Russia Aims to Displace US Leadership Role in the Middle East


By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

The famous Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu issued many military axioms in his classic book, “The Art of War.” But in its relationship with Russia, the U.S. has forgotten one of Sun Tzu’s basic maxims: “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American presidents have failed to understand Russia. This lack of strategic foresight surprised national security strategists when Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015.

For decades, U.S. presidents have believed that Russia could not project power beyond its own borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin changed that calculation when he intervened to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

US Misunderstands Russian Intentions in the Middle East

Two prevailing notions have emerged with regard to Russia. First, Moscow’s power and influence in the Middle East revives the global rivalry that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Second, an economically weak Russia is trapped in the perpetual Syria civil war without any way to extract itself from the morass. Nevertheless, Putin is playing a bad hand extremely well.

The United States has failed to understand Putin’s true motives in the Middle East since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That was a dark day for the former KGB official.

Putin is a strong nationalist. He believed the West had inflicted decades of humiliation on Russia and now it was payback time. What better place to begin than the Middle East?

Russia Begins Outreach to Middle East Counties with Multiple Visits

Russia’s foray into the Middle East began incrementally with Putin increasing his engagements with Middle East countries. According to a RAND Corporation report, “Russian Strategy in the Middle East,” Putin visited Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates between 2005 and 2007.

Also, Russia gained observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, never visited the region at all.

Putin’s visits “came alongside increased Russian involvement in regional negotiations, including the Middle East peace process, P5+1 [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany] negotiations with Iran, and the pursuit of Russian economic and business interests,” the RAND report said.

Despite this renewed and active engagement, none of Putin’s measures translated into real influence. Moreover, Russia has failed to clearly articulate its goals and interests in the region, the report noted.

At the same time, the U.S. was deeply involved with the ongoing conflict in Iraq. However, that situation changed with the incoming Obama administration.

Obama Accelerates US Withdrawal from Iraq, Opening Region for Russia

Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency on the promise of extricating the U.S. from Iraq. He felt that other nations, especially in the Middle East, needed to take more responsibility for themselves. This change in U.S. foreign policy was precisely the opening Putin needed.

Strategic missteps by the United States allowed Russia to re-enter the Middle East for the first time in decades. These missteps included the Syrian civil war and Obama’s failure to act against al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Putin’s moves further complicated U.S. efforts in the Middle East and challenged America’s preeminence there.

Russia, with Iran’s help, has frustrated U.S. efforts in Syria. To Middle Eastern countries, Moscow now provides a credible alternative to the United States with its offer of arms sales and various economic deals. Russia has also outmaneuvered Washington by pulling Turkey away from the West and making inroads into Egypt.

Trump Has No Firm Middle East Strategy

Obama’s retrenchment polices and now Trump’s vague Syria and post-ISIS strategy have left many people in the Middle East wondering if they can really count on the United States. The Sunni nations are especially worried about an increasingly expansionist Iran. They are now looking to Russia as a viable alternative.

Even Israel, a staunch U.S. ally, is working with Putin. Israel’s goal is to keep the conflict in Syria from spilling over the border.

Much has changed in the Middle East over the past few years. The U.S. is now the world’s leading producer of petroleum, so oil-producing Gulf states are exploring other market options.

Middle Eastern leaders are looking to Moscow to ensure that global oil prices remain favorable to their interests. The Middle East oil producers and Russia are heavily dependent on oil prices remaining high.

Moscow now competes with the U.S. for regional preeminence in the Middle East. As a result, Washington must deal with Russia on any strategic decisions the U.S. makes.

How Should the US Counter Russian Attempts to Control the Middle East?

The United States should employ its traditional Middle East strategy: containing Iran, countering terrorists, ensuring Israel’s security and making sure no one country dominates the region. The one area that is easily fixable is the same one that drives U.S. allies to seeking Russian assistance – leadership and commitment.

The political dysfunction in Washington is not lost on our allies in the region. Once Democrats and Republicans could reach a consensus, but Middle East strategy has devolved into bitter partisan warfare.

Democrats want a much tougher stance on Russia, while Republican Trump has been soft on Putin in his rhetoric. As a result, we are left with partisan bickering that leaves U.S. allies nervous about Washington’s intentions.

To alleviate this nervousness, U.S. leaders need to display strong American resolve toward Russia and Iran. U.S. allies need to know that America will not “go gently” into the night, but is here to stay and help them.

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