Russian Gains Are American Losses in the Arab World

Imad K. Harb

Russian President Vladimir Putin gloated in a foreign policy speech on October 18 that Washington’s monopoly on international leadership is ending because of repeated mistakes by American policymakers. On the same day, he signed a “strategic cooperation treaty” with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to strengthen trade and military ties between Russia and Egypt. While the second event is only another example of Sisi’s continuing endeavors to find new sources of support, given the dire political and economic situation he faces, Putin’s assessment of a receding American influence paves the way for an even larger Russian role in the Arab world.

In the Arab region, Putin’s boastful statements are gradually becoming credible after Moscow’s success in its overtures to many Arab countries; and that is, of course, in addition to Russia’s unquestionable sway over developments in the Syrian civil war. There, and together with Iran and Iran-supported militias, Russia helped the Syrian regime accomplish its control over rebel areas in the south and center and it holds the cards to a final assault on Idlib province in the northwest, the last redoubt of the Syrian opposition. To protect Russian, Iranian, and Syrian regime gains there, Moscow decided to deploy S-300 missiles that could be a game changer in the eastern Mediterranean. By contrast, the United States has a tenuous relationship with the Syrian Kurds who are constantly under Turkey’s threat; further, the small military outpost at al-Tanf in southeastern Syria may only have fleeting strategic import, and only if the Trump Administration wants to use it as leverage.

In Iraq, Russia is eyeing a good relationship with the country’s new leadership, one that may involve military and security affairs as well as scientific and economic exchanges. During a visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2017, former Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki gave clear signals that Iraq wants to increase cooperation with Russia on economic and educational issues as well as military technology. While these developments do not assure Moscow of a strong position in Baghdad, they call into question the influence the United States has wielded there since 2003. The formation of Iraq’s new government, under the premiership of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, took over five months and came about only as a compromise between Washington and Tehran. With Iran and Russia negotiating joint efforts on many issues in the Middle East, it would not be hard to imagine a day when American influence recedes in Iraq, especially when the war against the so-called Islamic State ends. An indication of already decreased influence can be gleaned from the new prime minister’s lack of enthusiasm for helping to enforce the new American sanctions on Iran, set to take effect November 4.

In Libya, Russia has worked to cultivate good relations with General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army, who challenges the Tripoli-based and United Nations-supported Government of National Accord and controls the country’s east. The Russian embrace of Haftar flies in the face of the United Nations’ mission––to ratify a unifying constitution for the country and hold elections––that has been supported by the Trump Administration. With help from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in his fight against Islamist forces in Libya, Haftar may indeed soon march on Tripoli––as he has  threatened to do––to control the entire country militarily. If that happens, Russia would arguably be in a very good position to exact a price for its assistance; this would probably be a commanding base on the southern Mediterranean coast.

Moscow also is hoping to increase its relations with Arab Gulf capitals, in addition to an already thriving relationship with Iran. In fact, Russia is trying to expand relations in the Gulf while it works with Iran to dictate a settlement for Syria that aborts any efforts Saudi Arabia or Qatar have supported there. As the Saudi government presently confronts the crisis because of its involvement in the Khashoggi murder, Russia has bucked international sentiment and sought to downplay the affair, announcing that it believed Riyadh’s statements denying culpability. In addition, last June, Russia and the UAE signed a “Declaration of Strategic Partnership” to cooperate on several issues. Russia is also a venue for the Gulf states’ investments and it partners with many of them on energy issues. While these relations do not extend into the military and security fields, which are dominated by the United States, they point in the direction of a mutual Russian-Gulf wish to enhance relations outside the purview of American interests.

The current state of Egyptian-Russian relations is arguably the best Russia could have with the Arab world—in addition to its influence on and links with Syria. In September 2017, Egypt began receiving deliveries of 50 MIG-29 multirole fighters from Russia worth $3.5 billion, resulting from the deal negotiated by Sisi and Putin in February 2014, even before the former had become president of Egypt. In November 2017, the two countries signed an agreement that allows Russian jets to use Egyptian air bases, in the process putting in question American aircraft and personnel safety in Egypt. If anything, allowing Russian jets access to Egyptian airspace means a radical change in the military relationship that binds the Egyptian armed forces to the Pentagon. Additionally, Russia has inked an agreement with Egypt to build that country’s first nuclear power plant and offered a loan for $25 billion to finance the project. The most recent signing, on October 18, of a “strategic partnership treaty” between the two countries contains a provision for a $7 billion Russian investment in an “industrial park for wood processing and petrochemical plants” In Egypt.

It is doubtful that Russia’s moves and successes mean that it will soon replace the United States as a hegemonic power in the Arab world, but they plainly point to a well-prepared Russian plan to find inroads into an Arab world beset with numerous problems. They also reveal the shortcomings of the Trump Administration in leading a robust diplomatic effort to oppose Russian designs as well as American officials’ nonchalant attitude about US interests in the Middle East. Perhaps most striking is Washington’s neglect of the fact that these Russian successes are in fact triumphs for autocratic rule and rulers, both Russian and Arab. While the Trump Administration has clearly shed any pretense of supporting democracy and human rights issues, including those in the Arab world, one would think that it would pay attention if its raw strategic interests there become threatened. The way things are shaping up today, it appears that the administration is failing vis-à-vis Russia on both counts.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here