Russia Is Roaring Back To The Middle East While America Is Asleep


- Russia’s resolve to support its allies. The Syrian war demonstrated Moscow’s resolve to stick with allies despite deteriorating circumstances. They do business with the likes of Saddam or Assad, whereas Washington remains picky and conditional.


Regional Power Vacuum

The Obama administration believed that the best interest of the United States was withdrawing from “Bush’s wars.” Obama’s reaction to the Syrian crisis suggests that the Iran nuclear deal, and staying out of military conflicts, was more important than preventing the largest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. The Trump administration’s first year has not presented coherent policies, either.

America’s response to Russian challenges in the Middle East hints at a regional power vacuum. The Europeans cannot fill it, and China is at least a decade away from being able. Therefore, by default and by intention, Russia is stepping in.

The United States is Always to Blame

Russia has woven a damning narrative of U.S. regional involvement in the Middle East, Europe, and the former Soviet Union, going back to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Some Russian “experts,” with 20/20 hindsight, depict the Soviets as anti-jihadi; whereas the United States supported the mujahedeen, including the radicals.

Like conservative Arab leaders and the Israelis, Russia saw the United States under Obama as abandoning allies and opening the door to the Muslim Brotherhood, which breeds chaos in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and beyond. Moreover, the Russians ignored the systemic failure of the sclerotic, corrupt and brutal autocratic quasi-socialist regimes in Cairo, Baghdad, Tripoli, and Damascus, obsessing about real or imagined U.S. influence there.

Moscow’s Last Stand

So the Kremlin made a stand in Syria. This is Moscow’s faustian bargain: Assad, denounced by both Obama and Trump, remains in place for now; the Astana peace process is directed from Moscow and Teheran; and Russia’s military has accomplished its first successful power projection operation outside the Soviet borders since the debacle in Afghanistan decades ago.

Russia has restored its strained relationship with Turkey—Ankara is even buying Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. Turkey is also proceeding with the Turkish Stream pipeline project despite Western sanctions. One might argue that Russo-Turkish interests collide in Syria and the Black Sea area, but Ankara’s anti-Americanism may prevail in the short to medium term.

Even staunch U.S. ally Israel warmed up to Moscow after Obama’s Iran deal. Bringing Iranian influence to the Golan, and emboldening Hezbollah at the Jewish state’s doorstep, pressed a Jerusalem-Moscow dialogue. The Putin-Netanyahu relationship remains strong, despite a massive Russian military deployment in Syria which threatens Israel’s air dominance over the Levant.

Putin also courted Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Egypt and Russia jointly supported General Khalifa Haftar’s power aspirations in Libya, whereas the U.S. State Department still backs the powerless Tripoli government.

Finally, in Iran, Russia now enjoys the right to temporary air base landing and refueling in Hamadan, and the ability to fire missiles through Iranian airspace from the Caspian Sea into Syria. The decades-old cooperation between Tehran and Moscow against the United States, its Sunni Arab allies and Israel is going strong.

Conclusions: American Choices in the Middle East

The United States’ shale revolution coincides with American war fatigue and diminishing international involvement. President Donald J. Trump has denounced global democracy and nation-building ideological crusades, and apparently seeks Putin’s partnership. However, the Washington establishment (including the Republican Congressional leadership) disagree, viewing Russia as an implacable global adversary.

Whether America’s disengagement will end, we do not know. History teaches us that the United States is a global power and will be dragged into major future power competitions, including with Russia, China and Iran. But without articulating coherent, credible policy goals; without improving its key relations, it may lose post-Cold War U.S. regional predominance positions, including in the Middle East. Supporting the Saudis in Yemen, cooperating with Iraq against ISIS, and a new Israeli-Palestinian “peace plan” do not yet amount to a coherent regional strategy.

This lack of coherence will complicate support for U.S. allies in the Gulf and Israel, and will further undermine relations with key Arab ally Egypt. Ultimately, America’s global standing will suffer, as Russia with its languishing economy, which is only one-fourteenth of America’s, prevails over the U.S. superpower in a key global geostrategic theater.

Ariel Cohen, PhD, is Nonresident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. He is the author of six books and monographs, including Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis, and over 1,000 articles. He regularly contributes to leading TV channels, including CNN, BBC, FOX, Bloomberg, and writes for The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, Huffington Post, and other publications. Máté Mátyás, a Junior Fellow of the Hungarian American Coalition currently at the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics, contributed to the research.

Editor’s NoteThis article is adapted from a longer paper published by the Center for Global Policy.

Image: Reuters


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