Russia’s offensive in the Middle East

When the American administration wavered on responding with force, Russia stepped in to broker a deal.

April 24, 2017 21:33
3 minute read.
THE RUSSIAN Navy’s landing ship ‘Caesar Kunikov’ sails in the Bosphorus near Istanbul.

THE RUSSIAN Navy’s landing ship ‘Caesar Kunikov’ sails in the Bosphorus near Istanbul earlier this month on its way to the Mediterranean Sea.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Russia may become the first country to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. While international attention has focused on whether US President Donald Trump will fulfill his campaign promise to relocate the American embassy, the Russian Foreign Ministry, earlier this month, announced that Moscow regards West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The surprising April 6 statement reads, “We reaffirm our commitment to the UN-approved principles for a Palestinian- Israeli settlement, which include the status of east Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. At the same time, we must state that in this context we view west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

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It’s not yet clear whether the status change is contingent on reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians or takes effect immediately.

The latter would make Russia the first country to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The sudden announcement begs two questions: why Russia, and why now? It’s hard to ignore the fact that the statement, which marks Russia’s latest foray into Middle Eastern affairs, came just two days after the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack. The assault killed scores of civilians, fomented an international outcry and led to a military response from the United States.

Moscow, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most formidable patron, responded by chastising the US for the strike and pledging to veto any UN Security Council resolution aimed at punishing Syria. It has employed its veto eight times in the past five years to defend its Syrian ally.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for Assad and his geopolitical advances in the region serve two complimentary goals: they bolster Russia’s position as a global power player and aggravate the US.

If Russia becomes the first country to recognize Jerusalem – even the western part of Jerusalem – as Israel’s capital, Moscow will have advanced both objectives.

Prior to taking the oath of office, Trump’s team described moving the embassy as a “very big priority.” Since assuming the presidency, Trump has instead sought to broker the “the ultimate deal,” an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

In peacemaking and in the Middle East, commitment and credibility are all that count. While the US weighs the pros and cons over any possible fallout of moving its embassy, Russia opts for decisive action.

President Barack Obama’s retreat from the Pax Americana has cleared the way for the expansion of Russian influence.

The tipping point came in 2013, when Assad’s forces brazenly launched sarin gas into a Damascus suburb, killing over 1,000 people. Obama had previously declared that the use of such weapons would cross a “red line” and “change our calculus” about intervening.

When the American administration wavered on responding with force, Russia stepped in to broker a deal. The episode dramatically shifted geostrategic realities and cemented Putin’s belief that Russia can dominate Middle Eastern affairs.

Putin’s top priority is restoring Russia as a great power and counterweight to the West. He has proven himself cunningly adept in this respect.

During the 18 months of negotiations that culminated in the Iran deal, Russia artfully played both sides. It allied itself with the US, while extracting concessions from the West, including minimizing international pressure in response to its annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for Assad.

In its mission to become a key player in the region, Russia has cultivated a complicated web of relationships. It has allied itself with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, while endearing itself to their enemies and traditional American partners, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Israel.

For its part, Israel has opted for pragmatism.

Russia’s waxing dominance coupled with America’s waning interest in the region has left Israel with little choice but to strengthen ties with the Kremlin. Israel depends on Putin’s goodwill to ensure that advanced strategic weapons do not make their way to Hezbollah.

Russia’s announcement on Jerusalem serves many purposes. It’s a painless concession to Israel that further tips the balance of power in the region. It also reinforces the message that any abdication of American leadership paves the way for decisive assertion of Russian strength. President Trump has a decision to make – he can cede Middle East dominance to Russia or assert American power and work to restore stability to the region.

The author served from 2013 to 2015 as director of speechwriting for Israel’s permanent mission to the United Nations.

Currently, she is the associate vice president of strategic Israel engagement at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston.

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