Peter Brookes: Phase 2 of Moscow’s moves in Middle East

Peter Brookes

Peter Brookes

People seem plenty panicked about recent reports of Russian war planes using an Iranian air base for bombing runs into Syria as part of its ongoing support for the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

It’s not at all unreasonable to be concerned.

On the other hand, we really shouldn’t be surprised by the expansion of Russian involvement in the Middle East, resulting in this latest setback for U.S. policy and strategic interests in the troubled region.

Think of this as phase two of Moscow’s moves in the Middle East.

Just about a year ago, in what I’ll call phase one, Moscow intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war to rescue its longtime ally in Damascus from its then-imminent demise, including conducting a game-changing bombing campaign.

The Kremlin claimed that it was targeting the terrorist Islamic State (aka ISIS) that wasn’t only a threat to Assad’s rule but had been joined by hundreds of foreign fighters from Russian territory who might return home someday with terror on their minds.

This rationale turned out to be mostly window dressing as Russian forces were reported to be largely targeting anti-Assad regime forces (some supported by the United States) with a sprinkling of strikes on the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups.

Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime was also trying to divert attention and gain favor with some of the anti-ISIS coalition, undermining support for U.S. and the European punitive economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Considering the importance of Damascus to Moscow — including hosting a Russian naval base at Tartus, lucrative arms sales and political influence through Syria into the region — it’s no wonder the Kremlin stepped up.

But that’s not all.

Through its intervention in Syria, Moscow is trying to opportunistically increase its previously waning sway in the Middle East as part of its ever-expanding efforts to raise Russia up and collapse American clout globally.

Think of this Iran news as the next step.

While it’s doubtful that the use of the Iran’s Shahid Nojeh air base will become a permanent Russian military facility due to a raft of reasons, it’s an important, historic step in the Moscow-Tehran relationship.

According to the Associated Press, this is the first example of foreign forces on Iranian soil since just after World War II — and something that is also forbidden in the Iranian constitution, which could raise nationalism hackles in Iran.

Of course, there are also practical purposes afoot here, such as allowing Russian heavy bombers (that is, Cold War-era Tu-22 “Backfire” aircraft) to operate in the theater rather than flying from distant bases in southern Russia, according to Russia’s RT news.

But more than that, Moscow — working with Tehran — sends a strong, straight-forward signal to Washington, D.C., (and its regional partners) about their plans to compete for power and influence in the turbulent, evolving Middle East.

While the Russian use of the air base may end at any time, we should understand that it’s just the latest phase in what is likely to be an enduring effort by Tehran and Moscow to join forces to advance their anti-American agenda in the Middle East.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.

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