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


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