Trump Makes Space for Russia in the Middle East
Russia’s strategy in the Middle East is infinitely more perceptive and successful than the incoherent American effort. President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit is a good example of the expanding influence of Russia in the region. Egyptian and Russian ministers signed a $21-billion deal to finance and build Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant. Putin and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also agreed to work toward rebuilding economic and military relations to the way they were in Soviet times. President Sisi sees the durability of the US alliance as unreliable.
In Syria, Russian support was crucial in the defeat of ISIS and other jihadi rebels and has cemented its influence there for a future generation. Russian/Iranian relations are again blooming in trade, energy and military cooperation. Even in the Sunni Arab oil producing countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, Russia’s spreading influence has been helped by the alignment of interests in curtailing oil supply and maintaining high energy prices.
Contrast this to American policy, which has been compete in the energy markets to depress prices and to remove America as a market for Middle Eastern oil. Moreover, President Donald Trump has gone out of his way to offend Muslim sensibilities throughout the region both by his clumsy travel ban, racially charged rhetoric and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. The only other initiatives Trump has come up with are to encourage Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to ally Saudi Arabia with Israel against Iran, fight a proxy war in Yemen and to ditch all economic and political support for the Palestinians.
The State Department and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s contribution to Middle Eastern strategy has been almost totally absent or ignored. President Trump has appointed only one ambassador in the whole region — to Israel — which highlights his priorities. This is disrespectful at the very least to the regimes he is trying to be friends with. In short, the whole effort to project American interests in the Middle East has been a disaster, and one Russia has benefited from and will continue to exploit for the reminder of Trump’s presidency.
Putin is delighted: Russian relationships will endure long after the regimes that love Trump so much have disappeared.
Year in review: Russia strengthens bid for Middle East influence
In addition to these new diplomatic bonds with Syria and Egypt, Mr Putin can also point to Moscow’s strengthened relations with Turkey, another country he visited during his whistle-stop tour of the region. Mr Putin says he is working closely with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on finding a mutually beneficial solution to the Syrian crisis, and is now looking to sell the Turks Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defence system as part of his drive to form a new alliance with Ankara.
And then there is Russia’s newly formed relationship with Iran, one that has developed over their joint support for the Assad regime.
Indeed, it was as a result of the direct intervention of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards all-powerful Quds Force, that Mr Putin was persuaded to intervene in Syria in the first place. In the summer of 2015, the Assad regime had suffered significant losses, and looked to be on the point of defeat, a prospect that Tehran — which relies heavily on Damascus to keep its supply lines open with Hizbollah in southern Lebanon — regarded with deep consternation.
Russia consolidates its presence in Middle East
Russian President Putin is straddling the Middle East like a colossus. In his recent frantic day-long diplomatic dash, he covered three countries- Syria, Egypt and Turkey- in that order. On a surprise stopover in Syria, the first by a Russian President since Medvedev’s visit in 2010, en route to Egypt where Putin met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of Ankara’s prime foes in recent years. Accompanied by his defence minister and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he proceeded to the Hmeymim air base on December 11.
Putin and Erdogan have worked closely in recent months to resolve the Syrian conflict. Of late Putin and Erdogan have developed bonhomie that was never seen before. This is the eighth face-to-face meeting between the two during the year 2017 that is drawing to a close, reflecting an intense relationship.
This proves how things have come full circle since November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian war plane over Syria and lied through the teeth about the sequence leading to the event and the location. At the height of US sanction over Ukraine, Russia intervened in Syria and ensured that all acrimony was forgotten in the din of its intensive bombardments over IS bases in Syria. Russia is well now well entrenched in the Middle East.
Putin is smartly planning to encash Syrian crisis in the ensuing March presidential election and hopes his efforts in Syria to play well with the voters. And US leaves Syria – feeling frustrated like a cat whose bowl of milk has been snatched away at the last moment.
What is Russia doing in Syria now?
"They are trying to stay in Syria," says Mathieu Boulegue, Russia expert at Chatham House in London. "They are withdrawing the heavy fighting element but they certainly are keeping [...] a heavy military presence in the region."
Keeping this base is key in Russia’s competition with the US for power in the Middle East, Boulege suggests. "You have the unequivocal and primary goal of the Russian military intervention: to counter US military intervention." And with a strengthened Tartus base, "Russia will keep access for its forces in the region.
Reports: Turkey and Russia consider evacuations from besieged Syrian area
Moscow and Ankara are discussing the relocation of hundreds of people from Eastern Ghouta, Turkey's President said, according to Russian and Turkish news reports.
Syria also is considering the evacuation of seven child cancer patients from the area.
The beleaguered suburban enclave of 400,000 near the Syrian capital is at a "critical point," says the International Committee of the Red Cross, with reports of malnourished children and sick and injured people being trapped.
Erdogan said the Turkish and Russian chiefs of staff will work together to carry out the evacuation, TRT reported. The move would involve the Turkish Red Crescent and Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Organization.
"We are discussing with [Putin] how to evacuate them to our country without problems and provide them with medical assistance," Sputnik quoted Erdogan as saying.
Turkey joins Russia and Iran in supporting Syria
For experts, the removal of the Assad regime is no longer a priority for Turkey considering the latest developments on the ground, but Ankara is trying to handle this delicate process through the transition process.
Serhat Erkmen, a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute, said that for a while now Turkey has not been insistent on Assad removal's from power.
“At the rhetorical level, Ankara didn’t give up from its objective of leadership change. But, considering the actions in Syria, Assad might act as a counterweight to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) considered by Turkey as a terrorist group,” Erkmen told Arab News.
Assad recently showed a harsh reaction against the YPG and considered them “traitors”.
“But currently Ankara negotiates indirectly with the representatives of the Assad regime during Astana meetings,” Erkmen said.
Mete Sohtaoglu, an Istanbul-based researcher on Middle East politics, thinks that Turkey is no longer insisting on the Assad’s removal from power.
Turkey, Russia in talks for civilians in eastern Ghouta
The efforts to evacuate some 500 people from besieged Eastern Ghouta have been underway through negotiations with the Russian authorities, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday.
The president said during a press conference ahead of his three-day visit to the African countries of Sudan, Chad, and Tunisia that the humanitarian issue of the people in the besieged areas of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus with nearly 400 thousand civilians, and the evacuation of about 500 people, including some 170 women and children, have been discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We want to take them [from Eastern Ghouta] and provide them treatment and care in our country. Right now our chief of staff and the Russian counterparts are discussing the issues, and they will take the necessary steps," Erdoğan said, adding that the intelligence units will take the needed moves for successful evacuations.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said Sunday that 2018 would be an important year for the political solution in Syria.
Speaking at the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) ordinary district congress in the Ceylanpınar district of southeastern Şanlıurfa, a border town hosting a large population of Syrian refugees, Bozdağ said Syria it will be a "livable" place after the end of the conflict.
"Hopefully, 2018 will be an important year for finding a political solution to the problem in Syria, because the Sochi summit produced important results," the deputy prime minister stressed.
China eyes role in rebuilding of war-torn Syria
The Straits Times
That may just be the beginning because Syria fits into Chinese strategy. The country was a key link on the ancient Silk Road, and President Xi Jinping's most ambitious plan involves building a new one - the multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to weave a Chinese web of trade and transportation links across Eurasia and Africa.
For all those grand visions, there is an immediate obstacle for Chinese business in Syria, according to Mr Qin: Settlements in dollars and euros are banned because of US and EU sanctions aimed at cutting Mr Assad's regime off from the world economy.