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Russia is no ally for the Arabs

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Although some Arabs are fantasising about it, a major alliance with Russia is unwise both morally and practically

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

By Hussein Ibish, Now.

It’s crucial that the Arabs take note of what has just transpired in Ukraine. Russia, that supposedly mighty power, could not control political events on its own doorstep, and in a country that is very much part of its traditional sphere of influence.

Russia is frequently cited in some Arab discourse as an alternative to the United States as a chief ally, arms supplier, guarantor, stabilising force, and new regional power among those who are, for whatever reason, fed up with the United States. There is much talk by some about “seeking alternatives”. When pressed, the first thing that tends to come up as such an alternative is Russia.

But if Russia cannot successfully project its political will across its border into Ukraine, how could anyone expect it to play a decisive role in the Middle East? Does anyone really imagine that Russia has the capability to project its power into, for example, the Gulf region? The once-mighty Soviet naval fleet has given way to a Russian “Admiralty” featuring one lone and rather decrepit aircraft carrier.

This is not to mention that most key Arab allies of the United States have weapons systems and military structures that are deeply invested in American products, services, and technology. Not only are these generally superior: switching to another main supplier would take years and cost a huge amount of money.

This isn’t to say that Russia is entirely ineffective in the Middle East, of course. On the contrary, it has picked its battle, and it has been horrifyingly effective in one narrow project: its committed campaign to maintain and protect, at all costs, the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

As their clients were collapsing in Kiev, the Kremlin’s diplomats were working overtime at the United Nations Security Council to water down the “humanitarian aid” resolution that passed over the weekend. After having long opposed many drafts of it, the Russians said they were happy to vote for the version that was actually adopted. Of course they were. It creates a moral and practical equivalency between the regime and the opposition with regard to impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid, which completely elides the reality that the Syrian government is far more culpable than opposition groups. And, crucially, it omitted any language about repercussions if one or more sides in the conflict continue to obstruct humanitarian aid, the evacuation of civilians, and other such fundamental moral imperatives.

So it is a toothless, and largely meaningless, resolution of generalised goodwill that will have no impact because everyone who is violating the rights of ordinary Syrian people and targeting civilians by denying them food, medicine, and humanitarian assistance and refusing to allow them to leave battle zones will continue to do so without fear of interruption or consequences. And the primary force doing that – and will therefore continue, and if necessary increase, these barbaric practices – is the regime in Damascus.

Assad has no reason to fear such empty rhetoric, because his allies in Hezbollah, Iran, and, above all, Moscow are committed to protecting his rule. It’s mind-boggling that any Arabs who profess to feel a sense of moral outrage about the viciousness of the Damascus dictatorship could consider Russia, its primary sponsor, a potential ally of their own.

So the whole notion of a new Arab-Russian entente is practically deficient and morally indefensible. Russia cannot supply the Arabs with what they need, except in the limited case of Assad, of all people. And the role it’s playing in Syria ought to make Russia unacceptable as a potential Arab ally, even if it could.

All of the talk about the old alliance between the United States and its major Arab allies being moribund or in its death throes is not only exaggerated, it is reckless and irresponsible. The Americans and the Arab states still need each other as much, if not more, than ever.

Just as Russia cannot supply the Arabs with what they need in spite of some people’s hopes, Iran similarly cannot provide the Americans, and the rest of the world, with the basis for an accommodation that ensures – to list only the single most important of its aspects – Gulf security.

Arab states might continue to flirt with Russia, and the Americans with Iran. But the great US-Arab “divorce” is simply implausible for both sides. Both parties may feel the other has “cheated on them”, but there’s still a metaphorical house, children, and pets that must be looked after. The “alternatives” to both can’t meet either of their basic needs.

The “marriage” of the US-Arab strategic relationship will continue because, sooner rather than later, both will conclude that any alternative is less attractive and satisfactory than what they have built together over the decades.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

This article was originally published on Now.


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