The Israelis and Turks, the Egyptians and Jordanians — they’re all beating a path to the Kremlin in the hope that Vladimir Putin, the new master of the Middle East, can secure their interests and fix their problems.
The latest in line is Saudi King Salman, who this week is due to become the first monarch of the oil-rich kingdom to visit Moscow. At the top of his agenda will be reining in Iran, a close Russian ally seen as a deadly foe by most Gulf Arab states.
Until very recently, Washington stood alone as the go-to destination for such leaders. Right now, American power in the region is perceptibly in retreat — testimony to the success of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which shored up President Bashar al-Assad after years of U.S. insistence that he must go.
“It changed the reality, the balance of power on the ground,” said Dennis Ross, who was America’s chief Mideast peace negotiator and advised several presidents from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama. “Putin has succeeded in making Russia a factor in the Middle East. That’s why you see a constant stream of Middle Eastern visitors going to Moscow.”
Success brings its own problems. As conflicting demands pile up, it’s not easy to send all those visitors home satisfied. “The more you try to adopt a position of dealing with all sides, the more you find that it’s hard to play that game,’’ Ross said.
Moscow was a major power in the Middle East during the Cold War, arming Arab states against Israel. Its influence collapsed along with communism. When the U.S. invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Russia was a bystander, unable to do more than protest.
The tables began to turn in 2013, when the U.S. under Obama decided not to attack Assad. Two years later, Putin sent troops and planes to defend him.