These days, as Michael Rubin suggests, it seems that most new developments serve to indict more than one facet of the Obama foreign policy. Modern Russian cruise missiles headed to Syria demonstrate not just the futility of Obama’s engagement policy with Damascus but also the failure of his strategy to secure cooperation from Moscow.
There’s another dimension to the Russian-Syrian missile deal, however. Syria could use the missiles from its territory to threaten Israeli warships operating off of Lebanon, but Russia would realize no conventional maritime-strategic goals from such a deployment, since the missiles wouldn’t reach global shipping lanes (e.g., on the Strait of Hormuz model). They would have to be launched from southern Lebanon for that purpose.
But from Syrian territory, the missiles can threaten something very particular: the maritime infrastructure to exploit the offshore oil and mineral resources of the Levantine Basin, between Cyprus and the coast. Last year, the media were abuzz with a major oil and gas discovery off the Israeli coast; in December, Israel consolidated its offshore claims by concluding its first exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreement with Cyprus. From positions in Syrian territory, the Russian cruise missiles could hold at risk the entire offshore area involved in these developments.
Beyond oil and gas, Russia and Syria have multiple layers of common goals in the Eastern Mediterranean. But until now, post-Soviet Russia hasn’t elected to align itself overtly with a new maritime threat there. Russia and Syria will be positioned to carve out a sphere of maritime control – an area over which a veto is effectively exercised – in contravention of one of America’s longest-running policy interests: the free, consensual, and conventional use of international waters. Over the last decade, China has mounted just such an effort in the South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan. But NATO has been tacitly understood as guaranteeing the Mediterranean against such encroachments.
That implied understanding will be directly challenged if the missile deal goes through. This matter won’t necessarily remain an exclusively maritime and localized problem: the ports and shipping of disputed Cyprus – where Turkey alone recognizes the government of “Northern Cyprus” – would be in the crosshairs of Russian cruise missiles deployed in Syria. New risk factors there could harden Turkey’s alignment with Russia and Syria and widen the Greek-Turkish division inside NATO.
The best time to persuade Russia not to go through with the missile transfer is now. Unfortunately, we would be justified in worrying about what Obama might give up in such a negotiation.