War in Ukraine highlights internal divisions in Middle Eastern countries

In a neighborhood of the Iraqi capital, a gigantic poster of Vladimir Putin with the words “We support Russia” was displayed for a few hours before a security force arrived and hastily took it down. Then came the security directive: Any public display of Putin’s photos will be prohibited.

In Lebanon, the powerful Hezbollah militia has railed against the government’s condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, calling for neutrality.

Such squabbles show the deep divisions over Ukraine’s war in the Middle East, where Moscow has emerged as a key player in recent years, making powerful friends among state and non-state actors as the influence of America was shrinking.

Political elites closely allied with the West fear alienating Russia or the United States and Europe. But other forces — from Shiite militia factions in Iraq to the Lebanese Hezbollah group and Houthi rebels in Yemen — vocally support Russia against Ukraine.

These groups are seen as Iran’s boots on the ground in the so-called anti-American “axis of resistance.” Putin has won their support largely through his close ties to Tehran and his military intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of President Bashar Assad.

They see Putin as a stable and reliable partner who, unlike the Americans, does not let his allies down. In their circles, they even have an affectionate nickname for Putin – “Abu Ali” – which is a common name among Shia Muslims and meant to portray a certain camaraderie.

Meanwhile, governments are walking a tightrope.

“Iraq is against the war but has not condemned it or taken sides,” said political analyst Ihsan Alshamary, who heads the policy think tank in Baghdad. Iraq must remain neutral as it shares interests with Russia and the West, he said.

He said Iran’s allies in the region are openly with Russia “because they are anti-American and anti-Western and believe Russia is their ally.”

Russia has invested up to $14 billion in Iraq and the Kurdish-ruled northern region, mostly in the energy sector, Moscow Ambassador Elbrus Kutrashev told the Iraqi Kurdish News Agency. Rudaw in a recent interview.

Among the main oil companies operating in the country are Russian Lukoil, Gazprom Neft and Rosneft.

Iraq also has close ties with the United States, but Western companies regularly plot to pull out of Iraq’s oil sector.

Iraq’s strongest move yet came after its central bank advised the prime minister against signing new contracts with Russian companies or paying in light of US sanctions. The decision will impact new Russian investment in the country, but little else, Russian industry officials said.

Last week, Iraq was among 35 countries that abstained in a UN General Assembly vote to demand that Russia halt its offensive and withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Lebanon voted in favor, while Syria, where ties with Russia run deep, voted against. Iran also abstained.

In Lebanon, an unusually direct statement by the Foreign Ministry denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused outcry and upset Russians, forcing the minister to clarify that Lebanon had no intention of taking sides and would remain neutral.

“They distance themselves and claim neutrality where they want, and they interfere and condemn where they want,” Hezbollah MP Ibrahim Moussawi wrote on Twitter, targeting the Foreign Ministry. “What foreign policy does Lebanon follow, and what is Lebanon’s interest in that? Please clarify for us, Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Hezbollah, which has also sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Syria to bolster Assad’s forces, seized on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to portray it as the inevitable result of US provocations and a new betrayal by the United States of its allies – in this case, Ukraine.

In Syria, where Russia maintains thousands of troops, billboards proclaiming “Victory for Russia” appeared in neighborhoods in Damascus this week. In opposition-held areas, which are still hit by Russian airstrikes, residents hope the pressure will ease if Russia becomes bogged down in fighting in Ukraine.

In Iraq, the war in Ukraine highlights the divisions in an already fractured landscape during stalled efforts to form a new government, five months after parliamentary elections were held.

The huge pro-Putin billboard was briefly installed in a Baghdad neighborhood seen as a stronghold of powerful Iran-backed militias. After it was removed, the Russian Embassy in Baghdad tweeted an image of it.

“The poster was provocative, I’m against it,” said Athir Ghorayeb, who works at a nearby cafe. Iraq is just emerging from decades of war and conflict, he said. “Why do they insist on involving us in new issues? »

Many Iraqis see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as echoes of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait and the years of economic sanctions against Iraq that followed. Just a few days ago, Iraq finished paying reparations to Kuwait amounting to more than $52 billion.

On social networks, Iraqi pages on Facebook with millions of followers posted news of what is happening in Ukraine, sharing their views. “Our hearts are with the civilians, because those who have tasted war know its disasters,” posted a user, Zahra Obaidi.

“We have tents for refugees and internally displaced people, so you are welcome to come and use them,” Hafidh Salih said.

Toby Dodge, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said Iraq’s decisions – to abstain from voting at the UN while limiting economic activity – were prudent, managing short-term risks without adopting an ideological position.

But the longer the war drags on, the more difficult it will be to maintain this strategy.

“Iraq is deeply divided politically between pro-Iranian actors and those who are anti-Iranian trying to assert their autonomy. Ukraine becomes another performance, another example where either side can restore their image,” he said.


Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Samya Kullab in Kabul contributed reporting.

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