By Alexander Stringer
Both the United States and Russia have made power moves within Syria in the last month. In mid-September, Russia sent the Bashar al-Assad regime seven tanks, ammunition and weaponry, and mobile housing to allow for upwards of 1,500 Russian soldiers to be housed on Syrian soil, according to the Guardian. In response on Monday, the Obama administration employed “military cargo planes [to give] 50 tons of ammunition to rebel groups overnight in northern Syria.”
These two major moves, along with several others, have led to speculation by major news sources as to whether or not the Syrian crisis is turning into a proxy war between the two powers. If this ends up being the case, and it likely will, it will reset the progress made since Christmas 1991, and could very possibly launch the world into another Cold War.
The Russian Federation armed Assad due to the fact that they see him as the most able-bodied force in the region to take on the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The Kremlin stated, “The aim of our operations lies in providing support to the Syrian military’s offensive in their struggle with terrorist and radical organizations and forces.”
Congressional testimony reveals that American efforts to train Syrian rebels have been laughable, to say the least. However, one cannot help but note that Russia’s thinly veiled comments display a clear disrespect and disregard for the fact that the United States has already taken strides to address the ISIS situation.
It is easy to draw parallels between the situation in Syria and Cold War proxy battles between the two powers. Perhaps the most stunning parallel concerns Afghanistan, where the Communist government was backed by Russia and the mujahideen rebel forces were backed by the U.S.
Although it is obvious the Cold War is not once again in full swing, there are still dangers that must be noted. Former CIA officer Scott Uehlinger said, “For the first time in a generation the Russians are back in the Middle East, and boy are they back.”
Uehlinger commented that the Kremlin “want[s] to keep the pot stirring.”
This is of paramount importance to understanding the severity of the Syrian situation. The last time Russia was in the Middle East, they were in Afghanistan, and this time they do not seem at all keen on losing the fight. But the war is one of wits, with Russia accomplishing their agenda (keeping Russia-friendly Assad in power, and thus gaining the potential to place a hand on the flow of oil in the region), while also establishing a major public relations victory. Russia has tackled the Islamic State in a way the U.S. has not: Putin carpet-bombed the radical group’s forces and produced results in a few days, whereas the U.S. did not accomplish anything after months of strategy and spending $500 million.
Emerging in the twenty-first century is a strategy the twentieth could never conceive: a Russia that is successfully throwing its weight while also claiming a moral high ground that was never seen in the days of the Soviet Union.
Such a dual victory should have the U.S. shaking. While there is minimal potential for another Cold War, the U.S. should worry that the rules of engagement have been rewritten, and Russia has started to play its hand before the U.S. even knew that the game had started. The U.S. is now playing catch-up in the game of who is morally and militarily superior, and if it waits too much longer before it lays out its cards, the U.S. may find itself on the losing side when history repeats itself.