America: doctrine of disengagement

With the situation in Iraq getting out of hand, many criticize Obama for the withdrawal of American troops from the region, while many more blame Bush for initiating the War on Terrorism in 2003. Playing the role of the world’s policeman and maintaining the presence of its troops in unstable, yet strategically important regions, the United States pursued its foreign policy doctrine, also known as Pax Americana, throughout the decades following WW2. It is much easier to deal with a predictable world, the one evolving by a coherent plan than to deal with a tinderbox. Both Bush and Obama failed to secure America’s interests in a region that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Bush might have been acting in line with the old doctrine, yet apparently without much knowledge and understanding of the region. His major blunder was the ignorance of the historical and cultural specifics of the Middle East in general, and Iraq in particular. When the Bush administration made a decision to wipe out Saddam Hussein’s regime and build a democracy from scratch, it did so in a country that had been ruled by tyrants from its inception; it was quite an unforgivable misstep. Obama, in turn, does not seem to adhere to any consistent doctrine save America’s global disengagement.


Throughout recorded history, Middle Eastern states thrived under strong leaders, capable of generating peaceful coexistence between multiple religious and ethnic groups such as Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Turkmens, and Bedouins. When Saddam Hussein was toppled, in the absence of a strong leader, Iraq started falling apart. The dissolution of the Iraqi Army and administrative institutions left over half a million former government employees in disarray – they had nowhere to go and nothing to do. The Shia minority, who under Saddam were not allowed to form any political institutions and thus were not represented in the state political system, soon seized power. Once in power, they rushed to “restore justice” with prosecutions against both Sunni and other non-Shia groups. Soon, the sectarian conflict spilled over to Syria and Lebanon in the west and Pakistan in the east. Iraq’s plunge into chaos has been spurred by two overlapping drivers: a failed attempt to build a parliamentarian regime and the existential threats posed by Saudi Arabia and Iran


Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki can’t defeat the Sunnis, the Sunnis can’t defeat the Shia; Northern Iraq has de-facto become Kurdistan. In April 2013, a radical jihadist group, descended from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), formed the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The organization is said to be “surpassing al-Qaeda as the world’s most dangerous jihadist group.” The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was released from Camp Bucca, an Iraqi prison, in 2009 by American soldiers. “I’ll see you guys in New York,” said the ISIS leader-to-be to the U.S. Army reservists as he was leaving prison. To the outside observer, it would appear that, in 2009, another nascent Bin Laden was simply released so that in 5 years he could call on hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Mosul (Iraq’s second city) to “make jihad” for the sake of Allah. On the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, June 29, 2014, ISIS simplified its title and adopted the name Islamic State (IS), whereas its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, became a self-anointed “Caliph Ibrahim” – for the first time since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk renounced the Caliphate in 1924. Ataturk also abolished the Arabic alphabet, introduced Latin instead, familiarized a traditional Muslim society with European values and introduced western clothing. Thus, from the perspective of modernization and secularism, Abu Bakr has pushed the Arab world 90 years back by attempting to restore the Islamic Caliphate. The current events strongly resemble those of the Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, when a small Muslim army conquered Mesopotamia (along with Egypt, North Africa, and part of the Iberian Peninsula) in the glimpse of an eye and thus stretched their possessions across three continents. Such a sweeping conquest was largely possible due to the weakness of the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires, declining states that were unable to contain the Umayyads. Today again, a relatively small group of people is seeking to repeat the accomplishments of their ancestors and capture lands in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. The map made publicly available by ISIS shows a wide swath of black-colored countries stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The desired territory encompasses all of North Africa; Nigeria and Cameroon in West Africa; Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia in Africa’s eastern coast. Their land appetite also expands over the Mediterranean and Red seas to embrace the entire Arab world.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 10.17.38 AM

In fairness, such a grand plan doesn’t seem delusional at all. First, the West is no longer the world’s policeman. Second, jihadist groups and other Muslim rebel groups (who sympathize with the idea of creating an Islamist state through violence) are spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, and in parts of Asia. Prof. Peter Neumann of King’s College London estimates that about 80% of Western fighters in Syria have joined the group. The total number of fighters in the IS is estimated to be 15,000, approximately 2,000 of which are of foreign origin. The foreign contingent of the IS is recruited from the UK, France, Germany and other European countries, as well as the US, the Arab world and the Caucasus. The mujahedeen army is very mixed. It comprises Turkmens, Kurds, the Naqshbandi Army (composed of the former Saddam regime officers), and even former Ba’athists. While the elite is predominantly engaged in military actions, the IS covert groups, together with local tribal sheikhs, control the territory.


