The United States and Russia have sought to secure dominance over the Middle East and expand their global influence since the Cold War. In recent decades, there has been a departure from that norm. Russia and the U.S. managed to temper hostilities until 2015. Russia’s nominal support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, however, escalated into direct military involvement in the Syrian Civil War against U.S.-backed forces. Today, the two countries continue to clash in the region with no decisive outcome in sight.
The regime of President Bashal al Assad is at the heart of military quarrels between Russia and the U.S. The son of former Syrian President Hafez al Assad, Bashar al Assad rose to the helm of the Syrian state on July 17, 2000. The administration, categorized as authoritarian, has committed numerous atrocities against the Syrian people. For example, in March 2011, al Assad used chemical weapons against peaceful Arab Spring demonstrators. Public fallout and political dissenters from the event formed the Free Syrian Army, awakening the dawn of the Syrian Civil War. The fractured Syrian political climate would soon pit Russian and U.S. interests and militaries against each other.
As tensions between the al-Assad regime and the FSA escalated, Russia backed the al-Assad regime and began offering direct military assistance in 2015. The U.S., wary of the spread of Russian influence, moved to support FSA forces in the area and undermine Russian interests. Despite this political impasse, the U.S. initially stopped short of direct confrontation with either Russia or the Syrian Government. However, this détente ended in 2017. In response to an al Asad attack on Syrian civilians, former U.S. President Donald Trump launched Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian airbase.
In 2021, pro-Syrian powers, including Russia, Iran, and rebel-backed powers—among them U.S. militia groups, Turkey, and Gulf State actors—remain embroiled in conflict. While President al Assad remains in control of the majority of the country, Turkey and the FSA control swaths of Syrian’s northern territories along the Turkey-Syria border. Russian-backed attempts to displace such forces have proven unsuccessful. Russia and the U.S. remain locked in a militaristic stalemate.
As conflicts rage on, Syrian civilians continue to suffer the collateral trauma of the Russia-U.S. showdown. The war has resulted in an estimated 207,000 civilian deaths, including some 25,000 children. Accompanying such deaths is a mass immigration crisis that has forced more than 5.5 million Syrians to become refugees and displaced more than 6 million civilians within the nation’s own borders. Turkey, among other European countries, has struggled to accommodate such refugees. Further confrontation between both powers would only exacerbate such humanitarian crises.
Yet, as Syrians suffer crippling losses, neither the Kremlin nor the White House has indicated an interest in any full-scale conflict beyond Syria. Although relations soured when U.S. government officials accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on behalf of former U.S. President Donald Trump, the Russia-U.S. geopolitical relationship remains guarded. U.S. President Joe Biden now finds himself with significant control over international conflicts in the region—only time will tell the outcome of such tensions. But this much is clear: so far, both nations have tempered their desire to exert influence abroad with reservations about overcommitting to military involvement.