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No Cold War 2.0 in the Middle East

New regional players overshadow US-Russian ‘superpower’ politics

Concern over the direction that US-Russian relations are taking was raised long before what some are calling the Trump-Putin ‘bromance’ began. Since the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western leaders have looked increasingly upon Russia as a hostile rival seeking to reemerge as a global power and a challenge to the US. Cue comparisons to the Cold War.
Understandably, much of the world wants to know how this relationship – a dynamic which shaped the politics of the entire globe from the end of the Second World War until nearly the present day – is going to play out. For the Middle East, a region that was particularly affected by the tumultuous push and pull of the superpower rivalry, the question is especially pertinent.

But no matter how Moscow and Washington bicker and scheme, the Middle East is not about to return to the diametrically opposed alliances of the ‘bad old days,’ experts in international affairs told The Media Line. Instead, we’re in for something altogether more chaotic and unpredictable.

For much of the world outside of Europe and North America, the Cold War was not so cold. Having two vying superpowers on your doorstep, both desiring comradery and affection, and both willing to sell vast supplies of weaponry in order to achieve it, is a recipe for instability. In the Middle East, a region then ruled by military dictators and impaled upon the Arab-Israeli conflict, the spillover effect escalated a number of regional conflicts. Wars in Oman, Afghanistan, and around Israel were all driven in part by the ideological rivalry, with the 1967 Arab-Israeli War bringing things dangerously close to a direct military entanglement between the United States and Russia.

Fortunately, that is not the situation we find ourselves in today, partly because Russia is not the Soviet Union and does not command the power its predecessor once did, Nikolay Kozhanov, a Russian-Middle East expert with Chatham House told The Media Line. “Russia is definitely trying to return to the Middle East as a serious player […] [but] there is a clear understanding that there are natural limits related to this game,” he said, citing the country’s weaker economic capabilities.

Instead, the Kremlin is concentrating on expanding its influence, firstly by bolstering existing relationships in the region, demonstrated by its unprecedented support for Syria. Secondly, it’s making inroads where the US has caused resentment with recent military actions, Kozhanov suggested. Equally important is the fact that the ground on which the game is being played is not what it once was and it is being shaped by local players more so than in the past, Zvi Magen, a onetime Israeli ambassador to Russia, explained. “The former Middle East doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

Essentially, Magen – now a senior research fellow with the Institute for National Security Studies -sees the region being reshaped as Syria, Iraq and Libya imploded following the Arab Spring. In this new chaotic world, the important actors are not the two wannabe superpowers US and Russia, but the smaller regional players such as Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
“They’re not new [powers] but they have become very active now and there is competition between them,” Magen told The Media Line, adding, “each of them is competing to bring about the new order of the Middle East [as they wish to see it].”

In this context, Russian and American machinations are influential but not irresistible as they were during the Cold War. As Nikolay Kozhanov puts it, “during the US-Soviet confrontation, the Middle East was largely a chess set where the two powers were playing a game.” Now, he suggests, both Russia and the United States need to consider the regional powers’ views when taking action.

Kozhanov, for example, points to the 2015 failed Syrian peace talks brokered jointly by Washington and Moscow. As in years gone by, the two powers went over the heads of regional players while framing the ceasefire as they see the issues and consequently, it fell apart.

According to observers, the direction the latest incarnation of the US — Russian relationship will take is will depend on the stance the fledgling Trump administration takes towards the Kremlin.
“Trump has the position of wanting to revert back to a very non-interventionist stance… but it’s not going to be so easy for him to stop a thing that’s been in motion for decades,” James Lockhart, an assistant professor of history and international studies at the American University of Dubai, said.

In recent decades Washington has pursued an interventionist policy in the Middle East, a policy only partially rolled back by former president Barack Obama. This approach is still the default setting for much of America’s military and diplomatic action in the region and it may be difficult for the president to reverse it.

Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo Bay could foreshadow Trump’s inability to prevent the United States from being embroiled in the Middle East further, Lockhart suggested. The possibility remains that, despite wishing to withdraw from the region, the US may come into conflict with a Russia seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East.

But what about the elephant in the room? One can’t talk about superpower politics today without mentioning China. After all, it is Beijing’s star which is in ascension, even as the other two candidates’ wane.

Interestingly, China has not, so far, translated its growing power into strategic influence in the Middle East, preferring to concentrate instead on economic interests. “They’re not a major destabilizing force or a threat to either the US or what Russia has in Syria at this point,” Lockhart argued.

Instead, the rising giant is focussed on securing energy supplies in the Middle East and creating trade routes through the region to Europe and Africa, Nikolay Kozhanov explained. “To a large extent, the political strategy just follows the economic interest,” he concluded. Whether this continues, or Beijing takes on a more assertive posture as it has done in the South-China Sea, it is likely that at least one outside actor or another will continue to assert influence in the region despite the efforts of its new regional powers.