The United States' decision to abandon its posts in northern Syria was not simply the result of an abrupt decision by President Donald Trump, but the product of a longer, systematic shift in the balance of power across the Middle East, where Russia and China have established new, leading roles.
The recent handover of U.S. military positions in Syria's northern city of Manbij to Russian forces, first reported by Newsweek, was a symbolic moment in this trend, a move that accompanied Syrian and Russian troops moving into a number of outposts once occupied by the Pentagon. The event occurred as Russian President Vladimir Putin made high-profile visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two close U.S. partners increasingly convinced of Russia's weight in the region.
Tuesday, as a failing, five-day ceasefire brokered by Washington between Turkish-led and Kurdish-led forces neared its expiration, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who sat down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in hopes of reaching a more lasting solution to his problem with Kurdish-led forces. With all the pressure of solving this decades-long conflict now primarily resting on his shoulders, however, the Russian leader still had to prove himself as a peacemaker.
"The last few days mark a new era in the politics of the Middle East," Maxim Suchkov, an expert at the Russian Council and lecturer at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Newsweek.
"Russia indeed boosted its image as a new offshore balancer and the power broker in the region and acquired some opportunities on the ground in Syria which, however, are yet to be capitalized," he added.
The timing of Russia's fall 2015 intervention in Syria was strategic for a number of reasons. Not only did it come in time to bolster the embattled forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as and allied militias, mobilized with the help of Iran, faced off with an uprising increasingly populated by jihadis, but also as the U.S. began to rethink its alliance with this Islamist-dominated opposition and partnered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in order to battle the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
Moscow had early shown skepticism toward Washington's designs in Syria, one of two countries where the so-called "Arab Spring" protests of 2011 were met with government crackdowns and quickly devolved into civil war. The first was Libya, long led by Muammar el-Qaddafi, who—like Assad—came to be denounced in the West for alleged war crimes.
Within weeks, the U.S. offered its support to a NATO coalition that enforced a no-fly-zone in support of the rebels and ultimately struck a convoy in which Qaddafi himself was riding. He was soon captured and executed by Libyan insurgents, leaving warring factions contending to head the now-leaderless country still divided by competing governments.
Russia had abstained from the United Nations Security Council resolution over Libya and, dismayed by the outcome of Qadaffi's downfall in the North African country, has sought to ensure Assad's resilience in Syria, a Soviet-era partner now hosting at least two Russian military bases along the Mediterranean. As Russian troops helped turn the tide of war, even NATO member Turkey joined pro-Assad Russia and Iran for trilateral peace talks to secure some leverage for the opposition.
Washington has boycotted these talks, largely due to its dismissal of Assad and hostility toward Tehran. While scenes of Russian forces taking over abandoned U.S. military sites in Syria and Putin's many meetings with regional leaders, including Erdogan, may symbolize a total Moscow takeover, experts say that's not exactly the case.
"Moscow doesn't have an intention to 'own' the Middle East, nor does it have the resources to do so," Suchkov told Newsweek. "Russia's strategic game plan is to construct a 'polycentric world order' where the U.S. will not be a hegemon but more non-Western states have a role to play."
"The recent developments in the Middle East speak to that goal," he added. "At a tactical level, however, Russia is in its own game and all of the moves it makes seek to bring Moscow economic investment and arms sales as well as reinforce its own positions through diplomatic mediation."
Samuel Ramani, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, agreed. He told Newsweek that "there is a common misconception that Russia is trying to replace the United States," but, in fact, "Russia's not trying to be the security guarantor."
"What you're seeing is an increasingly tripolar system in the Middle East—the U.S as a security guarantor, China emerging as a major economic powerhouse in the region and Russia as the only actor that can play a role in de-escalating tensions," Ramani explained. "Russia is not trying to be equal with China economically and it doesn't have the staying power to rival the United States, so it's carving out a sort of niche in crisis diplomacy."
Since the onset of its entrance into Syria's conflict on behalf of Damascus, Moscow has kept open contacts with just about every major player. This includes Iran, which was already backing Assad, as well as the Islamic Republic's two top regional foes, Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom backed the opposition.
The Astana process that brought Turkey and Iran together only cemented Russia's central position, gathering representatives of the government and opposition. While the Syrian Democratic Forces have been excluded from U.N.-backed talks to establish a new Syrian constitution, Moscow has separately maintained relations with Kurdish forces and has since proven a vital asset in facilitating their talks with Damascus.
"It's the only country that can talk to everyone, it's been doing that with Israel and Iran, the YPG and the Syrian army, it's actually getting people in the room together," Ramani said, noting that Russia has also "been finding common ground between Saudi Arabia and Iran" and may expand its role in the crises affecting Libya and Yemen.
The Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula have long been close partners of U.S. foreign policy and readily embraced Trump's anti-Iran rhetoric. As attacks on oil tankers and strikes on Saudi oil facilities appeared to raise the risk of conflict in the Persian Gulf region, however, Ramani explained how Moscow came to be seen as the potential preferred arbiter.
