Since Russia helped Syria’s Bashar al-Assad stay in power and helped to defeat ISIS, are Russia and the U.S. at odds in the Middle East? Is Russia threatening American dominance in the region? The answer to both is no. Russia and the U.S. actually have similar goals regarding this tinderbox region. They are actually cooperating behind the scenes.
Will there be a new Cold War between Russia and the U.S.? The answer is no. The U.S. is much stronger, both militarily and economically. There is no equivalence.
When Vladimir Putin attacked Georgia back in 2008, his military showed its lack of competence and preparedness, even though the Russians prevailed. Russia is in the Middle East to bolster its loss of influence in Ukraine. It also has interests in the countries that lie on its southern border which potentially are a threat.
During Russia’s war against ISIS and the anti-Assad rebels, the Russian military made a better showing, but Putin only had 70 aircraft involved in the conflict, including helicopters, fighter jets and bombers, according to a Dec. 2, 2017, “Geopolitical Futures” video featuring Middle East director of analysis, Jacob Shapiro. That is hardly a show of great force that challenges U.S. dominance. Putin’s help was enough to prevent the toppling of al-Assad from power, which was a potential and real threat because of ISIS.
While Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict caused the U.S. to lose face, in actuality Russia did the U.S.’s dirty work for us. Given the Syrian civil war and the threat of a Syrian takeover from ISIS, President Barack Obama had to back off on his redline threat over al-Assad’s use of chemical-biological warfare. Obama wanted al-Assad to go, but given the choice between an ISIS dominated Syria, reality demanded that al-Assad remain, according to Shapiro.
Although Putin has talked with Iran, he has also spent time talking with Turkey and recently with Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t want to see any major power develop in the Middle East, because any one of the three could pose a threat to Russian interests.
Iran currently dominates Shia majority Iraq and has al-Assad as an ally in Syria, giving Iran the potential to expand its territorial influence in the region. Turkey remembers its glorious past when the Ottoman Empire controlled much of this contested region. Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been gaining more and more power in his country and has ambitions to restore that former glory.
Saudi Arabia is feeling insecure and threatened in the region. Iran is rising and poses a major threat to Saudis and their oil fields. The Saudis have been hurting financially because of low petroleum prices. Saudi money in the past has been used to bribe and maintain peace both inside and outside the country. Much of that oil wealth has diminished. The U.S. has gained virtual petroleum self-sufficiency and no longer feels such a strong need to protect Saudi interests.
The Saudis are in a costly and frustrating war with the Houthis to their south in Yemen. Since the Houthis are Shia, they have been receiving aid from Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia has had to shoot down two Iranian-supplied missiles recently.
Iraq, being under Iranian domination, adds to Saudi fears. The Saudis, fearing Iran, have forged behind-the- scenes cooperation with the Israelis and have had talks with Putin. They also have been involved with Lebanon and its prime minister. The Shia Hezbollah with their army dominate Lebanon and, since they are allied with Iran, make the Saudis very uncomfortable.
Neither the United States nor Russia wants either Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia to control the Middle East. Both would prefer a balance of power. So, behind the scenes, both countries are actually working together to create stability in the region.
The defeat of ISIS has created more instability, since all three regional powers were united in defeating ISIS. As long as they had a common enemy, attention was focused away from their differences. That no longer is the case.
U.S. hegemony is not really threatened in the Middle East. There is no return to the Cold War and Putin and Trump have common interests in not allowing any regional power to dominate the region. They are cooperating behind the scenes. What you read in the news belies the geopolitical reality on the ground in the Middle East.