Mark N. Katz: Moscow and the Middle East: Repeat Performance?Roundup: Historians' Take
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, USA). His books include The Third World in Soviet Military Thought (1982), Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula (1986), and Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (2012). Links to many of his articles on Russian foreign policy and other subjects can be found on his website: www.marknkatz.com
When Vladimir Putin first came to power over a decade ago, he launched a foreign policy initiative to improve Russia’s relations with and influence in the countries of the Middle East, which had languished during the Yeltsin era. By 2010, this initiative had succeeded dramatically. With the active involvement of Putin himself both through visiting several Middle Eastern countries as well as receiving their leaders in Moscow, Russia had established good working relations with all the major actors in the Middle East: anti-American Muslim governments (Iran and Syria) as well as pro-American ones (such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar) and even American-installed ones (Iraq and Afghanistan); Israel as well as Fatah and even Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, Russia had good relations with every government and most major opposition movements, with the notable exception of Al Qaeda (which did not want good relations with anyone except for movements similar to itself).
Putin’s achievement stood in stark contrast to that of the United States. While the U.S. had retained the Middle Eastern allies that it had at the end of the Cold War (notably Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states), Washington was still at odds – and unable to positively influence – its longtime regional adversaries such as Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Further, anti-American sentiment in the region had only grown stronger in the first decade of the 21st century not only because of continued U.S. support for Israel, but also because of how the U.S. conducted its “War on Terror” as well as its unpopular intervention in Iraq. While Russia’s friendships in the Middle East may not have been as strong as some of America’s there, Moscow did not have fierce adversaries or face widespread resentment in the region like the U.S. did either.
Since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, however, much of what the previous decade of Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East accomplished has either been reversed or put in jeopardy. Although the sudden explosion of popular opposition against longstanding Arab autocrats caught everyone off guard, America and the West have been reasonably successful at establishing good working relations with the forces of change in the Arab World. Russia, though, has not. While America, the West, and even the Arab League backed Qaddafi’s opponents, Moscow continued to support Qaddafi. When his regime was ousted, then, Libya’s new rulers were unhappy with Russia and suspended economic cooperation with it – something that Moscow might have avoided had it not backed Qaddafi so vocally. Similarly, while the West has called for him to step down, Moscow has continued its strong support for the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Even though it remains in power, Russia’s continued support for the Assad regime has already resulted in the rise of popular animosity toward Russia in the Arab World. And if the Assad regime does fall, it is doubtful that the new regime will look favorably upon Russia as a partner....
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