"Russia is very actively investing in soft power and appealing to Arab leaders and publics as well," Ramani told Newsweek. "Russia is not intervening in the internal affairs of these countries in terms of human rights and authoritarianism. It cares more about state civility than the nature of their state, they don't meddle in their internal affairs."
As Moscow pushes for the Arab League to reverse its 2011 suspension of Syria over alleged human rights abuses, Ramani said that Russia is engaging Arab countries on Syria as a hedge against Iran and Turkey," two non-Arab states gaining ground in the war-torn country.
Meanwhile, China has played the role of a far more silent partner in the evolution of the region's international dynamics. The Middle East, a crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, has been envisioned as a crucial node in Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, through which he has sought to establish a cross-continental network of infrastructure projects.
Syria's reconstruction may prove to be a major opportunity to expand Chinese capital across the Middle East and, in addition to hosting Russian military facilities, the Syrian ports of Tartous and Latakia may soon see major Chinese investment. Beijing has additionally eyed buying into the Lebanese port of Tripoli and has already established a financial presence at Israel's Haifa port farther south on the Mediterranean.
The official online portal for the global plan names some 138 countries that have entered into some form of cooperation with China's Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S. views it as a major threat to its own economic dominance, especially at a time when Beijing and Washington have been engaged in a global trade war of tit-for-tat tariffs.
China has also managed to court Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with multibillion-dollar deals, even as it remained rival Iran's top trading partner in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Beijing has also welcomed Moscow's call for a regional security framework similar to Tehran's "Coalition for Hope," or Hormuz Peace Endeavor, designed to bring together Iran and Arab neighbors and ensure stability in and around the world's important chokepoint for maritime oil traffic, and a lifeline for China.
Adding to their separate rises on the world stage, Russia and China have more often sought cooperation over competition, at least at this stage of their ties—considered by both to be "the best in history." While the status of reported upcoming joint Russian-Chinese-Iranian naval drills in the Indian Ocean remained unclear, Beijing has benefited from an unprecedented pace of joint exercises with Moscow, which was seeking to enhance its economic clout with the Eurasian Economic Union, whose newest member was none other than Iran.
After nearly two decades of lengthy, open-ended conflict in the Middle East, Trump has sought to embody U.S. fatigue over these so-called "endless wars." In defending his decision to withdraw from Syria, the U.S. leader suggested last week that either "Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte" assist Syria in backing Kurdish-led forces against Turkey, but—the long-dead French leader aside—it remained to be seen whether the two emerging powers could succeed where the U.S. chose to walk away.
Duration: 07:28 7 hrs ago
U.S. House Republican, Tom Reed, speaks to Becky Anderson about the future of U.S. troops in the Middle East.More From CNN
Lebanese women take part in a demonstration in downtown Beirut on Oct. 21. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
In less than a month, demonstrations against corruption and a lack of economic reform erupted in both Iraq and Lebanon. In both countries, the unprecedented protests, which rocked Shiite towns and cities, have revealed that Iran’s system for exerting influence in the region failed. For the Shiite communities in Iraq and Lebanon, Tehran and its proxies have failed to translate military and political victories into a socioeconomic vision; simply put, Iran’s resistance narrative did not put food on the table.
Since the very beginning of the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have had a clear, long-term, and detailed policy on how to export its revolution to the region, mainly in countries with a substantial Shiite majority. Iran had been very patient and resilient in implementing its policy, accepting small defeats with eyes on the main goal: hegemony over Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
Today, Iran seems to be winning the long game. Its proxy in Lebanon prevailed in last year’s parliamentary elections. In Syria, Iran managed to save its ally, President Bashar al-Assad. In the past several years, Iran has also gained a lot more power in Baghdad through its proxies, including the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Shiite militias created to fight the Islamic State.
However, in its four-decade plan, Iran overlooked an important point: a socioeconomic vision to maintain its support base. While exhausting every opportunity to weave itself into the region’s state institutions, the Iranian regime failed to notice that power requires a vision for the day after. As events unfold in the region, Iran is failing to rule. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples.
Iran created proxies in both countries, gave them power through funding and arms, and helped them infiltrate state institutions. Today, state institutions in Iraq and Lebanon have one main job: Instead of protecting and serving the people, they have to protect and serve Iranian interests.
Observers have called the current protests in Lebanon “unprecedented” for a number of reasons. For the first time in a long time, Lebanese have realized that the enemy is within—it is their own government and political leaders—not an outside occupier or regional influencer. In addition, political leaders have been unable to control the course of the protests, which are taking place across all sects and across all regions, from Tripoli in the north to Tyre and Nabatieh in the south and through Beirut and Saida. The scale shows that the protesters are capable of uniting beyond their sectarian and political affiliations. What brought them together is an ongoing economic crisis that has hurt people from all sects and regions. As one protester said: Hunger has no religion.
But most significantly, the protests are unprecedented since Hezbollah also took an unusual stance. Having prided itself for decades for protecting the impoverished and fighting injustice, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah decided to side with the authorities against the people in the streets. That’s a major setback for Hezbollah as it deals with the current protests, its most difficult domestic challenge so far.
