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PUTIN’S MIDDLE EAST DREAM

Kicked out of the Middle East after the Cold War, the Kremlin has clawed its way back—at the expense of American power and prestige
SASHA MORDOVETS/GETTY

On the morning of January 11, Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar climbed up the companionway of an aircraft carrier loating of the Mediterranean port of Tobruk. As a marine band played and an honor guard presented arms, an admiral in a white full-dress uniform greeted Haftar, who was a senior commander in the U.S.-backed rebel forces that ousted the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, in 2011. After the welcoming ceremony, the 73-yearold Haftar, an American citizen who for many years lived in the United States, was escorted below decks for a secure video conference with the Middle East’s most energetic foreign power broker. The oicial topic was battling terror. But both sides knew the unoicial agenda was something else: how to boost Haftar’s power as he tries to defeat a weak, U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

Haftar has close ties in Washington, but his hosts in January were not American. Rather, he was aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, and his interlocutor was Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Like a growing number of leaders in the Middle East, Haftar has a new set of friends in Moscow. After three decades on the sidelines, Russia is once again a major player in the region. In the last six months alone, the country has altered the course of the Syrian civil war and taken control of the peace process, forged a close relationship with Turkey’s strongman Pres ident Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has been courting traditional U.S. allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Israel. And over the past two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has received the leaders of Middle Eastern states 25 times—five more than former U.S. President Barack Obama, according to a Newsweek analysis of presidential meetings.

For decades, Washington has tried to plant democracies in much of the world, including the Middle East. But that plan appears to have withered under Obama and current U.S. President Donald Trump. With the imperfect exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring did not bring democracy to the Middle East. It instead allowed instability and extremism to lourish in countries including Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Western military action in Libya and Yemen helped produce failed states that are still mired in civil wars. Washington’s backing of Syrian rebels and insistence that autocratic President Bashar al-Assad shouldn’t stay in power allowed Syria’s civil war to drag on, or even intensify—fueling the rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). And a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians—a longstanding goal of U.S. foreign policy—now seems further away than ever. After Obama’s two terms, last year’s historic Iran nuclear deal, which curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions, remains as the lone regional success story—and even that looks shaky under the new administration.

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PUTIN'S NEW EMPIRE Like a growing number of leaders in the Middle East, Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has a new set of friends in Moscow. After three decades on the sidelines, Russia is once again a major player in the region.
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