New Cold War will hinder US-Russian cooperation in Middle East

August 13, 2017

Deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia are likely to complicate whatever coopera­tion existed between the two countries in the Middle East.

Despite US President Donald Trump’s professed desire for better relations with Russia, the relation­ship between the two countries has worsened since his election. The US Congress, upset over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and Moscow’s behaviour in Crimea and Syria, included Russia along with Iran and North Korea in comprehen­sive sanctions legislation. The bill passed overwhelmingly in Con­gress, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to order the expul­sion of hundreds of US diplomatic staff from his country.

Trump was opposed to the sanc­tions bill partly because he believed it treaded on presidential pow­ers and partly because he did not want to make relations with Russia more difficult than they already were. Nonetheless, he signed the bill, which he labelled “seriously flawed” and “unconstitutional,” because he knew that Congress would have enough votes to over­ride a veto. That would have further embarrassed Trump after a series of White House foibles.

Earlier this year, Trump declared that it would be “great” if the Unit­ed States and Russia cooperated in Syria to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). Although the United States and Russia have cooperated in Syria on some matters — such as bringing about a ceasefire in south-western Syria and pursuing “de-confliction” between US and Russian militaries to avoid clashes — the deterioration of relations is likely to complicate policy in Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

The Russians, by backing Iran and Syria, do not have good relations with much of the Arab world except for Egypt. Many Sunni Arab coun­tries, led by Saudi Arabia, see Iran as engaging in destabilis­ing proxy wars in the region and fomenting trouble among Shia populations. Because the Russians are strong backers of the Assad regime, which the Saudis want removed sooner rather than later, Moscow continues to be viewed suspi­ciously by Riyadh and others.

Nonetheless, Putin has vari­ous cards he can play to put the United States in an increasingly difficult position in the Middle East. He can deepen relations with Iran and provide Tehran with more sophisticated military hardware, for example. While Iran and Russia historically have had troubled relations, Ayatollah Ruhol­lah Khomeini often referred to the Soviet Union as the “Little Satan” but the two countries have tempo­rarily put aside these differences in their desire to obstruct US policies.

On Syria, Putin is not likely to provoke the United States into a military clash but he may resist co­operation with it on political issues. He may facilitate an even more substantial Iranian role in Syria and not use his influence to change the Assad government as the Syrian opposition is demanding and that would be necessary for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Concern about Russia’s ties with Iran and Syria were underscored by Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who, in an inter­view August 6, criticised Moscow’s role in the Syrian civil war and its support for Iranian objectives in the region.

Commentators have said that Putin was not particularly wed­ded to Syrian President Bashar Assad and that Putin’s goal was to maintain Russia’s important naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean and a friendly relationship with the government in Damascus.

Putin may put aside thoughts about a political solution for Syria and more fully back Assad in his desire to retake more of the country from the rebels, which would likely compound the misery the Syrian people are facing.

Both Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have indicated that they would like to cooperate with Russia. Trump, in a statement issued immediately after the signing of the sanctions bill, said he hoped there would be “coopera­tion between our two countries on major global issues” so that such sanctions would no longer be nec­essary. Tillerson, speaking at the State Department, said he believed Russia and the United States “still can cooperate on Syria and coun­terterrorism.” After meeting with Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a confer­ence in the Philippines, Tillerson said: “We want to work with them [the Russians] on areas that are of serious national security to us.”

However, there seems to be a reassessment of Trump within the Russian political hierarchy. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in a Facebook post, said that any hope by Russia for improved relations with the United States had “ended.”

Medvedev described the Trump administra­tion as showing “its total weakness” by signing the sanctions bill. This latter comment is especially troubling because Russia may now be more will­ing to take risks in the Middle East, believing that a politically weakened Trump may not be in a strong enough position to check Russian activities. That, indeed, is a trou­bling thought in an unstable region.