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Russian President Vladimir Putin with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) in Sochi, Russia, last November. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

Russia has cultivated close ties with all the major players in the Middle East and looks likely to have more influence over events in the region than a diplomatically challenged and militarily wary United States.

The region's powers, all keenly interested in the outcome of the Syrian civil war, have consulted closely with Moscow over a potential political settlement and grown closer to the Russians in other ways:

  • Turkey, which looks less and less like a NATO ally by the day, checked with Moscow before attacking U.S. Kurdish allies in northern Syria and is buying surface-to-air missiles from Russia.
  • Saudi Arabia, despite closer ties with Trump than with his predecessor, has also hedged its bets; Russian pension funds are reportedly considering investing in the Saudi oil giant, Aramco, as a way of cementing ties between two key oil producers.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who just gave a rapturous welcome to Vice President Mike Pence in Israel and met with Trump in Davos — talks frequently to Vladimir Putin about Syria and other matters.
  • Iran and Russia have cooperated to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power.

The bottom line: The Trump administration has announced that it will retain a small contingent of troops in Syria — enough to deal with the remnants of the Islamic State but not to dictate the country’s future or even safeguard the Kurds. If the U.S. has a diplomatic endgame and a means to achieve it, it is keeping the details to itself. So for now, Russia is in the lead.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Go deeper

Muslim families hope to reunite following Biden's travel ban repeal

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Muslim Americans across the U.S. are celebrating President Biden's day-1 reversal of former President Trump's travel ban that targeted several Muslim-majority countries.

The big picture: The repeal of what many critics called the "Muslim ban" renews hope for thousands of families separated by Trump's order.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  4. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  5. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries.
  6. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  7. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.
Bryan Walsh, author of Future
5 hours ago - Health

Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden's plan to accelerate the reopening of K-8 schools faces major challenges from a still out-of-control pandemic and more contagious coronavirus variants.

Why it matters: The longer American kids miss in-person schooling, the further they fall behind. But the uncertain state of the science on the role young children play in the pandemic continues to complicate efforts to reopen schools.