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Russia Outsmarts the U.S. in Syria: A New Geopolitical Outlook

Recent developments confirm a major shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. It appears to me that Russia is dictating the pace of events, raising the question of whether Syria is becoming a proxy war between the United States and Russia.
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Russian air fighter Su-27 at military show
Russian air fighter Su-27 at military show

Even those who hardly keep up with global affairs, Russia's recent airstrikes in Syria have captured their attention. Russia claims its military intervention in Syria is targeting ISIS and other terrorist groups. While most of Russia's airstrikes thus far occurred in the area of Homs, the Syrian opposition strong hold, Western capitals including Washington are questioning Russia's motives behind this unexpected turn of events.

Only an hour before it launched airstrikes last week, Moscow informed Washington and requested clear airspace in parts of Syria to avoid any conflicts with US warplanes. Overlapping airstrikes could have major consequences; though probably not what some pundits were suggesting: World War III.

It's no secret that Russia has vehemently expressed firm support for the beleaguered regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Nor should one be surprised at Russian president Vladimir Putin's bold strategic and tactical move. The US government must understand what Russia's motives are for taking such a gamble. But make no mistake, this undertaking could and would alter the course of history for decades to come, especially in a region known for its constant shifting of priorities and loyalties.

Indeed, Russia's sustained and sharp increase in military aid to Al-Assad obscures Putin's long- term objectives, which go beyond the borders of Syria. The airstrikes in Syria provided Russia a legitimate reason to deploy members of its 810th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade to Latakia, Syria's principal port city and home to Russia's naval base.

My take: Russia's military approach encompasses four strategies:

 Russia is sending a message to the United States, NATO and the West that it will protect its interests and access to the Mediterranean Sea at any cost.

 Russian military intervention in Syria eases, to some degree, the military pressure on Iranian advisers and Hezbollah, strong supporters of Al-Assad.

 Russia wants to wipe out the opposition groups mainly those trained by the US. For instance, the commander of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliated group confirmed that two allegedly Russian airstrikes hit one of the group's camps. The group received training from the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

 Finally, in considering extension of anti-ISIS airstrikes inside Iraq, Russia not only bolsters its presence in the region, but also expands its influence as it forges an alliance against Sunni extremists with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, all driven by the rival Muslim Denomination of Shia.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is echoing the empty rhetoric of how concerned our leaders are and how the United States will coordinate with its allies in the region over what the next step might be. While these statements obviously target our more ill-informed citizens, Russia is moving forward with its plans of vaporizing Syrian rebels and ensuring that the AL-Assad dictatorship remains in power.

A few months ago when I was invited to make a presentation before military leaders at Fort Hood, I argued that Russia's geopolitical calculations will mainly be carried out through Syria and Iran. Russia justifies its military venture in Syria as getting rid of ISIS, providing it welcome global legitimacy as the only force in the world that will rid the Middle East of this sadistic menace.

But the real motive is ensuring al-Assad stays in power. And Russia's geopolitical strategy comes through its friends in Iran as well, especially since the nuclear deal has been reached with powers in the West and the lifting of economic sanctions is a forgone conclusion.

In short, the Russian Bear is back. Putin understands that it's now or never for Russia in reasserting itself on the global stage through the Middle East. His goal: securing political influence backed by a strong military presence. And it'll be hard for Washington leaders to minimize the role Russia is fast assuming in the region.

Consider the military hardware Russia has brought to Syria: Yakhont, a 6.7m-long (22-foot) missile with a range of 290km (180 miles) and carrying a high-explosive or armour-piercing warhead, and warplanes (34 of them) that match or exceed the performance of our F22s and F18s. And why does Russia need all these sophisticated weapons to target ISIS, which whatever else has no warplanes? The answer lies in Putin's long-term strategic and geopolitical vision.

I can understand the need for Russia to get rid of rebels trained by the United States, thus clearing the way for the AL-Assad regime to reclaim lost territories and allow Russia to work out a deal or even a possible truce with ISIS. Putin fully understands the impact of such moves.

Russia embarked on a similar tactic at the dawn of World War II. Do you recall the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop? The non-aggression treaty allowed Josef Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Nazi Germany to divide Poland. I see Putin embarking on a similar strategy, given that it will benefit both parties (Russia and ISIS) to stay clear of each other.

Another goal: With a Russian military apparatus of nearly three dozen warplanes, air-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and more in Syria, plus a naval base in Latakia, NATO might think twice of conducting military ventures near Russia's borders. It also highlights Russia's recent statement that it will respond if the United States decides to place about 20 nuclear warheads in Germany.

These developments confirm a major shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. It appears to me that Russia is dictating the pace of events, raising the question of whether Syria is becoming a proxy war between the United States and Russia. At least Putin gets credit for having a strategy in the first place. Whether it's the right one is the subject of another discussion. For now, Washington must admit its inability to influence events on the ground as Russia takes the lead.

Where from here? The Washington foreign policy establishment must ask itself whether Russia outsmarted the United States. I believe it did. Does Russia's assertive foreign policy in the region suggest the inevitable decline of the United States? I sadly believe it does. Is the shift in power in the Middle East a result of ambiguous U.S. foreign policy? I strongly believe so. Are we ready to accept a new world order in the Middle East in which the United States has far less influence? I think we have no choice. And will Russia's assertive foreign policy in the Middle East convince key players in the region to reconsider their priorities? They already have. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are cases in point.

One thing's sure: We now witness what an unpredictable, impulsive Russia can do in a world already marked by titanic geopolitical shifts, political chaos, instability, and shifting priorities. I wonder whether President Putin's next strategic move is to consider amendments to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Should this scenario unfold, it will be a game-changer. Let's hope Washington comes up with meaningful and effective strategies to save the day -- sooner than later.

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