The bad news is that there is no feasible challenger to Al-Qaeda, the IS, and Jaysh al-Islam. Currently, Sunni mosques, kuttabs (primary schools) and madrasa (theological institutes) are full of students whose theological education and weapons training are generously funded by wealthy sponsors from the Persian Gulf states. Speaking of the IS’s funding, initially the group relied on private donations from rich Arab states, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Besides such funding, the IS has seized oil refineries in eastern Syria (Raqqa province) and is now selling oil to the Syrian government. Above all, should Iraq fall to the IS, Iraq has the fifth largest proven crude oil reserves in the world. Illegal trade, trafficking, theft, kidnapping, as well as the sharia tax system account for other important sources of income for the IS. Prof. Neumann believes that before the capture of Mosul in June 2014, ISIS had cash and assets worth about $900 million. Afterwards, ISIS had assets worth around $2 billion.


What the ongoing chaos in the Middle East has explicitly demonstrated is that President Bush failed to clearly articulate the goals of invading Iraq – whether it was a punitive measure against the terrorists, whether it was an attempt to spread democracy in the Middle East, or whether it was just an attempt to secure a reliable and predictable partner in the Middle East like the Gulf States.. In fact, the last seems quite achievable, bearing in mind that in 2009 Iraq was in a fairly good shape. Alas, President Obama, who entered office that year, failed to get things straight in Iraq and define America’s interests there with a cohesive strategy. Lack of a clear purpose and the means to implement it is not just a quality of America’s Middle Eastern-policy these days, but rather an earmark of U.S. foreign policy for the past twenty years. With the end of the Cold War, the world has changed; it is no longer a bi-polar system, but an interconnected complexity of competing and rising powers and precarious non-state forces. The model of post-WW2 America’s foreign policy no longer fits in the new state of affairs. So far, American interests and goals in the post-Cold War-era have not been clearly defined, nor a coherent military strategy developed. The United States might not act as a world policeman any more, but it still must protect its national interests.



How great is the chance that Iran goes nuclear any time soon?

I think the chances are much lower now than Autumn 2012. There is a two-fold reason for this. First, Iran has been severely hampered by stiff economic sanctions imposed by the West, so now it is desperately seeking to get some relief and restore its people’s living standards. Second, after Russia annexed Crimea and its relations with the United States and Europe became challenged, the West turned to Iran with more than just a non-proliferation agenda. Geographically, Iranian gas is located much closer to Europe than Russian gas delivered to Europe from the remote gas facilities in the Yamal Peninsula. It is estimated that over the course of 10 years Iranian gas could replace Russian gas in the European market. In fact, today, Iranian gas can be transported through a gas pipeline in Georgia, that is built but not yet in use.

Hence, the West is taking incremental steps to rebuild its relations with Iran. Thus, for instance, Great Britain opened its Embassy in Tehran, and the US has suspended certain sanctions. Iran, in exchange for relief from painful restrictions, has allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to have daily access to its nuclear sites and enrichment facilities. In compliance with an interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (US, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom plus Germany) from last November, Iran has stopped producing 20%-enriched uranium (HEU) and converted almost a half of its stockpile to low-enriched uranium (LEU) with concentration of 5%. During the latest talks in June between the P5+1 and their Iranian counterparts, Kerry said substantial gaps still exist between what Iran’s negotiators say they are willing to do and what they must do.
Even though the negotiations are still far from a final resolution to the Iranian nuclear program, hypothetically, once the West removes the embargo on Iranian exports, Iran will immediately start selling its oil and gas to Europe and Asia. This uptick in supply will help eventually bring down the world prices for hydrocarbons, which, in the long run, would be catastrophic for Russia.

Russia-Egypt Rapprochement: is Russia Back to the Middle East?

November 14, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov together with defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, paid ’the highest level visit in years‘ to Egypt. The talks were being held in a “2+2” format – two top diplomats and two military chiefs – for the first time in the decades-long history of relations between Egypt and Russia. In the talks, the Russian and Egyptian officials discussed military and technical cooperation, which usually implies arms sales. The latter intensified the earlier speculations about the renewal of Russia’s military assistance to Egypt following the partial suspension of military aid and equipment supplies from the United States.

Over the past three decades, the United States was Egypt’s strongest military and financial aid provider. U.S.-Egyptian relations have declined since the July 2013 coup, in which Egypt’s military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The subsequent crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, violent battles and killings of thousands of protesters in Cairo, instigated the Obama administration to withhold roughly a third of its $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. The United States has also frozen the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tank kits and Harpoon missiles. Al Jazeera reports, “Washington has said it would consider resuming some of the suspended aid depending on Egypt’s progress in following the interim government’s plans to hold elections.” Some view the Egypt-Russia conference as a message to the United States conveying the notion that Egypt has options beyond Washington as it seeks to arm itself; if Washington wants to maintain conditions for military aid, Egypt can simply do business with Russia. Meanwhile, Badr Abdelatty, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, emphasized that “We are not replacing one party with another. We want to strengthen the independence of our foreign policy. We want to diversify. And Russia is a very important global power.” In fact, Russia’s return to the Middle East does not imply that Moscow’s overtures are an attempt to oust Washington from the region. First, the United States will simply never allow Russia to take control over the situation in the region. Second, Moscow and Washington are pursuing different goals in the Middle East. One seeks to maintain its naval and air defense forces, and the other, to have a constant access to the region’s rich energy resources.
Unlike the United States, who enthusiastically backed the Muslim Brotherhood taking power last year, Russia abstained from any explicit expression of support and refused to publicly criticize the debacle that brought the military back to power in July this year. “After the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, Egypt flung back into the arms of its people and its sons. We have again become ourselves. I’d like to point out that we never forget our Russian friends. We greatly appreciate the position of the Russian people and the Russian government towards the June 30 Revolution…”, Nasser’s son Abdel Hakim Abdel Nasser spoke about that in interview with the Voice of Russia. Such a strategy has obviously scored points for Russia with the Egyptian authorities. Russia’s view of the Syrian crisis has also played in its hands. The Muslim Brotherhood was calling for military jihad in Syria, meanwhile the current Egypt administration entirely shares Putin’s standing on Syria. “We need a reliable friend, and hope that Moscow helps us to resist the pressure from the West”, said the former foreign minister Mohamed al-Orabi in his interview to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper. To further assure Egypt of their reliability, at the joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Nabil Fahmy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that “Russia is against any foreign intervention in internal affairs and we respect Egypt’s sovereignty and the rights of the Egyptian people to determine their future.”

Russia and the Middle East

Russia is particularly interested in reinforcing of its relations with Egypt given its weakening strategic positions in the Middle East over the past five decades. The wave of military coups in Northern Africa, that began in the winter of 2010, eventually entitled the “Arab Spring,” has dramatically undermined military and technical cooperation between Russia and the countries in that region. As a result, Russia lost its ties with Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other major powers, leaving only Syria as a serious customer. Syria had, until recently, been Russia’s major stronghold in the Middle East. At the same time, Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become part of the reason why Moscow has been at odds with most of the Persian Gulf states. Enhancing ties with the Arab world’s most populous country would give Russia another chance to fortify its foothold in the region, whose countries have largely aligned themselves with the United States. “Russia is returning to the Arab world because the Arab states are asking us to. They want someone to rely on other than the US and Saudi Arabia,” says Sergei Markov, a frequent foreign policy adviser to President Vladimir Putin. Another recent example of this trend is found in Iraq, whose new leadership started improving its relationship with Iran and restored its military and technical cooperation with Moscow. In the fall of 2013, Russians began the supply of Mi-35M helicopters to Baghdad based on a bilateral contract.
Besides the military and technical assistance that Russia provides its allies with, Islam and Russia’s religious pluralism are another mechanism for Moscow to rekindle its relations with the Islamic world. Russia recently hosted an international economic summit with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). “Our goals are clear and transparent – at the October meeting with Russian Muslims’ muftis”, said Putin. “Russia is interested neither in split nor in reorganization of the Islamic world. We will continue support the reinforcement of the collective action in the international community in order to assure safety and security of the modern world”.
While U.S. diplomacy is failing to maintain its influence in the Middle East, Russia is restoring its reputation among Arab countries as a reliable partner whose assistance will persist even in the face of international pressure (case in point, Syria). So far, such a strategy seems to be working in Russia’s favor.

Russia-Egypt relations in hindsight

The Soviet Union and Egypt enjoyed close ties during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Arab country was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt’s president became popular in the Soviet Union both for his economic program and foreign policy, in which he was often critical of the West. Along with military support, the Soviets assisted Nasser with economic aid and helped to construct the Aswan High Dam along the Nile. In 1964, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during his visit to Cairo awarded Nasser with the highest Soviet decoration – the Hero of the Soviet Union. After the death of Nasser, the new president, Anwar Sadat began to turn the country towards the West. In July 1972, he expelled roughly 20,000 Russian military advisers stationed in Egypt. Bilateral relations have never fully recovered.
In the November 14th talks, Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, said Cairo was looking to “reactivate” an old relationship with Russia. “We want to give a new impetus to our relations and return them to the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union,” Fahmy said following a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s army chief and defense minister, told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, that the visit indicated the continuation of “historic strategic relations via starting a new era of constructive, fruitful cooperation on the military level”, the state news agency reported. Additionally, for the first time since 1992, a Russian warship docked at the Egyptian port of Alexandria. The arrival of Russia’s flagship cruiser, Varyag, likely marks the resumption of joint naval maneuvers between the two countries. During their visit Russian diplomats and their Egyptian counterparts discussed military collaboration (arms supplies) and agreed to hold joint military drills to counter terrorism and piracy, said Shoigu. Nabil Fahmy said in an interview with Russia’s state-owned RT television channel that aired prior to the meeting on Tuesday, “the issue of purchasing new Russian weapons should be carefully examined.”
To some extent, Russian arms deals resumed back in the 2000s when Moscow upgraded the systems it had supplied to Egypt in 1960s and early 1970s: the S-125 Pechora surface-to air missile system (in the Pechora-2M version), the Kvadrat surface-to-air missile system (which received the missiles and some control elements from the modern Buk complex) and the self-propelled anti-aircraft Shilka weapon systems. The latter were upgraded with portable infrared surface-to-air Igla systems. Egypt also received new medium-range Buk-M1-2 and short-range Tor-M1E. The total volume of military trade between Russia and Egypt is not large by world standards, but nonetheless significant, $1.852 billion from 2005 to 2012 (19.4% of supply to Egypt), second only to the United States with $6.865 billion (71.8% of the total).
According to Russian media reports, the Russian Defense Minister might have also discussed the supply of modern weaponry to Egypt such as MiG-29 fighter planes, air defense systems, and anti-tank missiles – a package worth up to $4 billion.11 However, no agreement or pact on arms sale has been concluded so far. Russia’s supplies are contingent on Egypt’s ability to finance the purchases. “The economy will not permit major weapons purchases,” said Safwat el-Zayyat, a former general. “Policies in the region depend on the man in power, and that can change very easily.” After the coup and in the situation of unsettled government, Egypt’s economy remains unstable and the government is borrowing money from its neighbors (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait). Thus, there is a big question mark over the prospect import of relatively expensive Russian armaments.
“We are ready to help Egypt in all the fields where it seeks cooperation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Sergei Lavrov and Nabil Fahmy discussed perspectives for trade and economic cooperation. “Russia is preparing offers, which include cooperation in the energy sector and heavy industry, the procurement of building and transport equipment…”. Besides, Russia is a major exporter of wheat, which Egypt desperately needs in light of the ongoing economic disruption.
Finally, the Russian and Egyptian foreign ministers discussed the situation in Syria and the elimination of chemical weapons there. Sergei Lavrov emphasized Egypt’s role in solving the Syrian crisis.


Recently, some commentators have claimed that Russia’s revival of Cold War-era friendships with Middle Eastern states, long a part of the American sphere of influence, are a sign that Cold War rivalries are back. Realistically, however, such comparisons with the Cold War are laughable, at best. Most importantly, Russia is no longer a superpower. With an economy basically reliant on natural resources, Russia’s economic growth has stagnated. Today, its GDP is only about 15 percent of the United States. Additionally, Russia’s population is fleeing the country.

Second, Moscow is rapidly losing its influence in the so-called “zone of privileged interests”- namely the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Several Central Asian former Soviet republics, the Ukraine, and Georgia have all opted to sympathize with the European Union rather than ally with Russia. China is expanding westwards and plans to rent 5 percent of Ukrainian agricultural land. How coincidental it is that Chinese Xi Jinping has recently concluded a ten day-long journey throughout Central Asia, signing a series of economic agreements with the local republics, clearly drawing Central Asia closer to China – and away from Russia?
Driven by its historically imperialist ambitions (inherited from the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union), Russia is reaching out to the Middle East, seeking to take on a role of mediator, thereby boosting its, inter alia, international prestige. So far, Russian diplomatic mediation efforts have been a failure. Allying with very unpopular Assad regime, Moscow is further alienating nearly all the major powers in the region- Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia. Thus, as the Washington Post article highlights, Russia is increasingly despised throughout the Middle East. If any of the Arab states happen to deal with Russia these days, Egypt in our case is such an example, they must do so out of sheer pragmatic interest, namely, the desire to purchase arms. Russia also has an interest in commercial deals with Middle Eastern customers such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, but the arms trade turnover with them should not be overstated. The major foreign contracts on weapons supplies have largely gone to China and India. Overall, Russia’s trade with the Middle East still represents a smaller portion of its overall trade volume than its trade with India, China, or the European Union.
Moscow’s current interests in the region are more political/strategic than economic in nature. Russia’s aims to restore its image as a powerful player and a mediator, a country that not only shares a similar religious tradition, due to the large Muslim minority of Russia, but also will not attempt to pressure Middle Eastern states towards democracy (unlike the West). Another strong motivation for Moscow to actively engage with the Middle East is the urgent need to improve its image among its own citizens. In the ongoing protest movements in Russia one can clearly recognize methods and technology the rebels used in the Arab states. The idea of replication of the Arab Spring in Russia with a popularly organized opposition is of great concern to Putin. If Russia loses its two last major client states in the region, Iran and Syria, it will appear that Russia has lost its influence in the Middle East, and that Russia has lost its credibility both at home and abroad. These concerns explain why Russia’s rapprochement with Egypt appears to have considerable momentum.