Predictably enough, a statement from Washington on Syria is generally swiftly followed by one from Moscow on the same subject. So, when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer warned Syrian President Bashar Assad against any chemical attack, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov immediately slammed “such threats against the Syrian leadership” as “unacceptable.”
The war of words between the United States and Russia in the Middle East has acquired qualities of a political passion play. The worry is that it will change character and the drama will become visceral and dangerously physical.
In dollar-rouble terms, it’s a non-starter. Russia’s economy is one-tenth the size of America’s and it spends approximately the same percentage — but a substantial monetary difference — on defence. One former Russian ambassador was recently quoted as saying his people are “realists, we can compare figures.” So, militarily at least, there will be no direct contest. What about the one for hearts and minds?
Unlike the long-gone days of the Soviet Union, Russia has no alternative political vision to the United States’ to offer Middle Eastern leaders. Calls for anti-imperial neutrality won’t cut it the way they did in the 1950s and 1960s. It cannot any longer appeal to an Arab nationalism that defines itself in opposition to the West. Russia, both at home and abroad, is no harbinger of progressive change premised around socialist socio-economic systems.
If anything, Russia’s only real advantage is that it offers a choice, one that allows regional entities to play big powers off each other.
In some ways, there is little to choose between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pragmatism and that displayed by US President Donald Trump. Russia’s president never delivered human rights lectures; the US president has promised to dispense with the tiresome habit indulged in by his predecessors. Putin’s Russia is passionately opposed to what it describes as the West’s policy of regime change. In April 2016, candidate Trump seemed to agree, criticising the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy.”
And yet, there is reason to be concerned that Russia renewed its military engagement in the Middle East starting in September 2015. It was an unexpected but decisive play for power in the region 43 years after its ignominious expulsion from Egypt by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Now, Russia’s growing Middle East portfolio includes the following: It is a power broker in Syria and potential dealmaker in Libya; it is friendly with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu; it is on good-enough terms with Iran to call it a partner; it has secured Qatari investment in the state-owned oil giant Rosneft and it has agreed to OPEC’s desired oil output cuts as the result of Putin’s growing rapport with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.
What might Russia do with this burgeoning group of friends and influencers? It will, in the words of the election slogan recently used by British Prime Minister Theresa May, enshrine the “strong and stable.” As has oft been documented, Russian policy wonks and pundits view the Arab uprisings, the colour revolutions in former Soviet republics and the occasional obstreperous protest at home as part of the same destabilising chain that allows terrorist entities to flourish. To this end, it will prop up the status quo even when that system is in opposition to its own people.
Russia’s record offers useful pointers to its course in the Middle East. Omar Ashour, a security specialist at University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said that in the region’s “six-decade-long history of state-directed chemical mass murder, one power has consistently protected the perpetrators: Russia.”
It is a pugnacious point but Ashour makes it well. Half-a-century ago, he pointed out, the Soviet Union stifled condemnations of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attacks on the Yemenis, leading then-UN Secretary-General U Thant to declare that he was powerless to deal with the matter.
Russia is now back to its old ways. Some would say it has generally encouraged and protected the very worst behaviour, not just silencing debate about the Syrian regime in the UN Security Council, but perhaps contributing to April’s alleged chemical attack by secretly reneging on the 2013 framework for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons.
This is why the thrust and parry of the most recent White House- Kremlin exchange on future Syrian chemical attacks is so dispiriting. Putin will brook no scrutiny on his regional clients. Trump may lob missiles but, to paraphrase the poet, there is an infinity of angles at which he may fall and none at which he stands.