China has already demonstrated an ambition to extend its influence in the Middle East by the surprise rapprochement it brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2023.
Beijing is seeking to portray itself as an honest broker compared with Washington.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that Israel’s actions have already extended beyond self-defence towards collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza.
Russia and China are siding with a Palestinian people seeking liberation and self-determination, while in Washington’s eyes, they themselves deny those same possibilities to places like Ukraine and Tibet.
But in their reluctance to blame Hamas and effort to associate themselves with the Palestinian cause, both Russia and China are appealing to a wider sentiment in the so-called Global South – and in large parts of Europe, too.
For them, it is Israel that is conducting a colonialist policy by its occupation of the West Bank, its encouragement of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land and its isolation of the 2.3 million people of Gaza, who are subjected even in normal times to sharp restrictions on their freedoms.
The Global South, a term for developing nations, is a vital area of the new competition between the West and the Chinese-Russian alternative, said Dr Hanna Notte, the director of a Eurasia programme at the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies.
From the point of view of many in the Global South, she said, “the United States fights Russia, the occupier of Ukraine, but when it comes to Israel, the US is on the side of the occupier, and Russia taps into that”.
Russia also sees the benefit of appealing to the larger Arab public in the name of the Palestinians in countries like Egypt, Jordan and those in the Gulf that have no love for Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, that have decent relations with Washington and Israel, and that have little desire to accept Palestinian refugees from Gaza.
Already allied with Syria and influential in Libya, Russia has also moved closer to Iran, Hamas’ main sponsor, especially as its war in Ukraine has bogged it down.
Russia has sought Iranian arms, missiles and drones.
But the interests of Iran and Russia in the region are not the same.
Russia is reluctant to see the war in Gaza spread to a regional war because it would inevitably harm, if not engulf, Lebanon and Syria, where Russia has military bases that are important for its power projection.
“Tied up in Ukraine, the Russians don’t have the bandwidth for that,” Dr Notte said. “If there is a broader regional war, and the United States comes down hard on the side of Israel, Russia would have to drift even further to the Iranian side, and I can’t see Russia wanting to pick sides in the region.”
Of course, if the Israel-Hamas war takes Washington’s attention away from Russia’s war in Ukraine, and diverts already strained US armaments such as missile defence and artillery ammunition from Ukraine to Israel, that is just an extra benefit to Moscow. NYTIMES
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