We have been caught unawares as three powers with dubious backgrounds take charge of the most unstable region in the world. Russia, a country with a terrible record of suppressing political dissent and assassinating opposition journalists, has explicitly declared its desire to return to its Cold War-era status. Iran, a country that openly calls for the destruction of Israel, is a known sponsor of international terrorism groups, most notably Hezbollah. Syria, under the control of the Assad regime, uses chemical weapons on its citizens, even after signing a “treaty” with the international community.
This shift in power dynamics is dangerous. Bret Stephens has pointed out that, although many countries agreed after World War II that war is to be avoided at all costs, we ought not assume that all countries reject it as a viable option. Yet this is the very assumption Obama has made when it comes both to Russia and to Iran. He has argued that the Iranians have no motivation to break the Iran nuclear deal because they want to avoid economic sanctions, and he has refused to take seriously Russia’s looming presence in Ukraine. He has even cast doubt on the seriousness of the religious convictions of the members of ISIS.
Russia’s reassertion in the Middle East is of a piece with its actions on the European continent. They desire to matter again, to be a major world power. Despite this, Obama seems to be either unaware, or unconcerned, with Russia staking out a place in the Middle East, much less its encroachment on the former members of the USSR. Russia has made clear that it wants to keep Assad in power, a policy the United States opposes. Obama and Putin clashed over this at the UN last week. But was this confrontation not foreseen? Did Obama not see this would be a consequence of stepping back in the region?