Russia No Threat to America in Middle East

A Moscow-approved Syria deal doesn't mean Washington is the weaker party in the region.

Last week in these pages, Tom Nichols and John Schindler contended that “Moscow [is] now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, [and] the United States has effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian president Vladimir Putin.” This is echoed in commentaries by several other analysts and politicians that emerged in the wake of the Russian-American deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, decrying the loss of American influence and position and the emergence (or re-emergence) of Russia as a contender or threat to the United States there.

But it’s not clear that Russia does pose a challenge to the United States in the Middle East. The argument rests on a single case—Syria. But one case does not a trend make. And much of the historical and contemporary evidence indicates that no one else wants the Russians to play a prominent role in the region. Without a broader Russian ability to intervene, or a direct invitation from other regional players, the United States will remain the primary external power in the Middle East.

To begin with, it’s not clear that Putin outfoxed President Barack Obama by seizing on an offhand remark by John Kerry concerning Syria’s chemical weapons. Both the White House and the Kremlin have confirmed that Obama and Putin had discussed the idea of transferring Syria’s chemical weapons to international control before Kerry’s remark, as long as a year ago, which means the administration was already thinking about such a process and was not taken for a ride.

At the same time, it seems clear that it was Obama’s eventual—and therefore more credible—threat of force that contributed to the Syrian regime’s claim to be willing to give up one of its aces. Phil Arena has noted that Putin may well have feared that Washington might have pursued regime change in Syria given the recent history of U.S. intervention in Muslim countries. Exchanging chemical weapons—prevention of their use again being the immediate objective for the Obama administration—for a hold on American military strikes seems to indicate that America’s ability to threaten and achieve results remains very real, not least because Putin did not obtain a promise from Obama to not use force in response to Syrian noncompliance.

The claim that Russia is now an equal player to the United States in the Middle East also neglects the history of the Cold War and contemporary dynamics in the region. Today’s alignment patterns reflect those established during the Cold War and its immediate ending. A glance at the regional players other than Syria that seemed to be Soviet clients during the Cold War disproves the assertion that Moscow was ever a dominant player there.