Last time I wrote, I was wondering whether an intervention in Syria is possible. It turns out that it was not.
As Stratfor forecast at the beginning of the year, the Syrian chemical weapons issue turned out being the wild card that would challenge the U.S. policy of restraint, which has been defined by the United States’ attempts to reorient its priorities away from the Middle East as part of the framework of Washington’s foreign-policy pivot to Asia. That forecast materialized in September, with the United States trying — and failing — to build a coalition for an intervention.
When U.S. President Barack Obama threatened military action in retaliation for what he claimed was the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, he first looked at whether he could form a coalition. Even had he been able to, a limited strike would have not destroyed Syria’s chemical weapons. When he took office, Obama did not want to engage in any war, and his goal was to raise the threshold for military action much higher than it had been since the end of the Cold War, when Desert Storm, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq formed a pattern in U.S. foreign policy. Syria did not meet the standard: It was embroiled in civil war, and the United States did not favor either side. While Washington has been hostile toward Syrian President Bashar al Assad, it does not trust the rebels, who have increasingly fallen under the influence of radical jihadists.
However, the most important outcome of the Syrian crisis has been the fact that the Russians and the Americans talked as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Russians positioned themselves as mentors in crisis management for the Americans. In that sense, Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times on Sept. 11 was brilliant and it achieved two main goals: portraying Russia as more influential than the U.S. in the European periphery while feeding the national audience with the image of Russia as a global power.
With the European Union’s Eastern Partnership membership decisions approaching in November, the perception of a more powerful Russia helps Moscow’s foreign policy efforts. With the economic and political crisis deepening in Europe, and with NATO still sifting through an identity crisis, Moscow could benefit from being seen as a viable alternative to a weakened Brussels. The same message has been sold domestically. The Russian government has realized downward trends in industry, investment and consumer spending will continue for the foreseeable future, and signs that the Russian economy is starting to weaken again are visible. The president announced on Sept. 12 that the Kremlin would cut the government’s budget by at least 5 percent, starting this year, for the next three years. He also said that in 2014 the government would run a budget deficit. However, the focus on Syria temporarily allowed the Kremlin to divert the public’s attention from the country’s internal problems.
The image of the U.S. ceding strategic ground to the Russians resonates all along the Russian periphery. During a visit to Washington, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz urged the United States to go beyond verbal commitments in showing its support for Eastern Europe. Turkish editorials have demonstrated the unease Ankara feels at seeing Russia’s expanding influence in the Middle East at the expense of the United States. In this sense, views in Turkey and Poland can be seen as a sort of early warning system for perceptions in the Western periphery.
Besides Russia taking the opportunity to both show its position of power to a domestic audience and extend its influence in its periphery and the Middle East, by remaining engaged in the Syria negotiations, Iran also seized the opportunity to open up to negotiations with the United States.
Both Iran and the United States seem to be serious about pursuing a dialogue. However, the transition from positive gestures to substantial negotiations, which require real concessions, will be difficult. In the short term, after the call between Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iran will need to convince the United States that it is not developing nuclear weapons while it still retains the ability to harness nuclear technology for civilian use. While Iran will expect some give-and-take from the United States on sanctions in negotiating the nuclear issue, the U.S. president has a limited range of choices in the visible concessions he can make without consulting an obstinate Congress. More important is the way the other actors in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, will react and in what ways they’ll be able to undermine the negotiations. Russia is expected to be very involved in these negotiations as well.
Along with the diplomatic efforts in place in the Middle East, the United States is — more visibly now — continuing its strategy of pivoting toward Asia. Progress on the military and defense aspect of the foreign policy has been made. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Japan on Oct. 3 resulted in a decision by Washington and Tokyo to revise defense cooperation guidelines, and it settled some outstanding issues on the transfer of U.S. Marines out of Okinawa. Hagel also visited South Korea, where he announced a new strategy with the South Korean military described as tailored deterrence. Following major regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei, Kerry will go to the Philippines where, despite Obama’s absence, he will negotiate a previously discussed plan to increase American troop rotations into Philippine bases.
Hagel’s trip recalibrates U.S. regional alliances. As the United States draws down its forces in the Middle East, it has sought to re-establish itself in East Asia in response to the rise of Chinese power, the threats posed by North Korea and an ever-increasing economic interdependence with the region.
However, the re-engagement in diplomatic efforts toward the region has faced another obstacle with President Obama’s recently canceled trip to Malaysia and the Philippines and his absence from the ASEAN Summit. While much of the diplomatic energy is still focused on the Middle East, the reason for the cancellation is related to what were called logistical difficulties resulting from the federal government shutdown.
This is why, in the very short term, the current U.S. government shutdown is on everyone’s mind. In many ways, the budget battles were expected. The United States is at a turning point, entering a period of selective international engagement. A subtle balancing act seems to be underway as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and seeks to support regional balances of power throughout the world. It is therefore likely that, considering the inflexible funding cuts, the biggest strategic impact will be felt by the U.S. military, which is struggling to maintain tactical and strategic readiness in post-war periods. Also, the United States’ creditworthiness is in question. Any failure to raise the debt ceiling will have a negative impact on investor confidence. Considering the uncertainty felt in global markets, a default will clearly not be taken well by investors, even if other alternatives are not necessarily attractive themselves. After all, Europe is still facing a serious unemployment and banking crisis, Japan has a stagnant economy and China’s future social-economic stability is still in question.