Monday, January 2, 2017

The Middle East now looks to Moscow - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Two significant events last week illustrated more than anything that Russia is the new adult in the room and, befitting of the status, is conducting affairs in a responsible fashion.

Ahead of the new American administration's upcoming inauguration, the Middle East has been busy making preparations to welcome the new sheriff in town. No, this does not necessarily mean Donald Trump, the newly elected U.S. president, rather Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been able to exploit the mistakes and failures, and mainly the displays of weakness of the Obama administration to replace the U.S. as the preeminent superpower in our region.

Two significant events last week illustrated more than anything that Russia is the new adult in the room and, befitting of the status, is conducting affairs in a responsible fashion. Meanwhile, the U.S. is increasingly being pushed aside over its childish, emotional, and outright pathetic conduct.

On the eve of the new year, Russia has managed to strike a cease-fire deal in Syria, signed by most of the players fighting there, among them Iran and Turkey, but also the Syrian regime and the majority of rebel groups. It's quite possible the budding arrangement is unjust; it certainly won't bring liberty and democracy to those millions of Syrians rose up against Bashar Assad's regime. It is also clear that without Russian military intervention and without its methodical bombardment of large swathes of the country, Moscow would not have arrived at its intended results -- breaking the rebels' morale and securing the existence of a Syrian state, with Assad ruling over a considerable portion. The fact is, however, that Russia was willing to act decisively and aggressively, flex its muscles, and use military force -- something the Americans avoided.

In doing so, the Russians showed that unlike the Americans they were committed to their friends and allies, and were prepared, without hesitation or reckoning, to protect them in international bodies and on the ground.

Russia, however, did more than simply exert its military power; it prudently held dialogue with the adversary -- Turkey and the rebels -- showing restraint and willingness to compromise at the crucial junction, just when Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria, appeared on the verge of falling to the regime. While the cease-fire agreement does not yet signal the end of the war, it is undoubtedly an important step in that direction. And it was achieved, incidentally, without Washington but with its ally Turkey, which felt safer pinning its hopes on Putin than on U.S. President Barack Obama.

Russia was also active in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, much like it was in Egypt, in an effort to save the U.S. from itself. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a dejected U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia would not be dragged into taking childish, unhelpful measures that could possibly pose future obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In their handling of the Middle East, it appears the Russians are approaching the magnitude of the responsibility with the appropriate modicum of maturity and good judgment. When the region served as boxing ring between Moscow and Washington, the Russians were belligerent, defiant and uncompromising. Now that the U.S. has faded away, the Russians have proceeded with prudence, an appreciation for the region's complexities and with an understanding of the problems facing it.

Finally, even in the cyberwar between Washington and Moscow, Putin chose to sidestep a clash whose entire purpose, at least from Obama's perspective, was retaliation for the U.S. election results and to ensnare the Trump administration in a public and unnecessary conflict with the Russians.

On January 20, a new boss, Donald Trump, will enter the White House, determined to fix Obama's mistakes and return America to greatness. Trump, however, is liable to find that the damage to America's standing in the region is unfixable, and that the undisputed facts on the ground, created by Putin in his exploitation of American weakness, will be hard to change.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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