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Cyr column: Russian policies and leadership shape the Mideast

Arthur I. Cyr
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The Daily Herald

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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The foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey held a successful video conference on April 22. The purpose was to rein in the seemingly endless violence in Syria. This is the latest instance of continuing cooperation among traditional opponents.

Earlier, on March 5 Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire. This followed a dangerous escalation in violence. Retaliation for the deaths of 60 Turkish troops led to increased support by Ankara for surviving rebel groups in Syria, and a devastating series of drone attacks against Syrian government forces.

The decision by Vladimir Putin in 2015 to intervene with military force in the brutal combat in Syria has led to sustained expansion of Russia’s influence in the region. Along with other benefits, Moscow has greatly increased the staying power of the regime of Syria President Bashar al-Assad.

Historically, Moscow has been preoccupied with secure national borders, especially in Eastern Europe, and generally abstained from sending military forces long distances. This traditional approach has now been abandoned by Putin, who has become a daring military gambler in the Mideast.

Russia has a long history of involvement in the volatile region, especially Syria. The profoundly serious Suez Crisis of 1956 resulted in sharp rupture among Western allies, as the Eisenhower administration refused to support a combined military assault by Britain, France and Israel to retake the Suez Canal and seize the Sinai Peninsula from nationalist Egypt.

From that time until the end of the Cold War, Moscow had significant influence. Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, helped instigate a successful 1963 coup. By 1970, he consolidated his position and ruled until 2000. Ironically given developments today, he was regarded as relatively moderate and an economic modernizer, though in the context of a dictatorship.

Syria developed close military partnership with Egypt, and the two nations went to war together against Israel in October 1973. The Yom Kippur War also witnessed American-Soviet nuclear confrontation. This crisis arguably was as serious as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, though conducted almost entirely outside public view, in great contrast to the confrontation over missiles in Cuba.

The Watergate domestic political crisis colors recollections among some Nixon administration officials. Nevertheless, reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

First, President Richard Nixon aggressively pursued the essential need to get aid to Israel. At the same time, Israel was pressured successfully to show restraint regarding encircled Egyptian forces. In short, vital U.S. interests in the region were recognized clearly and protected.

Second, visible actions were taken to demonstrate U.S. military resolve: B-52 bombers were moved from Guam to the U.S., the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was placed on alert.

Third, the U.S. ultimately did not pursue a proposed joint “condominium” advocated by the Soviets. Interests were too divergent on both sides. This bears directly on diplomatic efforts by Putin for international collaboration regarding Syria. Moscow clearly sees no reason to involve the U.S.

President Jimmy Carter brokered Egypt-Israel peace. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker initiated complex multilateral negotiations which resulted in partial Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Moscow was involved.

President Barack Obama and his administration pursued a largely rhetorical approach to the ongoing brutal Syria civil war. A declaration that use of poison gas by Syria would lead to military retaliation proved hollow.

Putin immediately seized the opportunity and secured a Damascus declaration abandoning chemical weapons. That event marked the end of serious U.S. influence.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.