Every now and then, the door of history seems to swing open in some contested part of the world, if only by a crack. This feels like such a moment: a changing of the guard in Syria, with Russian troops, along with their Turkish partners, assuming joint patrols in a northeastern borderland from which Donald Trump in Washington has withdrawn U.S. troops as part of his often-expressed desire for America to be less involved as a military actor in the Middle East. Eyes now are trained on Moscow—in Tehran, Riyadh, Baghdad, Amman, and Jerusalem, and indeed everywhere in this region, which for centuries has experienced the interventions, many soaked in blood, of outside powers.
Let’s explore, for purpose of conjecture, the possible contours of what might be called “Putin’s Middle East.” Russia’s leader, in power now for 20 years, increasingly devotes his energies to the rarified realm of foreign affairs, not to the muddy ruts of domestic policy. And for Vladimir Putin, the Middle East, not so very far from Russia’s borders, is and always will be a core national interest. So what’s his game?
Three principles come to mind for understanding Russia’s intensifying engagement in the region. The first is hard power. Post-Soviet Russia makes no effort to promote itself, as America often does, as a political or social model. Soft power is for softies: Putin is interested in the brute instruments of military power—just like his hero, Peter the Great, who founded Russia’s navy and made its army, a rag-tag collection of villagers, into a professional fighting force. This explains why Russia cares so much about Syria, to the point that it intervened with its military, decisively, in the Syrian civil war, on behalf of the still-standing regime of Bashar al-Assad. A vital goal was to safeguard the Russian navy’s prized access to the port of Tartus on the Syrian Mediterranean. The history of the Russian empire, in part, is the quest for access to warm-water ports. Moscow’s warships have docked in Tartus since the 1970s; Putin had no intention of being known as the Kremlin leader who lost that gem.
Putin now may look to expand Russia’s military assistance to potential allies in the region, beyond Syria. Iraq could be one such beneficiary. Baghdad is anxious to protect itself from air strikes, allegedly by Israelis, on munitions depots kept on Iraqi soil by Iranian-backed military groups. Help conceivably could be found in the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile-defense system—the same system that NATO-member Turkey, to Washington’s ire, has purchased from Moscow. “There is military cooperation between Iraq and Russia,” the Iraqi ambassador to Russia said last month. Here lies another possible changing of the guard—for Russia to establish itself as a pivotal player in the very country that the United States, through its removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 Iraq War, aimed to make a democratic exemplar for the region.
A second principle for Putin’s Middle East is the tending of wide-ranging diplomatic relationships. Washington toppled Saddam, called for Assad to go, and has yet to reestablish formal diplomatic ties with Iran since severing them in 1980, after the seizure of American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran by student militants. This is not the Moscow way. Putin maintains an active dialogue with the leaders both of the Islamic Republic in Tehran and of Israel in Jerusalem. When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gnawing over a threat to his nation emanating from Assad’s Syria, he picks up the phone and calls Putin—or boards a plane for Moscow and meets with Russia’s leader directly. If America truly does recede from the Middle East in broad-scale fashion, the Moscow tie is bound to be more important to Jerusalem than ever. Leaders in the region may come to see Russia as an honest broker of their disputes—at the least, more evenhanded than America, which generally sides with the Israelis.
The third principle for Russian engagement in the region, as surprising as it may sound, is apt to be restraint—that is, restraint on the brasher ambitions of local actors. It might be thought that, with the United States a less influential actor in the Middle East, the way is clear for archrival Iran to establish an arc of supremacy extending from Tehran to Damascus. But while it is true that Putin’s Russia and the Mullahs’ Iran joined forces to defend the besieged Assad government, it is also true that Russia was a signatory to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, by which Tehran pledged to halt its (in-the-making) nuclear program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Putin well understands that a nuclear Iran could menace not merely Paris but also Moscow. His overriding goal, which goes as well to his self-interest in defeating ISIS and other Islamic jihadists, is to protect and strengthen Russia, not to build up some other aspiring power.
Of course, Putin is not yet the undisputed King of the Middle East. The Trumpian idea—“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” he declared at the White House, regarding his removal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria—meets with widespread resistance from the foreign policy establishment in Washington, including prominent members of the Republican Party. Some in the military regard Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, whose soldiers fought and died alongside U.S. troops against ISIS, as unconscionable. America maintains a large contingent of forces in the region, including troops on the ground in Saudi Arabia. Should Trump be defeated at the ballot box next year (or removed from office by the Senate in an impeachment trial), his disengagement policy could be reversed. Moscow and Washington might then find themselves in hot competition for the role of alpha over the region.
But for now, the opening is for Putin—not yet 70, with no serious challenge to his Czar-like rule and plainly determined to take his place in the Russian history books. A bronze statue of Peter the Great stands in a prominent spot in his Kremlin. Is Putin’s idea to win for himself the treasured Russian moniker of “the Great?” The thirst for power and glory can be clarifying or blinding. The Middle East could be Putin’s defining proving ground for Russian triumph—or, as often enough for America, bitter disappointment.
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