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Opinion: No US-Russia alliance in Syria

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Ingo Mannteufel
October 21, 2015

The air-safety agreement between the US and Russia in Syria may not bring an end to the fight against "IS." DW's Ingo Mannteufel warns the conflict is likely to become more violent - with grave consequences for Europe.

Syrien Russischer Luftangriff in Aleppo
Image: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/B. El-Halebi

The news came almost simultaneously: The United States and Russia have agreed to direct military communications in order to avoid accidents in Syria's airspace, and President Vladimir Putin welcomed Bashar al-Assad to Moscow Tuesday. Is this the beginning of a Russo-American coalition in Syria? Does that mean a solution to the war and therewith to the number of people fleeing it to Europe? Not a chance.

Neither the United States nor Russia has any primary interest in finding a solution to the number of people seeking refuge in Europe. Both are much more concerned with power politics and maintaining their own national interests in the Middle East: The Kremlin wants to use its successfully orchestrated military intervention in Syria to divert domestic attention from Russia's economic doldrums - in which case the fight against the "Islamic State" (IS) has become a replacement for the previously propagated "fascist enemy" in Ukraine.

In terms of foreign policy, Russia is interested in expanding its influence in the Middle East, and the Kremlin is committed to keeping strongman Assad in power. The fact that Assad used his first trip abroad since Syria's civil war started in 2011 to visit Putin is a clear sign of the Kremlin's policy. Those who had hoped that Putin might somehow be persuaded to drop Assad can only be called naive.

Yet Russia's Middle East policy goes beyond Assad: Moscow has in fact joined the region's Shiite alliance (Iran, Iraq, Assad's Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the Sunni powers, especially on the Persian Gulf and in those parts of Syria and Iraq controlled by IS.

Misreading US policy

It is not just Russia's policy interests in the region that have been misread: US intentions have been misinterpreted repeatedly. Following the trend of the past several decades, it is often assumed that the United States wishes to remain strongly engaged in the region militarily.

After fiasco interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, however, the administration of President Barack Obama - in the face of much criticism at home - has concluded that the US's Middle East policy must be revised in order to concentrate on primary national interests: namely, the security of Israel and, above all, keeping Iran from attaining a nuclear bomb. The latter of these two points was set in place with the historic agreements reached with Iran this summer.

Unlike in the past, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which is currently more in step with Iran than it is with the United States, are no longer important for the US. Because, thanks to the shale gas and shale oil revolution of the past several years, the United States has achieved energy independence for the first time since the oil crises of the 1970s. That is the reason that Obama's United States is backing away from the Middle East - not the timidity or weakness that the president's opponents so often accuse him of.

That is why there is no reason to think that there will be a US-Russia coalition in Syria anytime soon. Why would the United States do Russia the favor?

It is more likely that the United States will become even less engaged in Syria, continuing its methodical retreat from the Middle East while Russia falls headlong into an open-ended Sunni-Shiite sectarian war. Russia, then, will have to find a way to avoid the painful lessons that the United States has learned in the region. And that means that more refugees will likely set out for Europe as the war in Syria escalates further.

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Ingo Mannteufel Head of IT and Cybersecurity@mannteufel