Analysis: A reluctant Russia in the Middle East?
Russia’s ramped up involvement in the war against ISIL has spurred wild theories of a US exit from the region.
Russia’s recent entry into the Syrian war theatre, with all guns blazing, has spurred speculation that it may mark the beginning of the end of the decades-old US hegemony over the Middle East region.
Of course, there are those who dispute the very idea of a Pax Americana in view of Washington’s failure to install democracy, economic prosperity and human rights in the Arab world over the years since the first wave of “revolutions” in the 1950s. Aside from keeping regional behemoth Iran in check through crippling economic sanctions since 1979, Washington’s policies only served – until 2011 – to keep dictators locked in place in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, to name a few.
Still, post-Arab Spring developments, including the war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have challenged this order in more fundamental ways than the much-touted season of popular uprisings.
Russia’s decision to step into the war in Syria – in defence of Bashar al-Assad – has been called everything from “a game changer” to “unconscionable“. But talk of an imminent Pax Russica may be premature.
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This is not the first time Russia has attempted to temper US influence in the Middle East region through military involvement. Russia’s manoeuvring in the region dates back to the mid-1950s, as Ibrahim al-Marashi recalls in an op-ed, when “the Soviets had postured themselves as an ally of the Arabs”, by providing Egypt with weapons in an arms race against Israel.
no concept of equal partnership – you either have to say ‘Yes’, or be ostracised.”]
But according to Alexei Pankin, deputy editor of the Russia Insider and a columnist at RIA Novosti and Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s intentions have never been to compete with the US. He believes Russia is merely compelled to clean up after Washington’s myopic policies, which he defines as “interventionism, unilateralism and cultural blindness”, as well as their “affinity for regime change”.
“Starting with the Iraqi invasion, they have created a huge mess in the Middle East while being very far from there. Russia is near, and her borders are by far not as impenetrable as those of the US,” he told Al Jazeera. “So it had to take the lead. The fact that the US did and does not want to follow [Russia] only demonstrates how arrogant and near-sighted they are.”
Pankin adds: “Terrorism in general – and ISIL in particular – is an existential threat to the region and to the wider world. It is one area where cooperation between Russia and the US is … essential. The problem with US policies there and elsewhere is that [they have] no concept of equal partnership; you either have to say ‘Yes’, or be ostracised.”
Mark Katz, a specialist on Russian foreign policy and the author of several books, including “Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan”, warns against premature predictions of a loss of US influence in the region and a Russian geopolitical victory.
“Russian actions, of course, do challenge US influence in the region. But this does not mean that Russia has won the ‘long game’ there. Moscow’s support for the unpopular Alawite minority regime in Syria, and its allying with Shia governments in Tehran and increasingly Baghdad, is hardly going to win hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs,” he says.
Also read: Could Syria be Putin’s Afghanistan?
It is a conviction shared by many notable Middle East analysts, including Joseph Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Gulf region.
“It is highly premature to write off Pax Americana in the Middle East,” he says. “The US influence is not on the wane. It is, rather, in partial abeyance for the time being, enough to lure Russia into a trap in Syria.”
Kechichian believes the war “will end up like Afghanistan in 1979, with Moscow writing off its Afghan allies and withdrawing helter-skelter”.
“What the Russian and, more important, the Iranian deployments … mean is that the war will drag on for a few more years,” he posits. “We will see an escalation and many more casualties. All to keep a dictator in power and, because Obama created the opportunity by adopting a hands-off policy, humiliating the United States.”
Over the long term, Kechichian argues, Russia will have no choice but to either withdraw or “transform Alawistan into a fortress, like Israel has become”.
Besides, Russia does not have the capabilities for a long term military deployment, no matter the bravado that is now fuelled by the anti-American media frenzy.
“Besides, Russia does not have the capabilities for a long term military deployment, no matter the bravado that is now fuelled by the anti-American media frenzy,” he says.
Russia’s inability to finance a sustained and meaningful presence in the Middle East is a handicap equally stressed upon by former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov. He believes Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war only appears “spectacular” because the Obama administration hasn’t risen to the occasion, but it does not herald some kind of Russian renaissance in the Middle East.
“The Russian success, even though temporary, is obviously built on the fact that the Obama administration has failed to develop a coherent strategy towards Syria and the region generally,” he says. “It was clear that the bombing campaign was failing and Russia simply used the resulting stalemate to score political points at a relatively limited cost.”
Still, it is too soon for celebrations at the Kremlin, he says.
