Russia ‘consulted, heard and feared’ in the Middle East
To use a stock market metaphor, for Russia, “the political market of the Middle East is booming,” Maxim Suchkov writes. “The ‘shares’ it has acquired by engaging with Syria and other countries are rising in political value, and Russia feels it’s prepared for long-position investments.”
 “It may be just a matter of perception,” Suchkov adds, “but Moscow is now seen as a primary go-to for regional states that have been flocking to the Russian capital throughout the year. Most, if not all, only hope to get Moscow on board to solve their own regional, local and even tribal conflicts of interests. Nevertheless, Russia can praise itself for getting what it was aiming for: to be consulted, heard and feared.”
The US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has given new life to Russia’s role in what was once known as the Middle East “peace process.” Dmitry Maryasis reports, “There is some consensus that the Trump decision will provide Moscow with additional opportunities to strengthen its influence on this process, where it already has good working relations with all parties to the conflict. Yet opinions differ between experts and policymakers on whether Moscow needs to step up its peacemaking efforts now. Some believe Russia should take advantage of what they see as favorable political conditions and try to revive the settlement process — this time managed by Moscow. Others consider it necessary to keep monitoring the latest developments on Jerusalem, but be modest in actions given that the parties’ own readiness to negotiate is at best minimal.”
Moscow and Riyadh have also agreed, with other parties, to extend the 2016 “OPEC plus” deal aimed at decreasing oil production to keep up prices on the international market. 
Consultations on oil and gas collaboration have allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud to discuss regional political matters, although the extent of Russia-Saudi cooperation may have its ceiling, if oil prices stabilize or fall, writes Nikolay Kozhanov.
Moscow can claim credit for brokering cease-fires based on de-escalation zones, worked out with Turkey and Iran, which have dramatically reduced the violence and become the on-the-ground reality driving the Astana-Sochi negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition parties. 
As Mardasov writes, “The Kremlin’s idea to summon the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi and to later embed its results into the stalling Geneva process is fully based on the four existing de-escalation zones. The Kurdish Afrin district may theoretically also become a new de-escalation zone.
While Russia’s Syria commitment is providing the Kremlin with the benefits of a newfound respect and leadership in the region, Suchkov says the arrangement could also represent “a serious long-term liability. Moscow owns this problem, from the fate of Assad to the humanitarian aid to the restoration of Syria. To address these challenges in 2018 in an adequate and face-saving manner, Russia might need much closer engagement with regional stakeholders. This is where ‘the shares’ of political influence accumulated over 2017 may come in handy.”
Moscow aims to be Middle East’s safety valve
In the past 24 months, Moscow has been able to change the direction of the six-year war in Syria by providing support to its ally, Bashar Assad, as well as its intervention to support Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar, which saw special military units deployed in western Egypt. All this coincides with the decline of US engagement in the region, accompanied by the turbulence that resulted from the transition of power after last year’s election in Washington. The expansion of Russia’s role raises important questions about the country’s interests in the Middle East.
Moscow sees the Middle East only as a source of instability, threatening its own national security and safety, which no world power has so far successfully contained. After many years of US unilateral policy in the region, which Moscow considered dangerous, it presents itself today as the alternative safety valve.
Many influential people within the Kremlin view Washington’s Middle East policy as short-sighted, destabilizing and naive. Such views confuse the short-term benefits of strategic aspirations, and in the long run it will be difficult for Russia to isolate itself from Middle East unrest, as the region is geographically closer to Russia than to the US. Some Russian policy experts point out that Russia differs from the United States, which is surrounded by water to the east and west. Russia is not separated from the world by such natural barriers, meaning instability in the Middle East poses a threat in the geographical proximity to Russia in the same way that instability in Latin America can pose a threat to the interests of the US.
Russia is on the front line, with the North Caucasus, Central Asia and even the central Volga regions all threatened.
On the economic side, the oil company Rosneft recently acquired 30 percent of Egypt’s largest gas field, Zohr. Previously, in February, Russia signed a contract with the Libyan National Oil Company relating to investment in and the purchase of crude oil. On the diplomatic side, Russia has expanded its role as an intermediary and has been able to deal extensively on a number of issues, mostly bilateral, with Turkey, Israel and Iran.
Putin's final presidential campaign will be banking on military victories in Syria and Crimea
The photo opportunity before Russian troops in Syria played extremely well at home, because it managed to hit three themes that are very popular in Russian politics. Mr Putin will be looking to return to those themes again and again in the next three months, with the help of Russian state television.
The first is, simply, ending a war and bringing the troops home, a theme politicians across the world love to use. 
The second is that Russia's involvement in the war, according to the Kremlin, was aimed at keeping the homeland stable. That Russia's deployment will involve the man who instigated the Syrian civil war remaining in presidential office matters little to the public: the version of events that will be told is that Russia's military had to fight “over there” to stop the bombs exploding “over here”.
But the third theme might be the most powerful: vanquishing the ghosts of history.
Mr Putin is a cautious, careful strategist. When he decided to commit troops to Syria in 2015, he knew there was a significant risk it could undo his entire presidency. Barack Obama predicted the conflict would be a “quagmire” for Russia; another White House official warned Moscow to “remember Afghanistan”, the decade-long war of the 1980s that ended with the superpower retreating.
There were other historical parallels. In 1979, when Leonid Brezhnev made the decision to invade Afghanistan, the Brezhnev Doctrine of defending socialist countries against capitalism had never been tried outside the Soviet sphere of influence. Similarly, in 2015, Syria was the first time Russian troops had ventured into combat beyond the Soviet space since Afghanistan.
