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The Return Of The Russian Bear In The Middle East

European_Brown_BearThe balance of power in the Middle East is rapidly changing. The retreat of the United States as a major power broker in the region, is unmistakable. The former colonial countries of the area mainly Britain and France, are unable and unwilling to involve themselves in the growing instability. In the resulting power vacuum, Russia has returned with a major force.

It is the 45th anniversary of Operation Kavkaz, when then Soviet forces intervened in the ongoing military conflict between Egypt and Israel. The arrival of the Russians at that time saved their Egyptian ally from a regime change, thus preserving a strategic asset in the region. The War of Attrition that occurred between 1969 and 1970, is the only time in history that the Red Army combated the Israelis army.

Soviet/Egyptian S-125 anti-aircraft type missiles in the Suez Canal vicinity

Soviet/Egyptian S-125 anti-aircraft type missiles in the Suez Canal vicinity

It was a high mark for Soviet activism followed by the expulsion of the Russian military from Egypt in 1972. This was due to the change in Egyptian foreign policy under the previous leadership of Gamal Nasser, which was now replaced by the more pro-Western regime of Anwar Sadat.

At that time just as now, the actions of the Russian military came as a big surprise to American and other Western intelligence agencies. It marks a new activism for President Putin in the region and shows his utter disregard for the preferences of the United States.

The justification for the Russian intervention is multifaceted. The most obvious is to support the present alliance with the government of Syria, which is in danger of collapse. Putin is anxious to preserve access to the naval port of Tarsus, which helps allows Russia to project power in the Mediterranean Sea which is the underbelly of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

Another goal includes, creating a buffer zone zone between the Islamic radicals in the region and their own restive Muslim population in southern Russia. There is also a wish to export Russian technology in military hardware and nuclear energy. This growing market is important to an economy that is expected to contract 3.8% this year, amidst plunging energy supplies and Western imposed sanctions.

Arab Christians, Maronites and Copts in the Eastern Mediterranean as of 2009

Arab Christians, Maronites and Copts in the Eastern Mediterranean as of 2009

Russia will also be able to continue in the traditional role of protecting increasingly vulnerable Christian communities throughout the Middle East. The United States and its European allies have utterly failed in this task. One only has to observe the present refugee crisis in the region to see the reality of that situation. Millions of people are now on the move, totally overwhelming the capacity of the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to absorb them. As a result hundreds of thousand are now making their way to Europe.

The Arab Spring which received tacit support by the American government and a number of European leaders, was not a repeat of the democracy movement in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. It instead brought chaos and growing instability, as secular authoritarian governments were replaced by Islamic fundamentalists.

Protesters on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, downtown Tunis on 14 January 2011, a few hours before president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country

Protesters in downtown Tunis on 14 January 2011, a few hours before president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country of Tunisia.

Russia had three major allies in the region before the Arab Spring. These were the nations of Iran, Libya, and Syria. Libya is for all practical purposes, a failed state as a result of the American and European intervention. Syria as a result of an ongoing civil war, is in danger of sharing a similar fate. The insistence of the American President Obama that Assad must be replaced, is in the Russian view utterly nonsensical, given the present situation on the ground. In fact, the Russians blame the United States for inciting the present insurgency inside the Syria.

Iran alone, remains united and stronger with the growing chaos in the region. The Iranian leadership in fact, has a vested interest in fomenting more trouble as a way to enhance their rising influence in the Middle East. Long-standing Sunni opponents have fallen one by one. No longer does a secular Iraq stand in the way of the Iranian push to dominate the area. The divided country has now virtually become a political satellite of Iran.

The signatories announcing the nuclear agreement with Iran in July 2015.

The signatories announcing the nuclear agreement with Iran in July 2015.

The recent nuclear deal with Iran which Russia helped push through, will help the Iranian leadership in their goal in becoming the dominant power broker in the Middle East. Russia is strengthening ties with their neighbor to the south, despite the Iranian penchant for mischief making by sponsoring a number of terrorist groups in the region.

Further evidence in the shift of alliances is the reaction among some of the most formerly stalwart American allies. Russia is now courting the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and a number of the oil rich Gulf States, to set up a cooperative effort in dealing with some of the most pressing issues confronting these increasing precarious nations.

Over the past few months, the king of Jordan, the president of Egypt, and the crown princes from Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have each traveled to Russia to discuss a myriad of issues which include not only regional politics, but new arms and nuclear deals. The emir of Kuwait and the king of Saudi Arabia have plans to arrive later this year. The recent largely unreported naval exercises that Russia conducted with Egypt and China, is just the beginning of the new naval presence of Russia in the region.

