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Russia expands in the Middle East as America’s ‘honest broker’ role fades

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met in Moscow this week. Reuters/pool

The Russians are back, if they’d ever gone away.

A Reuters news item this week may not have got the attention it deserved, but it told a broader story about Russia’s spreading influence in the Middle East. This expansion is driven by its economic interests as a major oil producer and supplier of arms, and by history.

Reuters reported that Russia’s special forces had been deployed in western Egypt towards the border with Libya to support its surrogate, Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar who has been under pressure from rival groups in his fiefdom around Benghazi.

Haftar is also at loggerheads with the Tripoli based United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, nominally in charge of a deeply fractured country.

Of itself the Reuters report detailing the deployment of a few dozen Russians may not have been all that significant, but in the wider scheme of things it adds another wrinkle to what is now a broader push by Moscow to assert itself in a region it had traditionally regarded as a sphere of influence since the Czars.

As the American analyst John Hannah put it: Russia is “back with a vengeance”.

Across the eastern Mediterranean and Levant, through Turkey, Iran and the broader Gulf region, the trend line is obvious: Russia’s star is waxing while America’s wanes. While US officials have consistently maintained that American military domination is essential, a resurgent Russia poses challenges.

Slowly but surely, Washington’s freedom of action is being constricted. Russia’s successful flexing of military power has also led to the rapid expansion of its political clout. And not just among America’s adversaries. From Israel to Saudi Arabia, from Egypt to Turkey, traditional US partners are also increasingly compelled to curry favour.

This week, hard on the heels of his visit to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow for a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to discuss developments in Syria.

Israel has legitimate concerns about Iran’s role in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, along with the activities of Iranian surrogates Hezbollah along its northern border.

In another sign of Middle East roads leading to Moscow, Turkish President Recip Erdogan will also be in the Russian capital this week conferring with Putin about Russian-Turkish coordination in Syria and in the wider Middle East.

These are all significant pieces in a Middle East puzzle that is very far from finished.

Whether criticism is fair or not of the Obama administration’s perceived retreat from a “pax Americana” in the Middle East, the fact is that America is now obliged to acknowledge Russia’s role in the region.

Via its engagement in Syria, Russia has air bases and port facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean, so is a position to throw its weight around.

The military balance in that part of the world – where the US Sixth Fleet more or less dominated – has been upset. These are profoundly significant developments with implications that go far beyond a localised conflict.

What we are witnessing may well turn out to be the remaking of the modern Middle East. It comes a century after the Great Powers – Britain and France – established its boundaries out of the embers of the Ottoman Empire, carving out their own spheres of influence and excluding pre-Bolshevik Russia in the process.

When America, earlier this month, deployed 400 Marines to northern Syria to support US-trained rebel forces fighting the so-called Islamic State, that deployment was coordinated with the Russians to guard against possible conflict between Americans on the ground and Russia’s own campaign against IS.

The US deployment, coming early in the life of a new administration, is significant, and one that has many implications for a US re-positioning in the region.

That deployment got less attention than it warranted.

Policymakers in Canberra need to watch these developments closely, since it is not a big leap from American re-engagement on the ground to a request for additional Australian help in the field.

Options in the fight against IS will be canvassed at a meeting in Washington later this month convened by the new administration. It will comprise some 68 parties engaged in the conflict, but significantly, not Russia or Iran.

Notwithstanding Russia’s absence and that of Iran, both will loom large in discussions about what to do next.

In reviewing Russia’s hitherto shaky foothold in the Middle East, the year 1972 stands out.

That was the year Anwar Sadat – re-orienting his country toward the West – bundled thousands of Soviet intelligence officers and spies out of Egypt.

Since then, Moscow under Soviet and post-Soviet regimes has sought ways to reassert itself, nurturing relationships that have reflected the region’s shifting sands.

It has traditionally been a backer of Baathist regimes, including that of the Assad clan in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. It also supported Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, has maintained reasonably cordial relations with the post-Shah theocracy in Iran and had close ties to the leftist regime in South Yemen until a civil war in 1986 brought about Yemen’s unification between north and south.

For the most part, however, Moscow’s influence has been limited to supplying arms and back-up diplomatic support at the United Nations and elsewhere when required.

American diplomatic ascendancy via what was regarded widely as its “honest broker” role since the Dwight Eisenhower administration intervened in the Suez crisis of 1956 had squeezed Russia to the margins. But all that has shifted.

Not least of the consequences of George W. Bush’s ill-advised rush to war in Iraq in 2003 has been the destabilisation of swathes of the Middle East thus facilitating Russian ambitions.

The Arab Spring of 2010-2012 further helped to create circumstances favourable to Russia’s designs.

If it had not been for a popular Sunni uprising in Syria in 2011 opportunities for Moscow would have been more limited.

Russia has seized an opportunity.

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