Russia in the Middle East: An Unacceptable Situation

Russia’s position in the Middle East is more influential than any time since the Yom Kippur War 43 years ago. After Israel defeated (with US arms) the Soviet-backed Arab armies for a third straight time, the death of socialist Arab Nationalism was clear. Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979 and shifted towards the United States. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the same year, other Arab countries quickly followed suit, believing that it was tantamount to a colonial expansion against the Muslim umma. Now, things have changed. President Obama, not wanting another failure like the Iraq War of 2003, has decided to focus American efforts mainly on attacking ISIS. Despite saying that Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, “must go” for a peaceful settlement to the war, he has done nothing to make it so. He insists that American troops, besides trainers and special forces, not be put on the ground. He allowed his “red line” of chemical weapons use to be crossed, without any use of force that would make Assad back down. And he has capitulated to Iran, viewing it as part of the solution in the Middle East, rather than part of the problem.

Vladimir Putin, an intelligent ex-KGB agent, is also an opportunist. Furious at Western sanctions against his country over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatist groups in Ukraine, he has decided to take advantage of Western weakness in Syria to prop up Moscow’s former–and current–client state. It would give Russia a warm-water port at Latakia, a Syrian locale on the Mediterranean Sea. It also distracts the Russian population from Putin’s failures to rebuild the “old country” into a superpower, and the failing economy. So important is this position in Syria that Putin is even willing to make temporary alliances with Iran and Hezbollah–a terrorist organization–to destroy rebel factions and jihadist outfits. This is a dangerous situation for the Middle East.

Before September 2015, when Russia first intervened in Syria’s Civil War, the Assad regime was near collapse. Iran would’ve lost an important strategic asset in its dreams of a Shiite Crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea. Hezbollah would’ve been dragged into war against Sunni extremists, rather than turn its eyes towards attacking Israel yet again. The international community, recognizing that Syria as a nation-state no longer really existed, may have recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. In essence, Ayatollah Khamenei’s dream of a rebuilt Persian Empire would’ve been over. Now, over a year later, things have turned around. Assad’s regime, along with his Iranian-backed allies and Russian enforcers, have begun turning the tide in their favor–albeit slowly. Their egregious human rights violations have led to the death of thousands and the displacement of several million Syrians. It has brought  Turkey into the fray as well, which endangers the northern region’s indigenous Kurdish population. The bombings of aid convoys, hospitals, and kindergartens by Russia and the regime, coupled with the lack of Western action other than meaningless condemnations at the United Nations–or perhaps as it should be called, the Useless Nations–will only drive more rebels into the welcoming arms of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremist organizations. It brings more refugees to Europe, stoking populist and neo-Nazi parties and groups (and no, they’re not always one and the same), and threatening the stability of Europe in face of an aggressive Russia. Perhaps most disturbing is that Donald Trump so far has said he would allow Russia to do whatever it wants in Syria.

I am not a pro-EU person, and I am not someone who believes that Syria remaining one whole country is in the best interests of the world or the Middle East, much less the people who live there. Indeed, it’s probably not even a realistic one.  But giving Russia leeway in Syria creates more troubles than it solves. From a Western (and to a lesser extent, Arab and Israeli) perspective, it allows rebels (ones who otherwise might have been moderate) to think the West is hypocritical and ineffective, and instead move towards jihadists, seeing them as the only option to fight the brutality of Assad. From a European perspective, it perpetuates the migrant crisis, which can both increase terrorism in European cities and stoke fears of migration–ultimately leading to the election of pro-Putin nationalist parties that back his approach to the Syrian issue and support Donald Trump. This would lead to the disintegration of the EU and possibly allow Russia to overrun the Old Continent. From a Kurdish perspective, it leads to the increased likelihood that Turkish intervention, along with hostile Arab and Iranian forces, will attempt genocide and ethnic cleansing of their population once more, ending their desires for autonomy or independence. And from an Israeli and Arab perspective, it gives Iran an increased advantage in the region, with more client-states, more sophisticated weaponry given or sold to them by Moscow, and the protection and backing (at least temporarily) of the world’s second most powerful military. But perhaps even more frightening, there is a pattern here. When the Arabs sensed that the only option to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was jihadism, they supported, funded, and armed extremists, who later went to war with the United States and its allies, and proved hostile to the very countries that backed them. If the Arab World once again feels that it is backed into a corner–this time, with an even more ancient enemy in “the Safavids”–it may seek to repeat this destructive offensive option.

