Opinion

Russia, the Friend of Our Enemies

In Washington it's becoming clear that the West’s real enemy in the Middle East is Iran, which wields power in Lebanon and Syria and is now trying for Yemen

Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin. Alexei Druzhinin/AP

An enemy of our enemies is our friend, and a friend of our enemies is presumably our enemy. So what should we make of Vladimir Putin, an enemy of the Islamic State, which is an enemy of Israel, but who is also a friend of Iran, Hezbollah and Syria, who are also enemies of Israel? Has Putin made the wrong choice?

Sergey Lavrov, Javad Zarif and Walid Moallem, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, and Syria, sit in Moscow coordinating their positions, claiming the charge that Bashar Assad’s forces used chemical warfare on Syrian civilians is a complete fabrication, despite the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Putin no doubt knows the truth but has put his money on the Syrian president – who is allied with Iran – and has decided to stick with him for the time being. Presumably he is still counting on Assad to defeat his adversaries with the help of Moscow and Tehran, thus maintaining Russia’s military presence and influence in Syria. He has continued good relations with Israel, and yet backs forces that are pledged to Israel’s destruction. How has it come to this pass?

At least part of the answer is the attempts by ISIS, that zany radical Islamist group, to set up a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria, as well as the organization’s success with making inroads into Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and spreading terror aimed at “nonbelievers” throughout the world. A worthy enemy for sure. A broad coalition has been formed to fight ISIS, and Assad insists he is a member of that coalition. Assad the terrorist is fighting terrorists and insists that he deserves the world’s sympathy and support. Putin, intent on fighting the Islamic State, has decided to help Assad “fight terrorism.”

U.S. President Donald Trump began going down the same path. At first he saw no need to replace Assad, since he was presumably fighting ISIS, the common enemy. In the profusion of “enemies” taking part in the bloody war in Syria, ISIS looked like the worst of the lot. But militarily, it turned out that it was also among the easiest to defeat. There was no need to ally oneself with Assad to accomplish that aim. If you fight alongside Assad, as the Russians are doing, you find yourself fighting alongside Hezbollah, which is financed, trained and equipped by Iran. Iranian militias are taking part in the fighting against ISIS in Mosul. How do you solve this puzzle?

Trump seems to have found his way out of this labyrinth by condemning Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians and sending him a message via 59 Tomahawks to make sure he and everyone else knows that he means business. Assad’s latest chemical attack against his own citizens dispelled any illusions people may have had about him – and his allies. Maybe the message will be coming through in Moscow as well.

As the dust after the Tomahawk strike settles it is becoming clear in Washington that the West’s real enemy in the Middle East is Iran. Iran has already essentially taken over Lebanon, is embedded in Syria and is trying to establish itself in Yemen. The Islamic State can be defeated, but rolling back Iran is a much bigger challenge, especially after it has been strengthened by the nuclear deal signed by Barack Obama. That is the real challenge facing the U.S. in the Middle East. That was already recognized by James Mattis, the current U.S. secretary of defense, some years ago when he said that the three primary threats the United States was facing were “Iran, Iran, Iran.” Iran is also the primary threat facing Israel.

In contrast to the eight years of the Obama administration, we can now expect that there will be considerable coordination between Washington and Jerusalem on dealing with Iran. The enemy of our enemy is our friend.