Yearender: Middle East power struggle threatens shaky peace in post-IS phase
Russia, Turkey and Iran, key stakeholders and power brokers in the region, this month agreed on holding Syrian peace talks in Russia's Black Sea resort Sochi in late January after previous attempts to hold such a conference bringing together both the Syrian government and the opposition parties collapsed.
Osama Danura, a Syrian political expert, said toppling any regime due to foreign interests will not produce peace on the ground but negotiations can.
"Cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran has proven to be influential in terms of linking politics with the military situation on the ground," Danura said. "They have succeeded (in establishing a) ceasefire and de-escalation zones in Syria because (they) are directly involved in the Syrian crisis.
Russia, on the other hand, has delicately kept the balance of power with various countries and factions by fostering peace talks, obtaining as much support as possible to cement its interest in the region.
According to Danura, given Washington's stance against the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq, it will possibly give up on the Kurds in Syria in exchange for broad interests or any chance to spoil the plans of its rivals, especially Russia and Iran.
Russia, on the other hand, has delicately kept the balance of power with various countries and factions by fostering peace talks, obtaining as much support as possible to cement its interest in the region.
According to Danura, given Washington's stance against the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq, it will possibly give up on the Kurds in Syria in exchange for broad interests or any chance to spoil the plans of its rivals, especially Russia and Iran.
Russia’s Comeback in the Middle East
A little more than a decade after its humiliating exodus, Russia has all but reversed the setback from the United States’ (US) invasion of Iraq in 2003. This December, Vladimir Putin engaged in what can only be described as a triumphant tour of the Middle East. From Syria, to Egypt, to Turkey, soon after consolidating a strategic partnership with Iran earlier this year, Moscow has positioned itself as a key player in the region’s affairs.
The seamless power transition in the Middle East—the shift from a US-dominated order to a multipolar setting—has actually been remarkable. Part of the reason for this is that Moscow has taken a broader view of the region and its interlinkage with Russia’s Greater Eurasia and world strategy rather than merely playing a spoiler. 
Russia’s own 20-million-strong Muslim community has also given Moscow a more durable stake in the Middle East’s stability. 
Aside from lawfully assisting the legitimate Syrian state in recovering its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Moscow has sought to promote a UN-centred conflict resolution process at Geneva with the main regional actors, including the US as well as a multilateral Russia–Turkey–Iran framework, through the Astana talks.
Interestingly, although Russia partnered with Shiite and Alawite forces in the Syrian war, this “did not push Moscow into the anti-Sunni camp in the Middle East.” Take, for instance, Russia’s transformation in its ties with Egypt, the largest Sunni country in the area (Trenin 2018: 4). Even more extraordinary is that Egypt’s import of Russian weapons was made possible because of Saudi Arabia’s financial assistance to Cairo (Surkov 2017). Paradoxically, then, for many Sunni regimes, Russia’s military presence in Syria has “diminished the influence of Shiite Iran in Damascus, thus being the ‘lesser evil’” (Trenin 2018: 104).
Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Russia has acquired even more flexibility in engaging with regional actors because it is no longer constrained by the dilemma of picking sides between nationalist and communist groups. 
The absence of any serious dispute between Russia and key regional actors is a posture that the Kremlin is keen to maintain.
Putin’s decision to intervene enabled a break from NATO’s encirclement that had confined Russia to a defensive role in Eastern Europe. It salvaged Russian influence in the Middle East, and, thus, recovered the geostrategic depth that had been eroded since the collapse of Soviet power. But, it also upheld a rules-based order, which had been trifled with by a series of cavalier and destructive interventions by the US since the 1990s. 
Can Putin mediate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement?
Despite his poor relations with the West, there are strong reasons why many, including Putin, see Moscow as a better candidate than Washing¬ton for mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Unlike the United States, Putin has good relations not just with all the major actors in the Israeli-Palestinian arena — Fatah, Hamas and the Netanyahu govern¬ment — but with all Middle Eastern governments.
Further, Moscow indicated last April that it was willing to consider West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, demonstrating a much greater desire to accommodate both sides than the Trump administration.
Putin may be less interested in bringing about an Israeli-Palestinian settlement than in portraying him¬self as more “even-handed” than Trump. For even if Putin is seen to try but fail to negotiate an Israeli- Palestinian settlement, this outcome will be widely blamed by Arabs, Muslims and many others on US support for Israel and not on Putin.
At the same time, a Russian-sponsored mediation process that does not result in Israel having to make concessions to the Palestinians preserves Russia’s economic and security cooperation with Israel.
In other words, offering himself as an Israeli-Palestinian mediator holds out the prospect that Putin can gain even if he fails to make any progress. Indeed, his just trying to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians when Trump is so strongly supportive of Israel may bolster Russia’s image as a responsible power and America’s as an irresponsible one.
This is an outcome that Putin would be very satisfied with.
All components are designed to serve as a model for a future Syria based on geographical federation rather than a single national state, where elections would be held in the presence of US and Russian observers. 
Moscow’s vision of the dialogue conference in Sochi is to prepare for the launch of the process of drafting a new Syrian constitution by forming a committee of representatives of the Syrian parties.
Russia says U.S. should not interfere with iran's domestic affairs
Russia urged the United States not to interfere in what Moscow calls Iran's "domestic affairs," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday, according to the TASS news agency.
"I am certain that our neighbor, our friendly state will manage to overcome current difficulties and come from the current period as a strengthened country and reliable partner to solve various problems," Ryabkov said, according to TASS.
"The current situation, when Washington gives in to the temptation to raise more questions" on the nuclear agreement, Ryabkov said, is evidence that the United States is trying to undermine adherence to the deal.