Russia seeks to fill vacuum in the Middle East


Buoyed by events in Syria, Russia is wooing some traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East. (ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
September 30, 2013

Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union affirmed the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia is seeking ways large and small to fill the vacuum left by the departure of American troops from Iraq and the toppling of U.S. allies in the Arab Spring revolts.

The recent diplomacy that averted a U.S. strike on Syria underscored the extent to which Moscow’s steadfast support for its last remaining Arab ally has helped reassert Russia’s role. Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world leader with the single biggest influence over the outcome of a raging war that is threatening the stability of the wider region, winning concessions from both President Bashar al-
Assad and President Obama to secure a U.N. resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal.

Less conspicuously, Russia has been nurturing new alliances and reviving old friendships further afield, reaching out to countries long regarded as being within the American sphere of influence in ways that echo the superpower rivalries of the Cold War era.

Those countries include Egypt and Iraq, traditional Arab heavyweights that have been exploring closer ties with Moscow at a time when the Obama administration has signaled a reluctance to become too deeply embroiled in the region’s turmoil.

In his address to the United Nations last week, Obama stressed that he does not regard the Middle East or the conflict in Syria as an arena of competition with Washington’s bygone foe.

“This is not a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won,” Obama said, referring to an earlier period of big-power rivalry in which the British Empire and Russia’s czars vied for influence across Central Asia.

Whether Russia is equally determined not to compete with the United States in the strategically vital region is in question, however, Arab analysts say.

Saudi Arabia, the region’s strongest Arab power and Washington’s staunchest Arab ally, is deeply suspicious of Russia’s maneuvering and is convinced that Moscow is engaged in an effort to outwit the United States at Riyadh’s expense, said Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

The overtures between the United States and Iran, a close Moscow ally, further reinforce anxieties in Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals that Russia is seeking to eclipse the U.S. role in the region, Alani said.

“The view is that Russia is looking at the whole problem in the Middle East from the old position of the Cold War,” he said. “Wherever America is, they have to spoil the game. They don’t have any principles. Their only policy is to counter the Americans.”

That is not the case, said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-­based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Rather, Lukyanov said in an e-mail, it is Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies that “are trying to play great games themselves . . . and arrogantly casting stones in a glass house.”

Russian intentions in the region are rooted in many concerns, but foremost among them is Moscow’s determination “to emphasize Russia’s role in the world as an indispensable nation, especially vis-a-vis American helplessness to settle problems,” he said.

The intent is being felt. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who became premier three years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, has made two trips to Moscow in the past year and none to Washington. His talks were focused on a $4 billion defense deal under which Russia will supply Iraq with a range of armaments, including fighter jets, which are expected to be delivered soon.

The size of the deal is dwarfed by the more than $18 billion worth of arms deals concluded between Baghdad and Washington over the past eight years. But key elements of those — including coveted F-16 fighter jets — have yet to arrive.

Iraqi officials say they turned to Moscow only because they were frustrated by the slow pace of U.S. arms deliveries at a time when the conflict in neighboring Syria has heightened anxieties about Iraq’s stability.

Russia, concerned about escalating violence in Iraq, “sees a vacuum there, which she is trying to fill,” Lukyanov said.

Meanwhile, strains between Egypt’s new military-backed rulers and Washington have led Egyptian leaders to encourage Russian advances. A Russian tourism delegation came to the country to explore ways of expanding visits by Russians at a time when most Westerners have been staying away, and interim Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, a former ambassador to Washington, chose Moscow for his first visit beyond the region in his new job.

In an interview with the London-­based al-Hayat newspaper, Fahmy said he did so mainly because Russia was the first of several countries he approached that responded with an invitation.

“I asked to visit a number of states and Russia responded fast by setting a date,” Fahmy said. He stressed, however, that the visit was not intended to signal a major shift in Egypt’s allegiances. “We are not heading east at the expense of the West,” he said.

Indeed, although many U.S. allies in the Middle East are frustrated with the Obama administration’s policies, it is unlikely that any would seriously contemplate abandoning Washington in favor of Moscow, if only because the military imbalance between the two countries is so great, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

Only the United States, with its extensive network of military bases across the region and its superior military technology, can offer the kind of security guarantees that jittery Arab nations seek, he said.

Alani, who consults closely with Persian Gulf leaders, acknowledged the dependence.

“With all our complaining, it is not going to happen,” he said of the likelihood that regional powers would shift allegiances. “We understand there is no alternative, and we have to live with all the faults of U.S. policy.

“But that doesn’t mean we are not looking around.”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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