The Biden administration has spent the last two weeks publicly censuring and sanctioning Russia over its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Yet even as it engaged in evermore shrill public denunciations of the undoubted evils of Vladimir Putin, it was simultaneously working hand-in-glove with the Russian dictator to finalize a new agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. So how do we make sense of the administration’s public campaign to isolate Putin at the same time as it partners with the vilest man on the planet to cut a deal with a Russian client state? The key to understanding this seemingly erratic set of zigs and zags is the recognition that Team Biden is following the template that former President Barack Obama created in Syria a decade ago. Let’s call it the “Syria playbook.”
To understand the Syria playbook, and its connection to Ukraine, we need to look back to Obama’s second term, and its all-consuming policy priority, the Iran deal—which remains no less urgent in 2022 than it was in 2013. Back then, Syria itself did not matter much to Obama, who mused about how one might weigh deaths in that country against deaths in the Congo—implying that if the latter was not a pressing U.S. national interest, neither was the former. Rather, Syria’s significance for Obama lay only in the risk that images of hundreds of thousands of people being tortured and murdered might interfere with his defining foreign policy initiative: reaching a deal that would realign the United States away from Israel and Saudi Arabia and toward Iran, his new choice for regional hegemon.
Meanwhile, Syria did matter greatly to Iran, Obama’s sought-after ally. Along with Ukraine, Syria also mattered very much to Russia, then as now a key partner in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Syria mattered to Russia because it mattered to Iran; because the Russians saw the Assad family as a historical ally; and because Putin looked forward to restoring, enlarging, and entrenching the Soviet-era naval presence that would allow Russia to project power in the eastern Mediterranean.
It was in Syria that the Obama-Biden team honed the cynical duplicity we’re witnessing today. At the heart of Obama’s maneuvering in and around Syria was the practice of strategic messaging, which allowed Obama to hold both ends of the stick while speaking out of both sides of his mouth—or rather, letting cynical or clueless members of his administration strike seemingly contradictory poses, each of which allowed him to advance toward his goal. He could be simultaneously moralizing and a cold realist—whatever it took not to be distracted from his main objective of a deal with Iran. Achieving that goal in turn meant cooperation with Russia, a principal backer of the Assad regime.
The Obama administration alumni now in charge of the Biden administration currently pose as staunch defenders of NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance against Russia’s barbaric aggression in Ukraine. But in 2012 and 2013, it was NATO’s other members who pressed Obama to join, and lead, the European and regional states opposed to Assad’s butchery in Syria. Instead, Obama fended them off by turning to Russia, and using its veto power-by-proxy at the United Nations and other international forums in which the administration claimed to place stock. Anyone who wants something in Syria, the Obama administration told U.S. allies, should go talk to Putin.
In August 2012, Obama made the blunder that he has since repeatedly said he regrets most of all out of every decision he made as president, when he boxed himself in by laying down a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons—a line Assad would cross repeatedly, all the way to a major chemical attack in August of 2013. Again, Obama turned to Russia to bail him out of a commitment he had no intention of keeping, as the rest of his presidency demonstrated quite clearly. At the time, Obama was on the verge of clinching the interim agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Plan of Action, which was signed in November 2013. There was no chance he would jeopardize that breakthrough by targeting Iran’s client in Damascus. He had now signaled that, for all the moralizing rhetorical barrages against Russia’s support for the brutal Assad, Putin remained his principal partner in the Syrian arena.
That Putin fully understood Russia’s importance in Obama’s Iran calculus could be seen by the fact that the Russian dictator immediately pressed his advantage by seeking compensation in Ukraine. In early 2014, he took the first small bite of the sovereign nation, invading and annexing Crimea. The United States’ reaction was rich in rhetorical condemnation and otherwise pointedly feeble. Aside from a profound historical critique from then-Secretary of State John Kerry about how “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion,” which must have sounded like a compliment in Moscow, the administration leveled some sanctions against individual Russians, froze the assets of a handful of Russian government officials in the United States, and canceled their visas—in other words, the kind of response that makes for palatable headlines, but has precisely zero effect on the calculations of Vladimir Putin.
