NEW YORK – The United States has lost two asymmetric wars in modern times: one against the Vietcong in Vietnam, and another against terrorist groups in the Middle East. When its defeat became apparent in Vietnam, the US pivoted away from the region, leaving the victor to clean up the mess – and, ultimately, to join the ASEAN structure of security and cooperation. The Middle East has been more difficult to leave behind, despite America’s best efforts, and remains wracked by conflict and shaken by shifting alliances.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the region’s turmoil represents an important opportunity. By gaining a foothold in the Middle East, he hopes to revive Russia’s long-faded image as a world power, restore its status as America’s main geopolitical foil, and gain bargaining chips with which to promote his more immediate concerns in Russia’s near-abroad. Success in these areas, he calculates, will cement his power and popular support at home.
On these fronts, Putin has made some progress, embedding Russia firmly within Middle Eastern politics. But Russia’s position in the region remains fragile. It is not currently capable of helping to establish – much less oversee – a new regional order, for a simple reason: the Kremlin lacks true allies there.
To be sure, Russia does wield substantial influence in Syria (a Cold War legacy), and shared interests have enabled Putin to bond with some regional powers. But no Middle Eastern country today is a captive client of the Kremlin in the way that, say, Egypt was during the Cold War.
Russia’s recent cooperation with Iran, for example, is no sign of a budding friendship, as some experts believe. Though both governments support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran allowed Russia to use its airbases in the fight against ISIS, Iran is keen to retain its role as Assad’s main patron. Moreover, Iran would not want to jeopardize its efforts to rebuild its economic relations with the West – an objective that underpinned the international agreement on its nuclear program concluded in 2015. As for Russia, cooperating with Iran in a broader Middle East policy would destroy its standing among the region’s Sunni powers.
Meanwhile, countries like Turkey and Egypt are largely engaging with Russia in a kind of protest, amid tensions with their closer allies in the West. Turkey, for example, was, until recently, at loggerheads with Russia over Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near its border with Syria last November. But Turkey has now reconciled with Russia, and wound down its role in the fight against Assad, Russia’s main partner in the region.
This does not reflect some realization on Turkey’s part that Russia is a critical actor worth keeping on side. Rather, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants Russia’s help in Turkey’s fight against Syria’s Kurds, whose nationalist ambitions Erdoğan is eager to contain, lest they incite separatism among Kurds in Turkey.
Erdoğan is frustrated with Turkey’s Western allies, which have done his country no favors on the Kurdish issue. On the contrary, the Syrian Kurds are America’s most efficient partner in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), which both Turkey and Russia are also fighting. Arming the Kurdish militias, as US President Barack Obama is now considering, would push Erdoğan further into Putin’s arms. Given Putin’s interest in dividing NATO, he would warmly welcome such an outcome.
There are also economic incentives for the Russia-Turkey pairing, including about $30 billion in annual trade. Russia, weighed down by low commodity prices and persistent Western sanctions, is also eager to boost energy exports to Turkey.
But the potential of the Turkey-Russia relationship is limited. For starters, whatever tensions exist between Erdoğan and the West, the Turkish president knows better than to risk the security guarantees afforded by NATO. Given this, any collusion with Putin in Syria is likely to be shallow and short-lived.
Russia, for its part, has no interest in bolstering Turkey’s position as a major regional power. After all, it has long competed with Turkey for influence in the Black Sea and the Middle East. Russia’s reaction to Turkey’s rapprochement with its erstwhile ally Israel – with which it had been at loggerheads since 2010, when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship that was part of a flotilla seeking to deliver aid to Gaza – reflects this rivalry.
At first, Russia’s reaction was lukewarm, largely because, given Israel’s role as a rising energy power in the Middle East, the reconciliation jeopardized Russia’s plans of boosting energy exports to Turkey. But Putin subsequently endorsed the move, not because he likes the idea of Turkey, which also has close ties with Hamas, gaining a greater say in the affairs of Gaza, but because he wanted to present Russia as a key regional actor.
Indeed, Putin next announced that he would be willing to host peace talks between Israel and Palestine. As he surely knows, Russia lacks the leverage, economic and otherwise, that would be needed to produce a deal. But he seems to have decided that the suggestion would reinforce the view of Russia as a regional player rivaling in importance Turkey or even the US.
The truth, however, is that the US remains indispensable to any solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. More broadly, the urge for Western-style freedom and democracy remains the dream of the Middle East’s younger generations; it has merely been obscured by the autocratic response to the Arab Spring uprisings, and the subsequent proliferation of radical Islamists.
The US is now focused on a rising Asia. Instead of employing the weapons of war, it is using the tools of globalization – in particular, trade and investment linkages – to help shape the region’s development. When the Middle East is ready, the US will surely do the same there. And when that happens, whatever isolated military footholds and ephemeral alliances Russia has maintained will quickly be lost. Like the Soviet Union in Central and Eastern Europe, today’s Russia has no place in a region undergoing socioeconomic reform and democratic transitions.