Edition 35 Volume 6 - September 04, 2024

Russia-Georgia: lessons for the Middle East

Georgian defeat tarnishes Israel, spells trouble ahead -   Ali Abunimah

If Georgia signals the beginning of the end of US "hyperpower", so too will Israel find itself increasingly challenged.

Diplomacy by proxy -   Zvi Bar’el

Can the Russian show of force in Georgia tilt the paralyzing status quo in the Middle East in a new direction?

Russia could use Mideast ties in standoff with US -   Konstantin von Eggert

The "Great Game" has just begun again.

Telling every party what it wants to hear -   Ekaterine Meiering-Mikadze

Ignoring the Kremlin's attempt to effect a Middle East comeback is dangerous.

That tiny war: Iran, Russia and the Middle East -   Jalil Roshandel

There is no reason to believe that Iran is neutral regarding the Russian-Georgian dispute.

Georgian defeat tarnishes Israel, spells trouble ahead
 Ali Abunimah

In the wake of Russia's counterattack against the Georgian invasion of the breakaway region of South Ossetia last month, Turkish President Abdullah Gul observed that the era when the United States alone could set the world agenda had ended. "I don't think you can control all the world from one center," he said, "There are big nations. There are huge populations. There is unbelievable economic development in some parts of the world." Instead of "unilateral actions," Gul called for states to "act all together, make common decisions and have consultations with the world. A new world order . . . should emerge." Even if the US remains the world's most powerful country, it is a diminished force and time is not on its side.

These developments have major implications for Israelis, Palestinians and the broader region. For Israel, Georgia represents another in a series of setbacks and embarrassments. Israel attempted to downplay its involvement for fear that Russia would step up support to Israel's adversaries in retaliation. In recent years, hundreds of millions of dollars of Israeli weapons and training had poured into Georgia--where the US has major energy and "strategic" interests--along with over two billion dollars of American military support. Israel played a similar role during the Cold War, arming at America's behest the apartheid regime in South Africa and the extreme right-wing US-backed regimes in Central America. In order to shore up its own American support, as well as for economic gain, Israel always does its part to help its patron.

But things did not go to plan. Israel's military reputation was already badly tarnished before the quick collapse of the Israeli-trained Georgian forces. This certainly did nothing to restore Israel's "deterrence" after a long series of setbacks: the collapse of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army in 2024, the Israeli failure to defeat Hizballah in July 2024, Hamas' rapid success in overcoming Israeli- and US-supported Palestinian Authority forces in Gaza in June 2024 and Hizballah's quick overrun of US-backed militias in Lebanon in May 2024. And, although the suffering was disproportionately on the Palestinian side, Israel was unable to defeat Hamas militarily and was forced to agree to a mutual ceasefire in order to stop resistance rocket fire at Israeli towns.

A clear danger to the region is that a new Israeli leadership will try to compensate by launching new military adventures to prove its toughness and reverse the trend. But Israel is much less likely to attack Iran, let alone without Washington's blessing and military support. Israel's dilemma, brought into stark relief by Georgia, is that it has no legitimate political solution within reach for its conflict with the Palestinians. At the same time, the military brute force that has sustained Israel has been losing the capacity to shape the region to its will. Israel relies on only one ally, the United States. If Georgia signals the beginning of the end of US "hyperpower", so too will Israel find itself increasingly challenged and its own needs increasingly at odds with those of its patron. Israel's neighbors will also have other choices than to fall into line behind America or stand alone as "rogue states".

Israel's loss does not necessarily mean the Palestinians' gain unless Palestinians are able to seize the initiative. One clear Palestinian loser is the US-backed Mahmoud Abbas/Mohammad Dahlan Authority in Ramallah which must now wonder if the US will be more loyal to it than it was to the Georgian leadership whose desperate calls for assistance went largely unanswered in Washington.

Yet if the US, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, has trouble projecting power directly, and Russia gets more involved in the region, the US may rely more on the kinds of "dirty wars" that it has been stoking between Hamas and Fateh in Palestine and opposition and government in Lebanon. This will add to instability and human suffering and make it even harder for Palestinians to restore the kind of unity around a common agenda among all wings of the Palestinian nation (within Israel, in the 1967 occupied territories and the diaspora) needed to challenge Israeli apartheid and colonialism.- Published 4/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse".

Diplomacy by proxy
 Zvi Bar’el

It sounded like the best news the Middle East had heard for the last decade: Russia is back. A Gulf News editor, Abdul-Hadi al-Timimi, wrote in an op-ed that Russia's willingness to use its military might to reassert its influence in the former Soviet space was "long overdue" and "most urgently needed at a time when the US and its allies are targeting two of the last few Russian allies in the Middle East: Iran and Syria."

It was not so much the show of force that Russia demonstrated toward Georgia that made the Middle East beam with joy, as it was the feeling that Russia is getting even with the United States. Russia used Georgia as a proxy for its new diplomacy. The one-polar world, anti-Arab and pro-Israeli, was shattered; America and Europe were "dragged naked" on the streets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the Middle East can breathe freely.

Can it really?

A very important common denominator between Israel and most Arab states has developed since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad came to power. It is not just the nuclear threat that Iran introduces, but rather the fact that its nuclear technology is not perceived anymore as Islamic power, let alone Arab power. It is the threat of a Persian or Shi'ite bomb that looms. Thus, no Islamic or Arabic counterbalance to the Israeli threat is achieved by an Iranian threat; rather, a more ominous power that is less controllable by Arab nations is in the making.

Political processes that have taken place in the Middle East in recent years--whether the crisis in Lebanon, establishing a more or less functioning government in Iraq, the power struggle between Fateh and Hamas or the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations--are void of any Arab influence. The last successful achievement was in 2024 at the Arab League summit in Beirut; since then, nothing new has emerged. A major attempt by leading Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and by the Arab League to isolate Syria or to force Assad into consensual "behavior" regarding Lebanon, has failed. On the contrary, Syria is now the new "star" with a new opening to Europe, a dialogue with Israel, a renewed welcome in Russia and a fully obedient Lebanon under its wings.

These are just a few examples for the Middle East state of affairs, whereby the parties that are directly involved in conflicts are unable or unwilling to solve them. Now, as they search for a new genie--that is how one might read al-Timimi's call--can the Russian show of force in Georgia tilt the paralyzing status quo in the Middle East in a new direction?

We recall that Russia is a member of the infamous quartet that was formed in 2024 to "promote a just, comprehensive, and lasting settlement of the Middle East conflict". While the US and the European Union were involved heavily, albeit with little success, in this process, Russia was absent and its voice barely heard. Yet it is not US President George W. Bush who alienated Russia. Russia alienated itself.

So far, Russia has given the impression that it has no interest in "local conflicts" that carry no strategic importance for it. Of course, there is no need to expand on how, from a Russian point of view, the Kosovo or South Ossetia cases are not just "local conflicts". But now, with tension between Russia, the US and the EU high and a new "world crisis map" being drawn, Russia may want to play a higher-profile role, and not only in the Black Sea or the Caucasus, but also in areas that are considered "American" or "European" spheres of influence.

For example, Russia has not yet translated its alliance with Iran into political leverage over Iraq. But, with Syria as a newly-reborn ally and Iran as a partner, is it unimaginable to see Russia developing a pro-Russian "crescent"? Can one dismiss the possibility that states like Kuwait or Qatar will join in? After all, this is not the old cold war between two ideologies, nor is it the question about "who is with America and who is against it". Rather, commercial and strategic interests are involved.

In the context of its rivalry with the US and EU, Russia may want to flex its political muscle in the Arab-Israel arena. Why not call for a "Russian Annapolis" meeting? Why not invite Hamas and Fateh to Moscow? Can an Israeli or Palestinian prime minister decline a meeting with the Russian foreign minister? Further, if Russia decides that now it is its turn to impose a Russian peace initiative, can the parties reject it? Will such an initiative shake the US? Will Washington compete then with Moscow on promoting the peace process?

All this may sound like a hot summer illusion: a scenario of wishful thinking that refuses to accept the fact that the current status quo, the ongoing conflicts and the power struggle that ensues from them may just serve Russia as it had served the Soviet Union. Still, as we observe the latest Russian swing of the pendulum, assess Putin's ambitions and anticipate a new American president, how long will it take Russia to develop a new role in the Middle East?- Published 4/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Zvi Bar'el is the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz daily, Israel.

Russia could use Mideast ties in standoff with US
 Konstantin von Eggert

Although there is seemingly no direct link between the Russia-Georgia conflict and Russia's policy in the Middle East, the conflict could well lead to significant shifts in Moscow's posture in the region. If the current tendencies in the Kremlin's foreign policy prevail, the Middle East may return to a situation resembling that of the Cold War, with Moscow trying to make life difficult for Washington by supporting regimes the US considers hostile. It is the United States that Russia holds primarily responsible for what it terms the "aggressive policies" of Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, and it is America's support for Tbilisi--including promises to re-equip Georgia's armed forces--that rattle Moscow the most.

It is interesting that one of the first politicians to support Russia's actions was Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. There have been reports in the Russian press that Moscow may increase its naval presence in the Mediterranean through the use of Latakia and Tartus, Syria's two ports. New arms deliveries to Damascus could well be another response from Moscow to what it perceives as America's unfriendly policies in the Caucasus.

Another and potentially more serious step Russia could take is to adopt a more assertive stance over Iran's nuclear program and international sanctions against Tehran. It is interesting that in the wake of the crisis in Georgia, US military action against Iran, which some people claimed to be imminent before the end of the year, looks less likely as Washington has to tackle the Caucasus problem first. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad expressed some support for Russia's actions at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Dushanbe, though Tehran did not rush to recognize the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Indeed, Moscow got some moral support but nothing much in terms of real political solidarity from those it counted on, especially China and Iran. Yet these countries would appear to be among the few to which Russia will turn for support in case its standoff with the West over Georgia continues, as it might.

Overtures could also be made to Libya's maverick leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. A high-ranking Russian delegation paid Tripoli a visit to attend the thirty-ninth anniversary of the coup that brought Qaddafi to power. It was headed by Vladimir Yakunin, the boss of Russia's state railways and a man trusted by Vladimir Putin. Not much is known about the contents of the conversations in Tripoli, and it is doubtful that Qaddafi will take up a confrontational course with regard to US and Europe, as he cherishes his newly-found public acceptance by the West and even more so the economic benefits such acceptance could bring.

In the wider region, Russia is already taking steps to counter America's possible moves to secure a pipeline network in Caucasus and Central Asia. Prime Minister Putin has signed an agreement with Uzbek President Islam Karimov to build a new pipeline that will carry natural gas from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan to Russia. Karimov, whose relations with America are tense over his harsh treatment of the opposition, was no doubt glad to get this shot in the arm from Moscow, which will be supplemented by massive Russian arms deliveries, if one believes what Putin said in Tashkent.

Another country that could get extra attention from Moscow is Azerbaijan, which has so far managed to maintain a precarious balance between Russia and the US. President Ilham Aliev had mostly let his officials support Georgia's territorial integrity (rather than condemn Russia's actions). However, a more pro-western tilt in Azeri policies is becoming visible, as Baku feels that events in Georgia could have a direct influence on its own frozen conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. At the same time, there is a growing feeling in Washington that drawing Azerbaijan closer into the US orbit is in America's major interest. This will hardly be to Russia's liking. Iran, with its Azeri minority, also watches events in the neighboring country closely and will no doubt be unhappy if Baku strengthens its ties with the US.

It seems that a round of the twenty-first century version of the "Great Game" has just begun.- Published 4/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Konstantin von Eggert, MBE, is the Moscow Bureau Editor of the BBC Russian Service.

Telling every party what it wants to hear
 Ekaterine Meiering-Mikadze

On May 15, 2024 the United Nations General Assembly recognized the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Georgians from Abkhazia in 1994. It seemed that the international community was finally paying attention to a conflict that, for reasons of political convenience, had been frozen for a decade and a half.

Tbilisi had been suggesting peace plans for Abkhazia as well as for South Ossetia for years, but no Georgian government could agree to settle the issue of separatism by accepting the outcome of referendums on independence in areas depopulated by force. In Abkhazia alone, militias enjoying Russian military support while using ethnicity as a cover expelled 80 percent of the population. The recognition of the 400,000 internally displaced persons' right of return a few months ago was an important diplomatic milestone toward solving a core issue of Georgia's two conflicts with separatists backed by Moscow.

In addition, Georgia had been focusing on developing the vicinity of the breakaway areas, creating incentives for people there to look toward Tbilisi rather than Moscow. Around Tskhinvali, the administrative capital of South Ossetia, the cleanup against smuggling started showing positive results, with young and old crossing checkpoints into Tbilisi-controlled areas to attend schools, see doctors, or simply work in a country that has been rated the top reformer by the World Bank.

Making Georgia attractive worked for the ordinary people who have always lived together in mixed situations. It did not work for the separatist elites who lived on smuggling and patronage rather than on economic development and political participation.

When Moscow's satraps in Tskhinvali realized they were losing influence among the population, they opted for escalation. The Kremlin's men on the spot had been violating everything from ceasefire agreements to Georgian airspace for many years. To prepare for supporting ground operations, Moscow arranged for maneuvers to be held in the North Caucasus. Separatist militias targeted Georgian police with roadside bombs. They increasingly terrorized the local population by shooting, looting and raiding, up to the point that farmers demanded stronger protection by the Georgian government. Moscow continued handing out Russian passports, dispossessing residents of their Georgian citizenship while creating a fictitious "Russian" entitled to the Kremlin's protection.

Despite the collusion between separatist militias and so-called Russian peacekeepers, Georgian State Minister Temuri Yakobashvili went to Tskhinvali early on August 7, 2024 to meet with separatist leaders; none of them showed up. Instead, the Russian commander of the peacekeeping forces, Murat Kulakhmetov, received him, stating that the Russian forces had lost control over the militias in South Ossetia. That was when the escalation began, with Russian material and personnel moving quickly through the Roki tunnel under the Caucasus chain into the area of Tskhinvali and from there onwards to Gori and the rest of Georgia.

This conflict was not really about South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Rather, it was about a country that over the last eight years has become increasingly intolerant internally and openly belligerent externally: Putin's Russia. While initially media and politicians worldwide took the conflict as a local incident, they quickly realized that the silent cold war going on since Putin's takeover in late 1999 had just entered its hot phase. The Russian invasion of Georgia aimed at reversing "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century", as Putin called the demise of the Soviet Union. In one word: little Georgia does matter, but it matters even more now that the bigger picture is becoming clearer around the world. Putin's "petro-state" is turning into a political project of national aggrandizement with global outreach.

Russia has not only been threatening, blackmailing and--now in the case of Georgia--occupying neighboring countries but has also been trying to reclaim its status as a great power beyond the borders of the infamous "near abroad". For three reasons, the area where Russian ambitions and local expectations appear most to coincide seems to be the Middle East.

First, Russia has been playing in the Middle East on old Cold War sympathies. It makes the Arab street and wide circles of uninformed but opinion-shaping actors believe that the past glory of the Soviet superpower is still alive. It actively plays on anti-Americanism, promoting the concept that the days of confrontation with the United States were in fact the good old days.

At the ideological level, Russia made its entry as a Muslim nation by becoming a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Supported by various Arab states, this has facilitated Russia's whitewashing of its negative record in the wider Middle East. Gone are the days when Arab mujahedin fought against Moscow's wars in Afghanistan or even more recently in Chechnya, where a quarter of the population was annihilated. Likewise, throughout the Levant in particular, the Kremlin supports the Russian-Orthodox Church, utilizing its clergy to counterbalance the largely Greek hierarchy.

At the secular end, Moscow cultivates friendship associations that regroup tens of thousands of graduates from former Soviet universities. Many among them are deeply convinced that Moscow's antagonism to Washington will benefit the Palestinian cause; Russia Today--by satellite television and online--carefully underlines this topic.

Second, as with its image strategy in Europe, the Kremlin presents itself as a reliable partner in business and politics: as modern and efficient as anybody else but not seeking to dominate the region. Russia consults with the oil countries of the Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia, on production figures and target prices. In addition, the Kremlin is silently building up a gas cartel resembling OPEC, with emphasis on Qatar, Iran, Algeria and Egypt. Qatar ranks high on the Russian list of priorities, not only because there were complications resulting from the murder by Russian agents of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbayev in Doha in 2024. More importantly, the tiny Gulf state has the potential to compete with Russia in the global gas market. While the Kremlin commands a pipeline network based on long-term contracts and pricing, Doha is investing in liquefied natural gas that can be delivered by ship to any place in the world with re-gasification installations.

Keeping energy prices high is a key concern for Russia: its upstream operations are more costly than in the Arab Gulf states, and it was income from extractive industries that allowed Moscow to flex its muscles in the first place. Maintaining a high price-level also serves the purpose of converting Arab petrodollars into Russian arms sales. With this, Moscow benefits twice from soaring energy prices.

Third, just as Russia has painstakingly tried not to appear as antagonizing the United States, so it has cultivated close ties with Israel. Moscow's role in the Quartet overseeing the Middle East peace process is not that important regarding a settlement of the Palestine issue. Rather, this is a vehicle to convey to Americans and Europeans that Russia does not in any way harm Israel's interests. At the same time, this multilateral instrument allows Moscow to conceal--at the Arab street level--that its direct relations with Tel Aviv are in fact more substantial than they appear to those who think of the Kremlin as defending the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Russia's coquetry with organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah allows it to score points in the Arab region. Another way of not arousing suspicion is Moscow's attempt to forge ever-closer ties with those Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel, notably Egypt and Jordan. Here, too, cooperation in arms and energy diffuses the impression that Russian activities may ultimately turn into threats.

Until now, Moscow's ambitions have flourished by successfully telling separate audiences across the Atlantic, around the Mediterranean and in the Gulf what each wanted to hear. Until the Russian invasion of Georgia this may have appeared innocent; it is not anymore. As a lack of attention to Russia's policies has paved the way to disaster in Georgia, so too ignoring the Kremlin's attempt to effect a Middle East comeback is dangerous. In the new Cold War, support for Moscow in any matter whatsoever will be looked upon as a policy statement. Arab governments would be well advised to recall their experience of the old Cold War. Getting lost in contradictions does not pay in the long-term.- Published 4/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ekaterine Meiering-Mikadze is ambassador of Georgia to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Republic of Iraq and the Lebanese Republic. This article is written in a private capacity and reflects her personal opinion alone.

That tiny war: Iran, Russia and the Middle East
 Jalil Roshandel

Based on news reports, the war erupted on August 7 when Georgians launched a massive artillery barrage targeting the separatist province of South Ossetia that was supported by Russia. The latter claimed that 15 peacekeepers were killed and, in retaliation, Russian forces drove deep into Georgia, occupying crucial positions across the country. Testing Colin Powell's doctrine of overwhelming force, Russia dispatched more troops on August 8 to retake South Ossetia. Russia accused Georgia of killing 2,000 Ossetian civilians, while Georgia accused Russia of summarily executing ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia and detaining others in camps. Within a few days, a ceasefire prevailed and troops were withdrawn. At the end of a five-day war, Moscow recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second separatist enclave of Georgia, ignoring the disapproval of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and strong criticism from the West.

Today the question is not who fired first or if Georgia was lured into firing first. In the words of the UN Security Council the two actors, Russia and Georgia, decided to resort to "open military aggression" to solve their political dispute. At this point the war is militarily over, but the political conflict will continue for some time. Its next phase will probably be the absorption of the newly "independent" territories by Russia. To many this might not appear important, but in fact this "small" incident is going to have much greater ramifications on a region that already has enough problems: the Middle East. Turkey, Iran, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Israel--in other words, the entire Middle East--will be affected.

Some states in the region now have an opportunity to realign or strengthen their ties with one of the parties by taking a stand for or against what has just happened. For instance, Syrian leader Bashar Assad was quick to take Russia's side in the war with Georgia. Assad also agreed to heighten Russia's naval presence at its Tartus port. Of course in return, he asked the Russians for advanced weapons systems. In international relations this might seem very normal, but in the context of fragile Middle East security this is interpreted as improving Syrian power versus Israel.

In terms of Middle East security, the Iranian position is of great importance. There is no reason to believe that Iran is neutral regarding the Russian-Georgian dispute. In fact, two policy options are available to Tehran, both of which, depending on long-term policy goals, could yield positive results. Thus Iran could, in theory, oppose Russia's action by arguing that Russian expansion southward is a clear threat to it and that instability in the Caucasus region would negatively affect its security. Or Iran could benefit from US-Russian tension over Georgia by taking calculated steps toward full support for Russia and maximizing its benefits in the nuclear sphere and elsewhere.

Iran appears to be tilting toward the second option. When you look at some of the less visible statements by Iranian authorities you find what the real, if not official, stance is. Thus the Iranian media described the fighting as a US-planned war to create a reason for intervention in the Caucasus. An anonymous Iranian military authority declared that the "US and its allies must accept the reality of Russia's victory in this war", meaning America's defeat, and warned Americans that everywhere they go they will face the same type of defeat.

Iran's Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi's comments are the most important. He referred to the Georgian president as "a product of an American velvet revolution" who started the war, thereby jeopardizing Russian national interests and security and causing Russia to react and attack Georgia. Firouzabadi argued that the war was initiated by American warmongers who seek to persuade the public to vote for their presidential candidate. One may argue that his remarks were geared toward domestic Iranian consumption, but are they not equally revealing of the Iranian government's stance toward the war?

Despite the fact that Levan Asatiani, the Georgian ambassador in Tehran, praised Iran's stance on the Caucasus conflict and claimed it had been supportive, Tehran officially did no more than mildly "[ask] the sides to declare a ceasefire and to start negotiations to resolve the problems". Perhaps Georgia's dependence on Iran justifies the ambassador's deference.

Historically, the Shahs of Persia and Iran feared Tsarist Russia and more recently the former Soviet Union, but this is no longer the case. Today, Russia and Iran have a strong relationship. Russia is building Iran's nuclear plant at Bushehr and is selling arms, missiles, aircraft and all sorts of technologies and military equipment to Iran. Iran is also seeking full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; this would enable it to sit at the same table with two veto holders on the UN Security Council, Russia and China, and would in fact place it in a defense pact with Russia.

As was evident in the case of Chechnya, Iran will not go beyond a mild reaction to the Georgia-Russia war and to recognition by Russia of the independence of the two Georgian enclaves. Recent remarks by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad on the sidelines of the SCO meeting in Tajikistan that "there is evidence at hand that proves Zionists are behind the South Ossetia and Abkhazia events" and that "enemies do not wish to see Iran and Russia powerful" are very revealing.

For such a Russia-friendly position, Iran could as noted be rewarded with full membership in the SCO and more energetic support for its nuclear plans. Russia might strongly oppose additional international sanctions against Iran. Further, security, military and economic interactions between Iran and Russia could open the door for the Russians to step into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, a traditional sphere of US interest and influence.

The picture is even gloomier when we look at all these probabilities together and link them to the future of security in the Middle East.- Published 4/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Jalil Roshandel is associate professor and director of the Security Studies Program at the Political Science Department of East Carolina University. He is currently working on a book project (with Dr. Alethia Cook): US-Iran Relations: Policy Challenges and Opportunities.

Email This Article

Print This Article