First Published: 2017-10-13

Russia replacing US as Middle East’s political Centre of Influence
Even America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East, Israel, has been inching closer to Moscow, observes Claude Salhani.
Middle East Online

Russia. That is the key word for the future of geopolitics, especially where the Middle East is concerned.

Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is making headway in geopolitics in a manner that the Soviet Union at the height of its power could only dream of.

From its alleged involvement in the 2016 US elections — the impact of Moscow’s influence in that event is yet to be determined — to the Middle East and North Africa, Russia has replaced the United States as the principal actor in the region’s politics and policies.

US allies such as Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, which once conferred with Washington before taking any action, are flocking to the Kremlin in search of direction and leadership. Their leaders have voiced displeasure at the United States’ lack of interest in the region.

Things began to go bad under US President Barack Obama and got much worse since Donald Trump became president in January.

After meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Putin met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who became the first Saudi monarch to visit Moscow. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for such a meeting to take place.

The Saudis wanted to discuss Iran. Saudi Arabia’s biggest worry is the ever-expanding influence of Iran. The Saudis voiced their concern over Tehran to Washington and received no reply. So, Moscow seems to be the new powerbroker.

The situation in Syria exemplifies Moscow’s influence over Syria, which surpasses that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In large part this is due to Russia placing an emphasis on its military presence in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war.

“It changed the reality, the balance of power on the ground,” Dennis Ross, who was the United States’ chief Mideast peace negotiator and advised presidents from George H.W. Bush to Obama, told the Associated Press. “Putin has succeeded in making Russia a factor in the Middle East. That’s why you see a constant stream of Middle Eastern visitors going to Moscow.”

How and why did this situation get to this point? How did the United States get to the point of losing its political prestige?

Washington’s political dominance began to decline in 2013 when Obama failed to act after warning Assad that the United States would not stand idly by while Syria deployed chemical weapons against its people.

By dropping the ball as it did, the United States allowed Moscow, which was only too happy to pick up the pieces, to step in. At the same time, Washington’s inaction in Syria left its regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, in the cold.

Another prominent US ally that felt left out was Turkey. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has urged the United States to act in the Syrian conflict since its beginning, complained that he could not get any results from Washington.

Two years ago, tensions between Putin and Erdogan threatened to boil over after the Turkish military shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border. Putin recently travelled to Ankara for dinner with Erdogan, whom he called “friend.”

Erdogan angered fellow NATO members by agreeing to buy Russian S-400 air defence missile systems.

Saudi Arabia, one of the main financers of the anti-Assad coalition, is moving closer to Moscow with the historic visit by King Salman to Russia.

Unlike the United States, which does not seem to have a map on how to navigate out of the Middle East conundrum, with Washington backing a particular rebel group one day only to discover that it is just as bad as the bad guys it is fighting, Moscow appears to have drawn Iran into its sphere of influence, as tensions between Washington and Tehran increase.

Even America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East, Israel, has been inching closer to Moscow. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made four trips to Moscow in the past 18 months.

Putin has tried his hand at negotiating a ceasefire between rival Libyan factions and the one area that used to be Washington’s guarded domain — the perennial Arab-Israeli peace negotiations — including efforts by the Kremlin to bring Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation closer.

Putin, however, won’t shift his stance on Iran to accommodate Saudi wishes, a person close to the Kremlin said.

Chances that Trump could reverse the trend and make American influence in the Middle East great again are slim.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly


US says Iran supplied ballistic missile to Yemen rebels

UN 'appalled' at mass execution of jihadists in Iraq

Palestinians killed in continuing protests over Jerusalem occupation

Over half Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in 'extreme

Middle-class Egypt adapts as costs soar

Saudi-led air strikes, clashes as Yemen forces battle rebels

Bourita: Extraordinary meeting between ECOWAS, Morocco to be held beginning of 2018

Sahel force funding shows terrorism fight is Saudi 'priority'

Iraq's Sistani says Hashed should be under government control

Somalia's budget meets IMF terms

Israel PM questioned in graft probe

Lebanon approves bid for oil, gas exploration

US to present 'irrefutable evidence' of Iran violations

Istanbul 'to remove Gulen links' from street names

Iraq hangs 38 jihadists

Pence to visit Middle East despite controversy

Hamas chief calls for continued Jerusalem protests

EU to repatriate 15,000 migrants from Libya in two months

Syria Kurds fear US ally will desert them after IS defeat

Israeli drugmaker Teva to cut 14,000 jobs over two years

Turkey rescues 51 migrants stranded on rocks

Saudi, UAE hold talks with Yemen Islamists

18 killed after bomber strikes Mogadishu police academy

Israeli air strikes target Hamas military facilities

US-led air strikes kill 23 civilians in Syria

Israel union calls nationwide strike over pharmaceutical giant job cuts

UN envoy urges Putin to press Assad for elections

Yemen's Huthi rebels release pro-Saleh media staff

Israel intelligence minister invites Saudi prince to visit

Saudi-led strikes kill 30 in rebel-run Yemen prison

Saudi king says Palestinians have 'right' to Jerusalem

Erdogan urges world to recognise Jerusalem as Palestinian capital

Saudi King says determined to confront corruption

South Sudan needs $1.7 billion humanitarian aid in 2018

UAE oil giant floats 10 percent of retail arm to strong interest

US skeptical about Putin's declaration of military victory in Syria

Growing concern about rise of far-right in Austria

Saudi, UAE seeks to help West Africa fight terrorism

Somali journalist dies after Mogadishu bombing

Israeli sentenced to four years for arson attack on church

Erdogan risks sabotaging fragile relations with Israel

6.2-magnitude earthquake strikes Iran

Two Gazans killed by Israeli ‘strike’, Israel denies claim

French FM accuses Iran of carving out ‘axis’ of influence

Over 170 dead after South Sudan rival cattle herders clash