While Putin Ponders, Obama Scrambles, China Projects

The last several weeks have given pundits and analysts alike a veritable treasure trove of events to test their hypotheses about trends in the Middle East. With the announced withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria turning out to be much less than what the West would hope for, and Obama’s confessions to Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic magazine about his foreign policy challenges, there was plenty of fodder on the table.

On top of all of this, as some would call it, is the raging theater of the U.S. presidential campaign, which does little to reassure allies and foes alike about where the U.S. is headed under various scenarios of a new administration.

As usual, differing perspectives are offered by the “experts” with little reluctance to second guess either the great Russian bear or the reluctant American president – the former quite resolute in his vision of the “new world,” while the latter dithering as to how the U.S. can discharge its role as a super power while asserting its role under some form of international consensus and collaboration. Added to the mix is the continuing saga of “one belt one road” push by China on land and on the sea to solidify its own vision of economic hegemony abroad and unchallenged military influence in its neighborhood.

President Obama has had to face realities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan turning his “less is more” posture on its head with revelations of U.S. marines in forward positions in Iraq, the military extending and broadening the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and hard choices to be faced regarding some form of deeper involvement in Syria and Libya. There are no hopeful signs of clarity emerging from the Democratic and Republican candidates for president who are content to duel over who is more qualified by raising voices, making charges against opponents, and ambiguous doomsday statements, not to mention the hell they will raze upon America’s enemies.

Putin continues to roll onward, dictating the tempo of peace in the Crimea and Ukraine, intimidating bordering states in the Balkans, and calling for restraint in the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan flare-ups. No one doubts that Russia has literally saved the Assad regime while simultaneously pummeling foes and promoting negotiations over Syria’s future. Russia’s boots on the ground commitment has given it the dominant voice in Vienna; John Kerry’s can only operate at the margins, prodding Russia into ensuring the territorial survival of a Syrian state, but at what cost?

Then, China’s Foreign Ministry named Xie Xiaoyan as its special envoy to the international negotiations over Syria. He had previously served as ambassador to Iran, the African Union, and Ethiopia, so he knows the territory well. His appointment runs counter to the typical Chinese hands-off behavior and may herald its attempt to be involved more deeply in Middle East affairs. China’s relations with Iran are still evolving and are closely tied to the One Belt One Road initiative that can only become more beneficial to both parties. Mutual economic interests may have more long term results than today’s political diplomacy.

Ironically, several analysts have suggested a causal link between the declining economic fortunes of China and Russia with their aggressive behavior over the past 30 months, including the upswing in defense spending and posturing. Given that both, and many of their clients, have the luxury of a longer horizon than U.S. governments, there is little to suggest that America can outwait either of its competitors or in this case “adversaries.”

Others have suggested that, were it not for the continuing tensions in the South China Sea and the Chinese perception that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is aimed at curtailing its ambitions in Asia, the natural alliance is U.S.-China versus Russia. Yet it can’t be reassuring to hardliners in Beijing who interpret American actions through at pre-WWII lens when the US Trade Representative’s website states that “TPP is a platform for engagement and growth in the Asia-Pacific Region. It solidifies relationships with our allies and firmly establishes the United States as a leader in the Pacific.”

This is not to say that Russia, the U.S., and China cannot find mutual interests as they have over Iran and North Korea. With many Middle Eastern heads of state headed for Moscow and Beijing to protect their interests, no one seems interested in coming to the U.S., not even Benjamin Netanyahu, to try and sort out how to best guarantee a place on America’s list of preferred allies. The narrative for 2016 is far from decided.

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