Four years ago, my colleagues Tom Nichols and John Schindler warned that U.S. fecklessness in the Middle East was creating conditions where Russia would be able to emerge as the key player in regional security. In responding to critics of their original article, they penned a follow-up days later that laid out the Russian strategy: to present Moscow as a “viable alternative partner” for the states of the region. At the time, they were roundly criticized for their apparent pessimistic assessment that a collapsing “regional power” would be able to diminish the influence of the world’s sole remaining superpower in the Middle East or even that Moscow would have anything it could offer to compete with Washington’s largesse.
Yet events since then have validated their assessments. The Russian hand is visible everywhere in the Middle East. Moscow is presiding over the effort to tap down the Syrian civil war and establish the deconfliction zones between the various factions and their outside patrons. Russia has inserted itself into the volatile Kurdish issue—both with regards to any Kurdish zone in Syria vis-a-vis Turkey and the efforts to clarify a final status between Iraqi Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad. Russia has played a major role in sustaining the Iran-Iraq-Syria “Shi’a Crescent” but also is involved in direct talks with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates on how to maintain a fragile balance of power in the region. Egypt and Israel both now have their own lines of communication with the Kremlin and see Vladimir Putin as a more reliable statesman who does what he says and follows through on his commitments. This assessment is also apparently shared by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seems prepared to forge a new strategic axis with Russia on energy, Eurasian security and the future alignment of the Middle East. Moscow has hosted meetings of the various Libyan factions, Palestinian political parties, Kurdish representatives and members of the Syrian opposition, and Middle Eastern leaders regularly make the journey to Moscow to confer with the Kremlin.