Thursday, 10 May 2018 18:09

Russia makes a play for the Middle East Featured

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Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

The competition between the United States and Russia in the MENA region will be determined after the end of the Syrian conflict.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is caught between the hammer of the US and the anvil of Russia. Russian-American competition has re-emerged in the region ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin turned his country into a global player in the 21st century. The show of power started with Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015 and has since expanded.

It is difficult to predict the relationship between Moscow and Washington vis-à-vis the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, and the rift between Sunni Arab states and Iran. The trajectories of each conflict are the factors that will determine the relationship between Arabs and Moscow on one hand, and Arabs and Washington on the other. 

The presence of international powers in MENA is nothing new. Both Russia and the US have been in the region as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries during the time of the Ottoman Empire. In the Gulf, the Americans cemented their relations with Oman in 1833, which led to the inauguration of the American Consulate in Muscat in 1838. However, the US affiliation with the Middle East is different from that of the Russians. Americans entered the region before there was turmoil, while the Russians arrived shortly after. Yet both countries have tried to exploit the current situation of unprecedented sectarianism and discernible regional and international competition. The Russians, however, know that America’s influence is far stronger.

Russians have always looked for access to warm waters. This has been their dream since Peter the Great in the 17th century. On the other hand, the Americans have military bases in the Middle East, mainly in the Gulf region. For example, the US Navy base in Juffair, Bahrain, was established in 1971 and was the first American installation in the region. 

At the time, the Soviet Union had fallen far behind in the Middle East as it was focused on consolidating its gains in Eastern Europe and on rebuilding its empire following World War II. When Western countries established NATO in 1949 to ensure their security, the Soviets established the Warsaw Pact in 1955 for the Eastern Bloc. Soon after, the Americans helped form the Baghdad Pact in 1955 in attempts to thwart the Soviet influence in the Middle East. Since then, the Americans have dominated the region.

Putin Puts Russia on the Global Stage

The return of Russia as a global power is largely attributed to Putin. To achieve this goal, he had to vie for Russian interests and to challenge the American presence in the Middle East. Former US President Barack Obama tried to take a step back from the turmoil in the region as he shifted US foreign policy to focus on Asia. Putin exploited this by consolidating Russian interests in the MENA region because of its proximity to the Russian frontier.

Starting with the “counterterrorism operation” in 1999, Putin regained control over Chechnya. Then he had to confront NATO on Georgia in 2008. These situations were a warning to Washington and its allies: Moscow is back on track to become a global power, and Putin is different from former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Accordingly, Putin’s decision to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came after he considered the collapse of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime under a NATO-backed civil war in 2011. Known for taking action, Putin came to the military support of Assad in 2015 as retaliation for the West’s role over unrest in Ukraine the year before.

Rivalry in the Middle East

Putin has pledged to challenge Western interests in the Middle East. Many countries in the region have started to regard Russia as an ascending power that can play a pivotal role in resolving regional issues. Recent visits to Moscow by the Jordanian monarch, the Saudi king and the Qatari emir, among others, are a clear signal that Russia is back on the block.

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has visited the US on recent occasions for talks on arms deals, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani took a trip to Moscow in February where discussions included military cooperation. Many from the Middle East are heading to the Kremlin to buy Russian weaponry, including the S-400 air missile systems.

All of this is a sign of Russia’s influence. Russian ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council have also progressed significantly in spite of the diplomatic crisis over Qatar. The rivalry between Iran and some Sunni Arab states has pushed Russia into the driver’s seat as the Americans negotiate mega arms deals — mainly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The American-Russian rivalry over the Middle East chessboard will be determined shortly after the end of the Syrian conflict. By then, there will be one of two scenarios: Either the Americans will have regained the influence they once had or it will be the Russians who take over.

Article published in Fair Observer: 

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