Middle East: between Russia and the West
МОСКВА, 21 февраля 2022, Институт РУССТРАТ.
Russian and Western officials have held intensive talks at more than one level in an attempt to reduce the risk of further military action. On January 10, American and Russian diplomats met in Geneva. On January 12, representatives of NATO and Russia met in Brussels, and on January 13, negotiations continued at the OSCE platform.
All three meetings did not lead to constructive and substantive agreements. Russia demands legal guarantees of NATO’s non-expansion to the east and the withdrawal of the alliance’s troops from the countries that were part of the Soviet Union. It also calls on NATO to stop cooperating with Ukraine and provide legal guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia will never become members of the alliance.
At the same time, the United States and its allies tend to appear as a united front in public, but in reality this is not the case. In addition to European countries concerned about the proposals put forward by Washington in negotiations with Moscow, other states also express their concern about the current situation.
In this case, we are talking about the countries of the Middle East, which are following the political and diplomatic duel between Russia and the West with special attention and caution. The reason is clear: the events of recent years have disrupted the former balance of power in this region.
Countries fear that if the crisis escalates into a new military conflict, they will face difficult choices, and some will have to choose between two options, both of which are bad, or maintain neutrality, which can lead to isolation.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, «in the Middle East, Putin has great scope for weakening the West”, where he «acts without much risk of war with it”. Russia has indeed returned to the Middle East, and it is not limited to Syria. Moscow is also increasing its influence in other areas, challenging the concept of the world order promoted by the United States, seeking a return to a multipolar world, and creating a new geopolitical space.
This is clearly evident in Syria and Libya, where Russia does not have to face strong opposition from Washington. Similarly, Moscow’s relations with Ankara can be assessed, even though Turkey is a NATO member. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan «is much closer in his political views to Putin than to the democratic values that the North Atlantic Alliance is called upon to defend”.
Russia has also managed to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, despite existing disagreements over Syria. This was achieved thanks to cooperation in oil policy, since Riyadh and other OPEC countries also need significantly higher oil prices to balance the budget. Finally, Russia’s constructive cooperation with Iran continues.
Russian achievements in the region require analysis and explanation. Some observers believe that Moscow’s victories are due to the fact that, after not quite successful involvement in Iraq during the Obama administration, the Americans essentially abandoned new interventionist actions in the region, leaving behind a geopolitical power vacuum. Russia has filled this vacuum quickly and at no excessive cost to itself.
Another explanation is that the Kremlin has outplayed its Western rivals by providing a higher level of expert support for its Middle East policy. Unlike American strategists, the Russian leadership relied on a highly professional community of orientalists who know and understand the region well.
The third explanation: Vladimir Putin’s main advantage was the consistency and immutability of his policy in the region, which won Russia, if not love, then at least respect, not only from Moscow’s Middle Eastern partners, but also from its opponents in the region.
Now Russia must identify optimal solutions to the Middle East problems in the direction of creating an inclusive regional system of collective security.
In this regard, the system of the Middle East version of the European Helsinki process of the 1970s, active support from the UN Security Council and the formation of a regional equivalent of the OSCE arises. Although in Europe itself, this model did not prevent the Ukrainian crisis of 2014.
In the foreseeable future, the creation of such a system in the Middle East is not possible. At the same time, it is obvious, firstly, that Moscow’s role in the region will still be limited in the medium term, and even more so in the long term.
Secondly, there are no insoluble contradictions between Russia, China, and the West regarding desirable scenarios for the development of events in the Middle East. In the historical perspective, the differences between Russia and the West appear to be tactical, situational, and not strategic, which predetermines opportunities for cooperation on a much larger scale than what we see today.
Thirdly, at this stage, it would be unproductive to seek any universal recipe for resolving Middle Eastern problems. It is more fruitful to search for separate formats for each specific situation. For example, in Yemen, the main role could be assumed by the UN. In Iraq, the role of external actors could be to provide coordinated support to the positive processes in state-building and economic development that have already emerged.
In Syria, external actors could focus on facilitating political compromises and isolating political extremists. In Libya, the current task could be to prevent the escalation of the conflict — both horizontally (i.e., the spread of the conflict to the territory of neighbouring countries) and vertically (the intensification of military clashes with an increase in the number of victims).
In addition, the ongoing changes in the region are taking place against the background of disillusionment with the role of the United States in resolving regional crises. There is a paradoxical situation: accusations against Russia because of its involvement in the Syrian conflict were heard from Western capitals, but not from the Middle East. None of the Middle Eastern countries has officially joined the Western information campaign aimed at criticising the actions of the Russian leadership.
