U.S.-Russia Competition in the Middle East Is Back
And the Trump administration needs a strategy to deal with it.
The past few years have been characterized by increasing American-Russian competition all over the globe. The primary focus, has been on Russia’s ongoing efforts to challenge NATO, weaken transatlantic resolve, and intimidate its neighbors. Other than its intervention in Syria, Russia’s ambition to reassert itself in the Middle East has received far less attention. But in almost every discussion these days with Middle Eastern government officials and policy experts, it is one of the first subjects that comes up. This focus stands in strong contrast to two years ago when Russia’s role in the region was an afterthought to American engagement in the Middle East.
Russia views the Middle East as its near abroad, and is in the early stages of executing a long-term strategy in an attempt to return itself to the powerful stature and influence it had in the region during the heart of the Cold War. It is working to undercut longstanding U.S. relationships in the Middle East and restructure the regional order more to its liking. Indeed, Russia’s strategy in the Middle East is no different than its approach to undercutting NATO and the EU in Europe.
The obvious starting point was Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria in the fall of 2015 at the request of President Bashar al-Assad. The intervention is historic, representing the first time the Russians have put boots on the ground to support an ongoing conflict in the region since their support for Syria during the 1973 war with Israel. And by all accounts it has been a success, solidifying Assad’s position in Syria, protecting its single military base in the Middle East, and causing regional actors to rethink Russia’s role in the region all at a relatively low cost.
But we need to avoid the trap of focusing exclusively on Syria. Keeping Assad in power is not the sole extent of Russian ambition in the region. Instead, analysts and policymakers should examine the wider, growing Russian involvement in several other Middle Eastern countries, engagement through which Russia seeks to accomplish overarching economic, security and counterterrorism, and global prestige objectives. And, in particular, it should concern American policymakers that Russia is actively testing and seeking to upend the decades-long, strategic partnerships that the United States has built with some the most important state actors in the Middle East including Turkey, Egypt and Israel.
Of all of Russia’s relationships in the Middle East, perhaps none has been as tumultuous as the one with Turkey. During the Cold War, these two countries found themselves on opposing sides when Turkey joined NATO in 1952. In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the relationship warmed thanks to strong economic and trade ties. But relations between Turkey and Russia took a sharp turn in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian jet after it violated Turkish airspac leading to a deep freeze in bilateral ties.
As Turkey and Russia’s bilateral relationships with the United States soured, however, both countries were suddenly motivated to enhance their relationship, especially in Syria. Turkey was looking to distance the Russians from the Syrian Kurds in northern Syria, and Russia wanted to soften Turkey’s focus on removing Assad from power. Both countries have been deeply frustrated with Washington’s approach to the conflict. So in the summer of 2016 Erdogan and Putin met in St. Petersberg, and the two are now cooperating in Syria often without any consultation with the United States. They recently brokered a ceasefire between the Assad regime and opposition forces, one that gave the United States no role whatsoever and have begun coordinating some strikes on the Islamic State.
Egypt is another country where Russia is making inroads. For 25 years from the 1952 revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and his supporters to power until the Camp David Accords in 1979, Egypt had been the subject of intense U.S.-Soviet competition for influence. But under Nasser’s successor, Sadat, Egypt began moving in the 1970s into the American orbit – a shift that was consolidated in the aftermath of the Camp David Accords, with Egypt becoming one of America’s most reliable partners in the region and a diplomatic force for regional stability.
But the chaos brought on by the Arab Spring in Egypt gave Russia a new opening. While the United States pulled back in 2013 in the aftermath of the takeover by General Abdel Fattah al Sisi and temporarily suspended military aid in an effort to press politicalreform, the Russians had no such qualms. And in 2014 Egypt and Russia signed their first major arms agreement since the Cold War and have since been moving forward on additional follow-on deals, while Sisi and Putin keep a regular schedule of meetings.The Egyptians have also moved towards Russia on Syria with Sisi arguing publicly that stability in that country could best be achieved by supporting a strong man in Assad. And the Russians are now siding with the Egyptians in supporting a major role for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan government.
Israel is another example where the Russians are gaining influence – though certainly the security relationship with the United States remains paramount for the Israelis. Since the Russian intervention in Syria, the Israelis and Russians appear to have negotiated an understanding that allows the Israelis to continue to take limited air strikes in Syria if they detect the movement of advanced weaponry from Damascus into Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Netanyahu has also made three visits to Moscow in the past two years — a marked increase in engagement. Putin has entered into an arena traditionally dominated by the United States, by attempting a minor foray into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and trying to organize a summit between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas. And on a number of occasions over the past few years Israel has tried to avoid getting between Moscow and Washington at the U.N. – a marked difference from the previous approach of siding with the United States. In the midst of the Crimea crisis in March 2014, Israel chose to be absent during a high profile U.N. General Assembly vote on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And at Russia’s request, Israel recently skipped a vote at the U.N. General Assembly on enabling investigations into allegations of war crimes in Syria.
The failure to respond to this new Russian strategy is not a partisan question. Policymakers on the left and the right both did not see this coming and were slow to react. In the Middle East, the Obama administration was overwhelmed by the chaos brought on by the Arab Spring, the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and rise of the Islamic State. And when it came to Russia policy the administration was most concerned with the challenges posed in Ukraine and across Europe. Trying to pull back and develop a response to such a broad strategic question that links across different areas of responsibility is an incredibly difficult challenge for a slow-moving, stove-piped bureaucracy.
The task for American policymakers and the Trump administration going forward is threefold. First and foremost, the U.S. policymaking community (including folks both in and out of government) must do a better job of auditing what exactly Russia has been doing across the Middle East since President Putin returned to power in 2012. That means taking a close look at the evolving set of relationships Russia has been pursuing with a number of U.S. partners not just focusing on Syria.
Second, the United States should seek opportunities to cooperate with the Russian government where our interests align. The best example of Russian and American cooperation in the region is of course, the negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action where the U.S. and Russia collaborated on an issue of common interest with the goal of increasing the safety and security of the region. It is no secret that the Middle East can serve as a strategic sinkhole, forcing a disproportionate investment of American blood and treasure. Sharing the burden with other external powers like Russia could no doubt reduce the strain on the United States politically, financially, and militarily.
That said, there are plenty of examples where Russia is actively cooperating with partners in the Middle East to balance against U.S. interests. That brings us to the third task – ensuring that the United States is prepared and well equipped to address such challenges. The United States government was caught flat footed when Russia decided to send “little green men” into Ukraine in early 2014. Similarly, they were equally surprised to see the Russian military move into Syria. While U.S. policymakers cannot predict the future, they need to do more forecasting and analysis to anticipate potential areas of conflict with Russia in the Middle East.
Might Russia support a major move South by the Assad regime towards the Jordanian and Israeli borders, thus taking on moderate opposition forces that have created a useful buffer zone for two key American partners? Could it significantly increase sales of sophisticated weaponary to Iran? Or might it move to dictate outcomes in Syria and Libya with two traditional American partners – Turkey and Egypt respectively – and by doing so cut the United States out of the process? To be sure, Russia is not going to annex territory in the Middle East but it could make a sudden move or a series of moves that would significantly undermine U.S. interests and present the United States with a fait accompli as it has already done in Syria.
Ultimately, the Middle East will not be the primary arena upon which Russo-American competition plays out. But the broader Russian play both in Syria and beyond cannot be ignored.
Photo credit: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.