In the Middle East, Russia Seems to Be Everywhere
Russia's growing prominence in the Middle East was on full display Dec. 11 when Vladimir Putin visited three key Middle Eastern countries in one day. The Russian president followed a surprise trip to Syria with a quick stop in Egypt before ending his day's travels in Turkey. He met with his presidential counterparts in all three countries, and the economic deals, military agreements and political settlements he discussed highlighted Russia's role in the region. While Russia has its own reasons for bolstering its relationships with Syria, Egypt and Turkey, it also benefits from being visible where its regional rival, the United States, is not.
In all three of the countries Putin visited, Russia's goals contravene those of the United States, or the relationship is more pragmatic where Washington's is less so, and more heavily weighted toward a couple of specific names.
In Syria, the United States plays a strong counterterrorism role but has stepped away from the civil conflict almost entirely, which gives it less leverage to bring about any sort of political solution aligned with U.S. interests.
Russia's relationship with Turkey is important beyond its contrast with the U.S.-Turkey relationship, but Russia relishes bolstering its image as a mediator, interlocutor and friend as the United States struggles to be the same.
Russia has used its strategic footprint in Syria to deepen its relationships across the region. Egypt, which has a long-standing pattern of turning alternately to the United States or Russia for external security and economic agreements, is swinging toward Russia again.
To Middle Eastern states, Russia is angling to portray itself as a benevolent mediator — a superpower that does not interfere domestically but can provide diplomatic, economic and security assistance.
What Vladimir Putin Really Wants in the Middle East
The West would clearly benefit from a better understanding of the Russian perspective — which is not to suggest that the Russian media’s portrayal of the country’s Middle East strategy should be taken at face value. Fortunately, a far more sober and comprehensive account of the Russian government’s objectives in the region, and its blind spots, is available in form of Dmitri Trenin’s short new book, What Is Russia Up to in the Middle East?
To explain what Russia is up to in the Middle East, Trenin first criticizes the Cold War “prism” that is favored by Russia critics such as American consultant Molly McKew, who has argued, “We won the last Cold War. We will win the next one too.” As Trenin cautions, this viewpoint creates misleading expectations in a new world characterized by the absence of an iron curtain, the peripheral rather than pivotal global importance of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
It also creates misleading expectations about Russia, which is no longer the ideological revolutionary regime it once was. Rather, Trenin argues, Russia must be regarded as a country that is integrated into the global capitalist economy and global information space. There, it fights for survival as a major independent geopolitical entity against the far superior forces of its competitors. Above all else, Trenin suggests using language borrowed from U.S. President Donald Trump: Moscow today is interested in “making deals.”
What would it take to build trust? If we take Putin and Trenin at their word, Moscow is seeking an alliance with the United States that would require a fundamental shift in Western perceptions of Russia from that of competitor to that of a partner in the fight against global terrorism. What Russia has to offer to this partnership is outlined in the remaining chapters of Trenin’s book: its “stunning” ability to build coalitions and negotiate across the “seemingly unbridgeable divides” of Middle Eastern politics — between Sunnis and Shiites; Israel and the Palestinians; Israel and Iran; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Turkey and the Kurds; and the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk in Libya.
Russia 'has come back to the Middle East': Turkish professor
Hurriyet Daily News
Russia, once a significant actor in Middle Eastern politics, has in recent years returned to the region as a “game-setter,” according to Professor Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney, the dean and head of the International Relations Department at Bahçeşehir (BAU) Cyprus University.
Despite difficulties, Turkey’s continuing relations with Western institutions like the EU strengthen its hands in its ties with Russia and other regional powers, Güney told the Hürriyet Daily News, adding that Ankara is “pursuing a multilateral balance diplomacy” that includes Iran.
“Russia is now well-established in the Middle East. Reducing its number of soldiers is not so important. It is impossible to do anything in Syria without Russia. Moscow has stepped into the vacuum left by the U.S. during the Obama administration, which preferred to “lead from behind.”
