Interview: U.S. and Russian Interests in the Middle East

Interview: U.S. and Russian Interests in the Middle East

By Forum Staff

On November 16, on the sidelines of the Conference on U.S.-Russia Relations presented by The Fletcher School and MGIMO University, the Fletcher Forum sat down Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes and Dr. Marc Lynch to discuss U.S. and Russian interests in the Middle East.  

Fletcher Forum: What are Russia's current ambitions in the Middle East and how have they changed since 2011?

TCW: The breakdown in regional order in the past decade has created opportunities for a number of actors, both external to the region and internal. It did not surprise me to see the Russians exploiting those opportunities for greater influence in the Middle East. 

ML: I agree. One of the things that goes all the way back to 2003 is that the regional order in the Middle East based on U.S. hegemony has declined. This has created those kinds of opportunities Tamara is talking about. Russia has punched well above its weight in the Middle East, but largely in unsustainable ways. Moscow has done a very good job of offering itself as an alternative to the United States. But I don't think Russia has really accomplished all that much in terms of new alliances in the region. Still, Moscow has become much more of an active player than it was ten years ago. 

FF: As ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, how does Russia view this development, including the return of foreign fighters? 

TCW: I think the foreign fighter problem has been a significant concern for Russia for a long time, as well as for multiple countries. We have yet to see precisely how ISIS is going to reformulate its strategy or its approach now that it has largely lost its territorial base in Syria and Iraq: whether it will focus on regional targets or Western targets. I think the responses of states will be a reaction to ISIS’ strategy as it emerges. But it is worth noting that Russia has faced threats from domestic terrorism continuously for the last decade or so more. This is not a new problem for Russia.

ML: ISIS has actually been very useful in a way because it has facilitated U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria; ISIS is a common enemy. As ISIS disappears or evolves back into an insurgency, the United States and Russia and other actors in the region are going to have to confront things that they've been able to sweep under the carpet as long as they have been focused on fighting ISIS. We could potentially see the emergence of a real conflict between the United States and Russia over the new map of the Middle East over issues that have largely been set aside for the last two years. 

TCW: I don't expect that actually, at least not with the current U.S. administration. I agree about the dynamics, that given the thin common purpose of fighting ISIS now having been largely resolved, other conflicts will come to the fore. But those are primarily conflicts between proxies, not conflicts between the United States and Russia. By and large, neither the United States nor Russia is interested in engaging in a confrontation over the fate of Syria or the division of power within Syria.

ML: I think that's right. My point was that what happens in eastern Syria and who is going to rule is now an open question. The issue of whether the United States is going to try to topple Bashar al-Assad is not an open question. But there is open space in Syria now, which is we see Assad’s forces racing in and trying to grab land and territory. Fighting ISIS was the strategic glue that allowed us to ignore the existence of other conflicts.

FF: Speaking of U.S.-Russia competition in Syria, what is the impact of the UN Security Council's failure to extend the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, the mission looking into the use of chemical weapons in Syria?

TCW: This marks a very consistent, in the face of evidence, attempt by the Russian government to shield Bashar al-Assad from culpability for his actions, which constitute war crimes. I think it reveals very clearly the lack of Russian commitment to the international norms at the heart of this process. This endangers the counterproliferation effort at the UN overall. For the sake of defending Assad, Moscow has done real damage to the broader global effort against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. 

ML: I completely agree with that. It has been the case for a long time that when there is a U.S.-Russian agreement at the UN, we can accomplish a lot. But when there is U.S.-Russian disagreement at the UN, the institution becomes stymied. 

FF: Broadly speaking, how do you view the trajectory of the U.S.-Saudi relationship? What is the impact of changes currently happening in Saudi Arabia on that relationship? 

ML: From my perspective, Saudi Arabia has been very destructive actor in the Middle East since 2011. It has worked actively to subvert democratic transitions; its support for all sorts of rebels in Syria helped to contribute to the failure of the Syrian uprising; and its war in Yemen is an absolute crime against humanity and indefensible. Going back to 2011, we have seen a real and justifiable conflict between the United States and Saudi Arabia over these issues, which the Obama administration tried to soothe over with massive arms sales. But there is a fundamental divergence there. Saudi Arabia is actively degrading the state system in the Middle East through its foreign policy choices, and I do not see Riyadh as the solution to problems in the region. 

What is going on inside Saudi Arabia right now is absolutely fascinating. I don't think anybody foresaw the speed and audacity of what Mohammad Bin Salman is doing. I would hesitate to speculate as to whether he's going to succeed or not. The bottom line is that he has been far more successful at seizing power for himself domestically than anybody expected. But his foreign policy has been far worse than anybody expected. This tension is currently defining the Saudi role in the region. 

TCW: From the perspective of the United States, the challenge of trying to re-establish a stable order in a disordered region is, if you do not want to make massive investments yourself, you need to rely on strong local partners. And there are no strong local partners in the Middle East right now. The United States used to lead a status quo coalition with Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as its anchors. Today, Egypt is mired in its own mess. Israel can only project power in certain ways. And the Saudis have been playing the role that Marc described, but have their own internal challenges as well. Right now, the Saudis are very focused on regime security and regime consolidation. Therefore, the United States does not have its pick of partners. It is trying to work with what is available because the alternative of acting without partners is unpalatable and lacks public U.S. support. That is the dilemma from the American policy perspective.

It is all too common for American administrations to seize on the emergence of a new, bold leader in an autocratic partner and say, "This guy is really going to change everything. He's going to help solve our problems. He's a reformer. He's a moderate. He's a modernizer." We hear a lot of this language today about Mohammad bin Salman. I think that is more American wishful thinking about our partners than it is about these individuals and what they're actually capable of. What Mohammad bin Salman displays is a leadership style that is very different for Saudi Arabia, which you can see both at home and abroad. Hedging has been a key component of the Saudi approach, regionally and domestically, for a long time. Mohammad bin Salman is not hedging; he is taking risks abroad and consolidating his own power at home. But it is unclear how that approach is going to function in a region with such unpredictably and rapidly shifting dynamics. It is also unclear whether the transition he is trying to affect is going to be meaningful enough to win the allegiance of young, ambitious, impatient Saudi citizens. 

FF: During the Obama administration, there was some concern regarding Egypt moving closer to Russia. It seems that perhaps those concerns have subsided under the Trump administration. What is Egypt’s current relationship with Russia? Does Russia possess the capacity to invest in that relationship?

ML: The Egyptians are on the same page as Russia in Syria. A very interesting aspect of Egypt’s foreign policy is that since the 2013 coup Cairo has been much more supportive of Assad than of the Syrian uprising. This is quite interesting given Cairo’s dependence on Saudi financing. More broadly, Russia does not have have much to offer to most of the Arab states, including Egypt. Moscow can offer arms sales and has had some success in that area. But the kinds of arms Moscow is selling tend to be interchangeable systems, as opposed to the major U.S. weapons systems in which all of these Arab regimes have invested and require long term training and supplies. Russia’s weapons sales in the Middle East mark a tactical rather than a strategic shift. Beyond that, Moscow has simply been able to enhance its influence in the region by being present. That does not mean that Russia is developing new alliances. For Egypt, I think Cairo likes having the Russians to play off against the Americans to enhance its own bargaining power. 

FF: In terms of academia, what role can think tanks, universities, and the like play in responsibly contributing to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?

ML: I think there are real problems with this administration specifically. I’ve been trying for a long time to increase the ability of academics to engage on policy issues and I think we've done a very good job. But right now, we are faced with an administration that actively opposes expertise. The administration is not receptive to the kind of expertise that academics can offer. This means we need to find other ways to influence public opinion.

TCW: Given how upended Middle East regional politics have become, this is a situation in which academic analysis can be more helpful because we really are looking at big historical shifts. We are looking at shifts in the nature of the social contract, at demographic shifts, and geostrategic shifts. These are issues for which academic work has a lot to offer. I think this is a moment of opportunity for more academic-policy dialogue. 

FF: Do you have any advice for students that are interested  in pursuing a career in this field? 

ML: One of your best investments will be in portable skills. By that I mean, spend time in the region and develop real expertise in an area, regardless of whether it is currently in the news. Don't choose classes or thesis topics or expertise based on what you think the market is going toward, because no one knows what the market is going to look like five years from now. If you develop confidence and expertise in languages or knowledge of a particular country or issue, that will always give you something that stands out. 

TCW: I agree. I also think that students should follow their passions. Grad school can be hard, and if you love what you're doing, you will be motivated. The state of the Middle East today is such that we are going to be grappling with these big questions for a good long time. 

Image "Return to Homs" Courtesy Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About the Interviewees



Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Wittes served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012, coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East during the Arab uprisings. Wittes also oversaw the Middle East Partnership Initiative and served as deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions.

Wittes joined Brookings in December of 2003. Previously, she served as a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace and director of programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington. She has also taught courses in international relations and security studies at Georgetown University. Wittes was one of the first recipients of the Rabin-Peres Peace Award, established by President Bill Clinton in 1997.


Professor Lynch received his B.A. in Political Science from Duke University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Government from Cornell University. He teaches courses on Middle Eastern politics and international relations. He is the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science, a contributing editor for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage political science page, editor of the Columbia University Press series Columbia Studies on Middle East Politics, and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

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