By Laurie Browne
On October 7, 2015, Tara McKelvey, White House reporter of the BBC, moderated a World Affairs Council-Washington, DC panel of experts to discuss “What does Russia’s Military Involvement Mean for the Conflict in Syria?” Dr. Donald Jenson, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, and Mr. David Schenker, Aufzien Fellow and Director of the Program of Arab Politics at the Washington Institute of Near East Studies, illuminated the audience on the regional implications of Russia’s actions in the Middle East. The program was the first the Council hosted at its new venue location, the Horizon Ballroom at the Ronald Regan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC.
Ms. McKelvey opened the panel by stating the White House claims that the current situation is not a proxy war between the United States and Russia. Mr. David Schenker interpreted the Syrian crisis as a civil war between the Sunni people and the Bashar Al-Assad regime. He explained that the US ambivalence is a diplomatic move to avoid harming our reputation with our Black Sea allies. Mr. Schenker said that at a critical time when our allies wonder what side we will be on, Russia is making history without any international push back- in their effort to be a core player in the Middle East. Dr. Donald Jenson agreed with Mr. Schenker on all points. Dr. Jenson explained Russian international policy tendencies, drawing similarities to actions in the past in Afghanistan and Crimea. Dr. Jenson stated that Russia’s goal is to upset the worldview and remove the US from a position of power. He suggested that the reckless movements of President Vladimir Putin work as a distraction from Ukraine as Russia makes its presence known. Mr. Schenker made mention of the Iranian Nuclear deal and our delicate alliance with the current Iranian government. This he believed was a factor to further explain the reluctance of the US to get involved in Syria.
Audience members asked questions about a lack of US movement in Syria, Russia’s concerns for the refugees, and the possibility of Syrian resentment of the Russian presence. Panelists agreed when answering questions about the US military role, in that our position is very different due to our history and alliances in the region. Putin has taken advantage of this and forged the advancing lead, which they believe Obama has let him have at this time. Dr. Jenson added that Russia is not concerned about the refugees as Russia is concentrating on being viewed as a power player. Mr. Schenker said the Sunni people (the majority population) are happy as long as the power player is on their side and not that of the regime.