CHICAGO: Russia is aggressively competing to replace American interests in the Middle East in a way not seen since the 1973 Arab-Israeli “October War,” the former US envoy to Syria under President Donald Trump warned on Friday.
James F. Jeffrey, now chairman of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said during a media briefing that Moscow’s interests in the region are not restricted to Syria or working with Iran, but extend to forging alliances with regional players such as Turkey and Iraq.
He added that Russia is leveraging the approach of the new US administration to Iran in its efforts to build stronger alliances.
“Russia is very active in the region,” he said. “(In) the two areas where it is militarily present, Libya and Syria, it has been stymied largely by Turkish military responses, particularly in Syria, with some American diplomatic support.
“But Russia is trying its very best to present an alternative security architecture for the region. (The Russians) are our competition in the region as much as the Iranians are.
“That (growing Russian influence) is a new factor that was not present in any major way during the Obama administration. That is something I would urge the Biden administration to focus on; the problem with Russia in the region is very important.”
Jeffrey added that the message the Kremlin is sending to regional powers is clear, and that it is threatening US interests by implying support for Iran.
“Now you have a third factor — for the first time since the Yom Kippur War (another name for the October War) or perhaps Afghanistan in the 1980s — which is an active Russian presence in the region, which is a potential security alternative to the US,” he said.
“I would urge the (Biden) administration to pay attention to that because it is something new.”
Jeffrey said that while President Joe Biden is keen for a quick return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, he should be wary of Russia positioning itself to expand its alliances in the region by using Syria and Iran as bases.
Any reduction of US presence in the region could lead to even closer ties between Tehran and Moscow, which would increase the confidence of the Iranian regime, he added.
Jeffrey also described the ongoing conflict in Syria as “the biggest mistake of the Obama administration” because it is “a military stalemate” that Russia could manipulate in the hope of becoming a force equal to the US in the region.
Biden outlined his own concerns about Russia on Thursday, as he distanced himself from the position taken by the Trump administration.
“I made it clear to President (Vladimir) Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the US rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over,” he said.
“We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people. And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners.”
Jeffrey also predicted on Friday that the Biden administration will retain the sanctions placed on Turkey by Trump in the weeks before he left office. They were imposed in response to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which the West views as a threat to NATO and the US F35 Lightning II advanced stealth surveillance and combat jet.