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PUTIN’S

MIDDLE
EAST
DREAM
BY OWEN MATTHEWS, JACK MOORE AND DAMIEN SHARKOV

Kicked out of the Middle East after
the Cold War, the Kremlin has
clawed its way back—at the expense
of American power and prestige
NEWSWEEK 24 X X / X X / 2016
SASHA MORDOVE TS/GE T T Y

NEWSWEEK 25 X X / X X / 2016
CHEWING THE FAT:
Russian President
Vladimir Putin,
right, shares a
meal with Iranian
President Hassan
Rouhani, left, and
Azerbaijan’s
President Ilham
Aliyev in Baku,
Azerbaijan.
+

On the morning of January 11, Libyan Field
Marshal Khalifa Haftar climbed up the
companionway of an aircraft carrier floating off
the Mediterranean port of Tobruk. As a marine
band played and an honor guard presented
arms, an admiral in a white full-dress uniform ident Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has been
greeted Haftar, who was a senior commander courting traditional U.S. allies such as Egypt,
in the U.S.-backed rebel forces that ousted Saudi Arabia and even Israel. And over the past
the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, in 2011. two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has
After the welcoming ceremony, the 73-year- received the leaders of Middle Eastern states
old Haftar, an American citizen who for many 25 times—five more than former U.S. President
years lived in the United States, was escorted Barack Obama, according to a Newsweek analysis
below decks for a secure video conference with of presidential meetings.
the Middle East’s most energetic foreign power For decades, Washington has tried to
broker. The official topic was battling terror. plant democracies in much of the world,
But both sides knew the unofficial agenda was including the Middle East. But that plan appears
something else: how to boost Haftar’s power to have withered under Obama and current U.S.
as he tries to defeat a weak, U.N.-backed President Donald Trump. With the imperfect
government in Tripoli. exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring did not
Haftar has close ties in Washington, but his bring democracy to the Middle East. It instead
hosts in January were not American. Rather, he allowed instability and extremism to flourish
was aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only in countries including Egypt, Libya and Syria.
aircraft carrier, and his interlocutor was Russian
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Like a growing number of leaders in the
ALE XE I NIKOLSKY/ TASS/G ET T Y

Middle East, Haftar has a new set of friends in
Moscow. After three decades on the sidelines, “OBAMA’S ENTIRE
Russia is once again a major player in the region.
In the last six months alone, the country has POLICY IN THE
altered the course of the Syrian civil war and
taken control of the peace process, forged a close
MIDDLE EAST
relationship with Turkey’s strongman Pres- HAS FAILED.”
NEWSWEEK 26 0 2 / 1 7/ 2 0 1 7
diplomatic bargaining chips to exchange for
softening of Western sanctions imposed after the
2014 annexation of Crimea—or for future use in
negotiations with the West.
“First and foremost this is a question of
regaining our strategic influence,” Senator Oleg
Morozov, a member of Russia’s Federation
Council international affairs committee, tells
Newsweek. Or, as Dmitri Trenin, director of
Moscow’s Carnegie Center, puts it: “The goal of
[Putin’s] foreign policy is to restore Russia as a
global major power. For him to be able to operate
in the Middle East, in competition with the U.S.,
is a badge of [being] a major power. That is what
Russia did in Syria.”
But perhaps more important than either of
these goals—and a motivation little understood
in the West—is Moscow’s desire to protect Russia
from radical Islamist terrorism, the fear of which
helped Putin ascend to power during the brutal
wars in Russia’s North Caucasus in the 1990s.
Russia’s homegrown insurgencies shaped its pol-
itics so that the Kremlin—and many Russians—
favors order over personal rights and freedoms.
After watching the U.S. try to import
democracy to Iraq and Libya a decade later, only
to see them crumble into civil strife, Putin saw
a stark choice: Outside powers could side with
strong regimes, however ruthless they might
be, or the world will witness what he called “the
destruction of state systems and the rise of ter-
Western military action in Libya and Yemen rorism.”
helped produce failed states that are still mired in As ISIS grew more influential in Syria, so did
civil wars. Washington’s backing of Syrian rebels Putin’s mistrust of Western efforts to combat the
and insistence that autocratic President Bashar militant group. In mid-September 2015, Russia’s
al-Assad shouldn’t stay in power allowed Syria’s security services announced that there were at
civil war to drag on, or even intensify—fueling least 2,500 Russian nationals fighting for ISIS.

25
the rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). In Putin’s eyes this was enough to make the
And a two-state solution between Israel and the survival and success of Assad’s regime a matter
Palestinians—a longstanding goal of U.S. for- of national security for Russia.
eign policy—now seems further away than ever. “Our main aim in Syria is to make sure that our
After Obama’s two terms, last year’s historic Iran citizens who went out there [to fight with ISIS]
nuclear deal, which curbed Tehran’s nuclear pro- never come back,” says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a
gram in return for lifting sanctions, remains as THE Duma member. “For Russia, intervention in the
the lone regional success story—and even that NUMBER Middle East is a matter of defending our own
looks shaky under the new administration. OF TIMES security. All the rest is details.”
“Obama’s entire policy in the Middle East has PUTIN HAS Defensive or not, Russia’s return to the Mid-
failed,” says Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the dle East has proved a stunning, sudden suc-
committee on foreign affairs in Russia’s lower
RECEIVED cess—and a setback to American power and
house of parliament (the Duma). “The power- LEADERS OF prestige. Up until recently the U.S. had no
lessness and the lack of results are evident.” MIDDLE real diplomatic or military rival in the Middle
Observing America’s setbacks, the Krem- EASTERN East. Now, as Donald Trump begins his presi-
lin sensed an opportunity. For Moscow, the STATES dency with promises of wiping out ISIS, there
advantages of regaining some of the Soviet are Russian planes in the air and troops on the
Union’s old influence in the Middle East SINCE ground in Syria; battleships off the coast of
are manifold: Russia can continue empire- JANUARY Libya; and Moscow’s friends occupy—or are
building and projecting its growing global 2015 in line to occupy—presidential palaces from
influence and military heft; it can also gather Tripoli to Damascus. Any time Trump makes

NEWSWEEK 27 0 2 / 1 7/ 2 0 1 7
rubles. Then, one by one, Moscow’s clients
a move in the Middle East, he’ll have to ask began to fall. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—who had
himself: What will Putin think of this? No other at times received U.S. support—was the first to
recent American president had that problem. go, ousted in 2003 by what Russia described as
naked American aggression. A decade later, the
POWER AND PARANOIA 2011 Arab Spring claimed Libya’s Muammar
For much of the Cold War, the Middle Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s
East was as much Moscow’s turf as it was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Throughout this period,
Washington’s. The Soviet Union was the self-de- parallel waves of revolt in the former Soviet
clared champion of proletarian revolution Union—the so-called Color Revolutions—also
around the world. The anti-Western, strongly ousted pro-Russian governments in Serbia,
socialist Arab nationalism of Egyptian President Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. In 2011, the
Gamal Nasser gave Moscow an opening to spread yearning for greater democracy even reached
its influence over the Arab world. After Nasser’s Moscow, where 100,000 people poured into
defeat of the region’s old colonial masters— the streets to protest Putin’s return for a third
Britain and France—in the 1956 Suez Crisis, presidential term.
Russian arms and money began pouring into For Americans, the series of protests seemed to
the region. Soviet engineers dammed the Nile mark a triumph of democracy and people-power.
at Aswan, and helped construct modern cities in But for Russians, the Arab Spring appeared to be
Baath Party-run Syria and Iraq. At the same time, part of a Washington-led campaign to destroy
an entire generation of Arab officers, doctors any leader who dared to oppose the
and other professionals studied in Moscow— U.S.—including Putin. His approval
including future Egyptian President Hosni rating slid to a historic low (63 per-
Mubarak and Haftar, who received training in cent) as protest leaders, who spoke
the Soviet Union in the 1970s after graduating of European liberalism and rap-
from Benghazi Military Academy. KGB generals prochement with America, seemed
helped build the security services of Libya, Al- genuine contenders for power.
geria, Egypt, Iraq and Syria in the image of the In Putin’s eyes, “[Cairo’s] Tahrir
Soviet secret police. Square and [Kiev’s] Maidan are all
Anxious to stop the Communist domino effect part of the same conspiracy against
in the Middle East, Washington threw money at Russia,” says one senior Western
the problem. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt— diplomat in Moscow who was not
after Nasser’s fall—became major recipients authorized to speak on the record.
of U.S. military aid. Turkey, a NATO member “We dismissed that as paranoia. It
since 1952, hosted American planes, warships is paranoia. But they believe it.”
and, most controversially, Jupiter medium-range Throughout this period, Rus-
missiles—a deployment that prompted the sia regularly protested—and was
Soviets to place rockets in Cuba, nearly regularly ignored—at the U.N.,
triggering nuclear war in October 1962. in futile attempts to prevent the
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, bombing of Belgrade in 1999 and
Moscow’s friends in the region clung to power, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The
maintaining a stoutly anti-Western crescent U.S. overrode Moscow both times. It
from Libya to Syria despite the lack of Russian was only by cosying up to Iran that
Russia got Washington’s attention.
In the late 1990s, Moscow helped
Tehran develop the Shahab-3

“OUR MAIN AIM IN $4bn intermediate-range ballistic missile
and later began to build Bushehr,
Iran’s first nuclear power plant.
SYRIA IS TO MAKE THE From 2008 onward, as the White
SURE THAT OUR VALUE OF House inched toward a deal to per-
WEAPONS suade Tehran to give up its nuclear
CITIZENS WHO WENT MOSCOW HAS weapons program, Russia began to

OUT THERE [TO SOLD TO
play the role of an honest broker.
“Americans realized they needed
EGYPT
FIGHT WITH ISIS] SINCE 2012
our help with Iran,” says former
Russian Prime Minister Sergei
NEVER COME BACK.” Kiriyenko, who was the head of

NEWSWEEK 28 0 2 / 1 7/ 2 0 1 7
the Rosatom state nuclear energy corporation land—now a Russian cultural center; that year,
during the key Iran negotiations. “The Iranians he named streets in Bethlehem and Jericho after
trusted us. We were their guarantee of security.” Putin and his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.
At the same time, Russia was also Running in parallel with these grand,
inserting itself, steadily and quietly, into the public gestures of friendship is a quieter and
Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Moscow’s key constant diplomatic campaign in the region.
ally was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who Spearheading Moscow’s outreach is a bespecta-
earned a doctorate at the Peoples’ Friendship cled, Arabic-speaking, 64-year-old career dip-
University in Moscow in the 1970s. Israeli lomat named Mikhail Bogdanov, who has been
researchers, citing documents that KGB Putin’s special envoy to the Middle East since
archivist Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled out of Russia 2012. A former ambassador to Syria, Egypt and
in 1991, have claimed that Abbas was recruited PEACEMAKERS: Israel, Bogdanov has played a key role in winning
Putin listens to
by the Soviet security service under the code Recep Tayyip friends and influencing people, from Egypt’s
name “Krotov”—although Palestinian officials Erdogan in president and military strongman, Abdel Fattah
dismissed the allegation as an Israeli smear. Istanbul in el-Sisi, to Libya’s Haftar.
October. The
Agent or not, Abbas “likes the Russians, he Russian and America’s steady disengagement from the
wants to please them,” says Ziad Abu Zayyad, Turkish presidents Middle East under Obama helped Bogdanov.
are co-sponsoring
a former Palestinian minister and negotiator. talks in a bid to The White House had good reason to step
When Putin visited Bethlehem during a 2012 end the Syrian war. back from the region: The president wanted
trip to the West Bank, Abbas gave him a plot of + to wind down unpopular American military
MIKHAIL SVETLOV/G ET T Y

NEWSWEEK 29 X X / X X / 2016
interventions. At the same time, America was home, Kommersant radio claimed the Syrian
becoming less dependent on Middle Eastern oil people were hailing Putin as “Caesar,” while
thanks to a domestic shale gas revolution that has daily weather reports on Russian news began
transformed the U.S. into an energy-exporting featuring the bombing conditions over Syria.
country. But one unintended consequence was By the end of 2016, Russia’s defense minis-
to allow Bogdanov to strike deals from Ramallah try boasted that its jets had performed 30,000
to Cairo and Benghazi, Libya. sorties and hit 62,000 targets. The U.S.-led
“The nature of the Russian regime’s foreign coalition, by contrast, flew 135,000 missions
policy is extreme pragmatism, the absence against ISIS in Syria and Iraq between 2014 and
of ideology and the attempt to deal with all the end of January 2017 but damaged fewer
the main players in a region,” says Nikolay than 32,000 targets. The main reason: what the
Kozhanov, former attaché at Russia’s embassy coalition says are strict rules to limit civilian
in Tehran, now with U.K. think tank Chatham casualties. In January, U.S. Defense Secretary
House. “So this should be considered as the Ashton Carter complained that Russia’s air
main principle of Russia’s strategy and its main war has done “zero” to degrade ISIS. Whatever
advantage in the Middle East.” the impact of the Russian air campaign, most
Unlike his American counterparts, Putin agree it has helped deplete U.S.-backed rebel
didn’t lecture Egypt and Syria on democracy forces and allowed Assad to regain control of the
and human rights. “Russia saw an opportu- strategically vital city of Aleppo.
nity in Egypt because the U.S. has pushed for Senator Oleg Morozov, a member of Rus-
a reform environment since the Arab Spring,” sia’s Federation Council international affairs
says Steve Seche, a former State Department committee, says Putin “had no choice other than
official and U.S. ambassador to Yemen. The to step in. It’s not so much that we need Assad
Russian president was also ready to sell cheap in place—but we need some kind of stability
arms to regional powers. Moscow has sold $4 in Syria. If we had allowed Assad to fall, that
billion worth of weapons to Egypt since 2012, and GENERAL would have been the end of our influence on the
ASSEMBLY: Libyan
began talks with Iran over a $10 billion deal in strongman, Field Middle East.” Either way, the Syria campaign
November 2016. Marshal Khalifa quickly became Putin’s symbolic rebuke, says
But two crises took the Middle East from Haftar, returns Trenin, to Obama’s claims a year prior that
home after a trip
the sidelines of Russian foreign policy to front to Moscow in Russia was just a “regional power” and a
and center: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in December. The “desperate” one at that.
militia leader, an
2014, which put Moscow in direct conflict with American citizen, The symbolic peak of Russia’s self-appointed
the West, and, the following year, the war in Syria, has developed role as Syria’s “savior” came on May 5, 2016,
close ties with the
which offered Putin an opportunity to make sure Kremlin. just days after Assad’s troops backed by Russian
Russia would become one of the Middle East’s + special forces and close air support seized the
primary power brokers.

THE DAMASCUS GAMBIT
On September 30, 2015, Putin
ordered a squadron of Russian
jets to deploy to the Hmey-
mim airbase near Latakia, a
stronghold of Assad loyalists.
It was Russia’s first military
deployment outside the former
borders of the Soviet Union
since Moscow’s disastrous 1979
invasion of Afghanistan. With-
in days, some 30 Russian war-
planes had already begun to turn
the war in Assad’s favor.
Though the deployment was
tiny, it was a pivotal moment
for Moscow’s foreign policy.
Suddenly, Russian planes were
GUT TER CREDIT

flying in the same airspace as
those of America and its allies,
who were battling ISIS. At

NEWSWEEK 30 X X / X X / 2016
Ankara

Ankara

Nicosia Tehran
Syria
Beirut
Damascus
Lebanon Baghdad
Ramallah Iran
Jerusalem Amman

Cairo Jordan
Israel Kuwait

Qatar
Egypt
BEARING
DOWN: Russia’s
return to the
Middle East has Saudi Arabia
been a stunning
success.
Oman

RUSSIA
RUSHES IN
As the U.S. pulled back from costly
Yemen
interventions in the Middle East, Putin
sensed an opportunity to make new allies
and fight extremism—and restore Russia
as a major global power.

Rouhani Erdogan Assad Sisi Netanyahu
(Iran) (Turkey) (Syria) (Egypt) (Israel)
Value of Speaking in Daily cost of Speaking at Number of
infrastructure a Russian TV Russia’s a news visits to meet
projects agreed interview ahead bombing conference Putin in Russia
between Tehran of a visit to St. campaign in in Cairo with since Septem-
and Moscow in Petersburg in Syria. Putin, February ber 2015.
February 2016. August 2016. 2015.

3
“A solution
ABDU LL AH DOMA /AFP/GE T T Y

to the Syrian “We see in
$40bn crisis
cannot be
found without $4m Russia a
strategic
friend...
Russia.”
for
Egypt.”

NEWSWEEK 31 0 2 / 1 7/ 2 0 1 7
ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS—though most anonymity, tells Newsweek. “[Russia
Russian airstrikes were against U.S.-backed rebel has] become very influential in Syria
groups in the center of the country. Moscow because they have elected to engage
flew in its greatest conductor, Valery Gergiev, in behavior which, in any other part
and his Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra to play of the world, would be condemned
before an audience of international journalists as war crimes.”
in the ancient theater at Palmyra, which ISIS had
earlier used as a venue for public executions. A ENEMIES WITH BENEFITS
publicity stunt, sure—but a highly effective one. Over the past 18 months, Russia’s
Russia’s success in Palmyra didn’t last long— successful intervention in Syria
but that hasn’t seemed to matter. In December, supercharged Moscow’s position in
troops left and ISIS retook the city. The Krem- the region. The Kremlin’s unlikely
lin blamed lack of cooperation from the U.S. for new best friend is Turkey, a NATO
the defeat and Moscow has seldom mentioned member and centuries-old foe
Palmyra since. of Russia. Just a year ago, when
But now with Aleppo in regime hands and the Turkey shot down a Russian plane
peace process being run by Moscow, the new U.S. after a 17-second incursion into
administration has little influence on the Syrian Turkish airspace, Putin was furious;
endgame either diplomatically or on the ground. in retaliation, he ordered the sus-
“What can we do to counter it?” a State pension of Russian charter tourist
Department official, speaking on condition of flights to Turkey and imposed sanc-
tions on Turkish goods.
Since then two things have trans-
formed the relationship between
Moscow and Ankara: Assad’s victory
“AMERICANS in Aleppo, and the failed July coup

REALIZED THEY that prompted Erdogan to initiate a
purge of his opponents, earning crit-
NEEDED OUR HELP icism from the U.S. and Europe alike.
In response to stinging rebukes from
WITH IRAN.” his one-time allies in Brussels and
Washington, Erdogan has turned to
his “friend Vladimir” in Russia.
“Without Russia it is impossible
to find a solution to the problems in Syria,” Erdo-
gan said in a Russian TV interview in August
before visiting Putin in St. Petersburg. “The axis
of friendship between Moscow and Ankara will
be restored.”
At the same time, Erdogan acknowledged
that his relationship with Obama was “disap-
pointing.” The Obama administration refused
to cease support for Kurdish anti-ISIS fighters
in northern Syria and it has declined to extra-
dite Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based cleric who is
an Erdogan foe, to Turkey. As a result, Turkish
officials have openly questioned America’s use

4-5k of the strategic Incirlik base in Adana, near the
Syrian border. Erdogan has urged Turkish pol-
iticians to re-evaluate their “fixation” with the
ESTIMATED EU and instead consider joining the Chinese-led
NUMBER OF Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which
RUSSIAN Moscow also favors. In January, for the first time,
Russian and Turkish warplanes participated in
TROOPS joint airstrikes against ISIS.
STATIONED The new friendship may be “transactional,”
IN SYRIA says Fadi Hakura, head of the Turkey Project at
London-based think tank Chatham House, but it

NEWSWEEK 32 0 2 / 1 7/ 2 0 1 7
suits both countries. Erdogan wants to “increase SKY FALL: Syrian power, Russia helped Tehran maintain “an axis
rescue workers in
the distance between Washington and Ankara”— the rebel-held town of resistance against Israel and the U.S.”
something Russia is only too keen to encourage of Maaret al-Nu- While Iran has not been a U.S. ally for decades,
on the time-honored principle that my enemy’s man react to what Cairo has long been a key military, intelligence
activists said were
enemy is my friend. air strikes by the and diplomatic partner for Washington. As the
Russia’s friendship with one of the region’s Russian air force. recipient of the second-largest amount of U.S.
+
other major powers, Iran, may have begun as military aid, Egypt continued this partnership
an alliance of outcasts—but it now appears even when relations with Obama strained fol-
formidable. Tehran has joined Moscow in lowing Sisi’s power grab in 2013. While Egypt
taking control of the Syrian peace process, has maintained close ties with Washington since
ALE XANDE R Z EML IANIC HENKO/REUTE RS; KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

becoming joint arbiters of talks in Astana, then, Sisi has also acknowledged Moscow’s new-
Kazakhstan, in January that outlined a roadmap found status by hosting an air drill for Russia last
to peace and a new constitution for Syria that year—the Kremlin’s first such exercise in Africa.
will inevitably reflect Assad’s military victories Last November, Egypt also signaled its support
on the ground. Russian arms supplies—including for Putin by becoming one of only four coun-
an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system delivered tries to support Russia’s resolution on Syria in
last year—have helped Tehran keep up with mas- the United Nations. Moscow, in turn, has pushed
sive military spending by its regional rivals Israel to lift U.N. sanctions on Libya, where Haftar,
and Saudi Arabia. In exchange, Iran gave Russia Sisi’s ally, is still vying to become the country’s
temporary access to its Hamadan air base military strongman. “Putin will undertake to
for raids on Syria and allowed Moscow to fire revoke [sanctions],” Haftar told reporters after
cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian his video conference in January with Shoigu on
Sea over its territory en route to Aleppo. And Russia’s aircraft carrier.
crucially, says Sir Richard Dalton, a former Brit- Putin has even achieved new levels of
ish ambassador to Iran, by keeping Assad in friendship with Israel, Washington’s closest

NEWSWEEK 33 0 2 / 1 7/ 2 0 1 7
and most important ally in the Middle East.
Russian jets now operate within reach of the
Golan Heights, a contested territory that
Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 War and
now divides the two countries. Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Putin
in Moscow three times since September 2015—
more than he has visited Obama, with whom
he had a notoriously rancorous relationship.
Medvedev traveled to Israel in November
last year to mark 25 years of diplomatic ties
between the two countries, and to boost trade.
Netanyahu is obviously concerned about Russia’s
POSTER BOYS:
cooperation with two of Israel’s main ene- Pedestrians in
mies, Iran and the Lebanon-based Shiite Danilovgrad,
militia Hezbollah. He hopes to harness Russian Montenegro, flank
a billboard
influence with Israel’s enemies to his benefit, showing a
and, so far, Moscow has not objected when Israel picture of Putin
and U.S. President
has conducted strikes against Hezbollah in Syria. Donald Trump.
But Netanyahu had concerns about the U.S., too: +

Obama overruled Israeli objections to a nuclear
“[RUSSIA HAS] BECOME deal with Iran and pressured the Israeli leader
to stop settlement building in the West Bank, a
VERY INFLUENTIAL IN main obstacle to reaching a peace deal with the

SYRIA BECAUSE THEY Palestinians. On February 2, the White House
press secretary Sean Spicer echoed Obama’s
ENGAGE IN BEHAVIOR policy, saying “the construction of new settle-
ments or the expansion of existing settlements
WHICH, IN ANY OTHER beyond their current borders may not be helpful
PART OF THE WORLD, in achieving” peace.
Russia, on the other hand, makes no such
WOULD BE CONDEMNED tiresome demands of Israel. After Washington
set sanctions on Russia following the annexation
AS WAR CRIMES.” of Crimea, Putin has been pushing to make all
the friends he can get in the
region in order to “develop
a second front,” says Zvi
Magen, former Israeli
ambassador to Russia.
Putin “needs more lever-
age with the West.…One
[such lever], the new one,
is the Israeli-Palestinian
process.” After Putin and
Netanyahu’s third meet-
ing in Moscow in June—in
which the Russian leader
called Israel an “uncondi-
tional” ally—Russia offered
to host peace negotiations
in Moscow between Net-
anyahu and Abbas. In this
blossoming relationship,
based on pragmatism, both
leaders saw an opportunity:

NEWSWEEK 34 X X / X X / 2016
now a member of the Duma security commit-
tee, puts it: “There are thousands of our citizens
fighting there. They are inadequate people from
all over the world [that] have gathered in Syria.
The Islamic aspect is just an excuse. These peo-
ple who enjoy putting others on their knees, lit-
erally and metaphorically, who enjoy making
women their sex slaves. It’s a matter of national
security to make sure that they don’t bring that
ideology back to Russia.”
Russia is determined to hang on to its new
dominance in the Middle East—which means
that regional leaders will have to find a way to
cooperate with both the U.S. and Russia. Trump
has reached out to Netanyahu by inviting him
to meet in Washington next month; pledging
to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; and
appointing a pro-settler ambassador to Israel—
all of which may dampen the Netanyahu-Pu-
tin bond. (The Palestinians, however, will need
Moscow more than ever. “We have no hope with
Trump,” says Abu Zayyad, who was a Palestinian
negotiator in the 1994 Oslo Peace Accords.)
for Netanyahu, a pivot from the Obama admin- Just as Israel may seek a compromise between
istration; for Putin, a challenge to Washington’s dealing with both Russia and the U.S., so may
leadership. There’s a lot of win-win situa- Egypt. Alongside closer ties with Putin, Sisi has
tions developing in the Middle East right now. also warmed to Trump. In a phone call, he became
Unfortunately, none of them apply to the U.S. the first world leader to congratulate the billion-
aire on his November election victory over Hil-
PARTNER OR SPOILER? lary Clinton, having already been the first Arab
Obama may have retreated from employing leader to meet with him during the campaign.
Bush-like American force in the Middle East— Their close relationship has developed further
and elsewhere—but it seems that Trump is intent since Trump entered the White House. After his
on entirely abandoning America’s 70-year-old, inauguration, Trump’s first gesture toward the
bipartisan commitment to being the world’s Arab world was to call Sisi; he also hosted Jor-
most determined promoter of democracy. Amer- dan’s King Abdullah II in Washington and called
ica’s policy of “intervention and chaos” must several Arab leaders to assure them of America’s
end, Trump said in December. continued support.
That shift, in the Kremlin’s view, threatens “One can broadly assume that [Trump and
to create a dangerous power vacuum that could Sisi] see the world in the same way,” says Hugh
be filled with Islamist sympathizers, from Libya Lovatt, Middle East and North Africa policy
to Iraq to Syria. Though many in the West see fellow at the European Council on Foreign
Moscow’s resurgence in terms of building a lost
2,500 Relations. “It’s not beyond the realm of imag-
ANTON NOVODERE ZHKIN/ TASS/GET T Y; STEVO VASIL JEV IC/REUTERS

empire of prestige and influence, many top Rus- ination to see a sort of Russian-Egyptian-U.S.
sian officials see their Middle East deployment joint effort” on Middle Eastern issues such as
as a matter of Russia’s self-defense. THE the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Such a
“We remember how many radicals came to NUMBER OF triad could be appealing to Israel, which has
fight in Chechnya from the Middle East,” Leonid developed secretive diplomatic and security ties
Kalashnikov, chairman of the Duma Commit-
RUSSIAN with Egypt, more so than with other Arab states.
tee on the Former Soviet Union, tells Newsweek, CITIZENS For the U.S., that would be a largely new way
referring to foreign jihadis who fought alongside WHO HAD of doing business. In all previous Middle East
rebels in separatist wars in the North Caucasus JOINED peace talks, it has been the primary broker.
in the 1990s. “The region is right next to Cen- ISIS BY Trump must now face an awkward reality: To
tral Asia. That is our underbelly. We have to be strike peace deals, crush terrorism and protect
in [Syria] in order to prevent the contagion of
MID- America’s economic interests in the region, he
terrorism from spreading.” SEPTEMBER might have no choice but to continue express-
Or, as Nikolai Kovalev, a former head of the 2015 ing admiration for the man who made the last
Russian domestic security service (the FSB) and American president’s eight years so difficult.

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