On Wednesday, August 2, Russia’s deputy foreign minister met with leading diplomats from Iran and Iraq. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the mission to combat Islamist Jihadists and the plans for Syria.
Although President Trump has said that President Assad is an “evil animal,” the push for the US to get involved in regime change in Syria has diminished to the point that the US is no longer actively working to remove Assad from power. The concentration is on fighting ISIS instead.
Couple this with the fact that Iraq is signaling it is time for the US’s extended presence in its country to end and Iraq is looking to Russia (which has become an increasingly important power broker in the region) for assistance and you see US power diminishing in the region.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met in Moscow with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Nazar Khairallah to emphasize the “principled position of the three countries” on Syria. All three expressed support for Assad in a lengthy war pitting his armed forces against jihadists and opposition groups, according to Syria’s pro-government al-Watan newspaper and Iran’s semi-official Tasnim News Agency.
Ever since Russia moved to assist the Syrian government in 2015, it has become the leading international power in the region. Russia, Iran, and Iraq all support Assad and are increasing cooperation in the area. The recent US sanctions have pushed Russia and the US farther apart while Iran, Iraq, and Russia have grown closer in their mutual support for Assad.
Russia has contributed money and military power to bolster the beleaguered Syrian military, allowing it to retake much of the territory previously lost to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and other insurgent groups that have been trying to topple the government since 2011.
The US has concentrated on supporting factions fighting against ISIS, even when those forces are diametrically opposed to the Syrian government. This position causes a very delicate balance to exist between Russia, Iran, and US troops, all operating in the same battle space.
Last year in a rare move, Tehran allowed Russian planes to use its territory to bomb positions in Syria, and the two countries managed to draw Turkey, which deeply opposes Assad, into peace talks following the Syrian government’s recapture of Aleppo in December.
Assad’s return of control comes on the back of a greater US focus on fighting ISIS and a decline in US support for rebel groups that have been fighting the Assad government troops as well as ISIS. The Pentagon is supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities deeply involved in fighting ISIS.
Special Operations Command head Raymond Thomas said last month that, once ISIS is defeated, the US’s counterterrorism mandate in Syria will likely expire, but not Russia’s. The US’s influence in Iraq may also be coming to an end which will open the door to Russia for filling the role as the main supporter for Iraq.
Last week, Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki visited Moscow to appeal to improve and create closer relations with Russia to “balance” the US and its agenda. Just two days earlier, Iraqi Defense Minister Irfan al-Hiyali met with his Iranian counterpart to talk about greater cooperation between the two countries. Iran has taken on a major role in assisting Iraq with defeating ISIS within the Iraqi border and is very much involved with the Iraqi government.
After nearly 15 years of US presence in Iraq and with the state the US left Iraq in when the US pulled out of the country before any real infrastructure or stable government was in place, Baghdad appears to be looking elsewhere for future security ties.
Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria has presented a serious challenge to US interests and influence. At this point, it may be too late to reverse the slide of US influence in the region. Even though both the US and Iran played major roles in beating ISIS in Iraq, the sides backed by the two countries has made a very large difference in how the Iraqi government views future relationships.
The US-led international coalition lent its support to the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces. The Kurdish forces have long been a thorn in the Iraqi government’s side. Iran backed the majority-Shiite Muslim Popular Mobilization Units, which Iraq ultimately recognized as part of the country’s official armed forces.
Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared ISIS was defeated in its former stronghold of Mosul, but tensions remain between some local fighters and the US. The Iran-backed Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades called for US withdrawal. Jafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for Iran, backed Hezbollah and accused the US of trying to sabotage a potential alliance between the “resistance axis” of Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
“The goal of the Americans is to control the Iraqi-Syrian border and isolate the axis powers,” Husseini said, according to Iraqi journalist Muntather al-Omri. “We won’t allow any American presence in Iraq under any circumstance.”
The era of the US acting as the major power broker in the Middle East has passed. Years of shifting policies and on again and off again support for the region have pushed the nations that were once US allies into Vladimir Putin’s camp.
To further make this point, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria maintain a joint intelligence sharing operation which includes the Iran-backed, Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah of Lebanon. In addition to Russia’s involvement with these countries, it has reportedly established relationships with Egypt, an ally of the US, and Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar to extend its sphere of influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Russia is very openly pursuing a program of supplanting the US in the region, and they have thus far been successful in that effort.