The US retreat began with Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a policy that restructured US strategic interests in a changing world. But Obama’s reaction to the popular uprisings that gripped Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria lacked a clear and sustainable vision, shaking trust in his country’s commitment and support of its traditional allies.
The Libya debacle in 2011 provided the first indicator of Moscow’s readiness to get directly involved in the region. Russia was the primary critic of Western military intervention there, which led to the toppling of Moscow ally Muammar Qaddafi, and eventual anarchy. But it was the Syrian crisis, and the regional polarization that ensued, that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to step in. Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 in support of Bashar Assad was a calculated gamble that appears to have worked.
Russia is no stranger to the Middle East. At the height 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 engaged in a bitter struggle against Israel. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war was seen as a proxy battle between Washington’s ally and Moscow’s Arab partners Egypt, Syria and, to some extent, Iraq.
As America’s regional influence expanded, especially after the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Moscow’s receded. It continued to maintain alliances with rivals Damascus and Baghdad and had a special relationship with Algeria, South Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organization. But as Moscow became bogged down in a costly war in Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union began to show signs of unraveling. It finally did in December 1991 and a new world order, a unipolar one, was born.
The new Russian federation was in disarray for most of the 1990s, while the Middle East was embroiled in a devastating regional war and a complex peace process between Israel and the Palestinians under US auspices. America had become the region’s unchallenged curator and its objectives had changed very little: Supporting Israel while managing the Arab-Israeli conflict, securing the stability of oil from Gulf states and containing revolutionary Iran. Moscow’s usual regional partners on the other hand found that a weak Russia was no longer a reliable ally. But 9/11 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 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both proved to be costly and unmanageable. As US troops descended into the quicksands of two perilous quagmires, Russia’s new strongman, Putin, was putting his house in order. He had crushed the rebellion in Chechnya and rebuilt the country’s military. Benefiting 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.
At a time when Washington’s regional agenda seems confused and inconclusive, Moscow is adopting a more sober and pragmatic approach.
The Middle East has always been viewed by Russian rulers as a geopolitical prize due to its proximity to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and because of shared cultural and religious heritage. But never in the past 60 years has Moscow been more entrenched in the region as it is today.
The Syrian crisis has allowed Russia to build tricky alliances with 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. In other words, Russia will be in Syria for years to come.
Moscow is also getting involved in other regional conflicts where the West has come up short, including Libya, Palestine/Israel and even the dispute between Qatar and other Gulf states. At a time when Washington’s regional agenda seems confused and inconclusive, Moscow is adopting a more sober and pragmatic approach and 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 its neighbors’ affairs. Russia can also counterbalance the US’ favorable stance toward Israel and push for an equitable settlement of the Arab-Israeli 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 anxieties of regional players. By stepping into this region, Moscow is taking on huge political and moral responsibilities.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.