oalition warfare is difficult. Allied war aims always diverge and often conflict, particularly with victory in sight. As Winston Churchill remarked during World War II, “the only thing worse than having allies is not having them.” Allies are often necessary, but each partner has to keep its own interests and aims clearly in focus, and calibrate its contributions to the common effort to secure those interests. A statesman must carefully use his allies and not allow them to use his own country for their ends.
Since 2003 America has proclaimed itself a coalition member in the Middle East. Presumably, then, we have been waging coalition warfare. Our current action against ISIS probably deserves this moniker, but actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Libya, once combat began in earnest, were hardly examples of true coalition warfare. Our allies were never equal or even significant junior partners, but merely clients or supporters―we decided the military and political strategy, and the Europeans, Australians, and Canadians either pitched in or watched from the sidelines. As for the locals, we first ignored their passions and loyalties altogether. They could fight for us if it suited them, but our policy didn’t take them into account as serious allies. Later, our policy met with some―but not much―fleeting success.
According to Dmitri Trenin's elegant new book, What Is Russia Up To In The Middle East?, Russia is a different animal. While globalized, liberal, tolerant, and multicultural Americans cannot accept the truth about Middle Easterners and what they want, the primitive, backward, and parochial Russians have done just that. Russia's Syrian expedition is approaching victory, while American expeditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya―and probably Syria, too―have led to stalemate, exhaustion, anarchy, or political defeat. The Russians, waging true coalition warfare with their Iranian, Syrian, Hezbollah, Shiite, and Turkish allies, have succeeded in achieving their primary war aims.
Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that the Russians are not so parochial as we carelessly believe. They have a long history in the greater Middle East and Islamic world. They've collided with the Turkic peoples in central Asia and fought the Ottomans in Europe. Catherine II defeated Muslim khans and annexed the Crimea in 1783. In the 19th century Russians expanded into the Caucasus and encroached upon Persian spheres of influence. Russia declared itself the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and aimed for control of the Black Sea straits and Constantinople. Forming a de facto anti-German coalition, the British and Russians divided up Persia in 1907. In 1943 the Soviets provided security when the Big Three met in Tehran. After the war, Stalin sent soldiers into Iran’s Azerbaijan province to probe how far the USSR could expand. The Soviets then supported secular Arab regimes and disastrously entered ground combat against Muslim irregulars in Afghanistan in the '70s. As they imploded at home the Russians, for a time, largely withdrew from the Arab world, although they remained a force within the former Soviet space.
But Bismarck was correct: Russia is never as weak or as strong as it appears. In 2015, after discounting Russia and dismissing its objections to our designs, the American policy elite was shocked when Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime and Alawite sect were facing defeat, while Sunni jihadists were on the cusp of a massive and menacing victory: control over a key Arab state and an outlet on the Mediterranean. Russian air power, and manpower from Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite militia, stopped the jihadists and turned the tide.
Trenin notes some fascinating facts. The Russians have fought Persians, Afghans, and Turks, in their thousand-year history, but never before waged war in the Arab world. Having learned the lessons of Afghanistan, Russia’s campaign in Syria is its first aerial war―ground forces are only used to protect airfields and assist in targeting. By defending the integrity of a sovereign state, the Russians believe they are drawing a line against both the American policy of destroying states, such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria itself, and our indifference (at best) to the capture of sovereigns, such as in Egypt, by Sunni radicals. Trenin argues that the Syrian intervention has a global as well as regional purpose for Russia: demonstrating to the American policy class, and others, that the unipolar moment is over. The US has lost its monopoly on global military intervention, and, consequently, the global order has shifted decisively away from American hegemony. Within this multipolar world, Russia is staking its claim as a power to be respected.
Trenin’s analysis of Russian diplomacy raises interesting grand strategic considerations. He cites Lord Palmerston’s dictum that England had no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. The English supported weaker European powers against the strongest power―whatever its culture or ideology―to prevent Europe from falling under a hegemony. Such a strategy required a calculating willingness to discard or oppose former allies and support former antagonists. In comparing Russia’s contemporary policy with that of England, though, Trenin has made a subtle error. Throughout the wars for European supremacy, the English decisively intervened only after the European balance had clearly come under attack. England did not seek to prevent war or control its scope by forming durable bonds with all European powers, aggressors and defenders alike, thus limiting their freedom of action and the dynamics of escalation. Confident in its insular margin of safety, England waited until the potential hegemon unfurled its banners.
Russia’s Middle East strategy is different. As Trenin notes, Russia maintains cooperative relationships with all the major regional powers, even as those powers menace each other. In Syria, Russia wars with its Iranian and Shiite allies against Sunni-supported ISIS, al Qaeda, and other jihadists. At the same time, it cooperates with Saudi Arabia on oil policy, sells weapons to Egypt and Turkey, and works with the latter inside Syria. As the Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite forces approach Israel’s border under Russian air cover and prepare for war with Israel, Russia maintains working relations with Jerusalem.
This strategy―working with opposing powers in order to exert some control over the system as a whole―is “Bismarckian” rather than classically English. Bismarck signed treaties with both the Austrian and Russian Empires, which opposed each other, to prevent the complete alienation of either and, logically, the alliance of the spurned power with Germany’s fixed enemy, France. Thus Bismarck maintained and managed a “balance of tensions” in Europe to prevent the emergence of clear friends and enemies, rival coalitions, and a “balance of power.” Bismarck wanted manageable “tension” as opposed to clarified, rival blocs because, unlike the English, he feared war and sought to stave off a general collision. The current stakes for Russia, however, are lower than they were for Bismarck’s Germany. Russia does not fear limited wars in the Middle East, although it should fear being drawn in against strong powers with attendant risks of rapid escalation.
These strategic distinctions bring us to an important development that Trenin fails to address: the relentlessly approaching war between Israel and the Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite axis. Iran is not a normal state. It is a revolutionary power whose messianic mission requires the destruction of Israel. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has used money sent to Iran by the Obama administration to win the war in Syria and open up a new, northern front against Israel. The Assad regime is too weak to restrain Iran inside Syria. In fact, the war before the war has already begun―Israel is intensifying air strikes against Iranian controlled assets in Syria, while the IRGC transfers advanced missiles to Hezbollah, surveils the border with Israel, and establishes Shiite bases and weapons production facilities inside Syria.
Trenin’s concise analysis provides a clear outline of Russia’s political goals and methods, but the true test of Putin’s quasi-Bismarckian policy is approaching. Russia is a realistic, opportunistic power allied, for now, with a messianic-revolutionary state bent on war with Israel―a technologically advanced nation with a first class air force, de facto alliance with America, and long range nuclear arsenal. When the war begins, will the Russian expeditionary force confront the Israelis in the skies over Syria, or sit back as its allies are attacked? Russia has impressively calibrated policy, diplomacy, and force in the Middle East―so far.