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Analysts: Russia's Moves in Syria, Iraq Upending US Role


Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attend a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 28, 2015.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attend a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 28, 2015.

With just two moves, Russia may have upended the U.S. role in the Middle East.

Working with its allies in Tehran and Damascus, Moscow first moved 28 attack and transport aircraft and enough housing for 2,000 troops to Latakia, Syria.

Then, Moscow set up a security and intelligence-sharing cell in Baghdad, also in coordination with Iran and Syria, to fight Islamic State extremists.

The result is that Russia has created a new Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis of power in the region where it is “the only superpower willing to fight," said Michael Pregent, a visiting fellow at National Defense University.

“This completely undermines and marginalizes the U.S. fight against the Islamic State and supplants any leverage we have. We are not doing a thing,” Pregent said, criticizing what he called U.S. President Barack Obama’s “slow-burn” strategy in the region.

Losing influence

Other analysts have said that for months Washington had been losing its influence in Baghdad to neighboring Iran.

Washington’s airstrike campaign also has done little to oust Islamic State militants from Iraq or Syria, and the Pentagon’s efforts to train a rebel force to fight the extremists has failed.

FILE - This handout image taken by EADS' Astrium Press on September 20, 2015, by Pleiades Satellite purports to show a view of Russian fighter jets and helicopters at a military base in Latakia, Syria.

FILE - This handout image taken by EADS' Astrium Press on September 20, 2015, by Pleiades Satellite purports to show a view of Russian fighter jets and helicopters at a military base in Latakia, Syria.

Elias Groll in Foreign Policy wrote that Baghdad’s decision to share information with Russia, Syria and Iran to combat Islamic State militants will “take the fight to the enemy in a way Washington has been unwilling to do.”

And setting up an active base to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has greatly increased Moscow’s leverage in the region and over the final outcome of the four-year-old civil war there,” Groll said.

Moscow’s tactical moves have been effective, said Reva Bhalla, Stratfor Vice President for Global Analysis.

“Diplomatically, Russia is definitely tarnishing the image of the U.S. Russia comes out as the problem-solver and the U.S. looks like it’s fumbling,” Bhalla said.

Fighting extremists

By willingly putting military equipment on the ground with the intention to fight Islamic State extremists, Russia is sending a very clear message to the region that it is willing to be a credible partner," she said.

“Whereas before ... many have looked at Russia and said 'you are just a lot of talk' – now this whole Syria situation is having everyone recheck their assumptions," Bhalla said.

By inserting itself into the Syrian conflict to become an indispensable player, she added, Moscow has essentially set itself up for negotiations on other issues such as Ukraine.

FILE - A pro-Russia rebel loads shells onto a tank near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, June 12, 2015.

FILE - A pro-Russia rebel loads shells onto a tank near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, June 12, 2015.

But the U.S. may not have compromised its objectives in the region, sticking to its longer-term, broader security goals regardless of Moscow’s maneuvers.

“The U.S. objective was to take a step back, and by doing so they were freeing themselves up to focus on other major priorities, knowing that military entrenchment there is a pretty thankless effort after a while," Bhalla said.

Ripple effects

Some analysts have said the Russia-Syria-Iran alliance will also have a ripple effect on Washington’s major regional ally, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq.

Kurdistan is split between two major political forces: that of the pro-West Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by current Kurdistan Regional President Masood Barzani, and the pro-Iran Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Gorran parties.

“Whenever you have regional competitions escalate, the more you are going to see fragmentation within the Kurdistan political landscape,” Bhalla said. The security developments, she added, have created “an opening for Iran to get closer to certain Kurdish factions.”

That fragmentation could also quickly seep into Baghdad. On Monday, unnamed sources in Iraqi media were citing plans for a coup against the government of Haider al-Abadi in favor of his more pro-Iranian predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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