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The Middle East Theatre

 The Middle East Theatre

A Concert for Russia and the World

During the past decade and a half, the Middle East has got an increasingly important position in international relations. Developments taking place in this region at present have greater geopolitical and economic consequences for the rest of the world than in the Cold War era. This is not primarily due to the destabilizing impulses that keep the region on centre stage in world politics, for the Middle East has long known turbulence and conflict and the security challenges it posed in the past were hardly less significant than today, especially given the emergence of nuclear weapons in the region. Its current critical role is the product of a larger process: the formation of a new world order, a difficult and painful period of overcoming asymmetry that is challenging and destabilizing the balance of power in the world. Today, the region is increasingly influenced by the rivalry between leading global players, which also manifests itself in local conflicts, complicating stabilization efforts even when there are internationally approved plans for resolution. 

The Middle East has repeatedly showed how political irresponsibility, coupled with military recklessness, can create chaos, which, contrary to a popular theory, cannot be controlled. The current situation is different in that the context of conflicts required military presence of both Russia and the United States. It can be described as mutual containment, but in the present tense situation, it does not rule out incidents, provocations or the use of force by a party that is not ready to weigh all consequences of such a step.

Despite the dramatisation of the situation in some Middle Eastern countries in the 2010s and unexpected moves made by individual players in 2017, the political, social and economic development of the region fits into the paradigm that was formed in previous years. Regional processes have become more predictable, and analysts and political actors are inclined to believe that the peak of the transformation is over and that the current trends in political, social and economic development will determine the regional picture for years, if not decades, to come. At the same time, changes in the existing paradigm cannot be ruled out, for example, global differences and conflicts, stemming, above all, from the ever-worsening relations between Russia and some Western countries, are projected to rise in the Middle East.

Russia’s Middle East policy, having a special focus on the preservation of statehood and the value of sovereignty, was intended to stop turbulence and unpredictability in this part of the world. However, on the contrary, the region has not only become an arena of rivalry between Russia and the West but has also provided an opportunity to work out new mechanisms and develop new approaches to conflict-resolution and rehabilitation of societies. The implementation of these mechanisms is not mandatory and can be rejected by participants in international relations who disagree with the idea of indivisibility of security and who do not think that many countries in the region are doomed to authoritarian rule for many years to come.

Russia’s involvement in Syria marks a new stage in its domestic politics. This is not just another example of using force near its borders to pursue its interests, but a demonstration of much broader capabilities and a bid for a global role. The military presence in the region has become an important, but not the only, lever of influence, which has allowed Moscow to pursue a multi-vector policy. The military component of Russia’s policy, at times, causes regional and some global forces to view it as a player bidding to replace other influential powers in the Middle East. This view does not reflect the reality. Of course, Russia has demonstrated effectiveness in fighting terrorism and its importance as a political partner. But, to Moscow, it is increasingly obvious that efforts to stabilize the situation, recover the economy, and settle Middle East conflicts cannot, and should not, be unilateral.

It is important that the new role of the Russian Federation is perceived with understanding by many countries and even non-state players in the region, who are genetically accustomed to the existence of an external system of checks and balances and who used to feel uncomfortable in its absence.

Russia keeps a window of opportunity open by establishing relations with various players who are far from neutral towards each other. Moscow maintains working relations with Israel and Hezbollah, with Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the government and the opposition in Syria, with the government in Tripoli, the House of Representatives in Tobruk and tribes in the south of Libya, with Qatar and the UAE, and with Turkey and Kurds.

Russia has reaped big dividends from agreements on arms supplies to various countries, including those that never bought Russian arms before. Whereas military-technical ties with Egypt, Syria and Algeria are traditional, the breakthrough of Russian companies to the Gulf countries, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco is a completely new phenomenon. Orders from Arab countries make up about 20 percent of all Russian arms sales. In 2016, Russia sold $300 million worth of weapons to Iraq, almost $400 million to Iran, and $1.5 bn to Algeria. Russia’s portfolio of defence orders from Middle East countries in 2017 amounted to $8 bn.

On the one hand, selling arms is like exporting security –no one feels safe in a situation of conflict and turbulence, and the demand for weapon systems that have proven their effectiveness will only grow. On the other hand, such situational demand is not enough to convert the military component into political positions and influence. Obviously, limited economic capabilities of Russia do not allow it to play a leading role in the recovery of countries devastated by military conflicts and revolts, and in the rehabilitation of societies. Russia’s current presence and activity in the Middle East can be viewed as a bid for the status of a leading player, but it will be constantly put to the test. Hence, the activity of some Russian companies that are not directly related to the military-industrial complex, e.g. Rosatom and construction and oil companies, which are trying to enter the Middle East market.

The consolidation of ties with various influential regional players does not rule out maintaining relations with global partners; however, in the context of intricate Middle East problems, it is the regional dimension in Russian politics that comes to the fore. The complex dynamics of the situation’s development requires from Moscow flexibility and readiness to heed concerns of various parties, while preserving ties that are fundamental to it.

This piece analyses Russia’s Middle East policy on examples of conflicts (Syria, Israel–Palestine and Libya) and in the context of the development of the situation in North Africa, where the Russian Federation has a complex of interests. The Middle East conflicts in which Russia has found itself involved – as a direct participant or an honest broker – can serve as a good illustration of the variety of instruments and methods required, if not for the final settlement (which is always a long way ahead yet), then at least for reducing the intensity of the conflict and moving it from military to political confrontation.

An armed conflict draws people’s attention to military means of responding to emerging threats and the role of force as a factor of deterrence and/or changing an unfavourable balance. Armed forces play a role in each of the conflicts under consideration. In Syria, it is used by external actors that exert direct military pressure on internal players. In Libya, the main burden of the military confrontation is carried by its direct participants. As regards the Palestinian conflict, we can only speak of individual crisis stages, which have an increasingly smaller impact on the general asymmetric balance of power.

A hot conflict can create more incentives to seek a settlement than stagnation, which accustoms people to think that they can adapt to such a conflict and live with it, ensuring their security with means that do not presuppose unpopular compromises. A combination of military and diplomatic measures, with military means now dominating, is characteristic of the Syrian conflict. In the Libyan conflict, political methods may dominate but their effectiveness depends on the institutionalization of domestic players, which will provide a more stable and predictable environment for international mediation. In the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the role of external forces is reduced solely to political/diplomatic activities that, however, require much greater coordination of international efforts and joint breakthrough initiatives, which seems unlikely in the present conditions.

The Middle East conflicts are stable and have a long-term impact on the system of international relations in the region, but they do not reflect the entire variety of regional and extra-regional ties and do not always explain the logic of players. A broader view of the ongoing processes makes it possible to avoid a simplified reduction of the complex Middle East reality to the level of ‘conflict interaction’. In this regard, consideration of the situation in North Africa makes it possible to analyse not only security threats to Russia and areas where it may respond, but also economic and political interests of Russia.



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