It appears that a significant portion of the Washington policy community is dismissing Russia’s Vladimir Putin either as merely a tactician, rather than a strategist, or as President Obama would have it, a fool who has injected his forces into a quagmire. Neither assertion reflects the reality that is Russia’s position in the Middle East today.
While everyone acknowledges that Putin wants to retain Russia’s presence in Syria, few realize that Moscow is in a considerably stronger position in the Middle East than the Soviet Union ever was. Certainly, Syria was not the only friend of Communist Moscow. Saddam Hussein long enjoyed a close relationship with the Soviets, who backed him to the hilt right up to the day the USSR collapsed.
On the other hand, relations with Iran were not particularly close, even after the fall of the overtly anti-Communist Shah. During the course of the Iran-Iraq War, Moscow’s support for Saddam became increasingly overt, with the Soviets eventually providing active support to Iraq until the war’s end in 1989. The Soviet Union’s relations with Egypt were even worse; Anwar Sadat had expelled 20,000 Soviet military advisors in 1972 after which Cairo allied itself firmly with the West. Finally, despite its recognition of Israel soon after it declared independence, Moscow broke off relations with the Jewish state after the 1967 War and never reestablished them during the remaining years of the USSR’s existence.
The situation is far different today. To begin with, Iran and Russia are now Bashar Assad’s primary bulwarks, both of them determined to preserve an Alawi regime, if not Assad himself. Russia maintains its cordial relations with Iraq, which are becoming increasingly stronger as Iraq continues to fall under Tehran’s influence. Russia has strengthened its ties with Egypt, both economically and in what both Putin and the government of President Abdel Fateh al-Sisi call the “fight against terrorism.” The two presidents have exchanged state visits over the past two years.
Lastly, Russia has excellent ties with the most powerful…