Russia is not the superpower in the Middle East, and Washington should stop exaggerating its role : Ibrahim Darwish


Russia is not the superpower in the Middle East, and Washington should stop exaggerating its role : Ibrahim Darwish


Researchers Frederick Wehrey and Andrew W. Weiss, both fellows of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed in an article published in the journal “Foreign Affairs” that Russia is not a superpower in the Middle East, and that Washington should not exaggerate the threat of Moscow. At first, they referred to the annual military parade in the Russian capital, in the month of August, during which the Ministry of Defense spared no effort to display its latest military equipment .

Over the course of 4 days, it entertained its visitors from 41 countries, some of whom came from the Middle East, with military parades of advanced weapons, displays with live bullets, ballet dancers on tank towers, and an action movie showing the rescue operation of Russian pilots whose plane fell behind enemy lines in 2015.

The presentation took place the same week that the United States carried out the failed withdrawal from Afghanistan. The message was clear: Russia is back in force on the international stage, especially in the Middle East. Russia has been trying for some time to exploit the mistakes of the United States and the suspicions among its old allies in the region and expand its footprint in the Middle East, but the threat it poses to the security system led by the United States in the region is much less than the recent warnings issued by figures from the era of Donald Trump such as the Security Adviser Former nationalist John Bolton and HE McMaster.

In the Arab world, in particular, Russia's broad ambitions outweigh its real influence. That is why US policymakers should avoid exaggerating Russia's capabilities in the Middle East as they attempt to recover from the disaster in Afghanistan, reassure partners, and refocus America's military focus on Asia.

All this does not mean bypassing the Russian role in the region. According to some estimates, this presence is enormous. Moscow has deployed military forces and mercenaries in war-ravaged Libya and Syria, which confirmed its ability to fill the void left behind by Washington.

Russia has used several methods to integrate itself into the fabric of North Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf. It sells arms to countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq and has worked closely with the Saudis in the global oil market, through the arrangement of OPEC+. Russian and Israeli leaders speak of their close relationship as they try to avoid bogging down with each other in Syria. Moscow manages these military and diplomatic forays with little cost and complete grace. Vladimir Putin is not afraid of censorship by parliament or the free media, which means that Russian policy in the region is not suffering from a backlash or the repercussions of human rights abuses. This feature is considered attractive to Arab tyrants, who have long expressed their dissatisfaction with Washington's conditional support.

Syria and Libya are two clear examples of the benefits this policy brings to Russia. Through its willingness to deal with hated regimes and actors that the West cannot deal with, Moscow has become an important mediator in both conflicts. This does not mean a significant influence of Russia in the Middle East, because its influence remains modest and more than some assume. If one looks closely at the Kremlin's forays into the region, its disappointments and failures are clear. This stems from the limited tools available to Russia and the complexities of the political scene in the Middle East. Despite capturing Russian attention, regional actors do not act as subservient agents of Russia. On the contrary, they have shown cunning and the ability to thwart its ambitions, a dynamic that Western strategic planners usually ignore.

And in Syria in particular, which is seen as symbols of the return of Russian influenceIn the region, Moscow's ability to impose changes has always met with stumbles. The main justification for the entry of Russian forces into Syria, which is to strengthen the Bashar al-Assad regime and help it in the main areas of Syria, was achieved 4 years ago. Since that time, the Kremlin has discovered the limitations of what it can do whenever it tries to restore areas outside the regime’s control, in addition to easing sanctions on Damascus and rebuilding the country, in addition to limiting the interference of external powers such as Turkey and the United States in northern Syria. Musko always faces itself in the face of the Assad regime's attempts to play its Iranian and Russian sponsors against each other. In the same context, the Russian intervention in Libya did not achieve its desired goals. Starting at the end of 2019, Moscow began deploying mercenaries from the well-known security company Wagner to fight on behalf of the warlord Khalifa Haftar, who was once an asset to the CIA and who controls eastern Libya. But Moscow always doubts his military capabilities and his loyalty to it.

In the middle of 2020, Turkish forces arrived and gave support to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, prompting Russia to abandon its campaign to control the capital and give a diplomatic path instead. Russia's efforts to strengthen its influence in other regions were not better than Syria and Libya. Although Egypt and Algeria purchased large quantities of Russian weapons, they hesitated to deepen the strategic partnership with Moscow or give it an outlet for air and naval bases on their lands.

In the commercial sphere, Russia's penetration into the region remains limited. Unlike the former Soviet Union, today the Russian state does not finance huge infrastructure projects. What Russian companies aspire to today is to get money, but what they offer on the table is not in competition with what is offered by Chinese or European and American companies. Limited Russian influence means that Russian policy tools are not suited to addressing the thorny problems facing the region today. These include COVID-19 and the repercussions of the pandemic, as well as problems stemming from authoritarian rule, corruption, and the unmet demands of a growing young population, namely economic opportunities.

Although the United States lacks easy answers to generational changes, it has the advantage of dealing with the region through a comprehensive right-of-center framework, especially under the Joe Biden administration. In Libya, citizens are still grateful for the American role in nurturing civil society, spreading education, free media and local governance, which contrasts with the focus on profit-based approach, armaments, infrastructure and energy without mentioning the UN accusations of war crimes by Wagner mercenaries. All this is not to underestimate the Kremlin's capacity for wrongdoing in this volatile region.

Accordingly, the right way to serve American interests is through a sober and clear assessment of the challenges posed by Russian activities, rather than a constant warning of their danger. Washington must acknowledge that Moscow will often fail to achieve its goals due to the limitations and inability of the local players to whom its plans are entrusted.

In this context, the United States should avoid dealing with the region through the lens of the Cold War. Not every gain or loss is an open proxy war between Russia and the United States. US policymakers should avoid competing with Moscow and offering big deals to countries in the region.

Dictatorships in the region have mastered the art of using rapprochement with Russia as a means of obtaining favors from Washington, and the United States should avoid this gamble.
But US policymakers should not hesitate to confront Russian activities through security, economic, diplomatic, or covert means. For example, Moscow began printing counterfeit Libyan currencies to help the Haftar government finance itself, and Washington informed its partners in Malta to confiscate a shipment of one billion counterfeit Libyan dinars.

In another operation, Washington provided information that led to the arrest of two Russian agents in Libya. At times, the United States was able to focus the spotlight on Russian activities, such as the African Central Command's publication of a satellite image of Russian military reinforcements in Libya, which proves Moscow's violation of the UN resolution to export arms to Libya. These measures will not affect Russia's overall resolve in the region, but they may thwart or slow down other malign activities.

Undoubtedly, the American position throughout the Middle East was affected by the disaster of the exit from Afghanistan, but its assets in the region are not comparable to those owned by others. It has economic and political influence, military power and soft power, the adoption of multi-diplomacy, and leadership based on a rules-based global system that gives it the upper hand over its competitors, including Russia. American policymakers should reinforce these advantages rather than exaggerate the American danger
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