Russia’s Rise in Mideast Creates Enemies
Moscow has taken the place U.S. long occupied in the minds of many in Middle East: an alien imperialist power seen as waging war on Muslims and Islam.
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Dec. 20, 2016 7:26 p.m. ET
Victory comes at a cost.
Since entering the Syrian war last year, Russia successfully ended America’s status as the Middle East’s sole superpower, an achievement capped by the fall of Aleppo.
That rise has turned Moscow into the region’s indispensable power broker. In Europe, too, the migrant wave unleashed by the Syrian war strengthened Moscow’s sway, fueling populist parties friendly to President Vladimir Putin.
The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday, however, highlighted the flip side of this dizzying rise. As America’s influence has shrunk, Russia has taken the place the U.S. long occupied in the minds of many people in the Middle East: an alien imperialist power seen as waging war on Muslims and Islam.
There haven’t been any recent anti-American protests in the region. But amid the agony of Aleppo, tens of thousands of protesters converged this month outside Russian missions from Istanbul to Beirut to Kuwait City—where the chanting, led by local lawmakers, was clear: “Russia is the enemy of Islam.”
The Turkish policeman who gunned down Ambassador Andrey Karlov on Monday shouted that he was avenging the suffering of Aleppo, which had been subjected to a year of Russian bombing before the Syrian regime and its Shiite allies conquered the rebel-held parts of the city in recent weeks.
The diplomat’s assassination, while condemned by governments, was greeted with open joy on Arabic social media, and in Palestinian refugee camps.
“Russia is certainly being perceived as the new bully in the neighborhood,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “The way people react to its involvement in the decimation of one of the most revered Sunni cities in the Middle East, Aleppo, is reminiscent of how the U.S. was viewed after its occupation of Iraq. You only need to follow how the killer of the Russian ambassador was glorified throughout the region to get an idea of how Russia is despised by the populace today.”
Though Russia has become the immediate focus of this outrage, the fall of Aleppo is also intensifying support in the region for jihadist groups that plot terrorist attacks in the West such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.
“There is a feeling that Aleppo signifies a new phase,” said Lebanese lawmaker Basem Shabb. “The level of anger is very high and there is no doubt that what happened there will fuel a lot of extremism, in Europe and other parts of the world.”
The killing of 12 people at a Berlin Christmas market on Monday appeared to be one such extremist attack, after Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for it.
Though the perpetrator is still unknown, such terrorist attacks in Europe have become enmeshed in the public mind with the massive refugee influx that began after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of Mr. Putin’s toughest critics in the West, last year decided to grant asylum to Syrians fleeing the war.
A chorus of anti-immigrant politicians from across Europe has already accused Ms. Merkel, who is facing elections next year, of being responsible for the carnage in Berlin.
That Russia has become a target of the global jihad in ways that it wasn’t before became clear in October last year, just a month after Russia deployed its forces and war planes to Syria. A Russian passenger jet was downed over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, with Islamic State claiming responsibility.
These days, however, Russia’s involvement—in troops and treasure—has grown. Anger at Russia is much more overt, too, and isn’t just confined to jihadists.
That, for one, poses a problem for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s drive to forge an understanding with Mr. Putin and Iran over the future of Syria. Ankara until recently was one of the most determined foes of the Assad regime but has softened this stance in exchange for Russia’s acquiescence to a Turkish military operation against Islamic State and Kurdish militias in northern Syria. Foreign ministers of the three nations discussed Syria at Tuesday’s talks in Moscow.
“Since 2011, the Turkish government narrative has created and nurtured a domestic constituency that is very sensitive to the tragedy unfolding in Syria,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now heads the Edam think tank in Istanbul. “A more realpolitik approach to Syria is certainly creating frustration among this constituency.”
In Turkey and elsewhere in the region, hostile public opinion means that Russian representatives and missions would have to enact the same security restrictions that have hampered the work of American diplomats for decades.
Yet, just as anti-American demonstrations and attacks on American diplomats didn’t drive the U.S. from the Middle East in past decades, Moscow, too, is unlikely to be deterred by Mr. Karlov’s death.
“What happened is an illustration that the rising role of Russia, its involvement in sensitive areas, means that Russia will have to accept higher risks,” said Nikolay Kozhanov, a former Russian diplomat in Iran and a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg. “But it will not become a turning point or lead to a change of policy.”
Both Turkey and Russia are determined not to let the assassination of Mr. Karlov spoil the recent rapprochement between the two nations.
Last month, Mr. Erdogan even floated the idea of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security pact that unites Russia and China, though full membership would be incompatible with Turkey remaining a member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Whatever happens, regional leaders are well aware that Moscow has come to the Middle East to stay.
“They want to be reckoned with, to have enough clout so that nothing will take place in the region without their consent,” the secretary-general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, said in an interview last week. “And they are succeeding.”