It’s hard to fight a war when one’s allies can’t agree on an enemy. And that is exactly the situation the United States has faced in Syria. As Washington has tried to build a coalition for the fight, it has had to manage allies in the Gulf that want to fight Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad but not radical Islamists. It has had to deal with Turkey, which stands against Assad and radical Islamists, but mostly just wants to take on the Kurds. Another U.S. ally, Israel, watches the swirling entanglement of enemies with uncertainty, and seems ready to intervene if major threats materialize. And finally Germany wants to arm the Kurds, and U.S. Special Forces have already partnered with them. In all this confusion, it isn’t surprising that the coalition’s results against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also called ISIS) have been lackluster.
Enter Russia, with a lean coalition and a decisive goal. Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to restore his country’s power and prestige in the Middle East. In Syria, Russia is moving in to save its last Arab friend, Assad, from being replaced by a radical Sunni government or (less likely) a pro-American government composed of the current opposition members in exile. After Syria, Russia is looking to Iraq, where U.S. prestige has taken a hit as ISIS has managed to hold territory. For Russia, Iraq could be the greatest prize of all, with its 150 billion barrels of oil and history of failed U.S. intervention.
In the Middle East, Russia has several advantages. First, there aren’t as many contradictions in Russia’s interests there. By comparison, U.S. policymakers have the impossible task of pleasing many key allies, whose demands are often non-negotiable and mutually exclusive—the Israelis, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, and the Iraqis. Russia has two governments on its side—Iran and Syria—both of which fully endorse its presence in the region. A