Critics in the U.S. who worry about Russia’s growing presence in the Middle East should take a closer look at Russia’s underlying interests and motives in the region.

L-R: U.S. President Barack Obama, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP

The agreement between the U.S. and Russia regarding the eventual surrender and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons has been a cause of consternation among foreign policy analysts from across the ideological spectrum. Writing in The National Interest, professors Tom Nichols and John Schindler called it “one of the worst defeats for U.S. foreign policy in decades.” Similar criticisms have appeared in the conservative National Review and the left-leaning New Republic.

Critics of the plan invariably complain that the deal signals Russia’s ascendancy as the primary power broker in the region and lament what they view as America’s precipitous decline. Yet, there are several questionable assertions and assumptions at play in these critiques and they deserve examination.

The principal objection is that, by forgoing a unilateral military strike in favor of a Russian proposal over chemical weapons, the U.S. has perhaps permanently undermined its position in the region. Not since former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ushered the Soviets out of Egypt in 1973 has the Russian government had a significant foothold in the region, and by opening the door to them now, the argument goes, the U.S. has undermined both its credibility and the security of its allies.

This argument is reminiscent of the claims made by Cold War-era neoconservatives who panicked when they perceived Soviet ascendency in remote and strategically unimportant countries like Angola or the Congo, all the while losing sight of the rather more salient fact that the whole of Western Europe, the British Commonwealth, Japan, Turkey, and China (after the border clashes with the USSR in 1969) were in the anti-Soviet camp. Well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Now, twenty plus years after the end of the Cold War, Russia can be said to have a client state in Syria, but surely the same cannot be said of the other major players in the region, with Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan much more firmly in the U.S. camp.

Many liberal and neoconservative critics, while no doubt chagrined that a shooting war involving the U.S. and Syria did not develop, also seem to assume that Russia’s motives are malign. They fear that Russia supports Assad for fear of losing the naval base at Tartus; it supports Assad because of the money brought in from arms sales; it supports Assad because it has a preternatural affinity for authoritarian dictators. In point of fact, what drives Russia is the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nation-states, which, until rather recently, had been a staple of Western diplomacy going as far back as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, the Russian leadership has witnessed the fruits of America’s unilateral adventures over the past fifteen years and sees the resulting destabilization as contributing to the national security threat on its southern border. It can also only too easily picture confronting dilemmas similar to those faced by several Middle Eastern and North African governments during the so-called “Arab Spring.”

And so Russia has been remarkably consistent when it comes to issues of national sovereignty. Since the end of the Cold War, it only once launched a unilateral military intervention against another country. And, in the case of Russo-Georgian War of 2008, Russia may have provoked it - but it didn’t fire the first shot.

Fears of a Russian-dominated Middle East are likewise exaggerated because there is little to suggest that, as now constituted, the Russian military has the requisite projection capabilities to truly be a force in the region. And if they did, it would be a feat of imagination to suggest that such a move would be welcomed by any Middle Eastern state outside of Syria.

Further, whether the U.S. position in the Middle East as currently configured is actually beneficial to its national security is a question that the pro-interventionists also rarely take the time to confront. What, it might reasonably be asked, has the U.S. gained from its decades-long involvement there? What, more to the point, has it lost in terms of blood, treasure, and reputation?

While it is unlikely Russia is poised to become the dominant power in the region, it may be worth pondering what sort of constructive role it might play going forward.

A policy of accommodation with Russia in the Middle East should not be dismissed out of hand for several reasons. First, the Obama administration has made a ‘pivot to Asia’ one of its top strategic priorities. If it is to have any chance of success at all, it would be advisable to first shore up Eurasia’s western flank. A foreign policy emphasizing Asia would no doubt become seriously overtaxed if it also had to confront a restless and revisionist Russia and a still-turbulent Middle East. To extend Russia a hand in partnership – and more importantly – a hand in burden-sharing would seem to make sense in this context.

Secondly, the U.S. and Russia have very clear mutual security concerns. The potential vulnerability of the 2014 Olympic Games to terrorism, given their location in Sochi, is a concern to both countries, as are the threats posed by radical Islamist groups in the region. Russia and the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are also understandably concerned about the fate of Afghanistan after allied forces withdraw at the end of 2014. Would it not be in the interests of the region as a whole for the U.S. and Russia to come to a modus vivendi before the clock runs out?

A final consideration is the ever elusive final settlement between Israel and Palestine. In the 1990s, nearly one million Russians moved to Israel after the USSR collapsed and emigration restrictions liberalized. As a result, today Russians comprise 15 percent of a population of eight million. They are, generally, right-leaning voters who support parties not terribly inclined to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Yet, their strong cultural and emotional attachment to their country of origin may well point to a role for Russia to play in the ongoing peace process.

So, while fears of a Russian-dominated Middle East are not particularly well founded, a more active, constructive role on the part of the Russian government would not necessarily be anathema to American interests in the region, despite numerous claims to the contrary.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.