Russia is on a roll in the Middle East. Russian airpower saved the Assad regime from certain defeat. Turkey and Israel must now accept the presence of Russian troops on their borders. Saudi Arabia has given Russian President Vladimir Putin the red-carpet treatment. And U.S. President Donald Trump thanked Putin for facilitating the operation to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (or ISIS). Throughout the Middle East, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, Russia is ubiquitous, with its high-level visitors, its weapons, its mercenaries, and its deals to build nuclear power plants. Russia has gotten involved in this region as the United States pulls back from it—a trend that even the success of the Baghdadi raid can do little to conceal.
The reemergence of Russia as a major power broker in the Middle East is striking not only in contrast with the United States’ erratic posture in the region but because for a quarter century after the Cold War, Russia had been absent from the region. But Russia’s absence, and not its return, is the anomaly.
For centuries, Russia fought Turkey, England, and France for access to the Mediterranean, to protect fellow Christians under the Ottoman rule, and to secure a foothold in the Holy Land. For most of the post–World War II era, the Soviet Union was a major force in the Middle East. Moscow supported the Palestine Liberation Organization in its struggle against the “Zionist entity.” Egypt and Syria waged wars against Israel with Soviet weapons, help from Soviet military advisers, and occasionally even Soviet pilots. Soviet engineers and money helped build Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Then, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union fell on hard times and rapidly withdrew. For the two decades that followed, Russia barely registered a presence in the Middle East. The United States grew accustomed to acting as the region’s hegemon—waging wars, dictating its political vision, and punishing governments that defied its
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