September 3, 2015 Special Dispatch No. 6148

'Al-Hayat' Columnist Raghida Dergham On 'Restoring Russian Influence In The Middle East'

September 3, 2015
Special Dispatch No. 6148

In an August 31, 2015 article on, titled "Restoring Russian Influence in the Middle East," Raghida Dergham, who is senior diplomatic correspondent for the Arabic London-based daily Al-Hayat, discussed the developing relations between Russia and the Arab countries. She wrote that the Arabs wish to strengthen their ties with Moscow, despite the barriers created by Russian-Iranian relations, inter alia in order fill the void left by the decline in Arab-U.S. relations. She pointed out, however, that engagement with Russia does not mean that the Arabs will discard their strategic partnership with the U.S.; rather, they should maintain their relations with both partners, while presenting firm positions and demands to both.

Dergham pointed out that the Arabs have understood that neither Russia nor the U.S. are likely to give up their ties with Tehran. However, the Arabs and Russia nevertheless have some goals in common, such as the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood's plans to take power in both the Arab region and in some countries neighboring Russia. Another shared objective is the struggle against ISIS. Based on shared interests and objectives, she argued, it may be possible to enlist Russia's help in addressing some of the burning issues in the region, including the strengthening of Egypt and the containment of the chaos in Libya. Moreover, Russia now seems more open to pursuing new approaches to the solution of the crisis in Syria. Even more importantly, Russia may be persuaded to use its influence over Syria and Iran to help resolve another crisis that is very worrying and must not be neglected - namely the unrest in Lebanon.

The article was first published on August 21, 2015 in Al-Hayat, in Arabic.

Raghida Dergham. Source:

The following is her article, in the original English:[1]

"Russia And The High-Level Arab Leaders Visiting Moscow Want... To Overcome The Barriers Erected By Russian-Iranian Relations... [And To] Fill The Void Left Behind By U.S. President Barack Obama's Policies"

"Among the things both Russia and the high-level Arab leaders visiting Moscow want is developing Arab-Russian relations to overcome the barriers erected by Russian-Iranian relations and the doubts and mistrust they caused; and second, filling the void left behind by U.S. President Barack Obama's policies on the Arab Gulf and Egypt, which have strained US-Arab relations.

"Yet this does not mean that the Gulf nations, Egypt, and Jordan have decided to discard the United States and are about to replace it with Russia as their security partner. The visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz next week to Washington will reaffirm U.S.-Gulf ties [despite] the emerging U.S.-Iranian partnership, launched by the nuclear deal with Tehran - albeit cracks in these ties are hard to conceal. However, the Saudi king's visit must carry firm demands and pressure Washington, which has become too accustomed to seeing its charm convince the Arabs to back down and adapt, or cave in to its demands."

"What Arab Leaders Need To Do Is To Go To Washington And Moscow With Clear Demands And Firm Stances"

"The tango between Arab and Russian leaders will not be enough to make Washington sense something is afoot in its long-held relations with the Arab world. Washington does not likely believe that the Arabs have a full-fledged, viable alternative in Russia. It will not suffice to express artificial acceptance of U.S.-Iranian partnership that confers leading regional role upon Tehran.

"No, what Arab leaders need to do is to go to Washington and Moscow with clear demands and firm stances on major issues like Yemen, which directly impacts Saudi and Gulf national security, and smaller issues like Lebanon's slide into chaos at the instigation of Iran - to avenge Yemen - and with Saudi absence out of preoccupation with Yemen.

"[If left] unresolved, Lebanon's crisis will spawn extremist sectarian forces in both Sunni and Shi'ite iterations, and will re-export them to the Gulf nations.

"Neither Russian engagement nor U.S. isolationism will change the course of events in the Arab region unless Arab leaders make bold decisions and redress past mistakes as part of a new careful plan.

"The pragmatism being shown now by Arab leaders is a good step to counter Iran's realpolitik with Moscow, Washington, and other major capitals. The key Arab visits this week and the visits to follow to Moscow are a sign of a new necessary approach. The starting point is to understand what Moscow wants [to gain] by engaging the Gulf while retaining its alliance with Iran.

The Arabs Have Acknowledged That Neither Russia Nor U.S. Likely To Turn Its Back On Iran

"In part, President Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov want to restore Russia's prestige in the Arab world. The ties with the Arabs were very warm in the Soviet era, including the ties with Egypt. In the present time, Russia's relations with the Arab world went from lukewarm to antagonistic because of Russia's position on Syria and because of doubts surrounding Russia's goals behind its alliance with Iran.

"In the past, Moscow was one of the world's two superpowers closely involved in the region's crises and solutions. Washington would subsequently monopolize sponsorship of the Arab-Israeli peace process, reducing Moscow's role to merely being a part of the international Quartet alongside the EU and the U.N. today.

"Under Putin, Russia is striving to restore Russian influence in the Middle East through new issues, not the Arab-Israeli question. Moscow chose Tehran to be its gateway to the Gulf, while the United States chose to end its traditional relations with the Gulf through the Iranian gateway.

