The US and Russia, rivals of old, at odds in the Arab world

There is rich irony in the way the United States and Russia are choosing to respond to crisis in the Arab world, seen best in Syria. It remains to be seen which approach will work.

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Michael Young

As the Arab uprisings enter their second year, it is useful to compare the way the two former Cold War rivals, the United States and Russia, are faring in the Middle East. There are several ironies here, and they will be crucial in determining how both adjust to a region in flux.

The first irony is that while the United States was for a long time the major backer of autocratic Arab regimes, it is Russia that is presently most resistant to democratic regime change in the Arab world. The Russians reaffirmed this last week, when they vetoed, along with China, a resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan to remove Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from office.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Russians appear adamant in wanting Mr Al Assad to stay in power. They have supplied the Syrian regime with arms, and the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accompanied by the foreign intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov, visited Damascus on Tuesday, purportedly to urge Mr Al Assad to accelerate reforms. Those in Beirut familiar with Russian thinking argue that their preferred solution is formation of a national-unity government, open to compliant opposition figures, that leaves the core of Mr Assad's rule intact. Others believe Moscow might contemplate Mr Al Assad's exit if it can preserve its interests in any transition.

In contrast, Washington, notwithstanding initial hesitations, turned against its authoritarian allies or partners with greater alacrity than Moscow. If there was little it could do in Tunisia, the Obama administration did come around quickly in demanding that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak step down when he faced massive street demonstrations in January 2011.

Russia refused to go that far, taking a hands-off approach to events in Cairo. And when Mr Mubarak was put on trial after his downfall, Russia's Foreign Ministry urged the Egyptian judiciary to respect "humanitarian principles" in deciding his fate.

The Americans also swiftly switched hats on Muammar Qaddafi when the Libyan rebellion began. The relationship had improved over the years, thanks primarily to the collaboration against Al Qaeda. President Barack Obama pussyfooted on intervention in the Libyan conflict, but when he decided to intervene, the United States played a vital role in the Nato military campaign.

Russia, however, viewed Qaddafi's removal as a setback. The rapport between the Soviet Union and Libya had been very close, and in 2008, Russia was offered access to Benghazi port for its naval vessels. The Libyan regime was also a major buyer of Russian weaponry, and there was close cooperation in the oil and natural gas sector. Moscow approved a Security Council resolution to protect Libyan civilians, but opposed it being used by Nato as an excuse for regime change.

A second irony is that Russia has left ideology aside in pursuing its Middle Eastern interests. After decades of communism, arms sales, oil and gas contracts - in a word, capitalism - are the new benchmarks of Moscow's regional policy. For a long time these better described Washington's motivations. The Soviets were doubtless interested in exporting weapons and projecting military power. However, an ideological agenda more plainly defined their conduct, whereas now the United States finds itself increasingly a prisoner of a philosophical commitment to democracy.

This doesn't mean Washington has abandoned commerce, military power or its other guiding principles. The Americans recently concluded an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and their bond with Israel is as strong as ever. It is that Russia is less reticent about taking decisions on the basis of realpolitik than America. This may mean that Moscow is less hypocritical; but it also means it is more sanguine about regime brutality than the Obama administration.

A third irony happens to be Israel. It was noticeable that in his defence of the veto on Syria last week, Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, did not embarrass Washington by mentioning its myriad vetoes of Security Council decisions on Israel's behalf. Partly, that was because Russia has developed good relations with the Israelis in the past decade. There have been strains between the countries, but this has not prevented budding bilateral commercial and even military ties, sustained by Israel's large Russian diaspora.

What happens in the Arab world in the coming years will determine whether the United States or Russia will gain down the road. If Arab societies install pluralistic, representative systems, where the instruments of state repression are placed under some form of civilian oversight, the Americans may emerge with more influence. Washington's forthright endorsement of the Egyptian, Libyan, Tunisian and Syrian oppositions, no matter how belated, makes it more apt to adjust to post-authoritarian orders, whatever the contradictions in its behaviour.

However, it is uncertain whether open political orders will soon emerge. Russia's calculation is that the Arab uprisings will engender further chaos before there is stabilisation. That will create fresh doubts, therefore numerous opportunities for it to manoeuvre, even in Syria, where the opposition is bitterly critical of Moscow. The Russians are also keen to contain developments that may have repercussions at home, not least the triumph of Sunni Islamists, which they fear may radicalise Muslims in Russia and nearby.

Washington and Moscow remain far apart on the Middle East, while the rationale behind their actions has never been so similar. But values cannot be discounted. Russia's hard-nosedness may yet backfire, while a more emancipated Arab world is also one less likely to bend to American priorities. Both countries are navigating blind in an environment where the old ways are simply much less suitable.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle