Date: 14 May 2017    Author: Jan Gajewski

Putin’s Middle East Chessboard

Vladimir Putin’s strategic foreign policy goal is to restore Russia’s status as a global superpower. According to Kremlin strategists, this cannot be achieved without playing a primary role in the Middle East – the most combustible region in the world.

© Alexey Druzhinyn (PAP/EPA)

The window of opportunity for the forceful entry of the Russians opened up under the Barack Obama administration, which initiated what can generally be considered the slow retreat of the United States from the Middle East. As such, the geopolitical vacuum that formed began to be filled by Russia, with Syria turning out to be crucial in this regard. Using conflicts between regional players and offering to serve as mediators, Moscow has already achieved a position that it has not had since the days of the Cold War. However, the change of administration in the United States may thwart the Kremlin’s plans. Trump’s victory limited Russia’s room to maneuver in the Middle East. America began to return to the region and fill the void left behind by Obama, which Russia had not yet filled. Wanting to at least keep a hold on what he has already gained Putin must seek an understanding with Trump on the Middle East, because it is the region of ​​the world where Moscow has something tangible to offer Washington. The possible rapprochement is aided by the fact that the defeat of the Islamic State and the destruction of Islamic terrorist organizations is one of the main priorities of the United States.

During the Cold War, the Middle East was one of the hottest fronts in the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. For many decades it was known who was on whose side (although there were instances of about-faces, as in the case of Egypt). The collapse of the USSR also meant the near-total retreat of Moscow from the region – the symbolic end to the Cold War in the Middle East was Saddam Hussein’s defeat in 1991. The era of American domination had begun. Until recently, the United States was the number one player in the region, from diplomatic and military influences, to trade (even arms sales). Changes started with the Arab Spring, which did not bring democracy, but rather instability and radicalism and in extreme cases, civil war as in Syria and Libya. Linking the “color revolutions” in post-Soviet republics and the revolutions in the Arab world as a similar evil Vladimir Putin convinced many local autocratic regimes. He criticized the Arab Spring from the beginning and supported the political status quo. Only in Libya did Moscow make a huge mistake, from which conclusions were drawn in Syria. It was the intervention in Syria that was a breakthrough moment. Against the backdrop of Obama’s indecision, Putin demonstrated his determination and loyalty to his ally (Bashar al-Assad) – something the local regimes had not seen lately from the American side. As a result, even today, the pro-American monarchs of the Persian Gulf take Russian interests and goals into account.


Russian strength through U.S. weakness

Russia truly emerged once again as a major player in the Middle East at a time when the West decided to seek its services in negotiations with their difficult partner, Iran. Then, Russia also began to strengthen its position in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Certainly, their old connections helped. The current leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, completed his doctorate in Moscow in the 1970s, where he was said to have been recruited by the KGB, if the contents of the so-called Mitrokhin Archive are to be believed. Russian diplomatic experience in the Middle East, dating back to the Soviet era, is also important. One of the key roles is played by Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s special representative in the Middle East since 2012. This former ambassador to Syria, Egypt and Israel, has excellent contacts in the capitals of many countries in the region.

Russian expansion in the Middle East definitely accelerated after Moscow’s military entry into the Syrian conflict (September 2015). The West largely underestimated this operation – it was generally thought that it would be short-lived, without much significance to the fate of the war, and perhaps would even lead to a “second Afghanistan” for Moscow. This wasn’t the case. The Russians showed the whole world that its allies can count on them in difficult situations, as opposed to America under the Obama administration. In the past two years, Putin has hosted Middle Eastern leaders more than 30 times, several times more than Obama over the same period. The rise of Russian influence was directly proportional to the loss of confidence in the U.S. by regional states. Even Turkey, a NATO member and one of the main advocates for the removal of Assad, ultimately stood by Russia’s side; and this, after the heated crisis caused by the Turks shooting down a Russian fighter plane. At a certain point, the pragmatic Recep Tayyip Erdogan bet on the stronger side. The closer ties between Egypt and Russia are based on similar principles. Russia took advantage of the American retreat. Obama decided to remove U.S. influence from the region under the slogan of ending unpopular military interventions in the Middle East, but he tossed out the baby with the bathwater. The pullout of the U.S. military from Afghanistan and Iraq has not stabilized these countries at all, and the whole region saw this as weakness.