Russia profited from this window of opportunity and turned its limited military capacity into maximum benefits.
The Russian naval doctrine published in 2010 says it is imperative to reach the Mediterranean, and this has basically now been realized through Syria. Russia has now settled in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean. I don’t think it will leave the region,” Güney was quoted as saying.
The Middle East has a new kingpin: Vladimir Putin
US retreat has allowed Russia to spread its influence on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For evidence of Russia’s new strength in the region, look at Putin’s travel itinerary from last Monday. His day began with an early flight to Khmeinim air base in Syria for his first visit to that country since Moscow intervened in the civil war in September 2015. Addressing his troops, he declared that Russia had achieved its aim of vanquishing Islamic State, and would begin a partial withdrawal.
…Nobody could dispute that Russia’s intervention had been a success.
When Russia entered the conflict in 2015, the then US secretary of defence, Ash Carter, said Putin was heading into a quagmire with a strategy that was “doomed to failure”. On the contrary, Moscow re-oriented the war in its favour, suffered minimal losses, showcased its military capabilities and is set to scale down its operation in time for the Russian presidential election next March.
It also gets to keep its military base at Khmeimim and a strategically prized naval facility at Tartus on the Mediterranean.
From Syria, Putin flew to Egypt, where he and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed to resume direct tourist flights between their countries, suspended after the bombing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai in 2015, and moved closer to a deal for Russia to build a $30 billion nuclear power plant in Egypt.
In Ankara, Putin’s final stop of his whirlwind day-tour, he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to make progress on the sale of an advanced Russian S-400 air missile defence system to Turkey. The Putin-Erdogan meeting, the seventh this year, showed how relations have recovered in the year since the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey and the two years since Turkish forces shot down a Russian fighter jet.
In just a few years Putin has seized on that space and skilfully positioned himself as a regional kingpin. Increasingly, the Israelis, Turks, Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians are beating a path to the Kremlin as a place where their problems can be fixed.
Putin maintains his strong alliance with Iran, yet he is also on good terms with its arch-rival Saudi Arabia. In October, King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit Moscow.
Putin managed to bring Turkey and Iran together in an attempt to cool the conflict in Syria, while the Saudis are co-operating with Moscow in coaxing the Syrian opposition to unite for peace talks.
Moreover, Moscow has been mediating an end to the internal Palestinian rift between Fatah and Hamas, and has invited rival Libyan factions to Moscow in an attempt to broker peace.
The result is one of the stories of the decade: how successes in the Middle East have given Moscow a springboard back to the high table of global geopolitics.
Putin's Syria Victory Lap Teaches Middle Eastern Leaders One Important Lesson
Putin’s short stop in Khmeimim, on his way to a longer visit to Cairo in Egypt and Ankara in Turkey, was very much a victory lap. Twenty-seven months since the Russian deployment to Syria began, no one has any illusions that, as far as the Kremlin is concerned, this has been a resounding success. There were expectations that this foreign intervention in a Mideast war would end in tears, as so many previous ones had. But not this time.
Questions were raised over whether Russia’s military – still undergoing a transition from its old and unwieldy Soviet Red Army version – could carry out a prolonged and long-range deployment of this scale. But despite a few mishaps, which included the smoke-shrouded arrival of the ineffective aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov last year, the modernized Russian army pulled it off.
Putin plays by Moscow rules, and by those rules this has indeed been a resounding success. He has kept an ally in place, cemented a strategic regional alliance that includes Iran, ensured Russia has long-term rights for air and sea bases in the Mediterranean (Khmeimim and the port of Tartus) and established himself as the only world leader with real influence in the region.
Russia will use Syrian seaports to export wheat to the Middle East – official
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Russia wants to use Syrian ports to ship grain to Syria and neighboring countries.
“Syrian ports are ideal for exports of Russian wheat not only to Syria, but via Syria to Iraq and other nearby countries. That’s beneficial for us,” Rogozin said as quoted by RIA Novosti.
