(Amir Handjani is a fellow with the Truman National Security
Project and Board Member of the Atlantic Council. The opinions
expressed are his own.)
By Amir Handjani
Oct 4 Vladimir Putin has made an art of turning
weakness into strength. As Russian and Syrian forces pound
Aleppo in the biggest assault of Syria's five-year civil war,
the Russian president clearly has emerged as a dominant force in
the Middle East. Two years ago Russia had virtually no presence
in the region, aside from a naval base in Syria. Today Moscow's
fighter jets and missiles fly over Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi
Over the last year, Putin has inserted Russia into the
Syrian conflict and shored up the regime of President Bashar
al-Assad as it was on the verge of collapse. The Russian leader
has forged a quasi-military alliance with Iran that has allowed
him to project power in the Persian Gulf - something that has
evaded Moscow since the end of World War Two.
If that wasn't enough, Putin's relationship with Turkey,
which seemed to be on a collision course after Ankara downed a
Russian fighter jet last year, has now warmed to the point where
Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan are about to restore
full diplomatic relations. All the while Putin has maintained a
close and productive relationship with Israeli Prime Minister
How is Putin able to maneuver the shifting sands of the
Middle East so effectively and forge ties with countries that
are seemingly at odds with each other? Why has Russia been more
effective than the United States in furthering Moscow's own
agenda in the region?
Putin is able to quickly identify Russia's foreign policy
interest in a given conflict and commit resources to it - and
then abruptly change course once Moscow's core interest has
either been met or has changed.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the United States
has aligned its interest in the Persian Gulf with Sunni
monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. In turn,
these countries have invested heavily in the United States -
from buying U.S. debt, to investing in real estate and buying
billions of dollars in American military hardware.
Arab states have also invested heavily in Washington, buying
influence in the corridors of power, funding think tanks and
hiring public relations firms to help spread a narrative about
why their countries are essential to America's interest in the
Middle East. The relationship between Riyadh and Washington
remains particularly strong even as the American public
questions the logic behind an alliance with a country whose
actions often run counter to Washington's interests.
These countries feel that Washington is obligated to share
their view of the Middle East, which means backing them
regardless of whether any conflict they engage in is against the
interest of the United States. They have no such influence in
Moscow. Even as Moscow backs Shi'ite powerhouse Iran and the
Assad regime in Syria, Sunni Arab leaders continue to court
Putin and look for ways to collaborate with him. Saudi Arabia,
for example is currently trying to coordinate with Moscow on how
best to stabilize oil markets and want Putin to pressure Iran to
do the same.
Russia's partnerships are based on cold, hard realism.
Putin's sole aim is to further Moscow's interest. He's
unburdened by a legacy of alliances that do not serve Russia's
strategic aims. He supports Damascus, Tehran and the Shi'ite
government of Iraq because he views Sunni extremism as a
long-term threat that has destabilized countries in the Middle
East, and which he fears could wreak havoc in countries close to
Russia's borders. Yet this coordination and collaboration with
Shi'ite Iran doesn't preclude him from working with Sunni Arab
states to promote trade for Russian industry and its atomic
Putin is doing all of this while remaining close to
Netanyahu. Even though Putin is working with Syria and Iran -
Israel's mortal enemies - he has convinced Netanyahu that these
alliances are not meant to threaten Israel's existence, but
rather serve a larger purpose of defeating Sunni extremism.
Russia continues to cooperate with Israel in diverse fields such
as energy, agriculture and arms. Russia and Israel also maintain
close military contacts and Putin is careful not to transfer
offensive weapons to Israel's foes.
Juxtapose this with how Netanyahu treated Obama and
interferes in U.S. domestic politics. In the run-up to the Iran
deal, Netanyahu used the influence of AIPAC and other pro-Israel
lobbying organizations to try and undermine a sitting president
and scuttle his signature foreign policy achievement.
If Israel or another U.S. ally tried to interfere or
challenge Putin in such a manner, it's difficult to imagine that
he would reward them with $38 billion in aid for ten years, as
Obama has done with Israel, or continue to support them
militarily with advanced weapons and intelligence - as
Washington has done with Saudi Arabia.
Even though the United States is a far greater power and
should have more influence on the policies of junior partners
such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, the inverse happens: they often
work to limit Washington's strategic options for fear of
abandonment or for their own self-interest.
As long as Russia has a more nimble and opportunistic
approach to the region, Washington will have a hard time
confronting it - and Moscow's influence will continue to grow.