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Will Russia try to exploit Middle East volatility? What could come next – National


Experts have been warning the IsraelHamas conflict could spread into a wider regional conflagration, drawing in other state and non-state actors.

And a Russia expert says that amid the raging hostilities in Gaza and Ukraine, the Kremlin could try to seize new opportunities, putting a heavy burden on the United States to placate multiple conflicts.

“It is in (Russia’s) interest for there to be a wider war in the Middle East, because for sure, it will result in divided attention for the U.S. and for Europe,” McGill University political science professor Maria Popova said.

“The Russian regime right now is just fundamentally anti-western and really wants to weaken the West in every way it can — and a broader war in the Middle East, this is one way to do that.”

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Click to play video: 'Biden addresses America as tensions continue to rise in Israel-Hamas conflict'


Biden addresses America as tensions continue to rise in Israel-Hamas conflict


Russian President Vladimir Putin, Popova said, is trying to reclaim the country’s superpower status.

And with its invasion in Ukraine struggling to gain ground, she told Global News the Kremlin likely sees the Israel-Hamas conflict as an opportunity to advance both its standing in the Middle East and its military goals in Ukraine.

Russia has a presence in the region through its close ally Iran that, in turn, supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, a powerful militia in the south of Lebanon that is also dedicated to seeking Israel’s destruction.

Merissa Khurma, the director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said regardless of whether Iran did or didn’t contribute directly to the Hamas attack on Israel, the Oct. 7 bloodshed completely shifted the status quo in the Middle East, with implications for years to come.

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Israel had normalized relations with Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan through an agreement called the Abraham Accords. And it appeared to be drawing closer to regional power Saudi Arabia in the weeks before the attack.

That pact was made, Khurma said, despite the accords having “completely marginalized” the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Many Arab countries had previously agreed to only normalize relations with Tel Aviv if the country implemented a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

The Hamas attacks, which killed 1,400 people in Israel, and the IDF response in Gaza, which Hamas-run Gaza health authorities say has killed roughly 3,000 there, is severely straining the nascent diplomacy.


Click to play video: 'Growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza'


Growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza


“What we’re seeing today is not an annulment of the Abraham Accords, but it definitely will leave a very deep dent in those bilateral relations,” Khurma told Global News.

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Efforts now, she said, are focused on preventing the conflict from spreading as the IDF mobilizes 300,000 reservists and masses tanks and troops on Gaza’s northern border for an expected ground offensive.

“There are very cautionary messages being reiterated and highlighted by regional leaders about such an invasion, given that many are worried that this will encourage other non-state actors, primarily Hezbollah,” she said.

American President Joe Biden was scheduled to meet with Israel’s prime minister and, separately, the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority – though leaders scrapped the latter after an explosion killed hundreds at a Gaza City hospital.

The Hamas militant group blamed Israel for the massive blast at the al-Ahli Hospital – with hospital officials saying hundreds had died – while Israel blamed a rocket misfired by other Palestinian militants, Islamic Jihad.

At the same time, Putin has placed a flurry of calls to key regional players because he’s dedicated to “ending the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation,” according to a Russian government statement.

The Kremlin has repeatedly blamed past U.S. policy failures for creating the conditions that led to the latest explosion of violence in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Moscow’s representative at the United Nations Security Council tabled a motion for a ceasefire. Other members voted against it because it did not also condemn Hamas – which the U.S. ambassador said amounted to “giving cover to a terrorist group that brutalizes innocent civilians.”

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Hamas is a listed terrorist entity in the U.S., Europe and Canada.

“The resolution in the UN comes from (Russia’s) desire to really be contrarian to the U.S. and to the West more broadly,” Popova said.

“(Russia) sort of interprets everything from the standpoint of what helps its own interests.”


Click to play video: 'Israeli Gaza ground operation creating civilian losses would be “absolutely unacceptable”: Putin'


Israeli Gaza ground operation creating civilian losses would be “absolutely unacceptable”: Putin


Popova said if Russia were to try to widen the conflict, it might do so by encouraging Hezbollah to launch a full attack from across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

With the situation so tense, Khurma said the likelihood of that “very much depends on the possibility of (an Israeli) ground invasion in Gaza.”

She also said it’s too early to tell if Russia will intervene directly or indirectly because the situation in Gaza and Israel is evolving.

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“We’re still trying to figure out what’s happening in that very narrow area. And it’s important to focus on that and see how the rest of it unfolds,” she stated.

George Washington political management professor Todd Belt said any attempts to draw American attention and support away from Ukraine would fail because overall support from American lawmakers for both Tel Aviv and Kyiv remains — and will stay — very strong.

Its financial support will also remain strong, Belt said, with lawmakers having already allocated billions in dollars to helping both countries, with more currently allocated for Ukraine than Israel.

“There’s quite a bit of material that hasn’t been transported over to Ukraine,” he told Global News.

“We send them our old stuff, we buy new stuff, and that’s sort of how it works.”

But further assistance, like potentially replenishing Tel Aviv’s Iron Dome missile defence system, faces a roadblock because the U.S. House of Representatives has been without a Speaker for two weeks, freezing all votes and future funding.

“The problem is, if you don’t have a house that can do business then nothing can really be done,” Belt said.


Click to play video: 'Biden to send Congress $100B urgent funding request for Ukraine, Israel and Tawain'


Biden to send Congress $100B urgent funding request for Ukraine, Israel and Tawain


On Thursday, Biden announced in a televised speech that he would ask Congress for around US$100 billion, saying Hamas and Russia have similar goals.

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“Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: they both want to completely annihilate a neighbouring democracy,” he said.

While American lawmakers scramble to find a suitable Speaker and Middle Eastern leaders try to contain the fighting, Belt said the weather, of all things, could provide some relief against Russia’s push in Ukraine.

“We’re entering the muddy season in Ukraine,” he said.

“And so Russia can certainly fire off missiles and launch their bombers at places, but they’re going to have a lot of difficulty recapturing territory.”

— with files from Global News’ Sean Boyton, Reuters and The Associated Press.





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