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What Russia's Role In The Middle East Says About Shifting Global Influence


Now - what to make of Russia's role in the Syrian fighting and in this latest attempt at a ceasefire? Unlike the ceasefire that broke down in September, the United States was not a party to bring about this agreement. Before Russia intervened heavily in the Syrian war, the Assad regime was on the ropes, and now it has retaken Aleppo. Well, does all that confirm Moscow's role as a regional power in the Middle East?

Joining us via Skype is Steven Clemons. He's Washington editor at large for The Atlantic. And Steve Clemons, if this ceasefire holds up, does Vladimir Putin's stock in Russia and the Middle East go up?

STEVEN CLEMONS: It surges. It goes to an extraordinary level because by playing all the pieces he's played in the region and taking very, very high risks, he will be the tycoon winner (laughter) in the Middle East sweepstakes right now.

SIEGEL: When you say by taking risks, what risks did he take?

CLEMONS: I think that when he began to invest more material weapons and people into the Syrian conflict, he took a major risk that this could both tarnish his own reputation if it failed but could also take him down a rabbit hole that looked a lot like Afghanistan. And a lot of us on the sidelines in America said what he was doing is exactly what Barack Obama didn't want to do for fear of falling down that slippery slope. So that was the big risk.

He took it, and he took it in a way in which he looks as if he's the prevailing winner in the region right now orchestrating new deals with Turkey. Remember the Turks shot down a Russian aircraft, and so his diplomacy has been very deft. And he achieved his main goal, which was to keep Bashar al-Assad, his client state in power.

SIEGEL: But even if the ceasefire holds in Syria and if peace talks proceed, Syria's going to be a country where many Sunni Arabs, the country's majority, have violently opposed the Assad regime, where ISIS still controls much territory, where Syrian Kurds want autonomy and where the regime survived only with military support from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah. In that political mess, what do you think Russia really wants to see happen?

CLEMONS: I think Russia wants to make sure that its primacy, its ability to be a definitive factor in what would unfold - the lines are going to be redrawn in the region. We don't know what Syria will look like in the future. It will continue to be a knot, as you just described, because of the factions that are going on there.

But when it comes to the big powers there - so you've got in the region Iran, the Saudis and the Gulf states together, Turkey. And Russia itself now is demonstrating that it's not sort of sitting pathetically on the sideline, that it's a major player.

So what it has achieved is a dominant place at the table in a period when many other nations - whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but look at the United States as in strategic contraction from the region, as unable to deliver for its allies during their dark days.

SIEGEL: If we've been misunderstanding Putin, if we try to understand him, what is the Russian interest in the Middle East and the Mediterranean? How do you describe that?

CLEMONS: I think it sees it as a demonstration project to show that Russia is not a basket case, that despite its economy contracting at the moment, that it has extraordinary power and ability to have leverage on global affairs.

I think one of Russia's grievances has been after the fall of the Soviet Union, it went through a period, an era where it felt humiliated and discarded by much of the rest of the world. But right now, internationally, its muscle matters, and I think that's helping to buy time both for Putin but also the Russian psyche, if you will. This is not just Putin. Russians are very, very supportive of this more robust role that its country is playing.

SIEGEL: Steve Clemons of The Atlantic, thanks for talking with us today.

CLEMONS: Thank you, Robert.


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