The Biden administration is mulling over America’s role in Syria’s ongoing conflict as the U.S. tries to break away from Middle East wars, but Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat already has been busy on the ground, trying to win support for a Syria approach that could establish Russia as a broker of security and power in the region.
The new U.S. administration has yet to say how it plans to handle Syria, which is now fragmented among a half-dozen militaries — including U.S. troops — owing to a war that has killed and has displaced millions. The conflict includes al-Qaida affiliates, Islamic State forces and other jihadist groups eager to use Syria as a base.
Russia and Iran have intervened to prevent the collapse of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has wielded chemical attacks, barrel bombs and starvation to crush what had started out as a peaceful uprising. The conflict just entered its 11th year.
Dealing with Syria's war will test the Biden administration's determination to focus on Asia and not the Middle East. If the United States diminishes its presence, Russia and other hostile U.S. rivals are poised to step in and boost their regional stature and resources.
Hence Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's Middle East tour this month.
Lavrov stood by as the foreign minister of a Gulf state generally friendly to Washington, the United Arab Emirates, delivered a message in line with Moscow's position: U.S. sanctions on Syria's Russia-supported regime were blocking international efforts to rebuild Syria. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said it is time to welcome Syria back into the fold of Arab nations.
In other words, Russia's message is “the Syria war is over, Assad has won, Assad will be in power as long as he is breathing oxygen," said Frederic Hof, who served as a U.S. Syria adviser and envoy in the Obama administration.
Hof said there was an unstated part of the message: Russia plans to be on hand as “Syria is built from the ashes,” benefiting from any international reconstruction resources coming in, and positioning itself as the broker to manage the security threats that Syria poses to the region.