Can Russia Succeed Where America Failed In The Middle East?
By Mark N. Katz February 23, 2018
At a recent Valdai Discussion Club conference in Moscow, the Russian participants were highly critical of U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East (as were many speakers from the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. itself). The Valdai Club is a Russian forum for dialogue between Russian and foreign specialists on foreign policy issues, and the criticisms were not surprising given that this February’s session took place at a nadir in U.S.-Russian relations.
Specific criticisms included the claim by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that while Russia and Iran were working together to combat terrorism in Syria, U.S. policy was actually supporting it there. Sergey Karaganov, one of Moscow’s most important exponents of the Kremlin’s foreign-policy thinking, described American power as declining and hence ineffective while that of Russia, China, and India as rising in the Middle East. And several Russian speakers described Moscow as better placed to resolve the various conflicts in the Middle East since Russia has good relations with virtually everyone there (except, of course, the jihadists) while the U.S. has poor relations not just with its traditional adversaries in the region, but also with its traditional allies including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The Russian speakers certainly were correct in observing that the U.S. has been unable to resolve the region’s many ongoing conflicts. But if Moscow really is better placed to resolve them, just how can it do so? The Russian prescription was to promote dialogue among the local adversaries in these conflicts. In the panel on Syria, Russian Ambassador Alexander Aksennenok argued that Moscow could assist the warring parties in Syria reach agreement. In the panels on Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Libya, and the Kurds, Russian participants also called for dialogue among adversaries.
But why should these dialogues result in peace? A criticism of previous American calls for dialogue among local adversaries in the Middle East is that dialogue alone will not necessarily lead to agreement. Further, where there is a disparity in power between the adversaries (such as between Israel and the Palestinians), the stronger party may see little reason to make any concessions to the weaker party—especially when its external patron (the U.S. in the case of Israel) has largely been unwilling to pressure it to make concessions.
In the panel on Yemen, Ali Nasser Mohammad (former president of South Yemen) recalled how in the latter stages of the North Yemeni civil war in the 1960s, the opposing Yemeni sides failed to reach agreement through bilateral negotiations. It was only when their main external patrons, Egyptian President Nasser and Saudi King Faisal, reached an agreement on ending the conflict that progress was made in the inter-Yemeni dialogue. He suggested that similar agreements between external actors in the Middle East’s ongoing conflicts would be needed to facilitate conflict resolution between internal antagonists as well.
Putin may well prefer Russia to be the sole principal peacemaker between opposing parties and to exclude the United States, just like Washington excluded Moscow from Arab-Israeli peace negotiations during the 1970s in particular. But Russia is clearly in no position to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians so long as Israel continues to receive strong support from the U.S. Nor does there appear to be any other case in which all the main local participants in a Middle Eastern conflict prefer to work exclusively with Russia and not with the U.S.
This, of course, leaves open the possibility that Moscow and Washington could reach agreements between themselves on how best to resolve any or all of the region’s conflicts and then pressure their local partners to fall in line. But Russian-American cooperation in the Middle East will be difficult to achieve when their relations are hostile in other areas, including Europe. And even if they could come to any such agreement, it is doubtful that they could impose the terms on the region’s many strong-willed actors. The leaders of Iran and Turkey in particular seem willing and able to defy both Washington and Moscow if they choose to do so.
For all the Russian claims about how America is a declining power and Russia is a rising one, it is not at all clear that Moscow is in a stronger position than Washington to resolve or even lessen any of the various ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Indeed, Moscow may not actually want to resolve them since it is the continuation of these conflicts that allows Moscow entrée into the region by stimulating demand from local antagonists for Russian support. But in the long run, Moscow hardly endears itself to any Middle Eastern actor, no matter how much it cooperates with Russia, when Russia continues to support its opponents as well.
And just as dissatisfaction with American policy has led many in the Middle East to turn toward Moscow, dissatisfaction with Russian policy can be expected to result in some Middle Eastern governments retaining their ties to the U.S. and/or taking steps to act independently from both. In the end, Russia may be no more successful than the U.S. in influencing the affairs of this fractious region.