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By John Ubaldi
Columnist, In Homeland Security
The collapse of the Soviet Union ended Russia’s superpower status and led to Moscow’s full withdrawal from the Middle East. Decades later, President Vladimir Putin would reverse that course by reinserting Russia into the region.
Moscow’s reemergence in 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 by Russia’s successful military intervention in Syria.
Russia was exiled from the Middle East after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But even before that conflict began, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat removed the Soviet military presence from his country.
In the decades that followed, Moscow’s only two remaining patron states were Syria and Iraq. But Iran suffered from the loss of the Gulf War in 1988.
Putin Using More Aggressive Approach to Middle East
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole superpower and its uncontested supremacy in the Middle East and North Africa. But all that changed with Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012 and a radical change in the nation’s foreign policy.
Having abandoned the agreements and conciliatory relationships with the West forged by his predecessor, President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin is now taking a more aggressive approach toward restoring Russia as a great power. In doing so, he is challenging the West, especially the United States.
Russia’s attempt to return to great power status coincided with the presidency of Barack Obama, who came into the White House intent on resetting 70 years of foreign policy by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Obama’s goal was to disengage the United States from its activist role in world affairs and replace it with a new strategy of “leading from behind,” allowing other nations to take on greater global responsibilities.
But withdrawing from an active role in world affairs proved to be a mistake. Russia was only too eager to fill the power vacuum left when the United States altered its long-standing foreign policy doctrine.
The alteration in U.S. global leadership allowed Putin to instruct Russian businesses, arms dealers and other entities to fan out across the Middle East and North Africa. Putin’s sole aim was for Russian organizations to strike billions of dollars’ worth of business and military deals, as well as re-establishing old relationships and establishing new ones.
Middle East Allies Doubt US Commitment
This change in direction signaled to U.S. allies in the Middle East that America’s commitment to the region had waned. The new foreign policy stance, coupled with the unpredictability of President Donald Trump, left many Middle East nations with no alternative but to seek assistance from Russia.
Putin’s authoritative leadership resonates with many of the authoritarian rulers in the region. Putin doesn’t care how they govern their own countries or for human rights. Indeed, they have witnessed his military campaign in Syria and his support of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.
The most striking foreign policy contrast between Moscow and Washington is how the U. S. treated its long-time ally former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At the beginning of the “Arab Spring” revolution in 2010, the U.S. abandoned Mubarak. That left many Middle Eastern leaders wondering if the U.S. could do that to a long-time ally, how would they fare in a similar situation?
These leaders saw that Russia steadfastly backed its ally Assad. They also noted that the U.S. refused to back its allies when they were in trouble.
The other example of America’s untrustworthiness was its precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, which gave credence to the perception of a declining U.S. commitment. That allowed the Islamic State to establish itself and for Iraq’s archenemy, Iran, to expand its influence with its proxy terror groups inside Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.
US Failure in Syria
The most consequential failure of the United States occurred in the early stages of the Syrian civil war. The Obama administration’s failure to act decisively against Syria gave the impression that the U.S. was a dithering superpower and allowed Russia to enter Syria with military troops. That boosted Putin’s reputation throughout the Middle East as a decisive leader who achieved his ultimate goal of maintaining the Assad regime in power.
Russia’s strategic success has enabled Putin to extend Moscow’s influence far beyond the borders of Syria. Moreover, it signaled to all nations that have a strategic interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war who the real power broker is.
As a result, Russia is cultivating relationships with traditional U.S. allies such as Israel, Turkey and the countries in the Persian Gulf.
Russia has now rolled out the welcome mat to the region’s leaders who are all too happy to seek Putin’s counsel on a variety of topics. “Putin is effectively working as the psychoanalyst of the region,” said Malik Dahlan, a Saudi professor of international law and public policy at Queen Mary University in London. “The Russians are happy to hear all sides, and anyone who wants to speak, they’re happy to listen.”
US Lacks a Coherent Middle East Strategy
The Trump administration’s lack of a coherent foreign policy has given Russia the opening it needed to stake its claim in the region, even against traditional U.S. allies. At the G-20 summit in Argentina, for example, Putin lavished huge praise on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Their high-five gesture was seen as a clear snub of Trump.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment and the media have been consumed by the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Democrats and Republicans want the U.S. to take strong measures, perhaps sanctions, against the kingdom.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed an unusual bipartisan resolution that blamed Saudi leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing and called for an end to U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
As reprehensible as this murder was, the United States has to be careful how it handles this retribution. The U.S. has complex interests in the region and needs the kingdom as a counterweight to Iran. Any miscalculation for political reasons will only play into Russia’s hands.
Russia Does Not Want to Be Involved in Regional Disputes
Russia has no appetite for becoming entangled in complicated regional disputes because that would reveal its weaknesses. Moscow understands that it can never fully compete with the United States.
“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.
However, Putin can make life more difficult for the U.S. Each foreign policy decision the U.S. makes will have to factor in how Russia would respond. This consideration was unimaginable just a few short years ago.
Russia’s real strategic aim is expansion into the Mediterranean. Once inside Syria, Russia was able to expand its naval base at Tartus, thus giving Moscow a strong presence in the Mediterranean. That’s something Russia has never had before.
US Intends to Remain in Middle East
In October, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addressed regional leaders in Bahrain. He sought to dispel the perception that the United States was withdrawing from the Middle East and that Russia could somehow replace the U.S. there.
“I make clear Russia’s presence in the region cannot replace the long-standing, enduring and transparent U.S. commitment to the Middle East,” Mattis said. He added later, “We are going to continue to stay committed here, and in no way are we walking away from this.”
But who is the strongest power in the Middle East? The U.S. has always been the strongest power.
But it’s not how much power you have, it’s how that power is used. Unfortunately, America has not wielded its power effectively in the region. The U.S. had better understand the current situation or we will pay a high price for our ineffectiveness.