Alireza Nouri

US Missile Strikes Against Syria: The Escalation of Tensions with Russia and the Necessity of Iranian Caution

Date of publication : April 29, 2017 16:35 pm
'Hands Off Syria' sign during a protest against US President Donald Trump's decision to launch airstrikes against Syria on April 8, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario Canada

American missile strikes against Syria can be studied from different dimensions. But, clearly, one of the most significant aspects is their effect on the situation and position of Russia in Syria and the Middle East and toward Washington. That the Kremlin officials underlined that these strikes would have negative effects on Moscow-Washington relations, and that Lavrov said cooperation between the two countries, including agreements on flight safety in Syria would be suspended are the first signs of these negative effects that, in turn, will influence the political and field arenas in Syria and the Middle East.
Obviously, more important than the missile strikes are the messages resulting from this American action sent to the international arena, Russia and the Middle East. The Kremlin officials know these messages and their interpretation well, for example, there has been no change in the American policy from Obama to Trump, and the destructive expansionism is still on the agenda of the White House. This development followed by a rapid escalation of tension between Russia and America also confirm the claim that the stable institutions in relations between the two countries, especially the inevitable power competition/confrontation in the international arena, do not allow relations to be improved.
But alongside this strategic content, the instrumental approach to such moves can be also studied. Russia is a useful enemy for America and vice versa, and the officials in the Kremlin and the White House have been able to solve some domestic and foreign policy problems at various times by exaggerating about this enmity. Trump seems to gradually achieve a better understanding of both dimensions: the strategic content associated with the sustainability of competition/confrontation with Russia, on the one hand, and the benefits of emphasizing on hostilities with Russia, on the other hand.
Now, the least advantage of missile strikes against Syria - Trump already knew that it would be faced with Russian confrontation - is the relative decrease in the domestic pressure and the relative deviation of the focus from the internal affairs to a foreign issue, especially that this foreign issue is not unrelated to the Russia which has been the most important source of pressure on Trump in recent months, and he can reduce the severity of pressure by rallying against Moscow in Syria.
In contrast, the Kremlin officials have also found that the presence of a level of confrontation with the West/America is “useful” for the “identity-building” process in Russia, the continued presence of the Slavic at the top of political authority, winning domestic support and distracting public opinion from domestic problems. This advantage is especially important for the Kremlin in the remaining time (one year) to the presidential election. Especially under the situation that the Moscow officials know that due to accusing Russia of interfering in the elections of America and European countries, this country will face difficult situation for its presidential election in 2018, and the Western powers, in different ways, will try to influence Russia’s internal processes in the form of revenge or their usual interventionist approach.
Sings of such a risk were seen in the street protests (March 26) held in different cities of Russia at the invitation of Alexei Navalny to protest against corruption - Putin compared them with the “color” movements. It is evident that the continuation of these developments, which Navalny and the opposition emphasize on them, and the fact that the Western powers are also trying to add fuel to them, can create problems for the Kremlin in the upcoming election. Against this background, domestic issues will fade away, and desired functions can be fulfilled by focusing on the external issue of confronting America which will boost national morale, strengthen the elite and people hoping to revive the “position of great power” and coordination with America for Russia.
The terrorist explosion in St. Petersburg clearly showed that exaggerating about the external issue of terrorism has an effective impact on fading the protest climate from March 26 gatherings. With this regard, it is undeniable that a “certain level” of competition/confrontation is “useful” for both the Kremlin and the White House, and they welcome such a development. But, undoubtedly, any competition/ confrontation should be “limited and controlled”, and the more efficient option is to follow them in the third playground. A successful example of this can be seen in the Kremlin’s action to change the playground from Ukraine to Syria and from the issue of sanctions and pressure on Moscow to negotiating over the crisis management in the Middle East.
To avoid direct confrontation in the third playgrounds, Moscow and Washington would try to engage their partners and proxy forces, and reduce their own costs. The climate and arrangement of forces in the Middle East will provide for them an appropriate space to advance this goal. The excitement and hastiness of Washington’s partners, including Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia for approving and supporting the Trump’s missile strikes against Syria prove this idea, and they are the indication of their readiness to play an active role in the US scenario.
