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Rise of Russia in the Middle East

Rise of Russia in the Middle East
American hegemony is on the wane. It is now clear that the imperialist bully has been subdued. None would have ever thought that the American hegemony and dominance would lose its sheen in this way. Russia’s successful military intervention on September 30 in Syria has been a major setback for US dominance. In a single stroke, the mythical wall of American supremacy has been demolished.

Russia intervened after a formal request from the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad for military assistance against rebel and jihadist groups. Russia’s primary objective has been to help the Syrian government fight and take back its territory from the Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State and the Army of Conquest, including groups backed by the USA.

Russia had no intention to surrender Syria. It is an ally. The Syrian Orthodox Christians trusted Russia and geopolitically the war was getting too close to Russian borders. But the main reason was Russia’s annoyance with American high-handedness. Moscow’s initiative also implied that they did not appreciate the US assuming the role of world arbiter.

Syria would not have approached Russia if the US had been sincere in its action. In fact, it pursued a half-hearted strategy. For several months, the US administration carried out its operation but could not eliminate the extremists. The results on the ground have been disappointing for the US-led coalition. Terrorist groups have consolidated their grip. At the end of September 2015, a joint information centre in Baghdad was set up by Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria to coordinate their operations against IS.

The decline of American hegemony is also manifest in Germany quitting the anti-Putin Alliance created by the USA. Germany has in fact officially welcomed Moscow’s readiness to engage with Syria and launch an initiative to end the war with the Russians and the French.  Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen welcomed Putin’s involvement in the fight against the extremist Islamic State.

Another incident has been former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s confession that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was instrumental in the emergence of the Islamic State militant group in the Middle East. Blair said that “there are elements of truth” in the assertion that the war caused the rise of IS. Blair’s decision to take Britain into the Iraq war based on false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction remains a hugely divisive issue.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, before the start of its operations in Syria, Russia invited the U.S. to join the Baghdad-based information centre. However, according to the Russian minister, he received an “unconstructive” response. Washington likewise declined Putin's proposal that both the US and Russia discuss cooperation in Syria.

From the beginning the western world has enforced one simple design; force Assad out of Syria. Their so-called fight against the IS or other terrorist groups was simply an eyewash. They have been more interested in patronising those group that owe their allegiance to the USA. In this regard the observation of the US Secretary of State John Kerry is candid, “I made clear that Russia’s continued support for Assad risks escalating the conflict and undermining our shared goal of fighting extremism if we do not also remain focused on finding the political solution”. It is worth mentioning that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had earlier urged an intensification of efforts to find a political solution to the war. He said Moscow was ready to coordinate with the US in fighting terrorism in Syria. He also said Russia would be ready to help Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels if it knew their locations.

But instead of responding positively to the Russian offer, the USA and its allies were portraying Moscow’s intervention as a threat to world peace. This is purely a case of double speak. In this connection, the remarks of Putin are worth mentioning. Dismissing US criticism of his country’s air campaign in Syria, Putin has accused Western governments of double standards and using some of the rebel groups as pawns to enforce their wider agenda in the Middle East. What was most unfortunate was the USA was classifying terrorists as moderate and non-moderate. Probably Obama administration wanted to convey that the moderate terrorists kill people in a more humane way.

Putin’s dramatic escalation of Moscow’s participation in the Syrian civil war transformed Russia into the “rising regional hegemon”; it put the US on backfoot. Iraq announced the establishment of a joint intelligence-gathering centre with Iran, Syria and Russia, symbolising the new ‘Shiite-crescent’ alliance stretching from Iran across the northern Middle East to the Mediterranean, under the umbrella of Russia.

To assuage the sentiments of his allies, US President Obama characterised Putin’s foray into Syria’s civil war as a sign of weakness. “Mr Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness because his client Mr Assad was crumbling and it was insufficient for him to send arms and money,” Obama said. Nevertheless, even independent observers hold that launching air attack against the enemies of Bashar al-Assad’s regime signifies a boost to Putin’s foreign policy standing. Russia was, in fact, positioning itself as the only crusader against terrorism and as a critical factor in the future political dynamics of the region, just like France and Britain were in 1916 when they developed the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

While the USA has been concerned with its interests and gains, Russia is trying to put together an alternative anti-IS coalition, with the Iranian and Syrian government. Its relationship with Iran another important player in supporting al-Assad -- gives it additional leverage. Russia played a constructive role in the long negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Russia wants to be taken seriously in the Middle East. Syria provides Moscow the opportunity. The U.S. has failed to find a diplomatic breakthrough, and a year of airstrikes against IS has only added to the strength of terrorists and rebels. Russia also intends to use the opportunity to exploit emerging differences among Western governments worn down by four years of failure in Syria and apprehensive about an even greater flood of refugees. If peace had been more attainable in Syria, this approach might have been acceptable. But the Western formula was aborted in its embryonic stage. It is because there was an utter lack of sincerity on the part of the USA to eliminate IS.  
 
Putin’s motives in Syria are multiple. While he wants to distract attention from his unfinished adventure in Ukraine, Putin wants Russia to regain its stature of a great power acting boldly where the USA has failed. He is also genuinely worried about jihadists joining IS and then coming back to Russia. Such a situation would be disastrous for Russia.

Iraq’s support to Russia is based on the element of genuine concern for peace in the region. Russia’s intervention is an answer to their failure to turn the tide after 16 months battling the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) in north-western Iraq. “The US and its coalition did nothing,” says an army officer, back from a month on the front. “Finally we’ll have a real coalition with the clout to contend with IS.” A couple of months back Iraq signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, which infuriated the Americans. Russia has the strategic goal of challenging US hegemony in favour of a more multi-polar world. Quite interestingly as China and Russia support the idea of a multi-polar world against American dominance, they will tacitly back each others’ attempts to defend their spheres of influence. 

(The views are strictly personal)
Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava

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