By John Ubaldi–To view the unadbridged version go to In Homeland Security News—
The collapse of the Soviet Union ended Russia as a superpower, eventually leading to Moscow’s full withdrawal from the Middle East, but decades later President Vladimir Putin would reverse this trajectory by reinserting itself back into the region.
Moscow’s reemergence into the Middle East is part of Putin’s grand strategy to reestablish Russia as a great power beyond its traditional borders. This reemergence has been showcased to the world with Russia’s successful military intervention in Syria.
Russia had been exiled from the region after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, but even before the conflict begun then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat removed all Soviet military presence from his country, in the years following Moscow’s only two remaining patron states were Syria and Iraq, with the latter having been lost due to the Gulf War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole remaining superpower and with it uncontested supremacy in the Middle East and North Africa, without any peer competitor to rival its power.
Putin Returns to Lead Russia
This all changed in 2012, with Putin’s return to the Russian presidency, he forcibly signaled a radical change in his nation’s foreign policy. Abandoning the agreements categorizing Dmitry Medvedev presidency, with his conciliatory relationship with the West, Putin rebuked that policy and now is taking an aggressive approach to restoring Russia as a great power again and with it challenging the West, especially the United States.
Russia’s attempt to return to great power stature ironically coincided with the Presidency of Barack Obama who came into office to recalibrate seventy years of American foreign policy of both Republican and Democratic presidents. Obama’s goal was to have the United States disengage in its activism in world affairs, by countering with a new American strategy of “leading from behind” one where other nations would seek greater global responsibilities.
Russia seized on this new recalibration of long held U.S. foreign policy doctrine and it only too eager to fill the vacuum left by the United States.
The abdication of U.S. leadership, allowed Putin to instruct Russian businesses, arms dealers and other entities to fan out across the Middle East and North Africa with sole aim of striking billions of dollars’ worth of business and military deals, re-calibrate old relationships and establishing new ones.
Allies Doubt U.S. Commitment to Region
This change in direction by the U.S. further crystalized to our allies in the Middle East that America’s commitment to the region is waning, as this was also coupled with the unpredictability of President Trump left many with no alternative but to seek assistance from Russia.
The type of authoritative leadership by Putin resonates with many of the authoritarian leaders of the Middle East, as he cares little how they govern their own country, or for human rights as they have witnessed his military campaign inside Syria, supporting Assad posing a major difference from the United States.
Examples abound as the most striking contrast is how the United State treated its longtime ally in former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, during the beginning of the “Arab Spring” revolution the U.S. abandoned him, and with many leaders wondering if they could do this to him how would they fare in a similar situation.
These leaders witnessed how Russia backed there ally in President Bashar al-Assad, but this was vastly different from how America refused to back up their allies when they were in trouble.
The other example was America’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq which only lead to the perception of America’s declining commitment, this allowed the Islamic State to establish itself and also permitted the Arab state’s arch enemy Iran to expand its influence with its proxy terror groups inside Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.
U.S. Fails in Syria
The most consequential failure by the United States which allowed Russia to cement itself in the Middle East occurred in the early stages of the Syrian civil war.
Failure by the Obama administration to decisively act showcased the U.S. as a dithering superpower, thus allowed Russia to enter militarily, boosting Putin’s standing throughout the Middle East region as a decisive leader who achieved his ultimate goal in the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The success of Russia in Syria has now leveraged Putin to be able extend Moscow’s influence far beyond the confines of Syria, but signaling to all the players who have a strategic interest in the outcome of the Syria Civil War, who the real power broker is!
Now Russia is cultivating relationships with traditional American allies such as Israel, Turkey, and the countries in the Gulf region.
Russia has now opened the welcome mat and the regions leaders are all too happy to oblige seeking Putin’s counsel on variety of topics. If we can’t count on the U.S., then we have to have a backup power to rely on. “Putin is effectively working as the psychoanalyst of the region,” said Malik Dahlan, a Saudi who is a professor of international law and public policy at Queen Mary University of London. “The Russians are happy to hear all sides, and anyone who wants to speak, they’re happy to listen.”
U.S. Lacks a Coherent Middle East Strategy
With the U.S. signaling that is wants to reduce its presence in the Middle East so it can focus on countering Russia and China in other regions, this leaves our allies in the region confused on what is America’s strategy? This lack of direction has given Russia the opening it needed; as this was on full display at the G-20 summit in Argentina, where Putin lavished huge praise on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
The U.S. foreign policy establishment has been consumed by the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia with both Democrats and Republicans wanting the U.S. to break off ties with the Kingdom, as reprehensible as this was the United States has to be careful how they handle this as the U.S. has complex interests in the region and needs the Kingdom as a counter weight to Iran, and any miscalculation for political reasons will only play into Russia’s hands.
Russia has a Strategy
Now Russia has no appetite in tangling themselves into the morass of the complicated regional disputes, as this would open up the weakness of Russia, and they also understand they will never be able to fully compete with America. With this in mind they can make it more difficult for America and each decision the U.S. makes it will have to factor how Russia would respond, this was unimaginable just a few short years ago.
“The Russians understand their limits very well. I don’t think Russia wants to replace America everywhere, and it would be very costly,” said Yury Barmin of the Russian International Affairs Council. He sees much that is ad hoc and opportunistic in Russia’s pursuit of influence.
The real strategy aim of Russia is expansion into the Mediterranean.
Failure by Obama Administration allowed Russia into Middle East
The failure of the Obama administrations strategy toward Syria especially after the disaster in not enforcing his own Infamous “redline” after Syria used chemical weapons on its own people came on the heels of then Secretary of State John Kerry’s off handed remark to a reporter’s question.
“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
This remark was seized on by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as a serious proposal by the United States. Syria welcomed this new proposal and the U.N. formally accepted the Syrian government request to ban chemical weapons.
This gave the Russian’s the opening it needed; eventually leading them to enter the Syrian Civil War and turn the tide preventing the Assad Regime from collapsing. Once inside Syria Russia was able to expand its naval base at Tartus, thus giving Moscow a strong presence in the Mediterranean, something it never had before.
U.S. not Leaving Middle East
This past October, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addressed a forum of regional leaders in Bahrain, trying to dispel the rumor or perception that America is withdrawing from the Middle East region, or that Russia could somehow replace the U.S.
“I make clear Russia’s presence in the region cannot replace the long-standing, enduring and transparent U.S. commitment to the Middle East,” he said, adding later, “We are going to continue to stay committed here, and in no way are we walking away from this.”
Yet even as the United States maintains a vast economic, military and technological advantage over Russia, increasingly it is Russia that is seen as the go-to power for a region consumed by crises and unsure of Washington’s reliability, said Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
The question has always been in the Middle East who is the strongest tribe, America has always been the strongest, but it’s not how much power you have but how that power is used. Far too long America has not wielded its power effectively, and it better understand the current situation or we will pay a price for our ineffectiveness.