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Note: I have written a different and complementary article for Pajamas Media, "Syria, Iran, and Turkey Openly Defy Obama, as Russia Regains Mideast Influence," that looks at the wider strategic implications of the events discussed below. I suggest, if you want, you look at the article below first on the immediate developments and then the other one afterward for the longer-term implications. You can read it here.
By Barry Rubin
If America's Middle East position collapses in the forest will anyone hear it? The answer is either: apparently no, or just barely. As I've predicted Russia is coming back into the region and it is going to play a very bad role. Moscow is linking up with the emerging Islamist alliance of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration praises Russia for allegedly supporting sanctions against Iran. Russian support, at best, consists of throwing a bucket of fluid over the sanctions' plan to water it down.
[Don't miss the amazing Russian statement cited at the end of this article.]
Back in the real world--the Middle East, not Washington discussions--let's begin with Syria. The Obama Administration says it is going to pull away Syria from Iran, but the two countries are coming closer together. Syria's open goal is to pull the United States away from Israel, but meanwhile Syria is finding still another ally to back its ambitions.The recent visit of Russia's President Medvedev with a huge entourage was a major step toward reestablishing the old Soviet-Syria relationship. There were broad economic talks, including the possibility of Russia building a nuclear reactor for the Syrian dictatorship.
According to Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Russian parliamentary foreign liaison committee, quoted in the Syrian newspaper Tishrin, May 12, the visit, "Is a clear indication to everyone in the Middle East region and on the regional and international level that Syria was and will remain a strategic partner to Russia...." This includes a new round of arms' sales to Syria, which presumably will be paid for largely by Iran.
Even if the alliance remains limited, it will further encourage Iran and Syria to be covertly aggressive and hard line while sending still another signal to moderate Arabs that America is on its way down. Clearly, Russia's refusal to support more sanctions on Iran in any serious manner is part of this calculation.
Is it a problem for Russia that it faces internal Islamist terrorism but is aligning with Islamist forces? No, not at all. Iran has been careful not to back these revolutionaries in the north Caucasus. Iran even joins Russia in following a policy of supporting Christian Armenia against Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. By working with the Iranians Russia is reducing the possibility that they will support Islamist rebels against Moscow.
As in so many cases, this strategic factor appears nowhere on the administration's horizon.
Then there's Medvedev's visit to the newest member of the anti-American Islamist alliance: Turkey. In a joint statement the two countries' leaders said that Hamas should be part of any regional negotiations. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, a hardline Islamist who was so feared that he had to promise before the last parliamentary election not to be a candidate for president. His AKP party won and within a few hours Gul was stepping into that office.
Gul explained in his joint press conference with Medvedev, who said the same exact thing: "Unfortunately Palestinians have been split into two... In order to reunite them, you have to speak to both sides. Hamas won elections in Gaza and cannot be ignored."
What Gul wants--and Medvedev?--is that Hamas dominate the Palestinian unity arrangement. Consider that two sides are competing for leadership of a people. One of them is fanatical, extremist, terrorist, committed to permanent warfare and genocide. The other isn't exactly wonderful but is, at least at present, somewhere in the ballpark of being peaceable and reasonable.
So the ideal solution is to put them together and let them reach a common program? Not exactly. As for the "elected" argument, it is a matter of public record that Hamas won the election, made a deal for a coalition government, and then staged a violent coup to seize full power in the Gaza Strip.
Oh, did I mention that Russia is talking about building nuclear reactors for both Turkey and Syria?
Russia's bid for renewed power in the Middle East as a rival to U.S. goals and interests is one more thing that U.S. policy is simply not prepared to cope with, or even recognize. Will Russia align itself to a large extent with Iran and Syria to counter U.S. influence in the region and give itself special access to key trading partners? For if Moscow teams up with the radical Islamist alliance, especially after Tehran has nuclear weapons, this is going to worsen considerably an already gloomy strategic picture for the West.
But on top of all that, Russian Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov made an incredible statement that should send shock waves through U.S. policymaking circles. In calling on the United States not to take "any unilateral step against Iran," Lavrov is trying to restrict American pressures to what Moscow is willing to accept. In other words, he is acting as Iran's lawyer to tie America's hands.
Then he added that there were some people in Washington who do not believe international legislation takes precedence over legislation passed by the United States. In other words, he is asserting a new doctrine in which, in effect, the UN is a world government and the United States has no right to act on its own without approval.
The Obama Administration should act quickly to reject this doctrine. This is a trap that the administration's own policy has helped to lay by saying it doesn't believe in strong U.S. leadership. The proposed precedent would institutionalize that limitation in a way that is going to be very harmful in future.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.