Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Russia Is Losing… In The Middle East As Well?

By George Semaan
Since the first day of the Arab action, Russian circles believed that the big change will serve American and European interests in general. Some circles even went as far as promoting the foreign “conspiracy” theory at the level of what happened and is still happening, alluding to the American project to establish the “Great Middle East.” These circles did not need much effort to find evidence proving what the United States has done and is still doing in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Moreover, it is no secret that Washington publicly hastened the departure of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali before that of President Hosni Mubarak, just as it is no secret that coordination exists between it, the military council in Cairo and wide factions among the Egyptian forces and political parties. Furthermore, it is no secret it played a role in protecting the Libyans from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, as well as in their victory over this regime, in addition to the role it has not stopped playing to end the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Certainly, this Russian perception of the Arab action is shortsighted and very far from the real and direct reasons behind the “youth’s” taking to the squares and the streets, just as it is the case with the talk about the revolutions being inspired by the West or America. Moscow knows that the West was as surprised as it was, although its shock was much greater. It also knows that America and Europe were reluctant at first, but soon went along with the action and became involved at the right moment to secure their presence in the events and extend their help to ensure the desired change. Consequently, it is not odd for them to enjoy an influential role in drawing up the features of the future with the new powers, and to agree with them over mutual interests and the ways to maintain them.
Seeing the caution governing Russian diplomacy, it seems clear that Moscow did not absorb the shock which affected it due to this Arab action. It is thus feared that its positions toward the developments in the Arab world will lead to its loss of years of relations with the Middle East if this action were to successfully reach the desired change, but also of its inherited interests since the days of the Soviet Union and the ones established following this camp’s collapse. And while some are putting forward convincing reasons behind Russia’s stand alongside the Syrian regime, what they cannot explain is why it called on the Libyans to join an authority featuring all the sides, including the remnants of the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who is now seeking refuge with the imminence of the revolutionaries’ final victory!
And while there is no convincing explanation for Russia’s position toward what happened and is still happening in Libya, its stand at the Security Council in the face of America and Europe to defend the Syrian regime has more than one reason and consideration. Indeed, there are many old and new calculations. Moscow is not concealing its concerns as it is watching the rise of the Islamic forces and parties, along with their roles on the street. What it probably fears the most – seeing how it is suffering from the violence of the fundamentalist movements in the Caucasus among other locations – is seeing these parties and forces come to power, whether in Egypt, Tunisia or even Libya. What it fears the most is for this to encourage, motivate and support the Islamic powers in the Russian federation and the states still revolving in its space.
Moreover, based on the calculations, Moscow has tried and is still trying – under the control of the Putin-Medvedev duo – to rebuild its foreign spaces, especially in the Middle East, after it lost most of Europe. Hence, after the Annapolis conference, it tried to host a second conference to resolve the Palestinian issue in the hope of regaining a role it lost following the collapse of the Eastern camp. This may be one of the reasons why it stood behind the regime in Damascus, as it realized that Syria constituted and still constitutes a main passageway that cannot be exceeded or ignored in any regional settlement, not to mention its interests in this country which start with the selling of arms and end with the building of the largest naval base in Tartus.
Russia is acting as though the Middle East were the only arena left for it to compete and engage in trade-offs with Europe and America. This is why it is still maneuvering at the level of the Iranian nuclear file and the issue of the missiles deal with Tehran, in order to secure trade-offs with the Islamic Republic at times, and America and Europe at others. Russia knows that its influence has massively retreated in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It has nothing left but to court Europe, even seek its consent, although it appears to be exercising a policy that cannot earn Europe’s or America’s consent, even standing in their face as if it were exercising a double policy or as if the Cold War were still relevant.
For their part, the Americans have competed and are still competing with the Russians in their close space, whether in Central Asia or the Balkans, in addition – of course – to the Eastern and Central European countries which have for the most part become part of the European Union. Moscow believes that the United States has strayed far away from its political, security and military border, and there is no need to recall what happened in Georgia, at the level of the issue of the missiles shield and in other situations. There is also no need to recall the policy that was adopted by President George Bush’s administration, from the attempts to monopolize the management of the world’s affairs to the disregarding of the United Nations’ role in the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, knowing that President Barack Obama’s administration is focusing on partnership in the management of the political and economic crisis, and has chosen more than once to be in the collective picture, if not in the background of the picture. In addition, it is not missing an opportunity to convey its interest in seeing its action and that of NATO enjoying an international cover, i.e. that of the United Nations, which happened at the level of the foreign intervention in Libya and is being attempted in the face of the violence exercised by the Syrian regime against the demonstrators and the protesters.
In the context of the Syrian crisis, Russia may have appeared to be engaged in a confrontation with Turkey that was assigned by the Americans, Europeans and some Arabs to manage this crisis. It is that same Turkey which throughout the Cold War constituted a dam on the Soviets’ southern border, which is competing with Moscow over the resolution of the Iranian file, and which is now seeking to become the main passageway for the Iranian and Asian gas and oil toward Europe, thus endangering a pressure card that was always used by Russia in dealing with the European Union.
Amid all these calculations, Russia perceives China as the one that has managed to suppress the action, just as it was done by Iran following the presidential elections two years ago. It is not unlikely at this level that the Syrian regime will manage to suppress the action, considering it is not threatened by the divisions seen in Libya and Yemen for example. Indeed, the political, security and military institutions in place have not witnessed any action heralding an imminent collapse, at a time when the country did not see any serious regional steps revealing that the capital will lose its authority and control as it was done by Benghazi when it exited Tripoli’s authority. Consequently, both sides are wagering on the other side’s exhaustion in a finger-wrestling match that might go on for a long time.
Russia might be fearful about seeing the winds of the Arab Spring affecting its youth, despite the major differences between the Russian society and the Arab societies. Moreover, many Russians do not conceal their aversion toward drastic change or revolutions, as they believe that the freedom revolution which toppled the communists over two decades ago did not achieve justice and wellbeing. They believe they made a mistake when they moved toward freedom too fast, and that they should have probably adopted the same method as China, which established balance between gradual political reform and economic reform, thus rendering it the second economic bloc after the United States. They thus fear chaos in the Middle East as a result of these drastic changes.
This does not necessarily mean that Russia will be able to oppose America’s and Europe’s wishes and vital interests for long. Around two weeks ago – despite its resistance – it accepted a Security Council presidential statement condemning the violence practiced by the Syrian authorities against the demonstrators. It is likely that it will change its stand if there is room for a trade-off, unless it wants to risk losing the Middle East and its new rising powers just as it lost in its space and in its front and backyards in Asia and Europe.
-This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 29/08/2011
-George Semaan is the former editor-in-chief of al-Hayat

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