Russia is right in the Middle East

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In the United States and much of Europe, a prevailing public narrative has been created that Russia is a “revisionist” power seeking to overthrow the existing status quo, to challenge the “rules-based order” and more generally as a “spoiler “To act on international affairs – and in the countries of the former Soviet Union there is a considerable amount of truth in this portrayal.

In the greater Middle East, however, there is something seriously odd about this image of Russian behavior. In this region, the United States has indeed disrupted the existing status quo for the past 20 years, and the Russian opposition to US policy on key issues has, in retrospect, proven to be objectively correct, not only on Russia and the region, but also on the United States and the West.

Of course, Russian policy was designed to serve Russian interests. But it was no coincidence that they also corresponded to Western interests. This Russian policy is based on an analysis of the Russian foreign and security establishment of the Middle Eastern states, which has turned out to be correct in itself – and also comes very close to that of many in the US establishment.

In the United States and much of Europe, a prevailing public narrative has been created that Russia is a “revisionist” power seeking to overthrow the existing status quo, to challenge the “rules-based order” and more generally as a “spoiler “To act on international affairs – and in the countries of the former Soviet Union there is a considerable amount of truth in this portrayal.

In the greater Middle East, however, there is something seriously odd about this image of Russian behavior. In this region, it has been the United States that has disrupted the existing status quo for the last 20 years, and the Russian opposition to US policy on key issues has in retrospect proven to be objectively correct. View not only on Russia and the region, but also to the United States and the West.

Of course, Russian policy was designed to serve Russian interests. But it was no coincidence that they also corresponded to Western interests. This Russian policy is based on an analysis of the Russian foreign and security establishment of the Middle Eastern states, which has turned out to be correct in itself – and also comes very close to that of many in the US establishment.

The Russian analysis is based on a perception that could be described as anti-democratic, but more precisely characterized as a deep sense of the fragility of states and the fear of chaos and civil war, coupled with deep skepticism about projects of rapid revolutionary change. This attitude has its roots in Russia’s own terrible experiences of the 20th century. As Russian President Vladimir Putin noticed to the New York Times in October 2003 on the results of the US invasion of Iraq: “The looming situation does not surprise us, because we have foreseen the development of the situation there exactly as it is developing now. … How could one imagine a different process if the regime is dismantled? Of course, statehood will be destroyed. How can it be otherwise? “

Putin linked this destruction of the Iraqi state – as it turned out all too presciently – with an enormous increase in Islamist extremism:

“Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a liberal… but it fought against the fundamentalists. … Now there is no more Saddam and we are witnessing the infiltration of a large number of members of various terrorist organizations on the territory of Iraq. “

Given what happened in Iraq, can anyone say that Putin was wrong in opposing the invasion there? Even today, wouldn’t the United States be much better off if it had adopted the Russian Council in 2002-2003?

The Soviet experience has made Russians deeply skeptical of revolutionary projects to reshape other societies along a universal ideological pattern – which is what Soviet communism attempted around the world, and thereby embroiled Russia in a series of terribly costly disasters. The Russians (rightly) saw the US project in Afghanistan as essentially similar to the Soviet efforts of the 1980s and doomed to a similar failure.

And as Putin said Financial Times in 2019 on the results of the western overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi state in Libya:

“[Do] our western partners want a region like Libya to have the same democratic standards as Europe and the USA? the [Middle Eastern and North African] In the region there are only monarchies or countries with a system similar to that in Libya. … It is impossible to impose current and practicable French or Swiss democratic standards on North African residents who have never lived under the conditions of French or Swiss democratic institutions. … All of this created conflict and discord between the tribes. In fact, a war is going on in Libya. “

Have the results of Gaddafi’s overthrow once again proved Putin right or wrong? Indeed, the civil war continues to this day and the collapse of the Libyan state has enabled a mass movement of migrants across the Mediterranean that has destabilized the European Union.

The US-Russian differences of opinion in the Middle East came to a head with the 2011 Arab Spring and the uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Libya. The Russian answer These events were partly shaped by a desire to defend old Soviet allies and (in the case of Syria) to preserve Russia’s last naval base in the Mediterranean.

More important, however, was Russia’s fear that these uprisings would lead to the triumph of Islamist extremist forces and the creation of bases for the revival of terrorism in Russia, which claimed so many Russian victims before and during the Second Chechen War. Fears of both Russia and European countries about the Islamic State in Syria were heightened by the large numbers of Muslim European and Russian citizens who traveled to Syria to fight and then tried to return home.

As Putin called on the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war:

“I decided that the positive effect of our active engagement in Syrian affairs for Russia and the interests of the Russian Federation would far outweigh the non-interference and passive observation of an international terrorist organization growing near our borders. … We managed to preserve the Syrian statehood, no matter what, and we prevented Libya-style chaos there. “

The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Russian opposition to the overthrow of the Baath State in Syria as “Despicable. ”But now here’s a strange thing. In his memoir A promised land Former US President Barack Obama describes how his cabinet met in January 2011 to discuss the looming revolution in Egypt and to call for the resignation of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who then cracked down on the demonstrators:

“The older and more experienced members of my team – Joe, Hillary [my italics], Gates and Panetta – caution, they all knew Mubarak and had worked with him for years. They stressed the longstanding role his administration had played in maintaining peace with Israel, fighting terrorism, and partnering with the United States on a variety of other regional issues. While recognizing the need to press the Egyptian leader into reform, they warned that there is no way of knowing who or what could replace him. “

One could argue that the Ba’ath regime’s tactics in the Syrian civil war were more brutal than anything Mubarak carried out. On the other hand, the administration of Clinton’s husband had followed in the footsteps of the George HW Bush administration 20 years earlier, assisting the Algerian military regime in nullifying democratic election results and in a savage campaign against the Islamist opposition. The US calculations for Algeria were practically identical to those of Russia in Syria.

To say this does not mean condemning the Clintons or those US officials and analysts who have expressed doubts about so-called democratic revolutions in the Middle East and fear that they could lead to chaos and an Islamist victory. Their doubts and fears were well founded, as the miserable results of the Arab Spring demonstrated. The Middle East is harsh political terrain, and any outside power operating there must be prepared to work with some rather disgusting regimes.

Those American officials who advised Obama against overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria for fear of the Islamic State coming to power were almost certainly right, as were those who persuaded the Biden administration today Saudi Arabia cooperate Arabia. However, it is difficult to see why Russia should be condemned for following the same lines as sensible American advisers.

After all, Russian sanctions eventually (admittedly after a long delay) played an important role in getting Iran to sign the nuclear deal in 2015. In 2002-2003 it would have been a far better deal than 2015, let alone anything that may be accomplished today can be.

Interestingly, Russia’s position on the nuclear deal and partnership with Iran in Syria did not destroy the Russian position close ties with Israel, based on a strong bond with the Russian Jewish community as well as a strong common commitment in the fight against Sunni Islamist extremism. The Israeli governments greatly disliked Iran’s role in Syria, but they also feared deeply the consequences of a collapse of the Syrian state and recognized the very limited and conditional nature of Russian-Iranian cooperation.

The Biden administration did specified that while confronting Russia on certain issues, it wants to cooperate with Russia where US and Russian interests collide. The history of the Middle East over the past 20 years suggests that there is a strong basis for cooperation, at least in this area. To develop such cooperation, however, US policymakers must admit – at least to themselves – how many times Russia has proven right and America wrong.

Artin DerSimonian of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft helped research this paper.


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