Playing Russian Roulette: Russia’s Involvement In Syria

Following is a Q&A with National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President & CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony regarding Russia’s interests and involvement in Syria.

Q: What characterizes Russia’s relationship with the Bashar al-Assad regime?

A: Out of the 22 Arab countries, 28 Middle Eastern countries, and 57 Islamic nations, Russia’s allies are few. Moscow’s relations with Damascus are closer than its relations with the capitals of other Arab countries. Indeed, they are closer than its relations with other Middle Eastern countries as a whole. As a result, Russia’s military actions in Syria aim to protect Assad and the country’s leadership and to keep Syria strong.

Other nations may not approve of this stance, but it must be acknowledged that Moscow has interests in Syria that it wishes to protect as well as the goal of further strengthening and expanding an allied relationship. What is also important and largely missing from or downplayed by the mainstream media is that Moscow, in standing with Damascus, provides the Syrian leadership with a rebuttal to the other UN Security Council Permanent Members (China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) who state or imply that Syria lacks international support.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. ©REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin.

Q: What are Russia’s particular interests in Syria and are they of recent or older vintage?

A: They are numerous and date back to the respective reigns of Catherine and Peter the Great. Both sought ports in southern climes that could facilitate and sustain Russian east-west and west-east maritime ventures involving trade, rest, and resupply. During the Cold War, in addition to these commercial and economic objectives, interests of a military nature – aeronautical and naval, mainly – manifested themselves in the construction of port facilities to accommodate Russian ships traversing the waters southward from Turkey and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean. As a matter of course, Russia used these port facilities also to build the country’s air defense system and weaponry as well as to ensure provisions for armaments, munitions, training, and maintenance for the system and the country’s defense establishment as a whole.

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The Passing of James Alban Bill (1939-2015): An Appreciation

He was for the longest time my buddy. We often laughed at the thought that we could have been twin brothers from different mothers, despite the fact that Jim was from Wisconsin and I was from Virginia. We were almost the exact same age. We were U.S. Army veterans of the same enlistment program. We each bore scars at the same place on our right knees from nearly identical high school athletic injuries.

We were both note-taking aficionados, opting, as such, to write most, if not all, of our empirical reports and publications based less, if at all, on library research but rather on firsthand accounts, which we knew at the time were priceless. Indeed, they resulted from the fact that we benefited from privileged access to meetings and briefings with some of Arabia and the Gulf’s top policymakers, decision makers, and strategic analysts that few others enjoyed.

In the 1970s, the two of us even co-choreographed nationwide public speaking engagements for a former guerrilla leader-turned-government official. To this day, the official has never forgotten or been unappreciative of the experience. In June 1982, in the company of the late UT-Austin geographer Paul English, we travelled together to Arabia and the Gulf – to Oman, then the UAE, then Bahrain, and then Saudi Arabia.

Each of us was and remained to the end a baseball freak; before we even met we had separately memorized the major league players’ names of a bygone era, their positions, their teams, their batting averages, their pitching records, their nicknames, their greatest feats – you name it. Often, instead of addressing each other in written letters or telephone calls with our real names, we used made-up ones like Duke Snider, Jerry Priddy, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Jackie Robinson, Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, and Willie Mays.

When Jim in 1976 invited me to teach at UT-Austin in the university’s Center for Middle East Studies a course on Arabia and the Gulf, I gladly did so and enjoyed it thoroughly, not least because it provided an opportunity for our respective families to get to know one another and, now and again, a chance for us to play a pickup baseball game with six players – his two children and mine plus ourselves – on one of the local diamonds.

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‘HOW’ Questions for the 2015 Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference

Before the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations launched its first Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in 1991, we asked numerous policymakers a single question: “What bedevils you the most in your tasks to recommend effective policies?” The answers differed only slightly from one person to the next. A common theme running through all the responses was, and I paraphrase, the following: The “W” questions are ones that policymakers deal with all the time. In and of themselves, they are difficult enough. They include:

“What” needs to be done;
“When” does it need to be done;
“Why” does it need to be done;
“Where” will we likely be if we do this or if we do not;
“Who” needs to do it; and, sometimes even,
“Whether” something needs to be done.

But the most difficult questions of all, the ones policymakers inform us they find most vexing, are “How” questions, for these, unlike most of the others, cannot be answered with a yes or no. Rather, the answer to each comes with a cost.

  • Sometimes the cost is political, as when leaders of an administration’s political party or a government’s most important advisers or constituents are certain to put their foot down and say no.
  • Sometimes the cost is financial, as when it is pointed out that there are no funds allocated, authorized, or appropriated for that which is recommended.
  • Sometimes the cost lies in having to admit that the requisite competent human resources to implement a policy recommendation simply do not exist.
  • Sometimes the cost is one of technology, equipment, and/or structures or systems that do not exist or, if they do, would have to be transferred from where they are to where they are needed more at what, arguably, is a prohibitively high cost in terms of time, effort, and money.
  • Sometimes the cost is in credibility, as when an administration or government is on record as being strongly opposed to exactly what someone has just recommended as a solution or a palliative.
  • Sometimes the cost is moral in the sense that it clearly violates the Golden Rule of Do Not Do Unto Others What You Would Not Have Others Do To You.
  • Sometimes the cost will likely be a sharp downturn in the public approval rating of a president, premier, or head of state.
  • Sometimes the cost might be a definite setback to the country’s image and the degree of trust and confidence it seeks to cultivate and maintain among its allies.

With this as background, context, and perspective, there follows a series of questions relating to contemporary Arab-U.S. relations. The questions are ones that policymakers on one side or another, and sometimes both sides, grapple with daily. They are provided in the spirit of a public service. To whom? To not only the policymakers entrusted to improve Arab-U.S. relations and not make them worse. They are also offered as food for thought. Again, to whom? To intellectuals, scholars, teachers, students, analysts, investment strategists, specialists in public policy research institutes, and many others eager to enhance their knowledge and understanding of the state of play in the relations between the United States and the Arab world, and who want to improve these relations.