Hezbollah’s leader did not choose to support Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government carelessly. Scenes of Shiite protesters joining other Lebanese in the streets terrified the party’s leadership. Lebanon’s Shiites have always been the backbone of Hezbollah’s domestic and regional power. They vote for Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal during elections, and they fight with them in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In return, many of them receive salaries and services offered abundantly by Iran and Hezbollah.
But for the first time since Hezbollah was formed in the 1908s, Lebanese Shiites are turning against it. In Nabatieh, the group’s heartland in the south of Lebanon, Shiite protesters even burned the offices of Hezbollah’s leaders.
Here, three main factors are at play. First, Hezbollah’s costly involvement in the Syrian war and pressure from U.S. sanctions on Iran have forced the party to cut salaries and services, widening the gap between the rich and the poor within its own community. Meanwhile, the party also drafted mostly Shiites from poor neighborhoods to go fight in Syria, while its officials benefited from the war riches, causing much resentment.
Second, Hezbollah’s constituency was forced to accept Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri as speaker of the parliament as a necessary evil to keep the Shiite coalition intact. Although Berri’s known corruption was at odds with Hezbollah’s narrative of transparency and integrity, the community turned the blind eye for decades. But when Lebanon’s economy started to deteriorate around the same time that Hezbollah’s finances were hit, many Shiites could no longer pay their bills. Berri’s corruption and outrageous wealth could no longer be tolerated.
Third, Hezbollah focused too heavily on military might. It promoted that narrative after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and then again after Lebanon’s July war with Israel in 2006. It also claimed success in Syria against its new enemy—Sunni extremism. However, all these victories failed to translate into public well-being. Iran might have benefited, but Shiites in Lebanon got more isolated than ever. That is why it is so meaningful that the Shiite community, by joining the protests, is now attempting to claim its Lebanese identity rather than the religious one that has, so far, failed it.
The story is similar in Iraq. This month, tens of thousands of Iraqis in Baghdad and other Shiite-majority parts of southern Iraq came out in protest over the failures of the Iraqi political class to provide basic services and reduce unemployment and corruption. The crackdown was swift and aggressive, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 protesters. Reuters published a story more than a week into the protests confirming that Iran-backed militias had deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops to deliberately kill protesters.
Iran’s role in responding to the demonstrations in Iraq and the failure of the government to protect its citizens is a significant indication of Tehran’s influence in the country. Many former Iran-backed militia commanders are now members of parliament and the government, advancing Tehran’s agenda and creating an alternative economy for Iran under U.S. sanctions.
Like in Lebanon, Iran’s narrative against the Islamic State helped it get its militia leaders inside the Iraqi parliament and slowly infiltrate state institutions. Like Lebanon’s Hezbollah model, if left unchecked, Iran’s Iraqi proxies will slowly but surely become stronger than the Iraqi Army, and the decision of war and peace will be an Iranian one.
It is no coincidence that only Shiites took to the streets in Iraq. Sunnis have long been oppressed by sectarian and Shiite leaders, and Shiites have not yet broadened their identity to a national one instead of a sectarian one. But there’s a sense that if protests continue, they’ll become more nationwide. Some Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq have expressed support for the Shiite protesters but have hesitated to get involved in order to avoid having the protesters labeled as members of the Islamic State, an excuse that Iran has used in both Iraq and Syria to attack uprisings.
Whatever the protests bring, in both Iraq and Lebanon, Iran will not allow its power structures to crumble without a fight.
In both cases, Iran will do what it does best. In Lebanon, instead of stepping back and allowing reforms to be implemented by new governments with qualified ministers, Hezbollah and the Iran-backed militias will likely resort to force. As Nasrallah made very clear, his government will not fall.
Hezbollah will try not repeat the Iraqi PMF’s mistake of responding with violence. That’s why its military units have been training a number of non-Hezbollah members to join what it calls the Lebanese Resistance Brigades. The role of these brigades is precisely to deal with domestic challenges and allow Hezbollah to deny responsibility. Already, in an attempt to create a counter-revolution, hundreds of young men carrying the flags of Amal and Hezbollah attacked the protesters in a number of cities. So far, the Lebanese Army has stopped them from getting too close to the protests, but they have managed to physically hurt and terrorize people outside Beirut, mainly in Shiite towns and cities.
In Iraq, it is likely that Iran-backed militias will resort to violence again to suppress a new round of protests scheduled for Oct. 25. Without international pressure to dissolve the parliament and force Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign, many people could die. But in any case, Iran’s image will have suffered gravely.
Across the region, the same story is unfolding. Wherever Iran wins, mayhem prevails. From Iraq to Lebanon, it has become clear that Iranian power can no longer be tolerated. And when the country’s own support base can no longer accept Iran as its ruler, the international community needs to take note.
The recent protests show that Iran’s power is more fragile than the world perceives. And more importantly, they should remind that Shiism does not belong to Iran and that maybe it is time to start working directly with Shiite communities.