By Hussein Ibish
Russia unseats the US in the polls, but the jury is still out on its lasting influence
To the dismay of the United States, Russia is back as a major player in the Middle East – and many young Arabs are welcoming the development.
The 2018 Arab Youth Survey shows the US dropping out of the top five of the biggest allies for the first time; plunging to number 11.
Russia, placed fourth, is now the only non-Arab country among the five most favoured countries for the region’s youth. There has been a precipitous decline in sentiment regarding the US, with clear majorities now identifying Washington as an “enemy” as Russia’s profile continues to rise.
This dramatic change – a role reversal for the two global powers – has a complex and still-developing context. Russia, it must be remembered, played a major role in the Middle East until the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when the US began to dominate regional diplomacy and cemented a new alliance with Egypt. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia virtually disappeared as a player in the Middle East.
However, as the US began to pull back from a regional leadership role during the Obama presidency, Moscow stepped in, particularly through its 2015 military intervention along with Iran and Hezbollah to save Bashar Al Assad in Syria. With Assad’s victory almost complete, Russia is seen as having conducted the first successful international intervention in the Arab world since the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.
Even though many young Arabs disapprove of Assad, Russia has created the impression of being a strong and decisive power, a steadfast ally, a force for stability and state sovereignty – and a winner. Nothing succeeds like success.
Russia, though, benefits primarily from apparent contrasts with the US. For America’s friend and foe alike, the return of Moscow as a regional player offers a range of potentially useful options. Even some of the strongest US Arab allies are developing closer ties to Russia as an alternative source of weapons.
Saudi’s interest in the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system may be genuine. Or it could be intended to pressure Washington into delivering a long-discussed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system that Riyadh wants more than ever because of Houthi missile attacks launched from Yemen. Either way, Russia as an alternative supplier is useful both in itself and as leverage with Washington.
Russia benefits from its own absence from the Middle East scene in recent decades. Today, many narratives, be they patriotic, pan-Arab nationalist or Islamist blame the US – both fairly and unfairly – for a huge percentage of regional woes. Russia has something of a clean slate, and is often viewed positively simply because it is not the US.
This sympathy by contrast is one of the primary reasons, along with perceived success, that Russia has not been widely vilified for the destruction in Syria. In part because so much is expected of it, Washington is blamed for everything it does and doesn’t do, not least the failure to secure a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement after monopolising the process (and favouring Israel) for decades. Moscow, on the other hand, is currently being given a virtual pass for its role in Syria – all in the interests of Iran, no less.
The US is not only suffering from an extreme bout of Middle East conflict fatigue following the fiasco in Iraq, Washington also appears to have forgotten the possibility of achieving narrow and focused goals using limited means, which is precisely what Russia has accomplished in Syria – and what the US itself accomplished in Kuwait in 1991.
Obama famously predicted that Russia would end up “bleeding” and “overextended” by its intervention in Syria. The perception that Russia is resolute and successful, and hence formidable, while the US is indecisive and inept, was intensified following the limited US missile strikes against chemical weapons targets in April 2018. Washington avoided Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and even core regime assets, concentrating on a small group of chemical weapons-related targets without significant strategic value. This reinforced the notion that Russian deterrence works, and that Moscow has won a decisive victory in Syria which Washington is either unwilling or unable to challenge under any circumstances.
The startling shift in Arab youth public opinion in favour of Russia and against the US is also undoubtedly driven in part by personalities. Donald Trump is widely viewed, both within and outside of the US, as a ridiculous figure who also manages to be a racist and a bully, but who is not to be taken seriously. Vladimir Putin, by contrast, conveys an image of strength, determination, constancy, ruthlessness and gravitas – an image that seems to greatly impress Trump himself. He appears to personify the successful, focused and determined Russia versus the maladroit, indecisive and hapless US.
Trump has also managed to strongly intensify the unfair impression that Islamophobia is rampant within the US, while Putin and Russia have no such reputation. On the contrary, Russia has made common cause with anti-Islamist Arab forces such as Egypt and the UAE, in Libya and at conferences promoting “moderate” Islam and “combatting terrorism”.
The present glow that Moscow basks in may quickly fade, however. As Russia re-emerges as a Middle East power in its own right, and not a sudden and welcome alternative to Washington, it will inevitably be increasingly held to account for its conduct, and especially its close alliance with Iran.
The stunning success in Syria, which took place in a relative vacuum, has created an exaggerated sense of Russian military prowess and presence in the region. Russian propaganda, such as RT Arabic, is widespread and effective, but the fact is hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed by a handful of US special forces in northern Syria. If Washington snaps out of its self-imposed retreat from Middle East leadership, Russia’s appeal in the Arab world may not remain pre-eminent for long.