US-Russia political passion play gets more deadly


Under Russia’s umbrella. Syrian President Bashar Assad enters the cockpit of a Russian SU-35 fighter jet as he inspects the Russian Hmeimim airbase in the province of Latakia, on June 27. (AP)

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.

Could it?

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.