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World Affairs Council Speaker On Russia In The Middle East

Benjamin Purper

George Mason University Professor Mark Katz visited the Inland World Affairs Council last week to give a talk about Russia’s role in the Middle East. 

Katz spoke at the University of Redlands for a program called “Russia’s Increasing Presence in the Middle East: What are Putin’s Goals?”

In an interview with KVCR, Katz says the biggest issue facing Russia in the Middle East isn’t escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S. He says the bigger issue is Syria, and the broader challenge of trying to expand Russian influence across the region.

Katz: “Syria obviously is very important, but I think at this point they feel  they've more or less prevailed, that the Assad regime seems to be now relatively confident of remaining in power. So, I think now it's a question of expanding influence and I think that what they would like to do is to be in the position that the U.S. was in the 70's, when we could talk with both Arabs and Israelis and therefore we helped with the peace negotiations and the Russians were sort of sidelined. Now their argument is that Moscow talks with everyone in the Middle East, the Americans can't or won't, therefore Russia should be the one to play this role.”

According to Katz, a war between the U.S. and Iran isn’t something Russia wants. That’s mainly because of Syria.

Katz: “What they worry about is in Syria, the reason they've managed to keep their own costs low in terms of casualties is that they're doing the air war whereas the Iranians and their allies are doing the ground war. If as a result of conflict with the U.S., the Iranians have to either draw down or even end their presence in Syria, that means Russia would have to be the one to either take up the burden or not do so and risk bad things happening. So I think that they really don't want to - what they're worried about is the possibility the present government might fall, and just with unpredictable consequences, especially for Russia.”

Katz says there is a possibility the Iranian regime could fall, pointing to ongoing protests in the capital, Tehran.

Katz: “You know, it's the kind of thing where it never seems possible until it just happens, doesn't it? And we know the Middle East is a place where it could happen. To me what's interesting is there were anti-government demonstrations in the fall, they were suppressed pretty brutally. Now with this shootdown of the Ukrainian aircraft, it's interesting, it seems to be rising once again. And anything can happen now, as long as the security forces remain loyal to the regime, it's not likely to happen, but who knows? In those instances where regimes do fall, one of the features is always that the security forces can't or won't fight for the regime, it'll stop for whatever reason, doesn't matter what the reason is, if they don't do it then the regime can't survive.”

That’s a scenario the Russians don’t want to happen.

Katz: “They don't want to see another government, and they don't want to see chaos like some of the other Middle Eastern countries, that they are actually pretty happy, the Islamic Republic is reviled here in the West, but the Russians view it as a reasonable partner. There could be worse, as far as they're concerned.”

You can learn more about the World Affairs Council of Inland Southern California at wacinlandsocal.org.

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