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Russia sees chance in Middle East to supplant U.S. as leader

BEIRUT – Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union affirmed the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia is back, seeking ways large and small to fill the vacuum left by the departure of American troops from Iraq and the toppling of U.S. allies in the Arab Spring revolts.

The recent diplomacy that averted a U.S. strike against Syria underscored the extent to which Moscow’s steadfast support for its last remaining Arab ally has helped reassert Russia’s role. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has emerged as the world leader with the single biggest influence over the outcome of a raging war threatening the stability of the wider region, winning concessions both from President Bashar al-Assad and President Obama to secure a U.N. resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical arsenal.

Less conspicuously, Russia has been nurturing new alliances and reviving old friendships further afield, reaching out to countries long regarded as belonging to the American sphere of influence in ways that echo the superpower rivalries of the Cold War era.

Those countries include Egypt and Iraq, both traditional Arab heavyweights that have been exploring closer ties with Moscow at a time when the Obama administration has signaled a reluctance to become too deeply embroiled in the region’s turmoil.

In his address to the United Nations last week, Obama stressed that he does not regard the Middle East or the conflict in Syria as an arena of competition with Washington’s bygone foe.

“This is not a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won,” Obama said.

Whether Russia is equally determined not to compete with the United States in the strategically vital region, however, is in question, Arab analysts say.

Saudi Arabia, the region’s strongest Arab power and still Washington’s staunchest Arab ally, is deeply suspicious of Russia’s maneuvering and is convinced that Moscow is engaged in an effort to outwit the United States at its own expense, said Mustafa Alani, of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

The overtures between the United States and Iran, a close Moscow ally, further reinforce anxieties in Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals that Russia is seeking to eclipse the American role in the region, he said.

“The view is that Russia is looking at the whole problem in the Middle East from the old position of the Cold War,” he said. “Wherever America is, they have to spoil the game. They don’t have any principles. Their only policy is to counter the Americans.”

That is not the case, countered Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Russian intentions in the region are rooted in many concerns, but foremost among them is Moscow’s determination “to emphasize Russia’s role in the world as an indispensable nation, especially vis-a-vis American helplessness to settle problems,” he said.

The intent is already being felt. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was elected following the 2003 American invasion, has made two trips to Moscow in the past year and none to Washington.