The world from here: Russian roulette

On the face of it, Russia’s active, aggressive and some say malevolent Middle East intervention bodes ill for the Jewish state.

putin and rabbi lazar 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
putin and rabbi lazar 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last-minute brokering of a compromise deal over the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile and his prevention of an American military strike on Syria solved immediate domestic challenges for US President Barack Obama; uncertain congressional approval and American popular opposition to a US military strike posed obstacles to US enforcement of its declared red lines on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
However, Obama’s last-minute acceptance of Russia’s intervention sent shock waves through Arab capitals and may have triggered more ominous dangers to western influence and power in the Middle East. The price of Russian ascendency and apparent American passivity may also drag Israel into the middle of the Middle East fray that it has been trying to avoid.
A senior member of the PLO’s Fatah party told me recently that the Arab world’s anti-Obama, pro-Putin crusade is in full swing, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Who, he asked rhetorically, will protect Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states from the Iranian regime and its terrorists? Obama’s statement in his September 10th speech on Syria that “the United States is not the world’s policeman” has fed Arab concerns. My Arab colleague noted that “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are going to switch sides soon, leave the American orbit and take cover under the Russian protective umbrella.”
“But how can you trust Russia?” I queried, “they have been financing and supporting the avowed enemies of the Sunni Arab world, selling sophisticated weapons systems to the Assad regime and helping build the Iranian nuclear program.”
He retorted that from an Arab point of view, Putin stood by his allies and showed resolve and strength, while the US abandoned former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, supported the Muslim Brotherhood, neglected the Syrian opposition and killed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi even after Gaddafi acceded to US demands to give up his nuclear and non-conventional weapons program.
In another conversation, a Syrian friend assessed this week that in a Middle East where perceptions of power shape realities and command local loyalties even more than real muscle does, Russia’s perceived takeover from the US as the superpower cop in charge of deconstructing Syria’s chemical weapons program, and Putin’s quick pivot toward the Iranian regime for a similar grand bargain on Tehran’s nuclear program, seemed to remap the superpower politics of the Middle East.
Putin’s ongoing insistence that it was the Syrian opposition – and not the regime – that gassed more than 1,000 Syrian civilians despite intelligence from Israel, France, the UK and the US, makes trusting Russia as interlocutor a major issue.
When asked if the Kremlin could be relied upon, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said this week on Washington’s Face the Nation program that “Russia could be trusted to pursue its own national interests.”
Putin’s national interest is to maintain Russia’s naval base at Syria’s Tartus port, keep the Assad regime in power, even upgrade its international legitimacy, which his nominal compromise deal may have helped accomplish. Perhaps most importantly, in ensuring the Assad’s regime survival against the local and imported Sunni rebels, Putin seeks to protect Russia from what he called possible terrorist blowback from Syria into Russia, which is home to tens of millions of Sunni Muslims.
Historically, Putin has also waited for decades for the opportunity to sideline the US in the Middle East. The US-backed Israeli routing of the former Soviet Union’s Egyptian client in the 1973, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, fuel Russian motivation. Russia’s increasingly aggressive reentry into the Middle East over the past 20 years, leading with advanced weapons sales to Syria and Iran, as well as the provision of equipment and training to the PLO, capped by the Kremlin’s recent “Syrian” victory provide context to Putin’s recent soviet-styled anti-US political warfare offensive, launched on the opinion pages of The New York Times.
His quick pivot toward Tehran to push for a grand bargain on its nuclear program and his statement to Reuters that “Syria’s chemical weapons program is a response to Israel’s nuclear program” illustrate the complexities of provocative Russian outreach to Iran and the Arab street. Putin’s comments were well timed, coming on the heels of last week’s Arab-led attempt at the annual conference of the UN’s nuclear agency to censure Israel’s refusal to acknowledge having nuclear arms and put it under international oversight.
Russia’s re-emergence as Syria’s foreign policy subcontractor has made a prospective attack against Syria and possibly Iran far more difficult for the US-led Western alliance. The prospect of passing any self-enforcing Chapter 7 resolution at the UN Security Council calling for the use of force against Syria if the current Russian-brokered deal falls apart becomes highly unlikely. Russia’s more central role in promoting its interests in advancing the Iranian nuclear project will also make prospective Israeli preemptive actions more complicated. At the same time, it seems clearer that the US independently may be seeking a direct path to a grand bargain with a lunch meeting scheduled at the UN between President Obama and the Iranian regime’s new president, Hassan Rouhani. What this all means for Israel is unclear.
On the face of it, Russia’s active, aggressive and some say malevolent Middle East intervention bodes ill for the Jewish state.
Israeli leaders have repeated endlessly, especially recently, Israel’s commitment to “defend itself by itself” against all threats. Putin’s recent public demand that Israel declare and destroy its alleged nuclear program makes him a foreign policy advocate of the Iranian regime, while he continues to aid Iran’s nuclearizing regional ambitions.
Clearly, Israel and Russia may tangle on the Iranian and Palestinian issues. Netanyahu failed to convince Putin in their May 2013 Moscow summit to stop transfer of advanced weapons systems to Iran-backed Syria, particularly the balance-breaking S-300 missile system which Netanyahu told Putin would be destroyed by Israel. Putin has warned Israel against attacking the Syrian regime.
However, the Russian-Israeli relationship also shows signs of warmth. As former Israeli ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval pointed out, there are more than a few declared and secret agreements between the sides. There also appears to be a positive emotional component to the Russia-Israel relationship.
At the end of Putin’s 2012 visit to Israel for a dedication in Netanya of a major Red Army memorial he expressed his “deep respect for the Jewish people.”
During a trip to Moscow last year, a very close Jewish associate of Putin’s told me that Putin’s animus was directed at the US, not Israel. Its abiding respect for Israel’s battle against radical Islamic terror and Putin’s warm sentiments for the more than one million Russians living in Israel would help ensure that the two countries’ relationship would overcome obstacles, as Putin indicated in the presence of President Shimon Peres at the Netanya Red Army memorial dedication. Israel, however, remains one of the closest allies of the US. Therefore, Jerusalem will need to negotiate a delicate path between the two superpowers to defend its firmly delineated “red lines” on the Palestinian issue, the Syrian and Iranian threats, and protect its other vital interests.
The author is a foreign policy fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress from 2011 to 2013.