With this regard, the American missile strikes against Syria in the first level - regional - can cause changes in the field and political arenas. In the political arena, the collapse of Syrian peace talks is not unexpected. America with its aggressive approach, its allies, including Turkey hoping to get more support from Washington and the opposition groups hoping to receive new help will not be much willing to continue the negotiations. The field arena will also change and be accompanied with tensions, if America continues its active and aggressive approach in Syria. This development can be accompanied with carrying out the plan for the creation of a safe zone, strengthening the joint front with its regional allies in Syria, helping the opposition groups in various forms (facilitating) sending troops, weapons and money and even providing overt and covert help for the terrorist groups of al-Nusra Front and the ISIS.
The realization of this scenario will increase the pressure on Iran, Russia and Syria. In the meantime, to maintain their achievements, Tehran and Moscow will need each other’s help more to balance the situation in Syria. It cannot be denied that Russia without Iran and Iran without Russia will not be able to advance their goals, and strengthening their interactions in Syria would be a logical choice for both sides regarding the future highly changing situation.
But as the Kremlin officials have linked the American missile strikes against Syria to bilateral relations between Russia and America, their competition/ confrontation in Syria at a higher (international) level can be studied as well. From this perspective (macro level), Syria is the third playground for a less costly competition/confrontation between the two countries to secure a greater share in the regional and international trends. Obviously, losing this third playground will have its own negative consequences. Possible damages for Moscow include: this playground may be captured by the US and the stress point may be transmitted to somewhere near the Russian borders. Therefore, America tries to advance its front under any baseless pretext, and, in contrast, Russia seeks to preserve its achievements by any means and ways available.
To win this great game, America, with the network approach, will use its regional partners more, and in the current situation, the Russian option will be Iran. It is natural that Moscow and Washington prefer to engage their partners against each other in the first front, and even weaken the opponent by weakening his partners. From this perspective, Iran’s entry to the macro-level competition/confrontation between Russia and America will be unnecessary, and will lead to negative consequences for Iran. Trends show that after a period of confrontation, Moscow and Washington will reach an agreement on the division of shares in any way possible, and in the meantime, the host of the third playground and the partners will confront each other and pay the highest costs.
Of course, that this article points out the dangers of engaging Iran in the macro-level competition/confrontation between Russia and America does not mean the rejection of close interaction between Tehran and Moscow at the regional level, but it only emphasizes on the subject separation, the selection of interactive requirements, and on paying attention to the risks and negative consequences of the Iranian unnecessary entry to the macro level. As mentioned, the close interaction between the two countries in the current highly changing situation is considered the logical choice for both sides, because Trump, through missile strikes against Syria, is testing conditions and, of course, if he does not see any decisive reaction to his action, and only does see the weakness and inaction on the other side, he will be more determined in advancing his aggressive approach.
This article emphasizes that Tehran in its effort to achieve its own interests at the regional level should have the necessary prudence and caution not to become the tools to advance the great game between Russia and America at macro (international) level. In the meantime, the inaccurate description of some Iranian officials of the “strategic” nature of relations with Russia - also repeated in the recent visit of Mr. Rouhani to Russia - can lead to miscalculation and the incorrect assumption about the necessity that Iran should play a role in the macro-level competition/confrontation between Moscow and Washington which will incur costs for Iran.
It is more efficient that the framework of relations between Iran and Russia be interpreted and followed by in the current practical form, meaning “threat-based selective engagement” and be considered limited to the regional realistic level with a multi-vector approach of trying to use the Moscow capacities. This is exactly the same approach that the Kremlin follows toward Iran, however, it tries to use the capacities of Tehran to advance its goals in both regional and international levels, but none of its officials has ever described the nature of relations with Iran as “strategic”.
© Network for Public Policy Studies

Alireza Nouri, an analyst of Russian politics, is the fellow at IRAS.

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