All of this is leading to an uncertain place in Israeli politics. Clearly, Israel would rather see America more engaged in the Middle East–and Syria–than Russia. However, it has established closer relations with Russia in light of realities on the ground. Putin is seen as somewhat pro-Jewish, and given Israel’s high population of Russian-speaking Jews and Putin’s comments about protecting his people anywhere they are in the world, it’s highly unlikely that Russia and Israel would purposely come into conflict. But Moscow’s supplying of the Assad regime and Tehran with sophisticated weaponry poses a threat to Israeli security. Already, some of these weapons have nearly made their way to Hezbollah, only to be bombed by Israel just in time. But in the case of an emergency in regards to Iran’s nuclear program, it would make a strike on a nuclear facility far more difficult. Israel has allayed these fears somewhat by acquiring the F-35 as part of its renewed military aid deal with Washington, DC. But a strengthening of the Iranian axis in Syria means Israel will have to deal with Tehran’s proxies on 3 borders–with Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Syrian military. This is to say nothing of smaller Sunni jihadist groups in Gaza or Syria, or the threats posed by al-Qaeda and ISIS on the borders of the Golan. Rather than stabilizing the region by destroying rebel groups, Russia is merely intensifying existing suspicion towards the West (as well as Russia) in the region; anti-Israel sentiment; tensions between Israel and Iran; and the potential for large-scale war between Iran and the Arab World. The only good thing to potentially come from this is the likelihood of the Arabs and Israel cooperating on mutual threats, be it from Sunni jihadists or from the emerging Shiite Axis.

There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with Donald Trump and his nationalist comrades in Europe wanting better relations with Russia. The European Union and President Obama, by using sanctions against Moscow, have only given legitimacy to Vladimir Putin’s absurd conspiracy theories about “the West being out to get Russia”, thus, hardening the Russian population, once anti-Putin after the questionable Russian “elections” in 2011, against the Western World. If anything, they have solidified Putin’s stranglehold on the Kremlin, rather than loosening it and opening him up to a domestic challenge. Ironically, this is scenario that they sought to avoid in Iran by not attacking its nuclear facilities. If Donald Trump wants to maintain peace and stability in the Middle East while dismantling Iran’s influence and getting close to Russia, he needs another approach–one that has been tried and tested to great success by Richard Nixon in the 1970s and in recent years as well. Trump should seek to “triangulate”. Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 was controversial. However, it brought the Chinese over to “our side” in the Cold War, given that they’d had ideological disagreements and border skirmishes with the USSR, which ultimately collapsed. In recent years, Russia and China have since used this policy against us, with shared fears of “American and EU global hegemony”. In their axis, they have included Iran, North Korea, and even some Arab countries; they are also heavily courting Pakistan, the countries of Central Asia, and many in Africa and eastern Europe. President Obama sought to replicate this with his nuclear accord with Iran last year, with the help of China and European powers (including Russia). Instead, however, it has emboldened Iran’s anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israel agenda and grown support for terror.

Trump would be better off trying to convince Putin that being closer to America would be in Moscow’s best interests, and therefore, so would abandoning Beijing and Tehran. If Marine Le Pen or Francois Fillion (both of whom seem to be pro-Putin) are elected in France, or if other nationalist parties come to power elsewhere in Europe, that will only make his job easier. Trump would do well to point out that Iran would be more of a competitor than a partner to Russia, whether in the oil markets or for influence in the Middle East. He could also point out that China is trying to take Russia’s place in the world as the second most-powerful military and the “Hegemon of the East”–roles that Russia has played since at least 1945. In exchange for welcoming the eventual removal of Assad and abandoning Tehran and Hezbollah in the region, Moscow could, perhaps, expect an easing of or an end to sanctions over Ukraine, and a recognition of Crimea as Russian territory. While Putin is a most unsavory leader whose human rights record is dismal to say the least, it’s better to be realistic about how to deal with this. Rather than useless lip service to human rights at international forums that result in nothing, or increased hostility towards the Russians in Syria that could result in a Third World War, it’s best to seek cooperation on areas of mutual (or potentially mutual) interest–such as fighting terror, isolating Iran and its proxies, and challenging China. If Russia’s economy improves vastly, and if cooperating with the West proves beneficial, it could make Putin seem like a hero in Russia. Alternatively, it could open him up to criticism from two sides–hardliners opposed to any display of “weakness” to the West, as happened with Khrushchev after he backed down to President John F. Kennedy over the Cuba Missile Crisis; and liberals, who would point out that Putin’s anti-Western argument was wrong all along, and that a more progressive leader is needed. None of this is certain to work, but in this world, almost nothing is certain anyways. If the world’s leaders and institutions are truly dedicated to peacemaking and stability, this approach should be tested.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution. He is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Philadelphia, USA.