Russian Naval Infantrymen during the Vostok Strategic Exercise in Vladivostok, 2010.

Russian Naval Infantrymen during the Vostok Strategic Exercise in Vladivostok, 2010.

The near total collapse of a number of American initiatives and policy prerogatives have forced the more moderate states in the region, to reassess their former reliance on the strength of the United States military in the Middle East. The onetime position to simply wait out the Obama Administration in order to see the return of the more traditional role the Americans have played since the 1970’s, has now been replaced with a more prudent policy.

The change in Saudi Arabia is the most noteworthy. The country remains the main Arab ally of the United States and a bulwark against the total domination of the Middle East by Iran. However, within the past year the country has gone from almost no communication with Russia to ongoing talks to deal with the crisis in Syria, arms sales, and the construction of more than a dozen Russian designed nuclear reactors in the kingdom. There is even discussion about the Saudis making investments in Russia that could exceed $10 billion USD (United States dollar).

Unidentified gunmen (Russians) on patrol at Simferopol International Airport, 28 February 2014

Unidentified gunmen (Russians) on patrol at Simferopol International Airport, 28 February 2014

The United States and European partners may be reluctant at this point to commit any more ground forces at this time, but Russia has no such qualms under the present conditions. Russia is intent on promoting itself as a new regional power and a more reliable ally than the Americans.

Furthermore, Russia is presenting the idea, that their military presence can help stabilize the refugee problem. Putin has publicly blamed the United States, for this disastrous consequence of the failure in American foreign policy. It is also a move to attempt to rebuild a relationship with the Europeans, that has been complicated as of late, in response to the Russian intervention in the Ukraine.

Russia will now emerge as the middleman in most regional conflicts, replacing the United States for at least the time being. A new American President in 2017, might well reassert a more proactive policy, but the Russians will have to be included in any new major initiatives. The ties that Russia now has with Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, and more recently the Gulf States and Egypt cannot be easily disregarded.

Anti-ballistic missile interceptor

     Anti-ballistic missile interceptor

Russia is already trying to broker some agreement between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam in combating the more pressing issue of ISIS and a number of other jihadi insurgencies. If for example, there is a solution to the proxy war that Iran and Saudi Arabia are presently fighting in Yemen, no doubt the Russians will be involved in any settlement.

The Russians have already emerged as a major arms supplier in the Middle East and is a ready alternative to American and other Western suppliers. Sophisticated air defense technologies are in high demand from numerous new customers, as a way to negate American, Israeli and European air force supremacy. More advanced electronic warfare systems are also coveted by a number of nations in the Middle East. This will permit more jamming of communications and guided weapons systems in the advent of a wider war.

So far the major projection of Russian power has been limited to the European theater and the North Atlantic, through naval power coming from the Baltic Sea. The now hyperactive Russian role in the Middle East, will continue to escalate. In 2013, Russia had already reintroduced a permanent naval unit in the Mediterranean. In 2014, this squadron was further beefed up following the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Map of the Mediterranean Sea

      Map of the Mediterranean Sea

Again, largely unnoticed in American and Western media was the Russian announcement of a new naval doctrine. The new direction of Russian foreign policy calls for a much enhanced power projection for the Mediterranean Sea and adjacent water ways. This new activity has raised the anxiety level of a number of European defense establishments, including the countries of FranceGreece, Italy and Spain that all border the Mediterranean.

Turkey in particular, has become concerned with the enhanced Russian naval activity around it’s borders as well as the recent violation of their airspace, by the Russian air force and a number of transport planes. A resurgent Russia can be viewed a grave threat to Turkish security, given the past encroachments on Ottoman territory, which is the predecessor to modern Turkey.

Many leaders in the Arab world and throughout the Middle East, are amazed how rapidly American power has faded from the entire region in just a few years. The possible replacement by Russia as the new outside force is not being accepted blithely, but has been recognized as a necessary alternative in the new reality. Security has now become the overarching issue for many of the countries in the Middle East, supplanting economic growth.

Protests in Sana'a Yemen

         Protests in Sana’a Yemen

This situation guarantees more instability and chaos as the lack of economic progress will ensure a steady supply of young individuals, who will be willing to possibly sacrifice their lives out of financial desperation. This will increase the pressure on the remaining stable governments in the region, to provide more jobs and economic opportunities. A hard sell when the country is in danger from internal and external attack.

One thing is certain with the new Russian system of alliances and their buildup of military forces in Syria, any possible understanding or agreement among the major players in the region, will now have to include Russia. The Russian military is also now dangerously close to the vast energy resources of the Persian Gulf. The world economy depends on this flow of oil and natural gas.  This new reality cannot be easily undone, despite the weakness of the Russian currency and economy

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