In order to realistically and objectively assess whether there is any prospect for U.S.-Russia cooperation on Middle East Policy we need to acknowledge that there may be diametrically opposed perceived interests and proposed solutions to the problems in the Middle East in order to reconcile our differences. Until now, the U.S. has dominated Middle East policy and had seemingly more strategic interests and influence in the region than Russia. However, we are beginning to see a larger Russian role in the Middle East, and we are also seeing a qualitatively different role than the Obama Administration has played.

For now, the U.S. has seemingly more strategic interests in the Middle East, not only because we remain a major importer of Arab oil and that  the U.S. is a party to several bilateral defense treaties with countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and because we set the destabilizing forces in motion by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia is neither a major importer of Arab oil nor is Russia a party to any bilateral defense treaties with countries in the region, regardless of Russian support of Assad. Most importantly, Russia does not need to try and save face in the Middle East because Russia neither violated the territorial or political sovereignty of any Arab state. Primarily with the invasion of Iraq, and the ensuing Arab Spring, the Obama Administration’s seemingly continued an aimless and naïve Middle East policy, when forcing long-term U.S. allies such as Hosni Mubarak to step down in favor of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Russia neither militarily nor politically forced any of the secular Arab dictators to step down in the wake of the Arab Spring, and consequently, Russia now can maneuver from a place of legitimacy in the region.

Once close U.S. allies such as Egypt have been making a noticeable pivot towards Russia, with Egypt’s El Sisi recently entering into significant trade, energy, and security deals with Putin. This exemplifies the changing nature of alliances, and interests in the region. Russia claims it wants to fight terror in the Middle East, and the U.S. claims it wants to promote democracy. Their degree and nature of interests in the Middle East are significantly different, which partially explains why both countries have different views of tackling the region’s problems, and why the Obama Administration is attempting to limit U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. With that said, Russia has strong opinions about U.S.-Middle East policy, and vice versa.

Russia views U.S. policy in the Middle East as counter-productive, as it sees foreign intervention in the affairs of sovereign nations as not only in violation of international law, but as a substantial contributing factor to instability and the rise of jihadi groups in the region, who are waging an aggressive attack on the current state-based global order. Groups like Daesh aim to topple the current world order of states being the dominant actors in international relations, and to impose a new form of governance—an Islamic caliphate.[1] The U.S. on the other hand, views its policies in the Middle East as championing democracy, via the toppling of what the U.S. perceives to be Arab dictators, even if it means arming “moderate” Islamist groups. The unintended consequences of U.S. support for regime change have contributed to further destabilizing the region and propping up the rise of terrorist groups, as weak governments have crumbled and are continuing to crumble almost instantly with explicit U.S. support of opposition groups as in the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, or implicit U.S. support as with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The U.S. would counter that to bring about democracy in the Middle East in the long run would be beneficial, even if it creates a period of instability and turmoil.

The biggest sticking point in Middle East negotiations between the U.S. and Russia is the Syrian conflict, and whether to support the status quo or assist in the toppling of Bashar Al Assad.  Not surprisingly, this is an issue where the U.S.-Russia relationship is of critical importance not simply because of balance of power politics, but because international responses to significant global issues such as the conflict in Syria very much depend upon the cooperation of the U.S. and Russia. Political maneuvering has come at significant cost in Syria, in which the civilian population has paid the heavy price, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced as a result.[2]

We are also seeing the ramifications of the discord in the Security Council in response to the Yemen crisis, with the U.S. giving support to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s bombing initiative in Yemen, which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths thanks to the Saudi-led coalition, and an insurmountable humanitarian crisis in which about 20 million of the roughly 25 million people living in Yemen now require some form of humanitarian aid. The U.S. has also vetoed a request by groups such as Human Rights Watch for investigating possible war crimes by Saudi Arabia which have resulted in the indiscriminate use of cluster bombs (which are likely in violation of the laws and customs of war) supplied to the Saudis by the U.S. Russia has opposed Saudi intervention in Yemen, since the beginning of the bombing campaign.

As permanent members of the Security Council, it is critical that the U.S. and Russia reach comprehensive and coherent strategies in battling the difficult issues that the world faces, such as the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Gridlock on the Security Council and political maneuvering between the U.S. and Russia cannot persist, as the Middle East and the rest of the world should not have to suffer because the two global leaders are unwilling to find common ground to alleviate the unnecessary suffering of civilians.

[1] Kissinger, Henry. World Order. NEW YORK, NY: Penguin Press, 2014.

[2] Nichols, Michelle. “U.N. Chief Calls on Security Council to Take Action on Syria.” | Top News | Reuters. June 24, 2015. Accessed June 24, 2015.

Marina Mansour is an attorney and the Fall 2015 Assistant Editor of  PGI. She is also a masters candidate at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Written by Marina Mansour