One of the byproducts of recent events in the Middle East is the return of Russia to a prominent role across the region. Not that Russia ever left, but it has been a principal goal of successive US administrations to push first the Soviet Union and then Russia back. In the 1950s and 1960s that took the form of a series of political and military alliances, including NATO (which included Turkey) and the Baghdad Pact and CENTO (including variously Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan). More recently, the United States has tried to expand NATO eastward along Russia’s southwest flank, including Ukraine and Georgia. And the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya deprived Russia of important partners, in fields as varied as energy and arms sales.
Not so much anymore. Russia has come roaring back. However, although hawks and neoconservatives will make noises about President Obama’s inability to block Russia’s Middle East resurgence, it could be a good thing if it leads to greater US-Russian cooperation in conflicts such as the civil war in Syria, the Iran nuclear standoff, Afghanistan, and the war against Al Qaeda.
The latest news on the Russia–Middle East front is the visit last week of Russia’s foreign minister and defense minister to Egypt. According to AFP:
Russia is offering to sell Egypt modern helicopters and air defense systems in a landmark deal reportedly worth $2 billion that would mark a revival of large-scale military cooperation, a Russian official said Friday.
In the same visit, there were reports that Russia and Egypt spoke about setting up a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. The Russians say that Saudi Arabia is willing to finance the sale, which would be a stunning shift by Egypt, which has long depended on the United States and the West for its military. But the successive coups against former President Hosni Mubarak and then against President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt’s generals has irked Washington and made Egypt resistant to both American carrots and sticks. The new turn toward Russia recalls the dramatic shift by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-1950s, who turned to Eastern Europe and the USSR for arms when London and Washington sought to isolate him and topple his government.
That follows a brilliant diplomatic maneuver in August, when Russia got Syria’s commitment to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons and then invited the United States to co-sponsor the effort, thwarting Obama’s ill-conceived plan to bomb Syria in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of poison gas in the war against Syrian rebels. As a result, Russia—which is Assad’s chief ally, along with Iran—is back at the center of the Syrian issue, pushing for a diplomatic solution. And all of a sudden, the military forces of the Syrian government look formidable, making major gains on the ground since May, when they recaptured a strategic town on the Syria-Lebanon border and began pushing back rebels around Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs. Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone, and a Syrian delegation traveled to Moscow to discuss diplomacy involving the civil war and a planned peace conference in Syria. Russia has also invited the chief representative of the Syrian rebels to Moscow, too.
And Russia is at the center of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, including the United States, which are on track later this week to create an interim accord of so-called “confidence-building measures” (CBMs) toward a final agreement in six months or so.
Russia’s increased role can be seen in its efforts to build closer ties to Israel and its efforts to sell weapons to Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, too. Last year, says the BBC, “Baghdad has signed major deals for Russian air defence systems and combat helicopters, beating off European competitors.” And, while plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia haven’t materialized yet, on Sunday King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Putin spoke by phone. The BBC adds that the United Arab Emirates, another Arab oil kleptocracy, is improving its Russia ties:
Over the last two decades there has been an enormous influx of Russian visitors and residents to the UAE and one very senior member of the ruling family has such a close working relationship with President Putin they go shooting together in the Russian woods.
None of this ought to be alarming, but it does mean that Obama ought to redouble efforts to work with Russia on regional problems.
Bob Dreyfuss looks into the disruptive role the French are playing in negotiations with Iran.