial instinct, according to White House officials, was to try to exploit Russia’s intervention to improve the odds of a political transition in Syria. Although this hope was not fulfilled, the two countries supported a cessation of hostilities that is still largely holding. The task ahead requires U.S.-Russian cooperation to consolidate and widen the zones where fighting has stopped and, ultimately, sponsor negotiations that will leverage the cessation of hostilities for a durable political resolution of the conflict. Should the parties reach a comprehensive settlement, U.S.-Russian cooperation will also be needed in establishing postconflict stabilization arrangements.
Lastly, Russia’s cooperation in policing Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will be useful and should be forthcoming. One additional area for Russian help would be restraint in the sale and deployment of advanced SAMs that would greatly complicate a U.S. military effort to disarm Iran should it seriously violate the terms of its agreement or attempt to break out. Thus far Russia has played hide and seek on this issue; a commitment not to sell would boost deterrence, while reassuring U.S. allies that a feasible military option remained available to Washington.
The Russian Challenge to U.S. Interests in the Middle East
It is not clear what challenges Russia will pose in the future to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Russia, for example, could decline to share information regarding the Islamic State or the Nusra Front or even withhold threat information regarding conspiracies against the United States. A U.S. response, presumably, would be to reciprocate. In the case of Israel, a challenge is somewhat more difficult to see, but there have been straws in the wind, such as Israel’s rallying to Moscow in the dispute over Ukraine. The response in this instance would be directed toward Israel, but without consciousness-raising about the issue in Congress, the United States would have only limited influence to bring to bear, especially since a new ten-year memorandum of understanding on assistance to Israel will probably have been signed by then.
In addition, Russia could reinforce the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government’s more counterproductive or retrograde policies in ways that reduce already waning U.S. influence or drive a wider wedge between Cairo and Washington. Yet, as argued above, this sort of interference would not necessarily jeopardize core U.S. interests, although if it resulted in Russian access for in-theater staging—an unlikely prospect—U.S. interests could suffer. But Washington’s response, as in the Israeli example, would have to be aimed at Cairo rather than Moscow in the form of either a threat to withdraw U.S. support, which could backfire, or an effort to outbid the Russians, which should be possible given the depth of the United States’ pockets compared to Russia’s. In Syria, Russian backing for regime cease-fire violations—or Russian violations—could be met with the establishment of no-fly zones and safe havens that the United States would have to enforce. This would entail playing chicken with Moscow, for the United States a high-risk, low-yield proposition. Lastly, if Russia were to arm Iran in a way that foreclosed the possibility of American strikes, the options would include interdiction of the shipments, intensified sanctions against Russia, or, more collaboratively if also unlikely, private Russian agreement to supply technical data on the missiles sold to Iran that would facilitate their destruction in a contingency.
Future Russian Efforts at Power Projection
In the near term, it seems unlikely that Russian maneuvering will pull the rug out from under the United States. Russia’s flirtation with Egypt is, at this stage, superficial, and its arms sales are aimed at securing hard currency first, influence second. Egypt grasps the unique U.S. role in decisions by multilateral development banks and still values the small amount of grant assistance the United States can offer. Over the longer term, the risks described above could eventuate, especially if the United States distances itself from Cairo due to an even greater crackdown on domestic opponents. Similarly, in the near term, Russian influence over Israel is essentially derisory, but this too could change over time, depending on the evolution of Israeli politics and society. But in this event, the loss of U.S. influence will not have been precipitated by Russian actions; it will have been taking place of its own momentum.
Moscow would no doubt want to gain a privileged position in Tehran and could do so if it were to pave the way for an Iranian breakout by providing Iran with sophisticated defensive systems. But in so doing, it would alienate the Sunni Arab world and Israel, while courting the possibility of a nuclear-armed neighbor along its southern flank. The prize, in the near term, would scarcely seem worth the price. Over the longer term, however, the United States is likelier to have the edge in Tehran, assuming of course that there is any receptivity at all to relations with the West. If not, then Russian gains could not be said to result in a loss of Western influence. And in Syria, the U.S. administration has been fairly clear that it does not perceive core U.S. interests to be at stake in that country, except of course for the presence of the Islamic State, which is under continuous, vigorous attack. So even in the longer term, Russian primacy in a rump Syrian state should not pose an insurmountable challenge to the United States or even to the West more generally. Russian relations with Iran have gone through as many phases as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s terminal patient, but the underlying trend has been tacitly conflictual.
Lastly, in Iraq, Russian influence was never very strong, even though in comparison to the United States it seemed to be better positioned there during the era of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Unless there is a profound rapprochement between Iran and Russia during the next three to five years, a spike in Moscow’s influence that wrong-footed the United States is difficult to imagine. Elsewhere on the Arab side of the Gulf, a seventy-year legacy of suspicion—even hostility—compounded by Russia’s rescue of the Assad regime and its competition in a brittle oil market suggest that a wholesale abandonment of the United States as a security guarantor in favor of Moscow is not in the cards.
Steven Simon served as senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011 through 2012. Prior to this position, he was director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the United States and the Middle East and senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is currently a visiting professor at Dartmouth College and co-author of the forthcoming book, Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.