How will worsening American-Russian relationship impact Middle East?

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By Henry Srebrnik (commentary)

The ideological rivalry between the western world and the Communist bloc may have ended a quarter-century ago, but national interests and realpolitik are with us still.

Indeed, the antagonistic relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is arguably more intense these days than that between President George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, in the waning days of the Cold War.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the sanctions put in place by western countries in response, an angry and defiant Putin on March 18 denounced what he called a history of dishonesty and cheating by the West.

This belligerent attitude will undoubtedly affect the way Putin feels when it comes to the ever-volatile Middle East.

If you think the Russian leader has been dragging his feet when it comes to the international community trying to frame a robust response to Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria or Iran’s ongoing nuclear program, then, as they say on the street, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Manama, Bahrain, remarked in the New York Times that “to irritate the West, Russia can do a lot more to augment Assad’s power over the rebels; the political and material support Russia has extended from Day 1 has already proven crucial to his survival and recovery.”

Assad, grateful for Moscow’s support, has described the Russian stance over the situation in Ukraine as a “wise policy” in the face of “coup attempts against legitimacy and democracy in favor of the terrorist extremists.” He reiterated Syria’s commitment to Putin’s “rational approach” and applauded Russia for “saving the world from dangerous events.”

And Assad is now gaining the upper hand in the civil war. With Russia holding veto power at the Security Council, there is nothing the United Nations can do, to the frustration of Washington.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on March 18, Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Mekdad said that he sees no point in further peace talks in Geneva if the opposition and its Western backers keep insisting that Assad relinquish power, and indicated his regime had the backing of Russia in its stance.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran could get more complicated as well, if Moscow breaks ranks with Western powers and Tehran manages to play on these divisions. “Iran may feel sufficiently supported by Moscow that it backtracks on its recent conciliatory actions and rhetoric and continues to develop its nuclear program,” stated Paul de Quenoy, an associate professor of history at the American University of Beirut.

“If you’re Putin and you think you’re going to be a target of sanctions, the most obvious leverage is in the Iranian file, where Russian cooperation is so important,” remarked Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based group.

Meanwhile, Egyptian Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi seems likely to revert to his predecessors’ Cold War roles of playing the U.S. and Russia off of each other to secure maximum concessions from both sides while making minimal commitments of their own.

Sisi, who now rules Egypt, visited Russia in February to negotiate a deal to buy as much as $2 billion worth of Russian weapons. Egypt’s main arms supplier, the United States, has suspended certain shipments in response to the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

“Our visit offers a new start to the development of military and technological cooperation between Egypt and Russia,” Sisi told Putin. “We hope to speed up the co-operation.”

The only thing certain about the Middle East is the uncertainty generated by its shifting political sands.

- Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: Senior Fellow for Regional Security, New York Times, Security Council United Nations Wall Street Journal American University of Beirut Foundation for Defense of Democracies University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Russia, Middle East, United States Iran Moscow Syria Soviet Union Crimea Manama Bahrain Egypt Ukraine Washington Geneva Tehran

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