One of the more ominous elements of the worsening Mideast crisis is embodied in recent photos of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In nearly all of them Rouhani is smiling.
And now Russia is acting — with airstrikes, missiles and even troops — to support a primary goal of the Iranian regime, the continuation of the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Putin has his own reasons for supporting al-Assad. The least of them is probably the protection of a Russian naval facility in Syria. And certainly his intervention in Syria is a powerful distraction from his interventions in Crimea and Ukraine.
But most important, Putin’s desire to assert himself as an international player is irresistible, and in Syria he’s gotten everyone’s attention.
Some commentators suggest that Putin’s intervention in Syria will turn into another “quagmire” — it’s hard to find a substitute for this overused term. This is entirely possible. The great powers have never learned much from their blunders into exotic locations with the illusion that sheer force can fix everything.
More likely, though, Russia and Iran, in a convenient alliance, will crush the weak opposition and keep al-Assad in power. Maybe, then, they’ll turn to destroying ISIS.
This isn’t a particularly desirable outcome, since it leaves the oppressive tyrant al-Assad in place and Iran in control of a significant swath of territory that stretches across the Mideast to the doorstep of Israel.
But the ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 made the rise of Iran predictable and probably inevitable. Predictable and inevitable also was its hegemony over Iraq, a large oil-laden territory whose population, like Iran’s, is mostly Shia.
Syria is the western anchor of this potential, latter-day Persian Empire. Bashar al-Assad embraces Alawism, a sub-set of Shiism. Plenty of Sunni Muslims live between Tehran and Damascus, but it’s not hard to imagine a consolidation of Shia power, dominated by Iran and serving as a counter-balance to the Sunnis, who dominate the world of Islam at large.
It’s less important whether this is a good or bad turn of events than whether it’s inevitable. And it probably is, unless the United States is willing to commit airstrikes and ground troops to the area.
Let’s hope that we’re not. The great lesson of the last four or five decades should be the futility and unintended consequences of military intervention in places where we’re naive about the forces at work.
On the bright side, if Iran gets the upper hand in this area, it’s unlikely to tolerate ISIS, which is Sunni, or an unstable Afghanistan in which the Shia minority is threatened by the Taliban, also Sunni.
On the dark side, the rising influence of Iran provides a focal point for the vicious conflict between Shia and Sunni. But the United States is unlikely to have any influence on this ancient quarrel; the best we can hope for is to remain impartial as it plays itself out, while maintaining a solid commitment to the protection of Israel.
Back on the bright side, the hope for the future of Islam is moderation and modernization. The fact that the events of the 20th century have radicalized Iran shouldn’t obscure strong Iranian inclinations toward democracy, which date back to at least 1905, and signs of the Iranian people’s attraction toward the West and modernity. In fact, moderation and modernization probably have a better chance in Iran than in the Sunni states.
It’s too bad Russia is involved in this. In photos of Rouhani and Putin, Rouhani continues to smile. Putin looks like, well, Putin, that is, mostly devious and cunning. Russia and Iran are using each other for their own purposes in a dangerous game. Between the two of them, my money is on Iran, if only because it has home field advantage and a greater long-term payoff for success.
But beyond our non-negotiable commitment to the security of Israel, our limited ability to influence these events implies that at present our role should be the prudent, deliberate and cautious spectator.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected].