Filling the Mideast vacuum

Russia is now actively sought after by regional leaders after America's hesitancy, its lack of clear red lines and its apparent weakness have set its allies scurrying about looking for other partners.

Netanyahu and Putin meet in Mascow 370 (photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
Netanyahu and Putin meet in Mascow 370
(photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin stood alongside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a Kremlin side-room fit for a prince on Wednesday, looking very much like a man in charge.
He looked supremely confident and spoke without warmth, all business. He stood motionless, expressionless, even when Netanyahu praised him for the role he played in hammering out the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arms; even when Netanyahu took strong issue with the direction of the Geneva talks on Iran, a direction Putin actively and openly supports.
And he has reason to look, and sound, confident.
Putin is currently riding high in the saddle, even in the Middle East.
Two weeks ago his foreign minister traveled to Egypt for the first time in years; on Wednesday Netanyahu came calling and, even in his criticism, was deferential; and on Friday he will meet Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Russia, which many people a few months ago said was clinging onto Syria for dear life because it was its last foothold in the Middle East, is now actively sought after by regional leaders.
America’s Middle East policies – its hesitancy, its lack of clear redlines, its apparent weakness – have set its allies scurrying about looking for other partners.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman could have been speaking for many countries in the region when he said at the Sderot Conference Wednesday that it was unwise to rely on the US as much as Israel has in the past, and that Israel’s foreign policy should not look only in one direction: toward Washington.
Indeed, with some major US missteps in the Middle East over the last three years raising questions for many regional actors about Washington’s reliability, many of Israel’s neighbors are looking in other directions.
The Turks are looking at the Chinese, not the US or NATO, for a major missile defense contract; the Saudis are looking to France, not the US, to upgrade part of its navy; and Egypt is toying with renewed security ties with Russia, at a time when the US has cut some of its annual $1.3 billion military aid because of unhappiness with the direction the country took over the summer in its lurch toward democracy.
And the Egyptians are not the only ones looking to the Russians. The Saudis and the other Persian Gulf countries are poised to look to Moscow for help in keeping the Iranians away from nuclear weapons, if they deem that the US is unable, or unwilling, to do so.
On the surface it seems that the Saudis and the Russians do not share common interests in the Middle East. The Russians are backing Syrian President Bashar Assad to the hilt, while the Saudis – and other Persian Gulf countries – are trying to dislodge him. But that issue is, in Riyadh’s thinking, secondary to its main concern, which is Iran.
The Saudi calculations on Iran and Syria are not that different from Israel’s. For both countries, potential threats from a Shi’ite or chaotic Syria pale in comparison to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
They are both opposed to the propping up of Assad, but they are both even more concerned about Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in Syria is to keep it from falling further into the Shi’ite arc starting in Iran and moving through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But if you neutralize the threat of a nuclear Iran, you are dealing with the problem at its source, not only one of its symptoms.
Are the Saudis sore at the Russians for propping up Assad? Certainly. But being sore is not policy. If the Russians demonstrate an ability to get the Iranians to indeed roll back their nuclear program, the Saudis will be able to get over their soreness.
And what do the Russians want? Influence in the region, stature in the region, military contracts in the region. If they could get more from the Saudis and the Persian Gulf countries than from Iran and Syria, then why not ditch one for the other?
At one time this type of reasoning would have been dismissed as completely unrealistic, but American policy has everyone in the region rethinking alliances. And if there is one region where interests make for strange bedfellows, it is the Middle East.
A few months ago Russia was on the ropes in the Middle East. Now, American policy – frustrating so many of its traditional allies – is creating a vacuum, and it is into this vacuum that Putin now comes galloping, presently riding very high and confident in the saddle.