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How China and Russia can help us avoid escalation in the Middle East

How China and Russia can help us avoid escalation in the Middle East

Washington needs all the help it can get to prevent a regional conflagration.

Analysis | Middle East

The United States faces two preeminent threats flowing from Hamas’s attack on Israel and Israel’s response. The first is the lethal threat to Israel that would be posed by a combination of assaults by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran (especially if helped by Russia), and a renewed Intifada. The second is the danger that such a regional conflagration would drag the United States and Russia reluctantly into the fighting on opposing sides, with China giving aid to Russia.

Preventing both contingencies is critical both to America’s own security and to our commitments to Israel. And our ability to do so depends to a significant degree on help from China and Russia in restraining their partners in the region in return for Israeli restraint in Gaza.

The most likely path toward these twin dangers would be a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, for which Hamas is almost certainly prepared and which it may well have intended to provoke. Such an invasion would inevitably involve prolonged urban combat and massive civilian casualties. This would lead to widespread outrage in the region that could compel a military response from Hezbollah, which in turn would create enormous pressures on Iran to support its Lebanese partner.

A northern front between Israel and an Iran-backed Hezbollah could also quite possibly expand into Syria, which in turn could drag Russia and even Turkey directly into the fighting. None of these actors is seeking direct combat with Israel — the Hamas attacks reportedly took Iran by surprise, Russia already is completely consumed by its war in Ukraine, and Turkey would lose the leverage it enjoys through tacking between the United States, Europe, Russia, and regional players to its south. Nonetheless, circumstances could compel these states to face choices they would rather avoid.

Between China and Russia, Beijing’s help will be easier to enlist. China has the most to lose from a wider conflict in the region, which could threaten access to the region’s oil supplies, drive up energy prices, and undermine the global commerce on which China’s economy depends. It also has much to gain from working with the United States to contain the crisis and stabilize the region, which would bolster Beijing’s prestige on the world stage and potentially mitigate America’s reflexive fears that China intends to destabilize the international order.

For these reasons, Washington will be reluctant to bless a prominent role for China in the region; but China is already playing such a role regardless of U.S. wishes, as its facilitation of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has demonstrated. Successful cooperation with China in the Middle East would mark a return to previous U.S. statements that Washington hopes that Beijing will become a “responsible stakeholder” and not an enemy on the world stage.

Russia is the more important, but also the more difficult nut to crack. More important, because Russia has good relations with both Israel and Iran and has fought beside Hezbollah in Syria; more difficult, because of the immense distrust and hostility that was building up between Washington and Moscow long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine plunged relations into the abyss. Given deep U.S.-Russian enmity over the war in Ukraine, there are obviously strong temptations for Russia to cause trouble for America and exploit international anger over Israeli retaliation in Gaza to bolster its ties to Iran, Arab states, and the wider Global South at U.S. expense.

Fortunately, Moscow also has reasons to worry about a deepening conflict in the region. Russia has since the end of the Cold War sought to maintain good relations with Israel, an important economic partner and the adoptive home of more than a million Russian emigres. It has not reacted when Israel has attacked Hezbollah forces or Syrian targets over the past several years, despite Russia’s key role as a partner of Hezbollah and the Baath state in Syria. A war between Israel and Iran would end Iranian supplies to Russia of drones that have come to play an important role in the Russian campaign in Ukraine.

Above all, Russia has long been concerned about the dangers of Sunni Islamic terrorism, the source of numerous attacks inside Russia, which is likely to flow from the burgeoning conflict in Gaza. In the wake of 9/11, there was a very strong sense in Moscow of common interests with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism. This perception of common threat meant that Western policy in Libya and Syria was greeted in Russia not just with fury but also with bewilderment.

Faced with the obvious danger of Islamist extremism and the dreadful example of the war in Iraq, Russian analysts could not understand how the West could embark on policies that were likely to destroy the Libyan and Syrian states (and did, in the case of Libya) and create great opportunities for the spread of jihadi forces.

A restoration of at least limited cooperation with Russia in counter-terrorism is both one path to an eventual wider settlement and urgently necessary for its own sake; because the present conflict is certain to increase the terrorist threat to the West. In Europe, terrorist attacks have already begun. The U.S. also needs to renew talks with Russia on the future of Syria, since the U.S. strategy of overthrowing the Baath regime has long since collapsed.

Channeling these conflicting impulses into Russian cooperation in containing the dangers of escalation over Gaza will be no easy task. It will require opening a high-level channel of communication between senior Biden administration officials and the Kremlin to discuss the crisis, coupled with an implicit signal that Washington is willing to address some concrete Russian concerns about the U.S. military’s role in Syria and about the need for rekindling Israel-Palestine diplomacy. Our chances of gaining Russian cooperation would improve if the United States and China begin serious talks about managing the Gaza crisis, as Putin will not want to cede the international stage to Beijing.

Neither Russia nor China have enough coercive leverage to prevent Hezbollah from opening a northern front with Israel — and precipitating a cascade of further escalation — should the Israeli Defense Forces mount a full-scale invasion of Gaza. But they probably have sufficient clout to ensure Hamas’s backers stay out of the fray in return for some measure of Israeli restraint, particularly if the United States is willing to back renewed Israel-Palestinian negotiations, open talks with Moscow about Syria, and share the international stage in managing the crisis.

By contrast, stiff-arming Chinese and Russian involvement would only incentivize their opposition to U.S. policies. And if there’s one thing Washington does not need in this crisis, it is yet more parties intent on exploiting instability.

Photo: lashes broke out between protesters and security personnel during demonstrations in Lebanon on Wednesday over Israel's airstrikes on Gaza (Reuters)
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