Putin would continue ingesting additional amuse-bouches extracted from eastern Ukraine in return for his services in Syria well into 2015. But the main dish would be served to him later that year. As Obama drew closer to finalizing his deal with Iran, he was faced with a problem: His prospective Iranian ally and future candidate for Middle Eastern hegemony simply couldn’t get things under control in Syria. Assad and the Iranians were being bled badly, and were in danger of actually losing the war.
But first things first: In June 2015, Obama officially got his deal with Iran. Now it was time to protect what Obama called Iran’s “equity” in Syria. The following month, the commander of the Iranian forces, the late Qassem Soleimani, went to Moscow for help. At some point in 2015, an Assad go-between and Obama’s regional point man, Robert Malley (who is currently in charge of the Biden administration’s talks with Iran in Vienna), informed the White House that the Russians were preparing to intervene directly in Syria. And in September 2015, shortly after the Iran deal was done, the Russian military went into Syria.
Putin was now the protector of the equity Obama promised the Iranians. Moreover, in addition to safeguarding its base on the Black Sea, Russia was gifted with a long-sought strategic asset: a base on the Mediterranean, directly on NATO’s southern flank, and on the border with Israel.
Team Obama sought to cover its acquiescence to—indeed, its satisfaction with—Russia’s intervention by initially presenting it as a stupid decision on Putin’s part, which Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted would result in a quagmire for Russia. But that was just more “strategic messaging.” In no time, the Obama administration was coordinating with the Russians as they bombed opposition-held areas to dust in order to help Assad crush his enemies and win his war. Simultaneously, in one of the more grotesque examples of the Syria playbook, Samantha Power performed arabesques of moral outrage at the U.N., “shaming” the Russians for doing exactly what Obama had contracted with them to do, in support of the Iran deal.
Obama’s realignment policy took a hit in the Trump years, during which the United States withdrew from the Iran deal and facilitated the transition of the much-admired Soleimani back to the spirit world. But once Team Obama was back in power in the form of the Biden administration, Iran was back at the front of the line. Not coincidentally, so was Ukraine—the currency in which Iran’s Russian protector liked to be paid.
The Biden administration came into office with immediate gifts to both Iran and Russia. It removed sanctions on Iranian clients and stopped enforcing sanctions on Iranian oil exports. It also waived sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Putin’s dependence on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was Kyiv’s insurance policy against a further invasion. Russia needed that infrastructure to move gas to Europe, and Moscow couldn’t risk it being damaged or sabotaged. The purpose of Nord Stream 2 was to give Russia an alternative route, one that kept the same amount of gas flowing to Europe but eliminated its dependence on Ukraine. Once the pipeline was physically completed, Putin concluded that it was a fait accompli that the Europeans would eventually activate it, now that Biden had given it the green light.
As the talks with Iran entered their final stage, Putin began his preparations to move on Ukraine. No more amuse-bouches. Now it was time to Syrianize Ukraine—to consume it whole, as Russia’s main course at the Iran deal banquet.
Underneath all the anti-Putin rhetoric, and even the slew of sanctions that followed the Russian dictator’s invasion (which have increased only somewhat in severity as the fighting has dragged on), the posture of the Biden administration toward the Russian military operation has remained more or less the same—sanctions, sure, but nothing that puts friendly countries in an awkward spot, let alone starts World War III by giving the Ukrainians too many weapons, a policy that recalls Obama’s posture toward Moscow in Syria.
Putin is a thug, yes. But it takes a thug to ruthlessly pound ISIS and keep the Israeli Air Force grounded.
Looking back at the Syria playbook tells us that the denunciations of and half-measures to combat Putin’s aggression, combined with the solicitation of Russian aid and guarantees for Iran, is par for the course for the Obama-Biden realignment dance. And once the cynical two-step of this dance is seen for what it is, the moves are easy to spot. Even as the administration was slapping sanctions on Russia, it was simultaneously setting up a sanctions evasion haven for Putin in Iran, as it prepared to lift sanctions on Russia’s Iranian client.
How does that work? The Russians are the guarantors of the Iran deal. Moscow would receive Iran’s excess enriched uranium and exchange it for natural uranium. Per the deal, it would also be involved in nuclear and scientific cooperation projects with the Iranians. Naturally, the administration said it was “weighing” sanctions on Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear power supplier and uranium producer. Only it knows it won’t sanction Rosatom, because the Iran deal is more important. “We would of course not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation of the JCPOA,” a State Department official soon clarified. Rosatom reportedly has a $10 billion contract to expand Tehran’s Bushehr nuclear plant.
This is to say nothing about the prospects of selling arms to the Iranians once the Biden administration decides to revoke, or just not enforce, a Trump-era executive order that blocked arms sales to Tehran. Obama’s 2015 deal allowed arms sales after October 2020, and locked it into a Security Council resolution. The Trump administration invoked a snapback mechanism to reverse the U.N. resolution, and locked that in with the executive order. As part of what it calls a “rapid return to mutual compliance” with the deal, the Biden administration will want to permit such sales as quickly as possible. As Iran’s main arms supplier, the Russians will be allowed—even required—to sell arms to Iran, in order to fulfill the terms of the deal. And so it goes.
Moscow, already familiar with the Syria playbook and no doubt fed up with having to play the administration’s sanctions games while its soldiers are dying in Ukraine, decided to make a point of exposing the administration’s double-game publicly for all to see. At the 11th hour, as the Biden team got ready to announce the conclusion of the deal with Iran, the Russians threw a wrench in the works. They demanded the United States announce written guarantees that its sanctions on Russia will not impede “our right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation with the Islamic Republic.” In a line that deserves a place in the annals of Soviet humor, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added, “We need guarantees that these sanctions won’t affect the regime of trade-economic and investment ties embedded in the [nuclear deal].”
Ridiculous, right? But it only took a few days before the Russians declared they were satisfied with the written guarantees they received from the Biden administration. That is to say, they’ve made their point, and everyone understood it.
As was the case in Syria, all the moral outrage about the horrors of Russia bombing civilian neighborhoods is just the lead in to the Iran deal. The American horror at Putin’s aggression, in other words, is not merely performative, but functional—all the more so after the instrumentalization of Vladimir Putin in domestic American politics since 2016.
For the Biden administration, unlike for Obama, there are necessarily two Putins. There’s Vladimir Putin, the realist head of state. He’s a stone-cold killer, to be sure, but he gets the job done in rough spots like Syria, where he helped keep America out of another Middle Eastern war while holding in check the U.S. allies and their domestic neocon lobbyists who wanted to drag us into that conflict and spoil the Iran deal. He’s a thug, yes. But it takes a thug to ruthlessly pound Islamist terrorists like ISIS and keep the Israeli Air Force grounded.
Then there’s “Putin,” the devious monster who hacked our elections to install a puppet in the White House in an all-out assault on American democracy that even some Republicans deplore. Clearly, no compromise is possible with that kind of hell spawn. But if Putin was instrumental in neutralizing pesky U.S. allies of old with his entry into Syria while Obama conducted the real business with Iran, “Putin” is equally useful toward the same end: browbeating U.S. allies put in danger by the Iran realignment into keeping their mouths shut while the 2.0 deal is sealed.
Sure enough, the administration has weaponized moral outrage over “Putin” in a messaging campaign against the Gulf Arab states and Israel. How can these countries be real U.S. allies when they don’t denounce “Putin”? While it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Gulf Arab states side with the authoritarian “Putin,” underscoring their incompatibility with American values, how can Israel call itself a democracy while it enables “Putin”? Like “the Palestinians” and “settlements,” “Putin” is a cudgel masquerading as a principled American stand on values that is meant to keep a downgraded Israel preoccupied and on the defensive as the administration gives nuclear weapons capacity to its enemy. If, with its faux outrage over “Putin,” the Obama-Biden crew manages to trip the Israelis into crossing a line with the actual Vladimir Putin, whom Obama helped install on Israel’s northern border, thereby complicating Israel’s ability to operate against Iran, then all the better.
That is to say, the administration’s moral outrage really isn’t about Ukraine at all. It’s another tool in the service of its deal with Iran. Which is the common thread between the timing of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, and the U.S. reaction to it. It’s all pegged to the realignment. That’s the lesson of the Syria playbook.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.