Over the past years, in addition to its military campaign in Syria and its attempt to establish itself as a sympathetic mediator between the Taliban and other Afghan groups, the Kremlin has worked in less direct ways to increase its influence throughout the Middle East. Shay Attias explains:
[T]he decrease in America’s standing in the Middle East works to enhance Russia’s position as a regional peace broker. Vladimir Putin has put Russia in a preeminent regional position through the classical hard-power tool of fighting in Syria while simultaneously talking “peace” with the Taliban, who are still killing Americans. This is not a random success. As early as 2012, Putin was already openly discussing [such efforts].
Russia has also built up the international media channel RT, formerly known as “Russia Today.” RT is working hard on its Arabic service—RT Arabic is one of the largest TV networks in the region (along with Al Jazeera). Labeled “Putin propaganda” by the U.S., RT has had much success at pushing the Russian perspective. . . . RT Arabic has 6.3 million monthly users in six Arabic-speaking countries: Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan.
If there is in fact a soft-power battle between Russia and the U.S. in the Middle East, most [indicators] suggest that Moscow has the momentum. Two recent regional polls show that Arabs aged eighteen to twenty-four increasingly view Russia as an ally and the U.S. as unreliable or worse. The percentage of young Arabs who see the U.S. as an ally dropped from 63 percent in 2016 to 35 percent last year. Russia is increasingly regarded as the top non-Arab ally by young people in the Middle East, with 20 percent seeing it as the region’s best friend outside the Middle East and North Africa.
Unless Washington pushes back, concludes Attias, it will soon find itself at a significant disadvantage.