Another special case is Israel. On the one hand, Tel Aviv has been in a permanent confrontation with the Assad government for decades, so it is interested in new forces coming to power in Damascus. On the other hand, radical Islamists gaining control of Syria could be the biggest threat to Israel’s national security since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Israel is equally concerned about Iran’s military presence in Syria. Therefore, Moscow is a unique actor in international relations, which simultaneously enjoys respect in the Arab world and among the Israeli leadership, secretly acting as a mediator in critical situations.
It is also important to note that Russia’s current network of partners and allies in the Middle East is markedly different from what it was in Soviet times. Perhaps only Syria is an example of allied relations that have never been interrupted, although they have had different intensity. Prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, contact between the two countries was limited due to Moscow’s low level of involvement in the Middle East. As for other countries where the Soviet Union had a certain influence, Russia at one time «left» them in one way or another.
But there are examples of partnership that developed exclusively in the post-Soviet era: Russia’s close relations with Iran and Turkey, intensive working contacts with Israel, and the developing partnership with Saudi Arabia are the fruit of Russian diplomacy in recent years.
What to expect and what to prepare for
By all indications, most countries in the Middle East are trying to distance themselves from the Ukraine crisis, avoid criticism from either side, and avoid being drawn into a confrontation between Russia and the West. At the same time, Moscow’s actions are perceived as a step towards establishing a multipolar world.
The countries of the region have their own interests, based on which they react differently to the situation, understanding that the global system of international relations is changing in general. This is one of the reasons why the countries of the region are paying close attention to the course of events.
If we talk about the countries of the Arab world, they are objectively interested in establishing a stable multipolarity and easing their dependence on the West.
Everyone understands that the United States is still the main security guarantor, providing a solution to the Iranian problem, trying to somehow regulate Arab-Israeli relations, helping in the fight against terrorism, and providing financial and military-technical assistance to a number of Arab states.
In other words, the Arabs are interested in which side, Russia or the West, will come out of the struggle stronger and which will weaken, but they will not openly interfere in the course of events. In addition, a number of Arab states (Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria) have faced a free interpretation of international law by the United States and its European allies, which aim to change undesirable regimes. In all cases, Moscow took a position diametrically opposed to the Western one.
In this regard, the Arabs are interested in how the norms of international law will be applied in the case of Ukraine and what role international organisations (UN, OSCE, EU, NATO) will play in resolving the Ukrainian crisis. By the way, the level of support or neutral attitude towards Russia’s reunification with Crimea in the Arab east is slightly higher than in the whole world.
At the same time, amid the crisis in Ukraine, the international community’s attention to the long-deadlocked conflict in Syria has weakened. But in the Middle East, a war involving three sides — the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad, the opposition Free Syrian Army and Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists — remains the number one topic.
Given the indirect involvement of the United States and Russia in the Syrian conflict, the Arab world, including in Syria itself, is wondering: how will the confrontation between Moscow and Washington over the Ukrainian issue affect the development of the situation in Syria? Can we assume that timid attempts to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means have sunk into oblivion?
Will the Russian-American contradictions lead to increased support for the parties to the conflict and will there be a clear turning point in the war in favour of either Bashar al-Assad or the diverse camp of his opponents?
Thus, the tension in Russian-American relations creates an unfavourable background for preparations for the Geneva Conference on Syria, although it is obvious that the reasons for the lack of progress are related to the Syrian difficulties. Another argument that says that one should not exaggerate the influence of the Ukrainian factor on the negotiation process is that Geneva 1 and Geneva 2 also ended in failure.
Pro-American experts in the Middle East do not rule out another option. Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Center in Beirut at the Carnegie Endowment for America, hopes that «if the international community effectively applies sanctions and diplomatic tools to push Russia to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow can compromise on Syria in response to a more favourable agreement on Ukraine”.
But the Arab world is much more concerned about the possible influence of the Ukrainian factor on the process of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. The rise of Iran’s military power, supported by the development of its nuclear program (although without conclusive evidence of its military orientation), further increases fears in the capitals of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program can be successfully completed in Vienna, and the United States and EU states will ease economic sanctions. In the future, a comprehensive settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue provides for the unhindered development of a peaceful atom ‒ provided that all concerns of the international community about the possible military orientation of the nuclear program are removed.
At the same time, the Ukrainian crisis did not affect Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA and the work of the «six». But if Iran faces excessive demands from the West, it will also move closer to Moscow in the Ukrainian direction.
The risk is that the example of Kiev, which in 1994 abandoned the nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union and proved unable to keep Crimea as part of the state, will force Iran to rethink the development of the military component of its nuclear program.
