Russia cannot replace America in the Middle East

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The hardening conviction among America’s Arab and Israeli allies that the US is no longer a reliable partner in the sinuous intrigues and vicious rivalries of the Middle East is prompting speculation about a Russian comeback there. Last week’s trumpeted visit to Cairo of Russia’s foreign and defence ministers – 41 years after President Anwar Sadat kicked 20,000 Soviet military advisers out of Egypt – is seen by some as a turning point. If so, it is far from clear in what direction Egypt, as well as other disenchanted American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, can turn.

The gripes about the US of these regional powers vary, and they do not necessarily all gang up around the same issue. The anger of all Arab countries, as well as Turkey and Iran, about Washington’s all but unconditional support for Israel is an important exception. But Barack Obama has added other reasons, too.

The current, army-backed government in Egypt, and its main ally, Saudi Arabia, feel a palpable sense of betrayal: first, that the Obama White House did nothing to prevent the 2011 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, a loyal US client; and, second, that after the army overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in June, Washington withheld part of the normally sacrosanct annual $1.3bn in US military aid, an integral part of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Israel itself – a status quo power that reserves the right to change the regional status quo – was also unhappy: to see the end of tyrants that had held back popular antipathy towards Israeli policy. As a top Israeli strategist put it just after Mr Mubarak fell: “Our whole structure of analysis just collapsed.”

On Syria, it is Turkey and Saudi Arabia that are most aggrieved, by the odd mixture of hesitancy and adventurism through which Mr Obama has willed the end of the Assad regime without giving mainstream rebels the means to effect this, instead leaving the field more and more to jihadi extremists. As Cairo flirts with Moscow, so Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly wilful prime minister, has started a dalliance with Beijing, pledging to buy a Chinese missile defence system even though it would not be interoperable with Ankara’s Nato allies. The Saudis, for their part, speak huffily of a “major shift” away from their 70-year alliance with the US.

But that brings us to the heart of the present unhappiness: the sudden possibility that the US may reach a rapprochement with Iran. The idea horrifies Israel and Saudi Arabia, which see the Shia Islamic Republic as menacing. They want nothing less than Iran’s capitulation, ideally followed by regime change. It is hard to discern what Vladimir Putin’s Russia has to offer in these two overarching regional conflicts: the contest within Islam between Sunni and Shia; and the stand-off between Israel and Iran, now a regional power and a threat to Israeli hegemony.

Yet, dithering aside, Mr Obama has sometimes upset US regional allies for the right reasons. He declined to back the despots challenged by the Arab Awakening, or the June coup in Egypt, and was prepared to give a hearing to Islamists – manufactured by the dictatorships the west previously backed. The president, moreover, clearly feels he was elected to take the US out of the region’s wars, not into new ones. Fortunately for everyone, he is resisting the “march to war” with Iran urged by Israel and the Saudis.

But the problem of a vacuum is nonetheless there.

After the Iraq fiasco, there are real doubts about US ability to use its diplomatic clout and unique military power to shape, or even manage, the tumultuous events of the region. US and western mishandling of Syria could help turn the country into an Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. The barbarians are already at the gates. Russia, in these circumstances, is looking good. It stuck by the Assad regime, which after the US backed away from a missile strike to punish Damascus for gassing civilians in rebel areas, is on a military roll. Mr Putin has a simple strategy and sticks to it.

He is playing a bad hand well against a president who says America does not bluff. But his restive allies think Mr Obama does bluff, and incompetently, for example over purported “red lines” on chemical weapons use that no one any longer believes.

The US moment in the Middle East may be ending, but it is hard to believe Russia can replace it. Even in the Soviet era, Russia never managed to be much more than a spoiler. Now, with its economy built on little more than oil and in the second division of technology, it is a subprime power. And nobody prefers Russian to US weapons systems.

The US, moreover, is finding it cannot just disengage. John Kerry, its top diplomat, does not get to pivot to Asia much these days. The Europeans are also going to have to raise their feeble game whether they like it or not. Syria is in their backyard and they are in the frontline of jihadi blowback. Bosnia pales by comparison.

david.gardner@ft.com

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