Sep 17, 2013 | 07:29 GMT

5 mins read

U.S. Credibility in the Wake of a Deal on Syria

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The United States has found a temporary, albeit Russian-made, solution to its chemical weapons conundrum in Syria, but it now has another problem on its hands.

The process of securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons already presents a logistical nightmare. But beyond that, the United States will have to battle the perception that it is an amateur superpower that can be strung along by weaker but savvier adversaries. A brief survey of reactions to the U.S.-Russia deal on Syria predictably reveals far more concern than enthusiasm for how Washington handled the crisis.

Iran is one of the few countries that was genuinely pleased by the diplomatic breakthrough between Russia and the United States. Tehran has spent most of the past decade trying unsuccessfully to coerce the United States into a negotiation. Ultimately, the bellicosity of the Ahmadinejad administration was not enough to draw Washington or regional adversaries such as Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. With the United States now in need of favors to avoid another Middle Eastern maelstrom, Iran faces a rare opportunity to make a fresh start with Washington under what appears to be a more conciliatory administration, headed by Hassan Rouhani.

This is a deeply unnerving prospect for Saudi Arabia, which is trying to use the Syrian rebellion to cripple Iran. Rather than publicly making a fuss over the United States' diplomatic decisions, the Saudi royals are trying to tip the sectarian battleground in Syria by supplying money, weapons and militants from the Arabian Peninsula. The United States may quietly lean on Riyadh to pull back on this support in order to give the diplomatic proposal a chance and to ensure parity on the battlefield, but Washington is not prepared to fully ease the pressure it is applying on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and it is in no position to enforce restrictions on arms flows to Syria.

Saudi Arabia naturally does not want to see any U.S.-Iranian diplomacy that could undermine Saudi Arabia's strategic alignment with the United States and force Riyadh to accommodate its Persian rival. For now, Saudi Arabia will try to keep distance between Washington and Tehran by using its own support of the rebels to sabotage any attempted cease-fire negotiated by the Americans and the Russians.

Israel, like Saudi Arabia, is also worried about its U.S. patron going soft on regional adversaries. Israel has already expressed its doubts that the U.S.-Russian plan would resolve the issue of Syria's chemical weapons program and does not want to invite questions into its own nuclear and chemical weapons programs. The mere thought of the United States following Moscow's lead in handling the Syrian issue has disquieted Israel, which would rather see Washington play a decisive role in defending its existing allies than attempting experimental diplomacy with the Russians. As Israel's former Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently articulated, the deal was a "huge success for Russia and a "personal achievement" for Russian President Vladimir Putin. "For the first time since WWII," he said, "the US plays only a supporting role.”

This view of the United States ceding vital, strategic ground to the Russians also prevailed in a number of Turkish editorials. Though some Turkish reactions to the deal were exaggerated, ascribing a Sykes-Picot quality to a perceived U.S.-Russian collusion to reshape the Middle East, the thread that tied most of the Turkish editorials together was a deep sense of unease over Russia's seemingly expanding role in the Middle East at the expense of the United States. Turkey is already struggling immensely in trying to project its own influence in the Islamic world, and Ankara lags far behind Russia in trying to wield influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey also has limited independent means to balance against Moscow when it depends on Russia for the majority of its energy imports. Vulnerable on all fronts, Turkey needs a strong external ally to help manage these pressures, and it relies on the United States seeing the need to lean on a strategic ally like Turkey to limit Russia's role in the region.

Poland and other countries in the former Soviet belt can easily identify with Turkey's unease. During a visit to Washington, Poland's deputy Foreign Minister, Katarzyna Pełczynska-Nalecz, urged the United States to go beyond verbal commitments in showing its support for Eastern Europe. The Polish official's comments were made in the context of Russia's increasingly blatant efforts to sabotage the European Union's Eastern Partnership initiative, which aims to politically and economically link ex-Soviet satellite states to Europe. The band of countries in the Russian periphery, from Poland on the Baltic Sea to Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, can only hope to balance relations with Russia if they have a strong external backer. With the European Union fragmenting under the weight of the economic crisis, regional actors are looking to the United States to step into that role. These countries are happy to see the United States avoid another Middle Eastern imbroglio that will monopolize its attention, drawing focus away from U.S. allies in strategic places such as Eastern Europe. What these countries did not have in mind, however, was the prospect of the United States negotiating with Russia to avoid following through with an ultimatum on military force.

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