The authoritarian status quo in the Middle East
Ever since coming to power at the turn of the century, Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the status quo in the Middle East. He has backed the region’s existing governments, whether authoritarian or democratic, whether anti-Western or pro-Western. Putin has been willing to work and make deals with them all. What he has opposed is the forcible downfall of authoritarian regimes by external or internal forces demanding democratisation.
Putin’s policy stands in stark contrast to that of former US president George W. Bush, whose administration intervened militarily to oust Russia’s friend, Saddam Hussein, in Iraq and called for the democratisation of the greater Middle East and of US President Barack Obama, who supported most of the “Arab spring” revolutions against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The result was considerable animosity between Washington and Moscow over the Middle East.
US President-elect Donald Trump, however, appears to have no interest in promoting democracy in the Middle East and has expressed sympathy with Putin’s view that the Assad regime in Syria is more acceptable than any replacement regime, which would likely be both anti-Western and anti-Russian and not at all democratic.
Trump sees Putin as a partner in Syria and both men appear to see eye-to-eye with certain other regional leaders as well. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken great offence at Obama’s criticism of his curtailment of democracy and human rights, while valuing Putin for supporting him. Sisi expects Trump to do so as well.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has had a notoriously bad relationship with Obama but quite positive relations with Putin. As long as Iran is present in Syria, Israel prefers that Russian forces are there as a check on Tehran. The Trump-Netanyahu relationship will almost certainly be much warmer than the Obama- Netanyahu one.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had friendlier relations with Putin than with either Bush, due to US support for Iraqi Kurds, or Obama, who supports the Syrian Kurds. After overcoming the crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian plane on the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015, Erdogan’s ties to Putin have improved. Like Putin, Trump seems much more understanding of Erdogan’s crackdown than Obama has been.
The Gulf Arab states were unhappy with Bush for intervening in Iraq in 2003 and upsetting the Middle East’s authoritarian order and with Obama for doing the same by withdrawing from Iraq in 2011. They also feared Obama’s push for a nuclear accord with Iran. Despite their differences over Syria and Iran, the Gulf Arabs value Putin’s actual and Trump’s anticipated respect for the existing order on the Arabian Peninsula. They are also happy that Trump is far more hostile towards Iran than Obama is.
Some Gulf Arab states agree with Israel that they are better off with Russian forces in Syria keeping the Iranians in check; they may even come to accept Moscow’s argument that having Bashar Assad as president of Syria is better than the most likely alternative.
With Putin and Trump willing to cooperate with each other and the authoritarian leaders of the region, it is possible that the Middle East may move away from the turmoil it has experienced during the Bush and Obama administrations towards an era of authoritarian stability.
Of course, not all Middle East conflicts will disappear even under these circumstances. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict, Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the challenge of Kurdish nationalism, among others, remain. However, with most external powers unwilling to help the Palestinians, Israel will retain the upper hand. If Turkish-Russian relations continue to improve and Trump and Putin do cooperate on Syria, it is possible that external assistance to Syrian Kurds will decline.
Finally, Saudi military exhaustion in Yemen combined with reassurance that Trump will take a harder line towards Iran may result in Riyadh seeking to ratchet down its conflict with Tehran.
How Iran will react to this new situation is unclear but an improved Russian-US relationship under Trump may make Putin more willing to cooperate in restraining hostile Iranian actions.
So, could the Middle East actually become more peaceful with improved Russian-US relations as both Moscow and Washington support the region’s authoritarian order?
Maybe but, then again, maybe not. The trouble with authoritarian leaders, as the Putin-Erdogan falling out in November 2015 showed, is that their relationships can deteriorate very rapidly when they disagree.
Another factor is that leaders, whether authoritarian or democratic, who behave confrontationally instead of reassuringly are highly likely to disagree. Putin and Trump, for example, want to get along with each other now but this desire might not survive a major (or even a minor) disagreement.
Nor must it be forgotten that authoritarian regimes may be stable for a long time but suddenly become unstable, as the “Arab spring” uprisings showed.
There is no guarantee, then, that a peaceful authoritarian order can be maintained in the Middle East even if Trump and Putin cooperate with each other in supporting it but even more so if they do not.