“The Russian involvement in Syria … is very limited in the military sense and it’s doubtful that the bombing campaign will actually result in the resolution of the conflict and the destruction of ISIL and other terrorist groups, especially as they enjoy continued support from several nations,” he says. “It is doubtful that it will bring substantial results, apart from grabbing some good headlines and producing positive coverage at home. There are also doubts that Russia can afford to finance a prolonged air bombing campaign, and, at some point, it would simply have to stop.”
Also read: US support to Peshmerga: Too little, too late?
Aside from economic limitations, other analysts maintain that the qualitative edge the US enjoys over Moscow will mean it will always be viewed as an “indispensable ally” in the region.
Michael Knights, a Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Russian strikes may be a “game changer”, but the Americans still have “a clear lead on Russia”.
“The Russians may be able to bomb at will in Syria, and they may deliver weapons quickly in Iraq, but they do not enjoy the trust – the awe, more accurately – that US forces have with the Iraqis,” he says.
“US intelligence is so much sharper; US knowledge of Iraq so much better, and US commanders are all known to the Iraqis. The US cares about more than killing ISIL – it is trying to support Prime Minister [Haider] al-Abbadi, kick-start electricity reforms and rebuild Mosul Dam before it floods Iraq. The breadth of US interests and the intimacy of US involvement in Iraq is an ongoing advantage.”
On the other hand, some Russian analysts claim a qualitative edge – in the form of intelligence and in-depth knowledge – is the very element that eludes the US. Russian pundits were among the first to pan the US for intelligence shortfalls in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, for miscalculating the Iraqi response to “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, and more recently, failing to predict the consequences of the Arab Spring.
What the US needs is a complete overhaul of their foreign policy strategy in the Middle East and to fully cooperate with Russia and Iran ...
Vladimir Sotnikov, a Moscow-based Middle Eastern policy analyst and senior research fellow with the Institute of Eastern Studies, maintains that Vladimir Putin has “outwitted” Obama, whose “go slow” involvement in Middle East affairs has led to the quagmire.
“Washington could not imagine such a scenario with the rapid involvement of Russia to help the legitimate President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against ISIL militants,” he says. “Instead, Russia’s US partner, until the very last moment, stubbornly insisted on regime change in Syria and that was a short-sighted approach.”
“In keeping with a policy of support for the so-called ‘moderate opposition’ to the Assad regime and a reluctance to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Obama actually lost momentum,” Sotnikov says. “At the end of the day, it appears that US influence and its ability to tackle crisis situations like Syria and to eliminate hotbeds of terror that threaten the whole world … is on the wane in the Middle East while that of Russia is on the rise.”
Sotnikov concedes it may be too early to announce the end of Pax Americana in the Middle East, but he says the end is certainly near when the US is no longer able to “forecast the future developments in this vital area of the world”.
If the Americans are to remain in the region, he believes they must come around to the idea of cooperation with erstwhile enemies – an idea that the next US president ought to keep in mind.
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“What the US needs is a complete overhaul of their foreign policy strategy in the Middle East and to fully cooperate with Russia and Iran – another major stakeholder whose influence is rapidly rising in the region after the nuclear deal – to remain one of the major players in this part of the world,” Sotnikov says.
Indeed, all pundits appear to agree on one thing: that US interests haven’t changed and much hinges on the outcome of the US elections.
For Katz, the game isn’t over yet and there is still the possibility that the next administration may be more willing to take a more proactive approach vis-a-vis Middle East affairs.
“While the Obama administration has not been particularly active in countering Russia, this does not mean that the next US president will behave similarly,” he says. “Indeed, most Republican candidates, as well as the likely Democratic nominee – Hillary Clinton – are going to pursue a far more active policy than Obama has.”
Kechichian concurs: “The US has long-term interests that remain steady. [Obama]’s successor may adopt different policies, but even without such a dramatic transformation – from nonchalance to resetting ties with allies on the right course – it is entirely possible that we will see a reaction from the White House against the recent Russian incursion in Syria.”
For others still, the question is, why bother? They suggest it is a lose-lose situation for all those who dare enter the Middle East with more arms and gung ho military strategies.
“The Middle East is a trap for all who intervene – caveat emptor,” says John Bell, head of the Middle East and Mediterranean programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.
“The long game in the Middle East is about governance, and if one looks around, there’s a dearth of good governments in the region. Russia or the US cannot correct this easily – if at all. Instead, whoever intervenes will go from crisis to crisis until the region corrects itself, which may take quite some time.”
For Bell, fundamental US policy errors in the Middle East include failing to put pressure on Israel to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would have been good not only for the Palestinians but also for Israel and more recently, an excessive focus on terror organisations as the problem, rather than the root cause which is poor governance in the region.
Indeed, that is perhaps the chief indictment against Pax Americana: that it has aided and abetted poor governance for decades.
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @ummanais