While Americans began to limit their military presence in the region, Russia began to expand it. It not only restored the permanent presence of its naval fleet in the Mediterranean, but it also secured the right to use the ports of Cyprus (February 2015), organized sea maneuvers with Egypt and sent its ships to Alexandria for the first time since 1992. They also resumed arms sales to Algeria and gained access to its ports as well. The appearance of ships flying the St. Andrew’s cross flag in Tartus, Alexandria, Limassol and Algiers represents a potential threat to NATO’s southern flank –the first time this has been the case since the end of the Cold War. Russia also created an A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) zone over much of Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Russian S-300 missile systems have made their way to Iran, Algeria and Egypt. All of this poses a risk for U.S. and NATO air operations in the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and virtually the entire Persian Gulf.

© Alexander Ziemlianichenko/POOL Dostawca: (PAP/EPA)

For a long time the West has mistakenly interpreted the increasing Russian presence in the Middle East, seeing Putin as an ally in the war on Islamic terrorism. This is not, however, the main goal of the Russian president. Moscow doesn’t strive to defeat the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, but to rewrite the geopolitical rules governing the region. They have the advantage over the Americans in that their Middle East policy is not driven by sentiment and ideology (the United States has always emphasized that their goal is to democratize the region). Current Russian diplomats, who often started their careers in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are guided by extreme pragmatism – they don’t have a problem in dealing with bloody dictators like Assad, and terrorist organizations like Hamas, hostile to Israel, Palestine, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Religious criteria are also irrelevant: it is thus equally possible for Russia to come to an understanding with Shiite revolutionaries as with Sunni monarchs.

However, it must be stressed that their successes so far are not based on Russian strength, but on the weakness of their rivals, headed by the United States. Moscow enters the space deserted by the Americans, and does so expansively – leaving the sustainability of Russia’s presence and activity in the region a matter of debate. Weaknesses lie in the Kremlin’s strategy. One major problem facing Russian diplomacy in the region is a lack of material resources to support it. Moscow, unlike Riyadh, can’t afford to subsidize its allies with billions of dollars. Even in Syria, the Russians don’t provide assistance to Assad for postwar reconstruction. Their military capabilities are also very limited. Organizing the expedition into Syria stretched the boundaries of their logistics capacity (transport constraints), technology and personnel. As for diplomacy, Russian connections don’t always interest potential partners. The prime example is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected mediation proposals from Moscow, which has good contacts with the Palestinians. There are obstacles in many areas because by trying to play multiple roles, Russia’s effectiveness and  value as a partner decrease in the eyes of regional players. Russia is trying to rebuild its partnership with Turkey, but the Kurdish issue remains, while the Iran problem is blocking rapprochement with Israel. Such contradictions and limitations continue to make Moscow a dubious and less attractive partner for serious players in the region.


In a triangle with Damascus and Tehran

On September 30, 2015, Putin ordered a squadron of Russian fighters to move to the Khmeimim Airbase in Syria near Latakia, a bastion of Assad supporters. For the first time since the war in Afghanistan, the Russian military officially went into combat outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. Thanks to Russian bombardments, rocket attacks and special forces operations – the war shifted in favor of the regime. The intervention was also of great political importance. Suddenly, Russian planes appeared in the same airspace as those of the Americans and their allies fighting the Islamic State. Putin could say that he was actively involved in the war on Islamic terrorism. But these were only appearances. By the end of 2016, according to data supplied by Moscow, Russian aircrafts in Syria completed 30,000 missions and hit 62,000 targets. This Russian air campaign had no influence on the war against ISIS though. The Russians barely attacked the jihadists at all; rather, they focused on the rebels fighting against Assad.

Military and political participation in the Syrian war remains the most important link for Russian policy in the Middle East. Russia’s military presence in Syria includes: military bases and the active participation of aviation forces, air defense systems and “boots on the ground” such as the Chechen military police battalions, engineers and commandos (not to mention mercenaries trained by the Russian military and security services). In return, Moscow secured a permanent military presence in Syria in January of this year, signing two new contracts with Damascus. The first means the expansion of the sea bases in Tartus, while the second is an annex to the August 2015 agreement for the base in Khmeimim. Both contracts were signed for a period of 49 years (with the option of renewal), and provide the Russians with extraterritoriality and no restrictions on the size of the forces stationed there.

