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Russia is here to stay

Sep 05,2017 - Last updated at Sep 05,2017

Russia became a key player in regional affairs in the past two years and Syria provided it with the ticket and the opportunity in the midst of a visible and deliberate US recoil from a region that was historically a main stage for American hegemony.

The US retreat began under the previous administration in what was dubbed as America’s pivot to Asia, a policy that restructured American strategic interests in a changing world.

The region was going through the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring, which toppled regimes, most of which were key US allies, and brought about open-ended chaos.

President Barack Obama’s reaction to the popular uprisings that gripped Tunis, Libya, Egypt and Syria lacked a clear and sustainable vision, shaking trust in America’s commitment and support for its traditional allies.

The Libya debacle in 2011 provided the first indicator of Moscow’s readiness to get directly involved in the region.

Russia had become the primary critic of Western military intervention in Libya, which led to the toppling of a Moscow ally, Muammar Qadhafi, and the eventual anarchy that beset the country. 

But it was the Syrian crisis, and the regional polarisation that ensued, that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to step in. 

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, to back the embattled President Bashar Assad, in September 2015, was a calculated gamble that, two years later, appears to have worked.

Russia is no stranger to the Middle East. In the middle of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union sought to solidify alliances with Arab countries that had a shared platform: all were left-leaning socialist republics that were engaged in a bitter struggle against Israel.

The 1973 Arab-Israeli war was seen as a proxy fighting between Washington’s ally and Moscow’s Arab partners, namely Egypt, Syria and, to a certain extent, Iraq.

As US regional weight spread out in the region, especially following the signing of the peace treaty in 1979 between Egypt and Israel, Moscow’s influence receded.

It continued to maintain alliances with Damascus and Baghdad — two rival countries — and had a special relationship with Algeria, South Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. But as Moscow got bogged down in a costly war in Afghanistan (1979-89), the Soviet Union began to show signs of unravelling.

It finally did in December 1991, and a new world order, a unipolar one, arrived.

The new Russian Federation was in disarray for most of the 1990s, while the Middle East was embroiled in a devastating regional war (the first Gulf War, following Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990) and a complex peace process between Israel and the Palestinians under US auspices.

America became the region’s unchallenged curator and its objectives had changed little: supporting Israel while managing the Arab-Israeli conflict, securing the stability of oil rich Gulf states and containing revolutionary Iran.

For Moscow’s usual regional partners, a weak Russia would no longer be a reliable ally. But September 11 upset the world’s geopolitical dynamics and America’s priorities in the region.

During the first decade of this millennium, the US found itself entangled in two bloody regional wars: Afghanistan and Iraq.

Both proved costly and unmanageable.

As US troops descended into the quick sands of two perilous
quagmires, Russia’s new strongman, Vladimir Putin, was putting his house in order.

He had crushed the rebellion in Chechnya and rebuilt the country’s military. Benefitting from a historic surge in oil and gas prices, Putin was reasserting Russia’s role on the world stage as a power to be reckoned with.

The Middle East has always been eyed by Russian rulers as a geopolitical prize due to its proximity to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and because of the shared cultural and religious heritage.

But never in the past 60 years had Moscow been more entrenched in the region as it is today.

The Syrian crisis allowed Russia to construct tricky alliances with two regional powers: Turkey and Iran. Its relations with Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, have never been closer.

Its role in finding an end to the Syrian conflict is now central and unshakeable. It is now in Syria to stay for a long time.

Moscow is also getting involved in other regional conflicts where the West came up short, including Libya, Palestine/Israel and even the falling-out between Qatar and other Gulf Coopertion Council partners.

At a time when Washington’s regional agenda seems confused and inconclusive, Moscow is adopting a more sober and pragmatic approach, filling a strategic vacuum.

Its openness to all parties should allow it to have sway over a number of regional players, including Iran, which is meddling in neighbours’ affairs.

It is also hoped that Russia can counterbalance US’ tilt in favour of Israel — more so today than ever before — and help push for an equitable settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict, according to international laws and UN resolutions.

But the biggest test yet for Putin will be the resolution of the Syrian crisis in a way that provides an acceptable political settlement that takes into consideration the aspirations of the Syrian people and the anxieties of regional players.

By stepping into the Mideast, Moscow assumes huge political and moral responsibilities in a region that has been in turmoil for far too long.



The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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