by Mark N. Katz
As if the crisis in Ukraine wasn’t bad enough, the resulting tensions between Russia on the one hand and the US and most of Europe on the other will likely cause increased tension between Moscow and the West in the Middle East. Moscow can be expected to become even more supportive of the Assad regime’s campaign against its opponents in Syria and even less willing to pressure it to pursue peace. Additionally, Moscow may be less willing to pressure Iran to make concessions in its ongoing negotiations with world powers over the nuclear issue. Russia will also try to expand its influence to other Middle Eastern countries.
However, apart from the Syrian regime, others in the Middle East may not welcome these efforts. No matter how much they disagree with Washington on various issues, America’s Arab allies do not see Russia as willing or able to underpin their security like the United States. Indeed, those concerned that the Obama administration is withdrawing from the Middle East will not be pleased about Moscow diverting Washington’s attention to European affairs. Furthermore, Russia and the Middle East compete with each other in the petroleum market. Middle Eastern gas exporters in particular will see a growing European desire to reduce dependence on Russian gas as an opportunity to increase their sales to Europe.
In Syria Moscow played on Western hopes for cooperation with Russia as a means of dissuading Washington from arming the Syrian opposition or intervening on their behalf. Now that the Ukraine crisis has shattered these hopes, the West may become less reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition and more willing to look for alternatives to the jihadist groups they want to avoid. Moscow may still succeed in helping the Assad regime recapture most (if not all) of Syria, but the cost of doing so will now go up.
Iran may also pose more of a problem for Moscow. Now that Russian ties with the West have soured over Ukraine, Moscow may prefer to see Iran remaining at odds with the West rather than improving relations. While there is certainly debate in Iran about the desirability of moving closer to the West, Russia is generally seen by Iranians as a rival and not a friend. Indeed, there are some in Iran who see the worsening of Russian-Western relations as an opportunity for Iran. Growing Western interest in seeing Iranian gas as an alternative to dependence on Russian resources could actually increase the West’s willingness to reduce its economic sanctions on Tehran.
Moscow can also be expected to seek improved ties with other Middle Eastern governments that differ with America over various issues, including its support for Israel and its half-hearted efforts to promote democratization. It is doubtful, though, that Arab governments or publics will see Moscow as much of a champion for the Palestinian cause at a time when Russian-Israeli relations have grown increasingly close. Egypt’s military-dominated government may be unhappy with President Barack Obama for suspending arms transfers over Cairo’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other internal opponents, but the Egyptian military’s threat of turning to Russia for arms may not be realistic. Egyptian armed forces would have a hard time integrating Russian weaponry into what is now a mainly US-trained and armed force structure. And like Iran, Arab gas exporters (Qatar, Algeria, and potentially Libya) all stand to benefit from European efforts to reduce dependence on Russian gas supplies.
Moreover, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea could lead to an important problem for Russia’s image among Sunnis in the Middle East and elsewhere. If the Muslim Crimean Tatar population, which largely opposed Russia’s move on their territory, is treated badly by their new rulers, concern for their plight could rise in the Muslim World. Renewed opposition activity inside Russia’s North Caucasus and other predominantly Muslim regions and the brutal response this would elicit from Moscow, combined with continued Russian support for Syria’s Alawite minority regime and Shi’a Iran, could contribute to Turks and Sunni Arabs also seeing Russia as anti-Sunni — and to their seeing the West as an essential ally against a common Russian threat.
Finally, the more absorbed the Russian leadership becomes with affairs in Ukraine and Europe in general, the more Moscow’s ability to devote attention and resources to the Middle East may actually decline. Whether Moscow will now be able to increase its influence in the Middle East, then, is very much open to doubt.