RUSSIA’S HANDS ON THE MIDDLE EAST
is the only superpower currently capable of influencing events in
the Middle East. Moscow’s rise was a direct consequence of
Washington’s retreat from direct military involvement in the
region. During his 8 years at the White House, US President Barack
Obama’s priority has been an exit strategy from the thorny mess he
had inherited from George W. Bush. However, this has paved the way
for Russia’s rise in the Middle East.
Regardless of the international sanctions that followed events in Crimea and Ukraine, in 2015 Moscow decided to intervene in support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and rescued him from what seemed an inevitable military defeat. A game-changing intervention that now has everyone look up to Russia for a solution out of the Syrian quagmire. It is Vladimir Putin that decides who can sit around a negotiations table in Astana. It is for Moscow to decide which Islamic factions to invite, whether Erdogan’s Turkey or Rouhani’s Iran can participate and relegate the US, the British and the French to mere observers. And it is once again Putin that has decided to exclude the US-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to appease Ankara. And yes, does anyone remember the UN? Guess what, they’re basically irrelevant.
Russia has managed to achieve what the US failed to do. The Middle East is not interested in democratic principles, but on stability achieved through the show of force. Moscow has proven to be willing to exercise its might and this has been appreciated across the entire region.
The Persian Gulf countries
The Gulf countries have always been traditional US allies. However, when they perceived the US retreat as a threat to their stability, they got closer to Russia. Even Saudi Arabia went as far as reaching a deal on oil prices with Moscow at the G20 meeting in Hangzhou, in China, in September 2016. What the Saudis fear the most in Russia’s favorable stance towards Iran, the Shia and, as a consequence, the Tehran-backed Houthi rebellion Yemen. The house of Saud is concerned about a Shia sphere of influence stretching from Lebanon to Iran, and which includes Syria and Iraq. The only way out of this nightmare is a deal with Moscow and a close relationship with Turkey. Riyadh and Ankara both share an enmity against the Shia, although they have different views when the Muslim Brotherhood is brought up.
Russia and Iran are presently allied in support of Assad’s regime and in fighting Islamic terrorism in Syria and Iraq. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s terrorists are Sunni, and this is the basis of the strange military alliance between Moscow and Tehran. Shia volunteers are fighting both in Syria and Iraq, while Iranian Pasdarans and Lebanese Hezbollah are helping Assad out. Since August 2016, the Iranians have granted Russian fighter jets the use of the Hamadan airbase for their interventions in Syria.
The axis has been favored by the election of a moderate president like Hassan Rouhani in Iran. He was able to overcome religious incompatibilities and improve economic ties. Since the end of the embargo, Iran has increasingly purchased Russian weapons, including the S300 long range surface-to-air missiles, and has seen trade increase by 80% in 2016. From 1.4 billion dollars in 2014, exchanges have reached 10 billion last year. Bilateral deals have also been signed in the financial sector, including banking and the use of national currencies. The Russians will also provide assistance in offshore drilling, as Gazprom and the Iranian Central Oil Field Company have signed two exploration agreements at the end of 2015. Iran might also join Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
The Russo-Iranian partnership is hence political, military and economic. Such a broad relationship is part of a long term strategy. Donald Trump’s election and his critical stance towards the deal on the Iranian nuclear program could provide another boost to the ties between Moscow and Tehran.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Until a few months ago, Turkey was hostile to the Syrian regime and supported the armed opposition trying to topple Assad. By doing so, they had colluded with ISIS and gone as far as downing a Russian jet. Now, in an unprecedented twist of events, Turkey is once again at peace with Russia and is not against Assad staying in power anymore. What is more important for Vladimir Putin is not Erdogan per se, but the fact that Turkey is the biggest army in the region and a “rogue” NATO member. On the other hand, the Ottos want to prevent any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria, and this can only be avoided by dealing with the Russians. If this means Assad will have to stay in power, the Turks will simply have to bite the bullet.
