1 November 2019   2 comments

There is broad consensus among analysts that Russia has gained a great deal of leverage in the Middle East because of the US decision to withdraw from Syria. Eugene Rumer gives a brief summary of Russia’s historical role in the region:

“For centuries, Russia fought Turkey, England, and France for access to the Mediterranean, to protect fellow Christians under the Ottoman rule, and to secure a foothold in the Holy Land. For most of the post–World War II era, the Soviet Union was a major force in the Middle East. Moscow supported the Palestine Liberation Organization in its struggle against the “Zionist entity.” Egypt and Syria waged wars against Israel with Soviet weapons, help from Soviet military advisers, and occasionally even Soviet pilots. Soviet engineers and money helped build Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Then, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union fell on hard times and rapidly withdrew. For the two decades that followed, Russia barely registered a presence in the Middle East. The United States grew accustomed to acting as the region’s hegemon—waging wars, dictating its political vision, and punishing governments that defied its will.

“Such was the new normal until 2015. In the fall of that year, Russia sent its military to Syria. A coalition of U.S.-supported opposition groups was widely expected to win the civil war in that country and overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Putin’s bold move and his military’s unexpected prowess quickly changed the course of events, demonstrating that the Middle East without Russia was actually a departure, not the norm. The norm used to be a Middle East with Russia in it as a major power broker. By winning the war in Syria, Russia seeks to make the old normal the new one.”

What remains to be seen is how well Russia can manage its relations with the competing states in the region. It has worked hard to establish good relations with Israel and has found a willing partner in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But Netanyahu is now a much weaker Prime Minister and it is unlikely that he will regain his former stature, even if he manages to form a new government if Benny Gantz fails. And Russia needs to balance off its relations with Iran with Israeli hostility towards Iran–it is unlikely that Russia can maintain its position in Syria without at least the tacit consent of Iran which is strongly entrenched in Syria:

“Russian-Iranian relations have undergone an unusual transformation as a result of the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. Their joint victory is likely to lead to a divergence of their interests. Russia is interested in returning Syria to the status quo ante and reaping the benefits of peace and reconstruction. Iran is interested in exploiting Syria as a platform in its campaign against Israel. Russia lacks the military muscle and the diplomatic leverage to influence Iran. That poses a big obstacle to Moscow’s ambitions in the Middle East.

Second, Russia’s relations with Turkey are always difficult, even though at the present time it appears as if the two states are cooperating well. They are conducting joint patrols in the “safe zone” thanks to the US withdrawal from that area of Syria. But Syria cannot be happy about Turkish troops occupying part of its territory and at some point that tension will have to be resolved. Will Russia’s need for Assad to stay in power outweigh Turkey’s interest in suppressing the Kurds? Over time that tension will only increase, not decrease.

Third, Russia has tried very hard not to overcommit its resources in the Middle East, largely because it lacks the necessary resources to sustain a large presence in the region. But now that it is viewed by some states as a “substitute” for US power, demands on Russian resources will inevitably increase. The demands for the reconstruction of Syria will be huge, and it is unlikely that any Arab state other than Qatar might be willing to pour money into the Assad regime. Russian President is already facing unusual protests within Russia for increased spending and it will be difficult for him to spend the money necessary to rehabilitate the Syrian economy without alienating his domestic base.

It is also unlikely that Russia and Saudi Arabia can work together effectively over a long period of time. Russia has a strong interest in a high price for petroleum as well as high production since it relies very heavily on income from oil exports. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, prefers a stable price that will not encourage alternative fuels and wants to conserve its oil resources for the long haul. There have been times when Russia and Saudi Arabia have been able to work together for short periods of time, but their long term interests diverge.

It may be the case that Russia has emerged as a dominant power in the Middle East right now, but it has a difficult task in balancing off its competing interests. It may find itself as tangled up as the US finds itself in the region. We shall see if has the discipline to prioritize its interests in a manageable manner.

Posted November 1, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 responses to “1 November 2019

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  1. Excellent 👍!

    Like

  2. I’m preparing for a competitive exam and this really helps

    Like

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