By George Semaan
By George Semaan
September 12, 2011
The position of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was clear following Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s departure and Hosni Mubarak’s fall. He warned against the rise of the Islamic extremists to power as the successors of the collapsing regimes. He believes, as do other circles inside the Kremlin, that the Arab action was instigated by these Islamists and by American hands, seeing how Washington is currently playing the role of the sponsor of the change from Tunisia to Cairo, although it let Europe occupy the forefront of the events in Libya. Still, Moscow is not disregarding the real reasons behind this action, from the oppression of the regimes to corruption and the absence of freedoms and human rights.
Moscow was as surprised as many others by the eruption of the Arab streets and squares, but its reaction was not as fast as the fire. It thus adopted anticipation, caution and reluctance, at a time when America and Europe realized early on they could not stand in the face of the Arab action. They quickly extended a network of political and economic relations with the rising elite, while the G8 states pledged two days ago to offer $38 billion to Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan between 2011 and 2013. In the meantime, they are trying to manage the transitional phase in Libya, and acting toward Syria based on the fact that the regime over there can no longer contain the situation on the ground, secure reconciliation with the protesters and the demonstrators, and meet their long list of reformatory demands. Hence, they are trying to blockade the regime and demand its departure, whereas Russian diplomacy is still holding on to it and might find itself outside the arena if the desired change were to occur in the country.
Russia is still unable to exit the past and the complex of Western advancement following the collapse of the Socialist camp. It does not want to forget that President George Bush’s administration had offered the major industrial states at the beginning of the nineties, a project to spread democracy in the “Great Middle East.” At the time, it was not pleased with this project which it perceived as being an attempt to establish an environment that would maintain the American interests in the face of the Russians and the Chinese, rather than provide democracy to the people of the region. And while Beijing is not sufficiently interested in the region – although it imports twice as much oil from Saudi Arabia than it does from Iran and Africa – Russia has historical interests in the Middle East. These interests were the reason behind wars and skirmishes since the days of the Ottoman Empire, which blamed it for mobilizing the Christian minorities to undermine and weaken Istanbul’s authority.
But Russia is not going far with its fear over the rise of the extremists, seeing how there is the possibility it might face a “spring” similar to the one in the neighboring region. Indeed, the rise of the Islamists to power in more than one Arab country will impose drastic changes in the “Great Middle East” and might encourage its Muslim citizens to act. They are not few and exceed 20 million in a multiracial, ethnical and religious federation that is prone to witness dissolution, and even division! At this level, and for decades now, Washington has not stopped calling on Moscow and Beijing to respect human rights and enhance democracy and freedom, which is bothering the two countries that perceive these calls as being an interference in their internal affairs and an obstruction of the development of bilateral relations between them.
Certainly, Russia’s fears are not limited to the rise of the extremists in the region, in light of its old fears over this American and North Atlantic march that has not stopped trying to besiege it since the fall of the Soviet Union. It believes that America will vacate Iraq but will leave behind a military base that will provide it with a political and strategic position, and will try to control the political, military and oil sectors in the country. Moreover, it will constitute a pressure tool against China and the rising states in Eastern Asia and the Indian Continent, through its control of the direction, investments and prices of this oil. And if the United States is able to build exceptional relations with the new regimes in the Arab world and if it is able to ensure a settlement with the Islamic Republic, taking into consideration the joint interests with the people of the region from Afghanistan to the Gulf, then it will facilitate the emergence of a wide “Islamic cover” that would constitute a dam in the face of both the Chinese and Russian influences.
This is not to mention Pakistan’s role which played the biggest part in leading the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the new role played by Turkey in the context of the missile shield after it hosted a few days ago an early warning radar for Korean and Iranian missiles among others. Moscow has always opposed the deployment of such shields in the former Soviet Union states and had to enter Georgia and take away “two mini states” (Ossetia and Abkhazia) from it to confront them. However, it was unable to prevent the installation of this military project near its Southern border which always blocked its progress toward the warm waters.
This conflict over the shores of the Arabs and the Great Middle East is part of the conflict of the great powers over hegemony throughout the globes. It is known that Japan’s and America’s relations with China and Russia are governed by some tensions due to the dispute surrounding the settlement of the Korean crisis, the resolution of the problem of the Kuril Islands and the competition over the China Sea, while Beijing is not concealing its relief toward Moscow’s positions in the face of the alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. In the meantime, these tensions are affecting more than one area, as the United States is trying to maintain its control and strategic, economic and military influence in the face of China’s growing rise and spread even in Africa. Two months ago, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thus warned the Dark Continent against the “new colonialism,” in reference to Beijing’s expansion of its relations and interests there.
And while Russia is expressing more solidarity with China and letting it handle the affairs of the Far East, it cannot take any risks in the Middle East where it enjoys a long history of military, economic and cultural relations. Hence its interest in protecting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Looking at the Syrian crisis, it is well aware of the fact that any change in the country will bring to power groups that are grateful to Turkey, which has hosted and is still hosting the opposition and has announced its public bias in favor of the oppositionists against Al-Assad’s regime.
But what is alarming Russia beyond the situation in Syria is the steady return of Ankara to the Middle East from which it was ousted following World War I. What is concerning it even further is Turkey’s attempt to become the main passageway for Iran’s oil and gas and for Central Asia’s oil from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Europe. Russia does not want to see any competitor on the European markets, especially one capable of divesting it of a vital card in the context of any “trade-off” with the European Union, as it needs good relations with this Union and its aid to develop its economy and revive its markets, not to mention its dream of restoring the say it enjoyed in the Old Continent.
Russia was never reassured about this race between Iran and Turkey over the succession of the Soviets in Central Asia’s republics, and never liked the role played by Ankara in the Balkans. Consequently, it will not like the reconstruction of the bridges with Armenia, after Azerbaijan and other Caucasus states, and is not happy to see Turkey monopolizing the Palestinian card through its open war with Israel. This is due to the fact that before the eruption of the domestic action in it, Syria constituted a necessary passageway for any settlement of the Palestinian cause and whatever is left of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Moscow relied on Damascus’ positions to enhance its role at this level. Russia is rejecting and stalling at the level of the development of the Islamic Republic’s capabilities, so how can it be reassured about the rise of Turkey that is governed by the Justice and Development Party? But on top of it all, it does not wish to lose the Tartus Port, the harbor of the Russian Navy in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea.
On the opposite end of America’s and Europe’s pragmatism in dealing with the Arab action to maintain their strategic interests in the region, Russia is dreaming about restoring a bygone history by trying to stop the wheel of time! Does it truly have the ability to reproduce the extinct Soviet experience? Its positions toward the Arab action were reluctant and often featured contradictions. This is what happened at the level of the revolution in Libya and what is happening in Syria, as head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Russian Federation Council Mikhail Margelov said that President Al-Assad “through the bloody oppression, rendered it hard to find a political settlement for the situation.” This was a few weeks ago. But yesterday, he called on the opposition’s delegation to engage in dialogue with the regime to settle the crisis! And after President Medvedev himself warned against a “sad fate” for President Al-Assad, he is now rejecting any attempt to undermine the regime and Syria’s stability! Moscow does not want to repeat the “Libyan mistake” and is announcing it clearly. So, will it correct the mistake in Syria or commit another one?