By virtue of its secondary status in the region compared to the US, Russia was able to be more flexible and reinforce ties with competing states to position itself as a mediator
Russia has exploited failures in US foreign policy in the Middle East to achieve greater power with relatively limited means
In recent years, Russian policy in the Middle East has approximated what the US had hoped to achieve when Barack Obama and Donald Trump took office. That’s not to say the US presidents aspired to replicate Vladimir Putin but that they always sought to do more with less.
The Russian approach in Syria is a good illustration of this. In relative terms, it hasn’t cost much; it has also allowed Moscow to triangulate − meaning to place itself in an axial position between contending parties, in such a way as to exploit their differences to its advantage. Russia has respected state sovereignty while showing a marked preference for maintaining the status quo, not unlike the non-interventionism enunciated by Mr Obama and Mr Trump.
Neither US administration might have ever outlined its goal in the Middle East quite in this way. However, in the nine years since Mr Obama took office, Washington has adopted political realism as a guiding principle and what Russia is doing today is fundamentally realist in its orientation.
Why is this important? Because Russia, like the US before it, has grasped how the Middle East can eat up its valuable resources but has adapted to regional dynamics more easily than the Americans. In the process, it has accumulated power, despite a weak hand. If Mr Trump and his successors want to retain US influence, they will have to stop giving Russia a free ride in the region.
Moscow began by exploiting the ambiguities of the American administrations towards their Arab allies. Under Mr Obama, the US never defined how it could draw down its forces in the Middle East while also retaining US power. In fact, it didn’t try. Rather, it sought to engineer a new regional equilibrium by empowering Iran through the nuclear deal with Tehran, so that Arabs and Iranians could balance each other out and allow America to reduce its forces.
This effort was viewed by the Gulf states as a betrayal, provoking a strong backlash. Ultimately, Mr Trump reversed his predecessor’s efforts by pulling out of the nuclear deal. Yet his intentions in the region are not much clearer than Mr Obama’s. He is certainly intent on containing Iran but until now, his way of doing so has been through economic sanctions, not military means. That doesn’t reassure the Gulf states, who are wary of Iran’s daily actions on the ground.
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Paradoxically, by virtue of its secondary status in the region compared to the US, Russia was able to be more flexible. It reinforced ties with competing states to position itself as a mediator in regional conflicts. It did so in Syria between Iran and Israel, and Iran and Turkey, even as the campaign against ISIS allowed it to manoeuvre between the US, the Syrian regime, Iraq and Iran at various stages of fighting the terrorist group.
Washington, because it had no relations with either Tehran or the Syrian regime, could not take its new-found pragmatism far after 2011. Instead, in Syria it was caught between staking out a moral position on chemical weapons, then abandoning it when it realised this might involve America in a new war. In that way, it alienated its allies and showed its foes that the US was a paper tiger.
Mr Trump derided this in Mr Obama and rightly so. But what has he offered as a palliative? Raising the heat on Iran does not imply having a broader strategy for the region. The US has excluded itself from a say in post-war Syria by not being at the table in the Astana process; its relations with one of its oldest Arab allies, Egypt, have become somewhat distant; Mr Trump is liked in the Gulf but no one is at all sure how far he will go in opposing Iran.
With regards to Israel, the Trump administration has certainly greatly improved its relationship, largely at the expense of the Palestinians. Yet it hasn’t really calculated what this might mean for its standing among Arab states in possible future negotiations, or how its isolation of the Palestinians might affect its ally Jordan.
Russia has turned all this to its advantage. In recently proposing an arrangement to repatriate Syrian refugees, it found a sympathetic ear in Amman; it developed ties with Israel, allowing it to play Israel and Iran off against each other in Syria; Russia benefited from deficient US-Egyptian ties to open a path to Cairo; it used Lebanon’s isolation to build networks in the country; and it sidestepped the Israeli-Palestinian minefield by recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while reaffirming that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a Palestinian state.
All this is not to say that Russia will replace the US as the major outside power in the region. However, by filling the spaces left by Washington, the Russians have been able to achieve much with relatively limited means. Until the Trump administration can define a more comprehensive approach to the region, beyond merely opposing Iran, Russia will continue to find openings it can use.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut