Perhaps Americans have forgotten how much of the Cold War was fought in the Middle East, but Russia has not.
Recent events in the Middle East have offered numerous opportunities for greatness in foreign intervention, and Russia, perhaps in a bid to regain the sort of international friend network we now enjoy, has been taking advantage of them.
Syria was Russia's first move. While the chemical smoke cleared and the United States floundered among red lines, Putin benificently arrived with a diplomatic solution. Perhaps it was an atypical role for someone who had spent the last few months supporting Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime; we all know how Russia always hates to see Uncle Sam in a difficult spot. In any case, Putin's plan to remove the chemical weapons from Syria has been largely successful—last week it was hailed as an "unprecedented collaboration" and "success" by the Washington Post and others.
That was Russia's "success," though. If you doubt whether Putin intended a dramatic re-entry onto the world's diplomatic stage, reread his op-ed published in the New York Times. It is possible that the whole episode could have been handled in a way that would have made the United States look worse, but nothing comes to mind right now.
The surprising thing about all this is that when Russian troops arrived in Crimea, everyone was surprised. One would have thought there had been no warning that Putin wanted to flex his ample biceps outside of Russia.
Now, Russia is giving Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's increasingly frazzled prime minister, his desired jets months ahead of American shipments, plus the pilots to fly them, according to the Daily Beast. Maliki has said publicly that he wishes he had teamed up with the Europeans from the beginning.
Russia is not only providing fighter jets, but is also showing a softer side. Several Orthodox Christian leaders from Russia have been energetic in supporting the Christians of the Middle East, who are sometimes the closest thing their Muslim countrymen have to a punching bag for anti-West grievances. There is no evidence yet that the Iraqi Christians have turned from America to Russia en masse, but a significant number are thinking about it, reports the Daily Beast:
“Russia proved through history that it’s the only defender of Christians,” said Ashur Giwargis, who heads the Assyrian Patriotic Movement (APM), which for two years has energetically lobbied the Kremlin to support an independent Assyrian Christian state in northern Iraq.
Until recently, the Beirut-based exile and his colleagues, who are scattered among the global Iraqi diaspora, had little to show for their efforts, but in January, as Western-Russian tensions escalated over Ukraine, Giwargis was summoned to Moscow to meet government officials.
I suppose we can take comfort in the knowledge that when the United States of America fails to support persecuted Christian minorities, the former Soviet Union will pick up the slack in the cause of religious liberty.
As the United States wavers and waffles its way through the Middle East with policies painstakingly tailored to each country, Russia is making friends with the region's ethnic and religious groups. If the United States continues to step off the world stage, the evidence suggests that it will not stay empty for long.
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