The Deputy PM added that Russia harvested another record wheat crop this year, highlighting the necessity to export the grain.
Russia and Syria are also planning to jointly create a phosphates deposit developer, according to Rogozin.
“There’s a big phosphate deposit in Syria. In many countries this product is in high demand,” he said in a follow up to his visit to the country.
US viewed less positively than Russia across five Middle Eastern countries, survey finds
Russia is generally unpopular across a broad selection of Middle Eastern countries, but still has an edge in its approval rating over the United States, according to researchers.
The U.S.-based Pew Research Center found in a newly released survey that while only about a third of respondents said they viewed Russia favorably — a median of 35 percent across five countries polled — just 27 percent saw the U.S. as a force for good.
Released Monday, the survey was conducted in spring 2017 across what Pew considered to be five key Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) publics: Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Israel and Turkey.
Key Middle East Publics See Russia, Turkey and U.S. All Playing Larger Roles in Region
Majorities across five Middle Eastern and North African countries agree that Russia, Turkey and the United States are all playing more important roles in the region than they did 10 years ago, according to a spring 2017 Pew Research Center survey.
While a median of 53% across the same countries also see Iran playing a more important role, fewer in the region say that Israel and Saudi Arabia have gained influence in the past 10 years. The only country the surveyed publics see as less influential a decade on is Egypt.
Overall, a number of influential powers in the Middle East are not seen in a favorable light. Roughly one-third or fewer view Russia (median of 35%) or the U.S. (median of 27%) positively. Within the region, views of Iran are particularly poor (14% favorable), though Saudi Arabia fares better (44%).
Middle Eastern publics see both the U.S. and Russia playing more important roles in the region today than they did 10 years ago.
At least half in all of the nations surveyed say Russia is more influential now compared with a decade ago. Lebanon is particularly likely to say Russia’s role has grown, with Shia (81%) and Sunni Muslims (77%) sharing this view.
Majorities in four of the five nations surveyed also say that the U.S.’s prominence in the region has grown in the past 10 years. A plurality in Israel agrees, although roughly a quarter each say that the U.S.’s role is as important (24%) or less important (27%) now.
The Latest: Russia ready to mediate Israel-Palestinian talks
Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Vladimir Safronkov offered Russia’s role in a speech to the U.N. Security Council Monday. It came after he supported a resolution, vetoed by the U.S., that would have required President Donald Trump to rescind his decision declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the U.S. as a mediator following Trump’s action.
After UNSC vote, Russia offers to replace US as ‘honest’ Mideast mediator
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said it was becoming more important to move “as quickly as possible towards direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.” He reiterated Russia’s proposal to hold a summit between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
“We are ready to become an honest mediator here,” he said.
He also reiterated Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s call for the Security Council to conduct “a comprehensive review of the situation in the Middle East.”
The United States had been certain to veto the Egyptian-sponsored resolution, but its Arab supporters wanted the vote to demonstrate that countries everywhere and even many US allies such as Britain, France and Japan are against Trump’s action.
Russia and US are on the same side of the Middle East coin
During Russia’s war against ISIS and the anti-Assad rebels, the Russian military made a better showing, but Putin only had 70 aircraft involved in the conflict, including helicopters, fighter jets and bombers, according to a Dec. 2, 2017, “Geopolitical Futures” video featuring Middle East director of analysis, Jacob Shapiro. That is hardly a show of great force that challenges U.S. dominance. Putin’s help was enough to prevent the toppling of al-Assad from power, which was a potential and real threat because of ISIS.
The defeat of ISIS has created more instability, since all three regional powers were united in defeating ISIS. As long as they had a common enemy, attention was focused away from their differences. That no longer is the case.
U.S. hegemony is not really threatened in the Middle East. There is no return to the Cold War and Putin and Trump have common interests in not allowing any regional power to dominate the region. They are cooperating behind the scenes. What you read in the news belies the geopolitical reality on the ground in the Middle East.