The historic visit of King Salman to Moscow further emphasizes Russia’s central role in the Middle East.
The announcement of the purchase of the S-400 Russian anti-aircraft defense system by Riyadh caused anger in Washington. Before the Saudis, the Turkish NATO members also commissioned the same system. A sacrilege for the Westerners! Beyond the purely military aspect of these contracts, this is a new sign of Russia’s growing role in the Middle East.
Is Russia in the process of ousting the United States? No, but it is reaping the fruits of a constant and effective diplomacy which no longer leaves anyone indifferent. On the other hand, Americans have accumulated errors of appreciation since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, above all, appear versatile and hesitant since the Arab Spring of 2011.
Without a state of mind, but with a blurry and uncertain US policy, regional actors no longer hesitate to intensify their relations with Moscow
Worse, they seem to have no strategic vision. “The United States has no idea what they will do after the fall of ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” a senior French army officer told me recently, expressing his surprise at the lack of ideas in his American interlocutors.
In front, the Russians build their regional influence. The civil war in Syria was an opportunity for them that they did not fail to grasp. Finally, with little military resources on the ground, they saved the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.
The results of their intervention are flattering. They recorded little human loss in their ranks. They flaunted in real combat conditions the full extent of their military panoply. They now have a permanent maritime base in the Mediterranean at Tartous.
The diplomatic front
At a diplomatic level, it is the Russians who have the keys to the negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition. In short, it is fair to say that Moscow will be in Syria for a long time.
But more fundamentally, Russia has delivered an extremely powerful message to all the countries of the region: it does not abandon its allies in the turmoil! What about the Americans? During the Arab Spring, they “dropped” Hosni Mubarak in a few weeks.
With the strategic pivot to Asia adopted by Barack Obama, US diplomacy in the region seems to be reduced to two postures: protect Israel and obsess about Iran: protecting the Hebrew state at any price and doing everything to block Tehran.
With Donald Trump, American power today is both unpredictable and contested. It is questioned in any case: what is its vision for the Middle East? What are its priorities? State Department diplomats are hardly pressured to respond in a clear and coherent way.
Looking at Moscow
As a result, the big powers of the region are looking more and more at Moscow. Iraq and Egypt multiplied contacts with Russia as well as Marshal Hafter in Libya. The Syrian Kurds have set up a representative office in the Russian capital and one of their Afrin cantons welcomes Russian soldiers.
Even in the Gulf, the leaders now see Russia as a significant partner, which was not necessarily the case a few years ago. One can regret it or rejoice, but the Russian leadership “does what it says and says what it does”.
Without a state of mind, but with a blurry and uncertain US policy, regional actors no longer hesitate to intensify their relations with Moscow.
Obviously, the Russians do not have the financial and economic power of the United States, which remains dominant. Russia has to deal with Washington. And then, the more diplomatically and militarily Russia is involved in the region, the more it is exposed to security risks.
The terrorist threat from the Middle East and Central Asia is growing. But it is also the fight against terrorism that justifies the policy of Vladimir Putin, which for once allied both Americans and Europeans in this file. For Moscow, the challenge today is to consolidate and perpetuate its presence in the center of the Middle East.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.