Nevertheless, we should not expect that the Ukrainian factor will interfere with the negotiation process between the West and Iran. Firstly, Russia, which has invested a lot of effort and time in it, is itself interested in success. Moscow opposes the destabilisation of the Middle East region as a result of a military solution to the nuclear problem and the emergence of an Islamic nuclear power on its southern borders.
Secondly, Russia does not have enough influence over Tehran to block the normalisation of its relations with the West. Carnegie Endowment expert George Perkovich, who believes that Iran and Ukraine should not be linked, does not rule out that Russia’s influence on the situation may increase when ‒ and if — diplomatic measures to resolve the Iranian crisis do not work.
In this case, Russia is able to block the introduction of new UN sanctions. This will exacerbate Moscow’s overall differences with the West. Depending on the development of events in Ukraine, the West may have additional incentives to tighten sanctions against Russia. Conversely, Moscow can take part in tightening sanctions against Iran if it wants, but this decision will secretly depend on the decision of the West.
As for Turkey, it is trying to take advantage of the situation to break out of the periphery of the negotiation process and gain the ability to influence the negotiations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a proposal to become a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. It has already been noticed that such diplomacy is used by him as an excuse to transfer Ankara from the second or third echelon of «big politics» to the first division. And only in cases when the main players concerning certain positions or problems do not indicate a clear strategy for their further actions. Turkey then tries to break into the gap, offering its «services» or «solutions».
It is interesting that Ankara does not invite its Western partners to participate in the game. Of course, in modern conditions it is impossible to talk about the «revival of the Ottoman Empire». It would be more correct to speak of the intention of modern Turkey to take a strong position both in neighbouring and more remote areas that were once part of or under the influence of the Ottoman Empire.
That is why, when Erdogan comes up with another mediating peace initiative, it is always important to determine from which direction the wind is blowing, and understand the reasons why, as the Polish newspaper Gazeta Polska Codziennie writes, «everything is developing according to the Mozart scenario: first a boisterous-sounding ‘Turkish March’, and in the end — a return to the initial calm point.»
The problem is also that in Moscow this project is perceived only as an attempt to replace Minsk and make Turkey a party to the conflict between Kiev and Donbass, although Ankara interprets this problem somewhat more broadly. Of course, Turkey does not present itself as a partisan party in the issues of Ukraine and Russia.
However, Erdogan is also trying to cling to the problem of Crimea, which negates his mediation efforts. The head of Turkey is an experienced politician and cannot fail to understand this. Therefore, at this stage, with his statements, he seeks to solve not foreign policy problems, but domestic ones related to the upcoming 2023 presidential election.
Because after the crisis events in Kazakhstan, Ankara’s reputation in the Turkic world has noticeably dimmed, and it is important for Erdogan and Putin to start publicly discussing issues that do not have a concrete solution. The bet here is that the Kremlin will not abandon dialogue, since it does not have a categorical rejection of Turkey, or Azerbaijan.
At the same time, Ankara understands that «the Ukrainian crisis is not just a dispute between Kiev and Moscow, it is part of a larger and longer-lasting geopolitical struggle”.
The US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan caused a great shock in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Countries and nations have realised that trying to hold out, hoping for the West, is like falling to the ground from the wing of an airplane. This fact will probably be the biggest loss for the West in the 21st century. Now a similar scenario is being implemented in Ukraine. The United States and Europe incite all the country-fronts against Russia.
Russia, on the other hand, is taking full advantage of the West’s helplessness and distrust of it, and in this regard is implementing a new map of the future world order. It does not intend to occupy Ukraine, but will seek to control the east of the country. This is the first one.
And the second. Its task is to prevent the Middle East countries from getting involved in the Ukrainian events. This is the calculation based on which chips are placed on the geopolitical map. If the United States refuses to guarantee that NATO will stop expanding to the European East, the current international crisis will be transferred to a fundamentally new phase and may affect the Middle East.
It is no coincidence that this problem has become a hot topic in Western research circles. The most pressing issue facing everyone in the Middle East is the impossibility of the region falling out of the calculation of US interests, or the question of timing.
There is plenty of evidence for this, from the US’ stance on Iran’s repeated threats to Washington’s allies in the Persian Gulf region, to the consistent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and efforts to reduce the US’ military presence in the Middle East as a whole. Now the question is what are the consequences of the change in the US’ position for the countries of the region, especially Washington’s allies.
What scenarios of conflict and influence are possible between the great powers to fill the strategic vacuum created by the absence or at least the decline of the US’ role in the region?
There is little doubt that Russia will continue to project its military and political capabilities in the Middle East, while no one can be sure that the United States will support its allies in the region as consistently as Moscow does. So the Middle East can become another demonstration platform for checking the balance of power.