Russia was very close to Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 60s, and this is one of the reasons why the Egyptian president was toppled in 1970 and Cairo fell under the US sphere of influence. When the Arab Spring came about and Mohamed Morsi rose to power with the tacit approval of the United States, the Russian sat and waited. Their patience paid off when Abdel Fattah al Sisi ousted Morsi and a renewed phase opened in the relationship with the Russians.
Moscow is playing the Egyptian card in Libya, where both countries support general Khalifa Haftar, and in Syria, where Cairo has been invited to take part in the Astana round of negotiations. Egypt was, together with Russia, one of the countries that voted against a French-backed UN Security Council resolution critical of Bashar al Assad. At the same time, Egypt re-opened its embassy in Damascus.
To seal the renewed collaboration, joint military exercises that involved 15 Russian fighter jets and helicopters and 600 troops were held on Egyptian soil in October 2016. The last time Russians carried out a joint military exercise with the Egyptians was in 1972. After that the Russian military advisors were kicked out by then President Anwar Sadat.
Egypt plays a key role in Putin’s strategy. It’s the Middle East’s most populated country, it has a strong military willing to get involved in neighboring Libya, it controls the Suez canal and could, as in the past, concede its military bases to Moscow. To this effect, ongoing negotiations involve the possibility of re-opening the Sidi Barrani military base to Russian troops. After all, both countries share a common enemy: Islamic terrorism. Egypt fights it off in the Sinai, Russia in Syria.
The two countries have also strengthened their economic ties: Egypt has joined the Eurasian Economic Union, a series of bilateral deals have been signed and transactions are carried out using the Egyptian pound to the detriment of the US dollar. Although Egypt remains, after Israel, the biggest recipient of US aid, the Russians will continue to gain ground.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has brought Moscow and Tel Aviv closer. The two countries have a direct line of communication to prevent incidents over Syrian airspace. When Israeli fighters strike against the Hezbollah, they do so with Russian consent. While Israel might not like the axis between Russia and Iran, it also wants to continue operating beyond its borders. And the only way to do so is to talk to the Russians, the region’s new powerbroker.
Like several of its neighbors, Tel Aviv would rather have Assad in power than hand Syria over to Islamic terror. And once the Syrian crisis is over, the Palestinian issue will resurface and Russia will have to be part of the solution. Moscow has traditionally sided with the Palestinians, although the Kremlin will not antagonize the Israelis as part of their strategy to affect the US influence in the region. Israel and Russia might find a common ground to collaborate, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow in March 2017 shows.
Khalifa Benqasim Haftar
Russia has openly stepped in in Libya alongside Egypt and in support of General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is considered the strongman in the current Libyan scenario. This pits, at least in theory, Russia against the UN Security Council’s decision to side with PM Fayez al Sarraj. And while Moscow is ready to support Haftar on the ground, al Sarraj met with Russian officials. Once again, Russia is keeping all options open and has cast its eyes on a potential naval base in the Mediterranean. After all, Russia abstained from voting the UN-backed military intervention in Libya in 2011. Moscow can claim to have played no role in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi and in the mayhem that followed.
Vladimir Putin’s role
Putin realized that a military intervention in Syrian would fill the political and military void left by the US. Although Trump and Putin can probably get along, Russia will never give up the strategic role it has gained in the Middle East. After all, Trump abeled as a “mistake” the US military intervention in Iraq and Libya and has pointed to Russia as its main ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin both share a good dose of pragmatism when dealing with international affairs, and they’re both nationalists. While Trump thinks about America First, Putin is more interested in renewing Russian imperialism. The former KGB operative is a nostalgic of the Soviet Union, while it is unclear what Trumps wants from the US role in the world.
Vladimir Putin’s support of the Syrian regime has triggered a series of political and military gains. Russia’s shrewd politics protects Assad and talks with Turkey; is allied to Iran, but maintains good ties with Saudi Arabia; supports the Palestinians while dealing with Israel; is in favor of Egypt without alienating both the Saudis and the Turks; it doesn’t fight against the US-backed Syrian Kurds, but leaves them out of the Astana peace talks; sides with the Iranian Shia without fueling the unrest in Sunni-led Gulf countries. The end result of this political balancing act is Russia’s key role in the Middle East. A success story, until now.