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Russia ascendant in the Middle East

Rouhani, Putin, and Erdogan standing in front of national flags
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) in Sochi, Russia, last November. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

Russia has cultivated close ties with all the major players in the Middle East and looks likely to have more influence over events in the region than a diplomatically challenged and militarily wary United States.

The region's powers, all keenly interested in the outcome of the Syrian civil war, have consulted closely with Moscow over a potential political settlement and grown closer to the Russians in other ways:

  • Turkey, which looks less and less like a NATO ally by the day, checked with Moscow before attacking U.S. Kurdish allies in northern Syria and is buying surface-to-air missiles from Russia.
  • Saudi Arabia, despite closer ties with Trump than with his predecessor, has also hedged its bets; Russian pension funds are reportedly considering investing in the Saudi oil giant, Aramco, as a way of cementing ties between two key oil producers.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who just gave a rapturous welcome to Vice President Mike Pence in Israel and met with Trump in Davos — talks frequently to Vladimir Putin about Syria and other matters.
  • Iran and Russia have cooperated to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power.

The bottom line: The Trump administration has announced that it will retain a small contingent of troops in Syria — enough to deal with the remnants of the Islamic State but not to dictate the country’s future or even safeguard the Kurds. If the U.S. has a diplomatic endgame and a means to achieve it, it is keeping the details to itself. So for now, Russia is in the lead.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

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