The revelation that Russia is using an Iranian base to launch airstrikes in Syria, representing the first foreign military to operate on the Islamic Republic’s soil since World War II, has significant ramifications for the U.S.
While Russia’s role in the 2016 election may be largely confined to hacking and similar efforts meant to destabilize our domestic politics — as Russia has been doing in Europe for decades — its moves on the world stage should merit great concern from those looking beyond this cycle and toward a world that in many ways is going Russia’s way, contrary to America’s national interest.
Below are three critical takeaways from the latest move stemming from Russia’s strategic partnership with Iran.
1. Vladimir Putin is the ultimate opportunist
Vladimir Putin has recognized that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been one of retrenchment, support for jihadist uprisings, and above all the empowerment of Iran as the region’s hegemon. This has created an opportunity for Russia to embed itself in the region, supplanting the U.S. and allowing it to project its power while embarrassingly running circles around us. Filling the vacuum the Obama administration created, and seizing upon the “flexibility” it was promised, Russia is siding most closely with the region’s hegemon in Iran, not only in its support of the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria, but in its sale of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the Khameinists. This is the only reason why a move skirting Iran’s constitution, like allowing another military to use Iranian bases, would ever be considered, let alone permitted. While supporting the main Shia power in the region, Russia has also sought to cultivate relations with Sunni leaders such as Turkey’s Erdogan and Egypt’s Sisi. The end result is that Russia is working to ingratiate itself with all sides on the Middle East to ensure that its economic, political, and military interests are achieved, all while flouting the wishes of the U.S.
2. Russia’s “terror-fighting” provides a convenient cover for its true aims
Russia claims in its use of the Iranian air base and more broadly that its efforts on the ground in Syria are essential to helping it destroy ISIS. As we know, however, the Putin regime has other aims in Syria. It seeks to keep in power the Assad regime with which it is allied, and thus has targeted various other opposition groups —many of which, like ISIS, consist of jihadists —on the ground in Syria’s civil war. Some of the groups Russia has attacked are U.S.-backed. While it is the height of folly in this author’s opinion to be backing the euphemistically identified “moderates” in Syria (read: “good jihadists”), Putin’s striking of such groups and America’s cowardly reaction is telling. More importantly, the question of what happens if and when ISIS is destroyed in Iraq and Syria has not yet been asked in America. One logical answer is that Shia jihadism, as controlled by Iran, will spread significantly. Iranian proxies are fighting ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and the removal of a Sunni jihadist counter to Iranian power will enable Iran’s sphere of influence to spread further. Russia will be partially to credit for making the Shiite Crescent possible.
3. Russia feels free to act with impunity
As Bloomberg’s Eli Lake describes it, Russia’s use of an Iranian base represents the latest in a series of humiliations for the Obama administration. He writes:
For the last year, Secretary of State John Kerry has worked and worked to get Russia to help end Syria’s civil war. He has cajoled. He has sniped. He has spent countless hours in meetings and on the phone with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. And he pretty much has nothing to show for it…
As soon as the Iran nuclear deal was concluded last July, the Russians and Iranians began plotting a surge for Syria on behalf of the dictator, Bashar al-Assad. As Kerry made plans for talks in Geneva, the Russians set up air bases in Syria. Once their campaign started, they bombed U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. In June, Russian planes bombed a U.S. and British special operations base near the Syrian border.
But the announcement of the bombing from Iran stings Kerry the most. Kerry himself, only a year ago, told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, had told him after the completion of the nuclear deal, “I am now empowered to work with and talk to you about regional issues.”
Now the Iranians can’t stop working with the Russians about regional issues. Meanwhile, Iran keeps detaining and arresting American dual-nationals, testing missiles and threatening American allies.
Russia’s staunch support for a regime that seeks to destroy America — Kerry’s delusions notwithstanding — and America’s inability or unwillingness to check it indicate that Russia can and should continue to act freely in the region. If America has no will to stop Iran, surely it has no will to stop Iran’s close partner in Russia.
We should not be surprised to find Russia manipulating jihadist groups, further to America’s detriment, as it has developed such ties over many decades. As Michael Weiss details in a trenchant article in the Daily Beast, evidence suggests that Russia is playing a long double game in the Middle East of portraying itself as a counterterrorist regime that can work amicably with America, while also facilitating the transfer of jihadis out of Russia’s borders and into the Middle East, supplying ready fighters for groups like ISIS that Russia claims to be fighting.
In so doing, Russia rids itself of jihadist threats to itself, while creating havoc in the Middle East, which of course can be harmful for the U.S. and helpful in driving up prices for the oil which is the lifeblood of the Russian economy.
There’s an old saying befitting of the Putin regime to the effect that “all Russia is deception.” We should not deceive ourselves, however, about the fact that Russia is doing all that it can to spread its influence and infect every body politic to which it can attach itself to serve its own ends.
Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest takeaway of all is that America’s own lack of moral clarity, or worse, complicity with evil, has enabled a dictatorial, kleptocratic KGB regime to ascend in the early years of the 21st century. As with the Islamic supremacists, Russia knows what it wants. The same cannot be said for the America that must serve as a bulwark against its tyranny.
Ben Weingarten is the founder and CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and publication services firm, and a contributor to Conservative Review. A graduate of Columbia University, he regularly contributes to publications such as City Journal, The Federalist, Newsmax, and PJ Media on national security and defense, economics, and politics. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.