Russia as a Catalyst for Positive Changes in the Middle East

Paul J. Saunders, senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, a colleague and longtime good friend of the Valdai Discussion Club, analyzed the significance of the Syrian campaign for Russia and the Middle East. In his opinion, it became quite successful thanks to objective conditions and a combination of circumstances. Saunders expresses doubt about Russia's ability to become a global security exporter, paying attention to the unique set of circumstances in Syria and the objective weakness of Russia's potential.

We can agree with most of the arguments, but with one reservation - in Russia they do not say that the Syrian operation can serve as a model for further actions in the world. Moscow is well aware that the events that took place over the past four years - from the moment the decision on the military operation was made to the present days - are indeed a combination of almost unique circumstances. This applies both to the situation in Syria itself and to the situation around it. In the West it is now generally agreed, that Russia uses the Syrian conflict primarily to strengthen its global position and further counter the influence of the United States. Accordingly, doubts are expressed that Moscow can do this, given the complexity of the situation in Syria itself and around it, as well as a conglomerate of factors and forces that can and/or will oppose the Russian politics.

Has Russia Established a New International Role?
Paul J. Saunders
Russia probably has greater prospects as a “sovereignty provider” than a security provider, if one defines this narrowly to mean that Moscow’s great power status, United Nations Security Council veto, and demonstrated willingness to oppose the United States can give other governments somewhat more flexibility in defying Washington by turning to Russia.
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This assumption is not true for a number of reasons. First of all, Russia is not only very adequately assessing the situation in the Middle East - in fact, due to this assessment relative success became possible. Russia is not going to take the place of the United States, which until recent years claimed the role of regulator of all Middle Eastern processes, nor the Soviet Union, which during its geopolitical might was ready to take responsibility for the Middle East as a whole, or at least for its part, based on ideological tasks.
Russia does not claim to be the power that controls the Middle East. That is why it managed to establish business and effective relations with almost all players.

Accurately using a set of tools - military, political, diplomatic, traditional ties, plus (I’m not afraid of the word) a common sense, which is not constrained by any ideological postulates - Russia has managed to take the position of a country that is able to help stabilize the situation. And stabilization in the Middle East and first of all in Syria requires a balance of players’ interests. The biggest “bet holders” are the regional powers: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and so on, of course, the United States plays a significant role. And Russia, in this complex interweaving of interests, has managed to take the position of a catalyst for positive changes. The only way to stabilize the Middle East is not to change regimes, as the United States believed, but rather to strengthen them. In some cases this did not happen, and we see a chaotic and dangerous situation there. In Syria, it was possible to maintain the current government, and despite several years of civil war, stability there is much higher than before.

Can a similar approach be applied elsewhere - in principle, no. Indeed, Paul Saunders is right - Syria is quite unique, as is the whole Middle East as a zone of intersection of the interests of major players. Among other things, a great deal of experience has been accumulated there - both positive and negative. In other parts of the world there is a different balance of forces and interests; Russia far from everywhere has such long-standing ties, contacts, and experience. Moreover, in the modern world it is probably impossible to talk about some universal solutions. This is its peculiarity - in each case there is a specific balance of forces and a group of players that apply methods that are relevant for a given zone or region. Therefore, of course, those solutions that are effective in the interaction of Syria, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran will not work for East Asia or, for example, Latin America.

Syrian experience has demonstrated the need to be sensitive to the changing environment and work to establish a balance of interests. It cannot be installed statically for a long time, it will need to be adjusted.

In addition, it is important the absence of any ideological restrictions that constrain the freedom of hands and actions. As soon as one of the major players begins to be guided not only by interests and expediency, but also by ideological postulates, problems appear immediately. The Middle East is vivid evidence of this, and the same thing can be repeated in any other part of the world. This is the inertia of the Cold War. These approaches are completely inconsistent with the modern world, but they are quite difficult to get rid of.

Russia is well aware that the country does not have resources for the global expansion of its model, but this goal is not set and will not be set. Moscow has repeatedly stated, that it is no longer involved in the struggle for world domination, this is not our prerogative. At the same time, successful experience in the Middle East attracts attention today, because there are successes. It will not lead to the emergence of a universal model, but it will certainly strengthen the authority of Russia as a country capable to solve complex problems. This, perhaps, is now the most important thing, because the US is more likely to have the opposite reputation - a country that is capable to create problems, and the attempts by Washington to solve them only aggravate everything.
Russia’s Return to the Middle East: War and Diplomacy
Anton Bespalov
The military operation in Syria marked the return of Russia to the role of an active player in the Middle East. The experience of recent years has shown that its presence irritates the West, but is perceived by most countries it the region as a positive factor. Experts from the Valdai Club explain the basic features of Russian politics in the Middle East, how Moscow manages to establish a dialogue with almost all parties to regional conflicts and what role the memory of the role of the USSR plays in Middle Eastern affairs.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.