Seventy years ago this week, in a quiet corner of Iran, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began in earnest over a missed deadline. For four years, American, British, and Soviet troops had been stationed in Iran, invited by the government there to help protect Persian oil fields from Hitler’s army. But there was an important caveat, agreed to in a 1942 treaty: all troops had to be gone within six months of the end of World War II. As the war wound down, Washington and London successfully pressed Tehran for oil concessions, and withdrew troops on time. But Moscow, denied the oil it believed it was due, found an excuse to stay – coming to the aid of Iranian Kurdish rebels in the northern regions of Iran. That’s where Soviet troops still sat when deadline day came and went on March 2, 1946, to the great displeasure of the person who mattered most – U.S. President Harry S Truman.
By now, Truman was convinced the Soviets were bent on global expansion and could not be trusted. He decided that Iran was the first place the West would make its stand. Appealing to the newly created United Nations to condemn Soviet aggression, Truman issued a clear warning to Moscow that continued occupation would be met with an overwhelming military response from America. Three weeks later, the Soviets backed down. While some historians argue that the real reason the Red Army withdrew is because the Kremlin managed to wring oil concessions from Iran, the fact is that when those concessions later failed to materialize, Soviet troops never went back: Moscow was afraid to cross Truman’s red line.
Seven decades on, the civil war in Syria seems like a cruel bookend to the Iran Crisis of 1946. The power, clarity and sense of purpose that defined American policy in the region for more than half a century since Truman is embodied today not by the President of the United States, but by the President of Russia – who projects confidence and force despite a teetering Russian economy and a weakened Russian military. For all the wrong reasons, Russia seems strong, America seems weak, and U.S. leadership across the Middle East is in full retreat.
Today, we are living Harry Truman’s playbook in reverse.
Now, as then, America’s president drew a red line, in Syria in 2012, threatening that if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in that country’s brutal civil war, America would respond with force. But this time, in 2013, Assad crossed that line, and America did nothing, causing what has been called, “enormous, perhaps irretrievable, damage to American credibility.” It signaled to dictators everywhere that America would tolerate aggression – and it was no accident that Russia invaded Ukraine and soon after annexed Crimea.
Now, as then, a Russian leader bent on expansion has used the excuse of a rebel uprising to aggressively occupy a Middle Eastern country with weapons and troops. But this time, those actions were taken not in spite of American leadership, but because of the absence of American leadership, by a U.S. President whose policy has been described as “a study in passivity and moral confusion.” In fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh recently reported that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were so unnerved by the Obama Administration’s policy of arming “unvetted Syrian rebels” to overthrow Assad – rebels which the Chiefs were convinced had jihadist ties – that they worked to undermine the policy by indirectly sharing U.S. intelligence with Assad himself.
Now, as then, the world watches as Russia and America attempt to resolve a tense, and in this case tragic, situation with a tenuous “cessation of hostilities” that may end the battle but won’t end the wider war across the region. But this time, it is Moscow dictating the terms of the cease fire, including the understanding that Russian forces will likely remain as a presence in Syria indefinitely – despite months of cold-blooded Russian attacks that have killed so many civilians that Amnesty International says they “may constitute war crimes.”
If Harry Truman had acted in Iran in 1946 like Barack Obama has acted in Syria in 2016, the Soviets never would have left.
Seventy years from now, we will likely know why the Obama Administration decided to step back from American leadership in Syria. Maybe it was because the President, having brought home troops from the wars George W. Bush started in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t want to get involved in another Middle East quagmire. Maybe he thought the conflict was less about power and more about whose pipeline got to carry Middle Eastern gas across Syria to Europe, and had no appetite to trade more American lives for oil. Maybe he didn’t foresee that the confluence of Sunni Muslim disempowerment at the hands of Iran-supported Shiite governments in Baghdad and Damascus would lead to the creation of a barbaric, jihadist threat like the Islamic State or spark a global crisis as refugees fled war zones. Or maybe he and his team were simply overmatched and cast adrift by the changes wrought by the Arab Spring, which unmoored decades-old U.S. policies and alliances, with no clear next steps.
Whatever the reason for inaction, the bragging rights now handed to Russian President Vladmir Putin are clear. He is seen as having rescued his closest ally in the region, shored up Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea, and brought stability to a regional crisis in ways the U.S. and its allies would not – for the first time ever. As Middle East scholar Frederic C. Hof writes, Putin is essentially in a position now to “force the United States into a de facto alliance with Assad against ISIS, thereby enabling him to tell Russians that the American worldwide regime change campaign he has vowed to defeat has been stopped cold in Syria, that the American president has been forced to eat his ‘Assad should step aside’ words and that Russia has returned to great power status – thereby ending decades of humiliation.” At some level, we should be grateful that Putin acted when it became clear that Obama would do nothing.
It’s too late for Barack Obama to earn back the respect of both friend and foe across the region. That doesn’t mean the U.S. shouldn’t try to create a more lasting peace–partnering with NATO allies to make the case for a no-fly zone across Syria, creating a safe haven for refugees on the Turkish border, and working toward a negotiated settlement, which is Moscow’s best exit strategy. But ultimately, solving this crisis and restoring American leadership will be a job left to his successor.
So what is the next President of the United States to do? Three things.
First, take the advice of the chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Francoise Heisbourg, who suggested to journalist Celestine Bohlen last week that “the next U.S. President is going to have to demonstrate early on – in circumstances that he or she would have preferred to avoid” -that America’s inattention in the Middle East the past five years “was an Obama moment, not an America moment.”
Second, realize that the region is broken and be willing to discuss new lines in the sands of what was Syria: Alawites and pro-Assad religious and ethnic groups in a radically shrunken Syria; an independent Sunnistan for Sunni Muslims that includes areas of Syria and Iraq; and an independent Kurdistan that unites Syrian, Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian Kurds at the point where those four countries connect.
Third, recognize that defeating Islamic terrorism, starting with ISIS, is the greatest urgency the West faces and make it the centerpiece of our new policy in the Middle East. The U.S. should lead the global coalition against the Islamic State and be willing to partner with any nation (including Russia and Iran) that works with us to defeat ISIS while punishing any nation (including long-time allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia) who continue to support Islamic terrorists.
Lastly, and less officially, use the levers of diplomacy to show Russia that the U.S. will stand up for its interests. Make Putin feel like he’s in the Big Leagues again by treating Russia with the respect he feels it is due. But more quietly, begin to move U.S. troops from Germany to the doorstep of Russia in Ukraine and the Baltics, to make Putin think twice about any further aggression. End the ban on exports of gas outside of the U.S., and begin to explore how American oil and gas could replace the Russian supply that Europe relies on for a third of its energy needs. And subtly remind the Kremlin how quickly the U.S. could cut the access of Russian banks to global markets.
That’s what Harry Truman would do, because he would understand: strength is the only language Vladimir Putin understands. It’s time for the U.S. to get fluent again.