"In other words, the Russian-Iranian relationship will remain a constant no matter what happens to Russian-Arab relations. The Arab leaders must have acknowledged this, as they headed to Moscow to establish new relations. Indeed, previous attempts to coax Russia through various inducements to break with Tehran have now stopped.

"The Arab leaders who went to Moscow recently seem to have made several important conclusions. First, the U.S.-Russian relationship is deeper than otherwise suggested by the differences over Ukraine and alleged differences over Syria. Second, Washington and Moscow both benefit from turning a new leaf with Tehran, and have a lot to gain for their economic, political, oil, and defense industries from the nuclear deal.

Third, there is no Russian-American rivalry over resolving regional crises, and Washington does not mind for Moscow to lead the efforts on Syria or to reach understandings with Tehran over its role in Iraq and Lebanon. Fourth, defeating ISIS has become the main common denominator between Russia and the United States."

"The Other Item On Russia's List Of Priorities Is Fighting Islamic Terrorism Represented By Groups Like ISIS, [Jabhat] Al-Nusra, And Al-Qaeda"

"The Arab presence this week in Moscow was prominent and distinctive. The Russian capital simultaneously received Jordan's King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It is expected that the Saudi King Salman would visit Russia in two months, and the Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani will be in Moscow next month.

"Egypt was perhaps the top issue in the talks in Moscow, especially since the UAE together with Saudi Arabia are determined to support Egypt recover economically and restore its regional and military standing, including by financing Russian arms deals with Egypt. Moscow thus benefits from the Egyptian issue on a number of levels, politically, financially, and militarily, with both Egypt and the Gulf nations.

"Egypt is spearheading the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood's plans to take power in the Arab region, which is consistent with Russia's anti-Islamist policies - though Russia does not seem to mind the theocracy in Tehran and is practically allied to Hezbollah alongside the regime in Syria. Essentially, Moscow fears allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to rise to power in Muslim republics with borders with Russia, which would then give Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who backs the Muslim Brotherhood, strategic cards.

"The other item on Russia's list of priorities is fighting Islamic terrorism represented by groups like ISIS, [Jabhat] Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda. 

"However, there are multiple and often-conflicting agendas under this title, in what is a remarkable ambiguity shrouding the positions of Moscow, Washington, London, Ankara, and Arab capitals. In Libya, for instance, the backyard of both Egypt and Europe beyond it, the international decision to allow chaos, extremism to continue without showing considerable concern or taking measures to rein in the situation is astonishing.

"With the Libyan model of international indifference in mind, the developments in Lebanon are troubling, and there is legitimate concern regarding the implications and repercussions of regional and international inaction."

"Neither Washington Nor Riyadh Care Much About The Situation In Lebanon"

"It is clear, for example, that neither Washington nor Riyadh care much about the situation in Lebanon. The opposite is true, with U.S. and Saudi withdrawal from Lebanon, despite the risk its collapse would carry for the Gulf countries. Other Gulf countries are aware of the danger of disengaging from Lebanon, and their diplomats are taking action to head off a vacuum there that would leave the country open to the agenda of Iran's hardliners and hawks.

"But this does not change anything with regard to the responsibility of the countries traditionally active in Lebanon. It is important for U.S.-Saudi high-level talks in Washington next week to demand Iran to prove its good faith in Lebanon and to push for both the United States and Saudi Arabia to steer this country towards building institutions and reforming the dominant political class.

"Corruption has become a disgrace for most in this class, and the slogan 'You Stink' [in Lebanon] has exposed scandals beyond the garbage crisis. It would be a grave mistake for regional and international powers to ignore Lebanon. Lebanon is in a critical crisis that requires the United States and Russia to influence the Iranian policy on Lebanon, and requires serious Arab efforts and follow-up of Lebanese and not just Syrian developments."

"Moscow Is Open To Overcoming Tension And Estrangement With The Gulf Over Syria"

"The Syria issue dominates the priorities of Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. For this reason, the leaders of these capitals have taken the Syrian issue to Moscow and Washington, looking for ways to reach accords. Moscow is open to overcoming tension and estrangement with the Gulf over Syria through trade and arms deals in addition to joint ventures in nuclear energy and other sectors.

"Moscow is moving in this direction not just on account of its geopolitical priorities and economic and military opportunities. Another reason is what was mentioned by Al-Hayat's reporter in Moscow Raed Jabr, who quoted political analysts as saying Russia is seeking to have a major role in resolving regional crises, especially [the one in] Syria. 'Another reason is 'rearranging Russian agendas in the region, and opening new horizons to preempt a possible loss in Syria, as well as responding to new realities following the nuclear deal with Tehran.'

"Political realism has thus made its way to many capitals, based on loss and benefit accounts. What matters is for the indifference not to continue and destroy more Arab countries, after Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. Only this way can good faith be proven in this new realpolitik."





[1] The text has been lightly edited based on the Arabic version of the article.

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