Dr. John Duke Anthony
Founding President & CEO
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations


Categories of “HOW” Questions








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A King From The East Approaches: Looking at King Salman’s Meeting with President Obama

King Salman’s visit to Washington comes at a unique time in the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship. The relationship is fundamentally strong. It is, however, characterized by a lack of adequate mutual understanding – among many there are different motives and goals, misattributions of intent, and stress on its underpinnings.

It is human nature to accept the positive aspects of a situation as given and to focus – and in some cases obsess – on the negative. So the following is warranted: the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia will not only endure. It is more likely to strengthen than weaken over time.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa'ud and President Barack Obama during the president's January 27, 2015, visit to Saudi Arabia.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud and President Barack Obama during the president’s January 27, 2015, visit to Saudi Arabia. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

The disagreements and trends outlined below will not significantly disrupt the strong and committed strategic, economic, geopolitical, and defense cooperation relationship. Indeed, even if the meeting between King Salman and President Obama contains moments of what a freewheeling media may contend are contentious, the fact that the leaders of these two nations are meeting at all – and at this time to exchange views on matters of immense importance to both peoples – is in and of itself a sign of the relationship’s strength. For context: note that the United States and Great Britain meet to resolve differences; the Koreas do not. Of these two sets of relationships, one is strong and vital; the other is, at best, dysfunctional.

The positive aspects aside, that the media, Members of Congress, and lobbyists of all stripes will and have already begun to parrot and highlight elements of mistrust and misapprehension in the relationship is undeniable. Given those that support them – and/or to whom they seek to convey their analyses and net negative assessments of the Saudi Arabia-U.S. relationship – are who they are, this is in many ways to be expected. In the dynamics of give and take within a world where different parties and powers often display their competitive colors, such jousting between friends, allies, and partners – and adversaries, too – is also something else: part of the essence of two non-identical countries – name two countries that are not – being regional and international leaders.

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Transcript of Dr. Anthony Interview on the Iran Nuclear Deal

On July 20, 2015, National Council Founding President & CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony joined Al Youm on Al Hurra TV to discuss the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran. A transcript of his interview, edited for clarity, is available below along with a link to watch the interview [program in Arabic].

Watch Dr. Anthony’s interview with Al Hurra TV [program in Arabic]

Q: After passing a resolution in the UN Security Council approving and codifying the Iran nuclear agreement, what do you believe are the chances of getting the agreement approved by Congress?

A: The U.S. Congress wants to be certain that the arrangement is foolproof and that it is based not on trust but verification through an unprecedented inspection program. The effectiveness of the verification process will affect how and whether Congress is likely to approve or disapprove the agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, joined by U.S. Energy Secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, testifies on July 23, 2015, about the Iranian nuclear deal before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, D.C. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

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Dr. John Duke Anthony on Inside Story (Al Jazeera English)

On May 15, 2015, Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President & CEO of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, appeared on Inside Story on Al Jazeera English. The program explored the recently concluded U.S.-GCC Summit in Washington and Camp David, and U.S. pledges to defend its Gulf allies.

Watch Segment

The GCC-U.S. Summit: An Opportunity for Strategic Reassurance?

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An unprecedented and extraordinary event is about to occur: a heads of state summit. These, by any standard, can be and often are extraordinary events. That’s what this one is. It is so because it gathers in the capital of the United States President Barack Obama with the representatives of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The two-day summit is set for May 13-14, 2015.

GCC leaders are scheduled to meet with the president in Washington on day one and on day two gather with him in the more capacious and secluded confines of Camp David. The latter venue is a longtime private presidential meeting place in the Maryland foothills, which is conducive to wide-ranging and deeply probing discussions on matters of common, timely, and varying degrees of urgent interest to the president, his advisers, his guests, and their advisers. The focus of this essay is the issues, challenges, and opportunities that will focus the principals’ attention while there.

The Summit’s Participants in Context

That the summit is occurring at this time is no mere coincidence. In terms of the GCC-U.S. relationship, it brings to the forefront the chief representative of the world’s most militarily, economically, and technologically advanced nation. Joining him will be the leaders of six neighboring Arab Gulf countries from what is arguably the world’s most strategically vital region that are little known and even less well understood by the American people as a whole.

What needs to be better comprehended by the American public regarding these countries are the roots and nature of their multifaceted strategic importance not just to their peoples and immediate region, but also the United States and the world in general. To begin with, the six GCC countries possess thirty per cent of the planet’s proven reserves of oil, the vital strategic commodity that drives the world’s economies. Collectively, they are also the holders of the developing world’s largest reservoir of financial assets, as measured in the trillions of dollars.

Crude Oil 2014 Proved Reserves.

In addition, the GCC countries have no rivals in their combined positive impact on the American aerospace and defense industries. In the past half-decade, their purchases of U.S.-manufactured defense and security structures, systems, technology, weaponry, ammunition, training, maintenance, and operational assistance have massively impacted and continue to impact the American economy.

The dynamism and mutuality of benefits in the U.S.-GCC relationship are envied by virtually every country that wishes it could accomplish anything remotely similar.

The purchases of American export goods and services by these countries have provided jobs essential to the material wellbeing of millions of Americans. They have extended production lines of products that would otherwise no longer be available. As a consequence, they have lowered the cost per unit of many American manufactured goods. In so doing, they have thereby enhanced the competitiveness of this component of the American economy to a degree envied by virtually every government or corporation in other countries that would wish they could accomplish anything remotely similar.

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