Russia in the Post Arab Spring Middle East
The Arab Spring has created a completely new situation and new imbalances in the Middle East. The changes are of tectonic proportions and it remains unclear how they will play out. This process doesn't look to be ending and it will undoubtedly have ramifications for international stability in the foreseeable future. It has caused great powers to fear that they will see their regional influence decline, which will affect global stability. Russia is no exception in this regard.
Clearly, at the root of these perceptions is the rise of Islamic forces that has followed the collapse of secular political systems. The main winner is the Sunni bloc, which is on the rise and which is locked in a bitter struggle against the Shiite camp. The latter includes the members of the faltering anti-Western axis: Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Hamas seems to be on its way out). This Shiite camp, under Iranian leadership, suffered a major setback in its strategy of leading the Islamic struggle against the West, and is under the combined pressure of the Sunni camp and the West. Their common objective is to force the Iranians to give up their nuclear program and to push Syria to the Sunni side.
On the other hand, the winners of the Arab revolution don’t have a clear program and effective governing tools. Mob rule still prevails in these post - revolutionary states. The future is unclear and unstable, while a new regional competition for supremacy is arising. Developments in the region may unfold thusly:
- In the short term, the situation will likely stay unclear and unstable.
- In the medium term, the situation might deteriorate due to the rise of Islamic (and perhaps radical Islamic) forces and the increasing danger of conflicts in the area.
- But in the long term, the situation may very well improve, thanks to the continuation of democratic processes in the post-revolutionary states.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, we are seeing a new era of competition among the great powers for influence in the region.
With respect to Russian efforts to advance its own regional and global interests, it is clear that the Russian policy in the Middle East is a function of its global stand against the US, which reflects Russia’s aspiration to preserve its spheres of influence. We can see that Russia is pursuing an independent policy and is competing with the West to shape the region’s future order. Russia believes that the turmoil in the Middle East has weakened the United States, but it seems that the Russian activity in the Middle East is being impacted by the new and unpredictable realities in the area as well. Russia finds itself with dramatically reduced regional influence, forcing it to alter attitudes and tactics and seek new opportunities.
Russia believes that, in the current unpredictable and unstable situation, it remains a relevant and influential regional and global political player.
As such, Russia is not only attempting to be included in the political processes in the Middle East; it also strives to form and to lead a bloc of supporting states in the region, based on the radical components.
On the other hand, Russia is troubled, finding itself in a new and unpleasant situation, trapped in a tough confrontation between the Sunni and Shiite blocs. After a year of mixed messages, from turning its back on collapsing regimes and to defending the Syrian regime, Russia finds itself backing the collapsing Shiite camp of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, while according to the Russian understanding, the Sunni camp is backed by the United States in its struggle against the Shiites. This Russian position could create negative ramifications for Russia if the Sunni take radical actions against Russia.
In summary, it seems that the achievements of the Arab Spring are creating challenges for the international community, due to the rise of Islamist forces and the struggle for regional hegemony. In these circumstances, the competition between great powers for regional influence has already become a reality.
In this regard, if the anti-Western camp is dismantled, Russia must elaborate a strategy that would allow it to open a dialogue with the Sunni camp, no matter how difficult it might be. Even more important is to tamp down on the increasing competition with the West, finding a common denominator for future activities in the changing Middle East. Otherwise, together with new opportunities, there is the potential for dangerous consequences for global stability.
Zvi Magen is Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of ValdaiClub.com.