The ties between Russia and Israel have evolved as both states developed their individual
post-Cold War strategic views and policies. The steady progress that has been made since the
restoration of diplomatic relations in 1991—and particularly since Vladimir Putin assumed office
in 2000—represents a significant improvement in Israel’s national security environment and an
important gain for Russia’s global and regional policy. Bilateral relations are the best they have
been since 1991, and perhaps ever.
Would you rather be neighbors with ISIS or the Assad regime? These are the type of questions Americans aren’t used to asking themselves, but which our partners in the Middle East deal with routinely. In early April 2018, I was standing on the Golan Heights with a group of students and faculty from the U.S. Army War College. We were looking into southwestern Syria, an area of the country the Syrian regime, a coalition of moderate opposition groups, and an ISIS affiliate are fighting to control. The specific patch of ground we were observing is controlled by ISIS-affiliated Jaysh Khalid bin Waleed, and although shelling occurs there on a regular basis, all was quiet on this day.
For centuries, American policymakers have likened Russia to a large, clumsy bear—a state whose power relies not on skill and appeal, but on brute force and the ability to intimidate. The unsuccessful Soviet invasion in Afghanistan seemed to confirm policymakers’ belief that Russia’s boorish foreign policy would fail among its Muslim neighbors to the south. However, this experience was an anomaly. Russia has since proved its agility in the Near East and outmaneuvered the United States. Moscow retained the loyalty of the Central Asian republics upon the Soviet Union’s disintegration. It prevailed in the Caucasus by cooperating with local Muslims. It turned the tide in the Syrian Civil War. And perhaps most remarkably, it drove a wedge between the U.S. and its formerly stalwart NATO ally, Turkey. While the clumsy bear caricature simplifies American planning, it leads to misguided policies. The past decades have shown that it is time for Washington to cast away this caricature and to study Russia with greater care and greater humility.
The war in Syria is reaching a decisive point. As the campaign against ISIL winds down, the battle for influence over the final settlement in Syria is heating up. This larger war—geopolitically more consequential than the campaign against ISIL—is characterized by shifting and sometimes surprising coalitions of states and non-state actors. Despite some close calls, the United States and Russia have been effective in what both sides call the “de-confliction” of operations in Syria, but it’s doubtful that these efforts can serve as a foundation for more meaningful efforts to put Syria back together. Securing a peaceful future for Syria and preventing the war there from further destabilizing the region—and possibly escalating into a regional war—will require new ideas. It will also require all parties to the conflict, both Syrian and foreign, to compromise on their objectives—something that no side looks ready to do.
Some decades ago already the phrase “CNN effect” was coined, referring to a concern that the emotional power of pictures might generate such popular sentiment as to overwhelm the calm and careful deliberations of governments during crisis decision points nested in humanitarian debacles. The concern actually predated the name, since CNN set up shop only in 1980: It arose around the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive. It then reappeared as the “CNN effect” early in the post-Cold War world in a new context: would U.S. foreign policy as “armed” social work, in other words, as a meliorist substitution for a policy rooted in geopolitical strategy—since that seemed to many to have been rendered obsolete—blossom in a unipolar world?
Aleppo. Mosul. Sana’a. Mogadishu. Gaza. These war-ravaged cities are but a few examples of a growing trend in global conflict, where more and more of the world’s most violent conflicts are being fought in densely populated urban areas, at a tremendously high cost to the civilians living there. Despite their aversion to urban warfare, American and NATO military strategists increasingly acknowledge that the future of war is in cities. Concurrently, humanitarian agencies such as International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are adjusting their response to relief operations in urban centers in real time. This rise in urban violence and the resurgence of warfare in cities comes from three key factors: the global trend toward urbanization, increasingly volatile domestic political conditions in developing countries, and changes in the character of armed conflict.
It is a touching characteristic of the optimistic liberal soul that it perennially inclines to believe that bad situations cannot get worse. But of course they can and often do get worse. This would seem to make it hard to be an optimistic liberal for very long, but some people accomplish it for decades on end apparently without much effort. How do they do it?
The Black Sea region in recent years has been marked both by sharp shifts and by intractable dilemmas. The biggest shift is Russia, which has expanded its military role throughout the broader Black Sea region even as it stumbles into conflicts with most of its neighbors. A second shift is in Turkey, where relations with other Western powers are at their lowest ebb in decades. Third, the West itself appears unsure whether it will continue pursuing its strategy of integrating Black Sea countries into NATO and the EU. Fourth, China is playing a bigger role in the Black Sea region than it ever has before. Every great power that touches the Black Sea, in other words, has a strategy that is currently in state of flux.
American fatigue in the Middle East from 15 years of conflict and a genuine lack of clarity regarding U.S. power and purpose have created an opportunity for Russia to play a more active role in the region—its most active since the 1970s.
The possible creation of a new geopolitical reality in the Middle East may have snuck under the radar this holiday weekend. The continuing spectacle of the investigations into Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 Election and the continued naming and shaming of corporate leaders and politicians involved in sexual harassment (as well as Thanksgiving), may have overshadowed the summit in Sochi between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited President Putin in the same city (and thanked him for “saving Syria”).