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.
Egypt was the premier Arab state between 1955, when it moved into the Soviet orbit, and the mid-1970s. But it did so only having failed to reach agreement with the United States on an arms deal, policy toward Israel, and levels of commitment to the American side during the Cold War. Eventually, Cairo moved into the American camp.
Iraq is often thought of as a former Soviet client, but at best it played Moscow and Washington off against each other. We also know that Baghdad relied on the United States in addition to the Soviet Union for military equipment and intelligence during the Iran-Iraq War.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was, aside from Syria, most dedicated to serving as a Soviet client. But it was a small nonstate actor that could never alter the regional order or serve as a conduit for wide Soviet influence. It wasn’t even given the chance, constantly buffeted by stronger powers, attacked and shunted from country to country, and denied the ability to find even a temporary base.
Even Syria, Russia’s primary ally and the one to which it has dedicated the most diplomatic and military support, was willing to move away from Moscow when it suited its interests. During the 1991 Gulf War, Damascus willingly joined the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein; this was an obvious expectation, given the regional, party and personal rivalries between the two. But in the wake of the war, with the United States pushing for a regional peace conference and working to extend its influence throughout the region, Syria was also willing to moderate its policies and commit to U.S. efforts in return for American aid.
Of the remaining states, many were closely allied to the United States: Turkey, Israel, Iran (before 1979), Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The aftermath of the 1991 war drew the Gulf monarchies closer to the United States.
In political-diplomatic terms, Russia was never asked to arbitrate regional conflicts; but the United States was. It was the close relationship that the United States had with Israel that made it indispensable, from the regional perspective. Because Moscow had severed diplomatic ties with Israel after the 1967 War, it had no leverage over Jerusalem to persuade or coerce it into concessions to the Arabs. But, particularly after the 1967 and 1973 wars, the Arab states did understand that only Washington had the ability to bring Israel along; its role in mediating, facilitating or supporting any peace negotiations was critical.
Thus, unlike the narrow client base and ups and downs of the Soviet presence, American prominence in the region reflects a longstanding, uninterrupted pattern. None of these patterns have been disrupted or replaced since the end of the Cold War.
It may well be that the United States’ influence is declining in the region, though it’s more likely that it is changing rather than disappearing completely. Where the United States might be losing influence, the Russians are not replacing it: no state that doesn’t already lean on the Russians is turning to Moscow for help. Nobody else in the region is asking for Russian money, arms, or diplomatic support.
This isn’t to say that the Soviet Union or Russia has never mattered. Its threat against Britain, France, and Israel in 1956 prompted Dwight Eisenhower to force the three to withdraw from Egypt after the Sinai Campaign. Its presence at international conferences on the Arab-Israeli conflict has sometimes (though not always) been seen as contributing international legitimacy to the effort. Moscow’s decision to let the U.S. attack Iraq in 1991 avoided what could have been a drawn-out struggle that would have left Iraq in Kuwait for much longer. And, of course, Moscow’s veto at the Security Council has prevented any substantive UN action on the Syrian civil war.
The connection to Syria can thus help Russia play the role of regional spoiler. But the United States has not tried very hard to influence events in Syria or control its behavior, so that Russia is pushing on an open door. And given that Syria is separated from the rest of the Arab world by its ties to Iran and Hezbollah, and its vicious crackdown on the protests/uprising (and the latter highlights the former), Russia’s close support for the Assad regime has not earned it any new friends.
Moscow has no diplomatic leverage over any of the other regional states; it cannot offer any new ideas for diplomatic processes that depend on it; its role in international financial institutions is constricted compared to that of the United States; and it doesn’t offer a credible military threat to the regional states (unlike Washington, which has engaged in military action against three Middle Eastern countries since 2003, and credibly threatened a fourth).
This doesn’t mean the United States will be able to shape regional events along its own preferences, or that Obama hasn’t made mistakes in his foreign policy. But it does mean that America’s position in the Middle East won’t be challenged by Russia anytime soon, and the gap created by any loss of American influence won’t be filled by Moscow.
Brent E. Sasley is associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Middle East and Israeli politics. Follow him on Twitter at@besasley.