John Arquilla misunderstands Russia’s role in the Near East:
For my part, geostrategic thinking leads me to three pretty straightforward conclusions. First, there is the need to keep Russia from “winning” in Syria [bold mine-DL]. This can be achieved either by escalating support for the anti-Assad insurgency or ratcheting up a peace process — the aims of which are to put Syria on a path to a post-Assad, democratic future. Perhaps both approaches can be simultaneously pursued. Either way, Russian influence will wane, and the western linchpin of its anti-Sunni arc would become unhinged.
One constant in the Syria debate in the U.S. is the exaggeration of Russian influence there, and another has been the growing obsession with thwarting a Russian “win” in Syria. The U.S. has no need to stop Russia from “winning” in Syria, and I doubt that the people who talk about such a thing have a clear idea that such a “win” would look like. Arquilla asserts that there is an “anti-Sunni arc” that is supposedly under Russian protection or tutelage, but this is just made up. To the extent that there is an “anti-Sunni arc” in the region, the U.S. helped to create it with the invasion of Iraq that Russia opposed.
Arquilla claims that “Moscow has engineered a strong position for itself in the Middle East,” but that’s also wrong. Insofar as Russia has become identified with Syria and Iran in an increasingly sectarian war, its position in the region is now worse than it was two years ago. Russia hasn’t engineered anything here, and as usual its actions over the last few years have been reactive and focused on preserving what it can of the old status quo. There isn’t much chance of a Russian “win” in Syria, and it’s not clear why it should be up to the U.S. to prevent one even if it were likely.
Arquilla’s analysis depends heavily on the idea that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” which he claims is proven in part by the U.S.-Russian disagreement over Syria. All that this proves is that the U.S. and Russia sometimes have significant policy disagreements, which is true in any relationship between major powers. The U.S. is fortunate that Russia is not actively hostile to our interests, and those interests aren’t served by looking for fights to pick with Russia out of the mistaken belief that it is our chief foe or rival in the world.