Russia and the USA in Middle East power politics
It seems that the Middle East is experiencing a second edition of the Arab spring. Egypt is unstable, with newly elected President Mohamed Mursi moving steadily towards a personal rule regime, which is a far cry from the democratic expectations of those who went to Tahrir Square in January and February, 2011. As a result, the protesters are again in the streets of Cairo and other cities. The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas should be regarded as a brief respite that might be ended suddenly by either sides. The Syrian conflict became a serious problem for the region as the opposition uses terrorist tactics against the government and has incorporated many radical extremist groups in the fight against Bashar Assad. Behind the scenes there are many non-regional powers pursuing their own interests.
Among the other players are two powers, each of which has greatly influenced Middle Eastern politics in the past and will surely do so again in the future. They are Russia and the United States. Although Moscow stepped down for a while after the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Vladimir Putin's presidency she is seeking to restore her positions in the region. In some respects Moscow’s policy caused a diplomatic conflict with Washington, but the situation is a long way from the ideological antipathy of the Cold War.
Evidently, the ongoing conflict in Syria is the most irritating point in U.S. – Russia relations. Damascus is an old ally of Moscow and it was impossible for her not to support Syria on an international level. Especially after the “Lybian deceit”, when the Western power turned the Russian supported no-fly zones into a full-scale air and land operation against the Gaddafi regime. While the United States regards the Syrian conflict as an absolute black and white situation; Assad must resign and give up power to the opposition, but to Russia it is of principal importance to settle the crisis within the framework of Syria's current political system.
At the same time, Russia is not opposing political reforms in Syria (as many Western powers, including the USA, accuse her of harbouring the intention to prolong Bashar Assad’s survival). For Moscow it is crucially important that the Syrian reforms should take place not as revolution, but as evolution. Russia is also convinced (and not without good reason) that extremists have taken leadership in the Syrian opposition and their victory will mean the presence of Al-Qaida type forces in Damascus.
Most likely, the United States is also aware of the new face of the Syrian opposition, but it is difficult for them to make their position public. For Washington it would lead to loss of face due to its previous statements. Nevertheless, soon after election, President Obama refused to sell arms to Assad’s opponents and thus recognized that U.S. weapons may have been flowing into the hands of terrorists. Officially though, the USA continues to follow its initial policy of trying to unite the Syrian opposition as it did during the November summit in Doha, Qatar. For the U.S. it is an attempt to single out a“legal opposition”; revolutionaries (most of them based abroad), from terrorist elements. Russia seems to be very skeptical about this.
From the Russian point of view this approach is counterproductive. The revolution will inevitably lead to further political turmoil and economic collapse in Syria, provoking the civil war and regional destabilization. Moscow answered with its own plan and pointed out that the internal Syrian opposition was not represented at the Doha summit, and that the external opposition has no legitimate right to protect the interests of the Syrian people. So the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called on the opposition to create a team to negotiate with Bashar Assad and end the bloody conflict. However, the United States will hardly accept this position and most probably will apply pressure on the Syrian government, continue to support the radical opposition and thus diminish the chances of a peaceful solution.
Let alone Syria, there are also other unsolved conflicts in the Middle East region. The situation in Libya is far from achieving stability – it is still questionable whether the country even exists as a meaningful sovereign actor. Moscow is seriously concerned about the continuous attempts by the revolutionary Libyan government to capture the Gaddafi supporters’ stronghold, of Bani Walid. It shows that at least a part of the Libyan population has never recognised the rule of Benghazi revolutionaries and Libya still suffers from a creeping civil war. As for the United States, the administration prefers to turn a blind eye to the worsening situation, and block Russian attempts to draw international attention to the facts of human rights violation in the country.
However, in policy towards recent events in Egypt and the Gaza Strip the U.S. and Russian positions are not so different, and they are very cautious. For Moscow and Washington it is important to have good relationships with the largest Arab country. So Russia and the United States will continue to cooperate with Mohamed Mursi whatever happens. Unlike Russia, the USA is bound up with obligations to Israel, which may partly limit their role in finding a solution to events such as the latest Gaza Strip crisis. Also it should be noted – the current conflict in the Gaza Strip has not ended, the ceasefire remains extremely fragile.
It is predictable that under these conditions Russia and the USA will pursue their policies in the Middle East very carefully. Each will try to implement its own agenda in the region and keep in mind that very complicated and ambiguous processes are currently at play in the Arab World. But one thing is clear – for many years this region will be the focus of power politics, including those of Moscow and Washington.