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Russia, US Still Competing for Influence in Middle East

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

FILE - In this Dec. 19, 2006 file photo Vladimir Putin, then Russian President, right, and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad smile as they shake hands in Moscow's Kremlin.

FILE - In this Dec. 19, 2006 file photo Vladimir Putin, then Russian President, right, and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad smile as they shake hands in Moscow's Kremlin.

Escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia have revived memories of an era many thought was long gone, when Washington and Moscow competed for influence in the Middle East during the Cold War.

These days, there are still competing interests, analysts say, but not enough to fuel a renewed Cold War front.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, the Russian footprint remains.

“The most interesting case is Egypt where Russia has stepped in with prospects of arms sale when the U.S. has cut back on arms transfer to Egypt,” said Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia.

With its support of the Syrian regime and its determination to prevent a Western military action against the Syrian regime, Russia has re-emerged as a central player in the Middle East, analysts say.

It is perceived by some analysts to have scored a tactical victory in global strategic diplomacy last year by brokering a deal on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and preventing a U.S. military intervention.

“It's a huge international geostrategic win for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” said Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Russia is on equal footing now as a power in the Middle East."
Still, Katz said Russia knows it limits.

“While Russia takes advantage whenever the U.S. has a disagreement with an Arab country, I am not sure that Russia really wants the U.S. to leave the Middle East because Russia can’t play the same role that the U.S. does.” he said.

While Putin is trying to make a mark strategically in Middle East areas vital to Russia, Bessma Momani, an associate professor of international relations at Waterloo University, said that Putin too hopes to carve himself a personal legacy.
“His drive into the Middle East reflects his own interest to be remembered as the leader who brought back Russian power and a sense of dignity to the Russians who felt it has been lacking since the breakdown of the Soviet Union,” she said.

But while tensions over Ukraine have evoked Cold War memories, Katz said he doubts there would be a return to a cold war scenario between Russia and the U.S. in the Middle East.

“Unlike the old days when the Soviet Union used to give arms to Arab allies whether they paid or not, Putin is seeking profit from arms sales and to increase Russian exports and Russian investment in oil companies in the region,” Katz said.

Russia has worked to regain oil contracts in Iraq and Russia’s Lukoil Company has won a number of large oil contracts. In 2012, Moscow signed a $4 billion dollar arms deal with Iraq and 17 percent of Russian arms sales in recent years went to the United Arab Emirates.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 27 percent of Russian arms exports between 2008 and 2012 went to the Middle East and North Africa.

Thirteen percent of that went to Syria where Russia maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

But Russia’s ties to Syria are also causing some regional strain.

Russian relations with Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab Gulf States have worsened since the onset of the Arab Spring in January 2011.

And Russia’s support of Iran and Tehran’s stance over its controversial nuclear program is making some Middle East leaders nervous, analysts say.

“Saudis and Qataris are very unhappy with Russia for its support of Assad’s regime and the Gulf countries have doubts about Russian’s intentions backing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” analyst Katz said.

Experts believe that Russian involvement in Crimea will distract Moscow’s drive to gain influence in the Middle East and that could open a window of opportunity for the U.S.

“The Obama Administration should be more inclined to listen to the Saudis and the Qataris and all parties who are arguing in favor of doing more for the Syrian opposition to change facts on the ground.” Katz said.

But Russia too could be viewed by Arab states as a form of balancing out U.S. interests and policies in the Middle East that have drawn criticism in the Arab world.

“The more interference the U.S. brings into the region, the more it helps Putin’s claim that the U.S. is trying to take over the Middle East,” Momani said.

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