Having achieved this goal, as well as having strengthened Assad enough not to lose the war, Moscow is trying to work out political solutions that will lead to the freezing of the conflict, while preserving its dominant position. With help from Iran and Turkey, Russia wants to bring about an agreement or even a lasting truce between Damascus and the rebels – based on ​​a joint struggle against the Islamic State. However, Trump’s surprisingly hard and fast response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the rocket attack on the Shayrat Airbase, told the Kremlin that without a deal with America it would be impossible to freeze the conflict. Such an agreement will be difficult though because of the particular interests of the two states. For Turkey, the Kurdish issue is paramount, with particular regard to the U.S.–sponsored troops of the Kurdish YPG militia. It is doubtful that Ankara will agree to freeze the conflict in northern Syria. The second, and much bigger, obstacle to establishing a peace plan acceptable to the U.S. is Iran, an ally of both Moscow and Damascus. Because of the hostility of the Trump administration to Tehran, it will be hard for Putin to reconcile the alliance with the Ayatollahs and Hezbollah in trying to reach out to the Americans (not to mention the impact Iran has on Russia’s relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia).

Iran’s strategic goal in Syria is to defend Assad, and if it turns out to be too costly, to defend the system created by Assad, with its political, military and security apparatus. This is the only way to guarantee that Syria will remain a safe corridor for the transfer of weapons and money to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The presence of Iran in Syria gives the former  a better position in any eventual confrontation with Israel. For Tehran, Syria is the key to expanding influence throughout the Middle East, one of the most important regions regarding its rivalry with Saudi Arabia. Damascus is supposed to be part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” connecting Tehran with Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. But Moscow is not entirely comfortable with a bloc consisting of Shiites and Alawites. With its large Muslim community (mainly Sunni) and the ambitions of being a power in the Middle East, Russia cannot antagonize the Sunnis. It is also about good relations with the monarchs of the Gulf and Riyadh. Russia’s and Iran’s relations with Israel are also different. Moscow’s relations with the Jewish state are among the best in their history. In Syria the Russians aren’t doing anything to hurt Israeli interests, and are also restricting Hezbollah and Iran. The Iranians have the right to fear that Putin will abandon Assad if he is able to enter into an agreement that puts someone else in charge in Damascus who is acceptable to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the other hand, Russia is also aware that if Iran had to make a choice, it would choose the West. This is not only because of their historical distrust of Moscow, but also due to the fact that Russia, unlike the West, cannot supply the modern technology or capital necessary to modernize the Iranian economy.

© Alexander Ziemlianichenko/POOL PAP/EPA


Offers for all

At present, apart from the Syrian conflict, most Russian activity is seen in four areas:

  • Inducing Turkey to cooperate in Syria
  • Attempting to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran
  • Offering to broker between Israel and the Palestinians
  • Building military influence in Egypt and Libya

Russia’s big success was to pull Turkey over to its side, the key outside player (next to Iran) in Syria. Moscow’s entry into the conflict was seen as a hostile move by Ankara – both countries differed above all in their position toward Assad. Add to this the fact that Turkey is a NATO member. It is little wonder that in November 2015, after a Russian bomber flew into Turkish airspace for a few seconds, it was shot down. This led to the collapse of relations between the two states and a trade war. Russia emerged victorious from the crisis. After six months, the hatchet was buried with Erdogan, who had just neutralized an attempted military coup. Mass repressions and demands for Fethullah Gulen’s release worsened relations with the West. This was conducive to Turkey getting along with the Kremlin. In August, before meeting Putin, Erdogan declared: “Without Russia, finding a solution to the problems in Syria is impossible.” Ankara’s increasingly poor relations with the Obama administration greatly influenced its growing closeness with Russia. Americans did not want to give up their support for the Kurds in Syria and refused to extradite Gulen. After the U.S. elections, Ankara counted on changes in Washington’s policy on Syria – assuming that Trump would come to an understanding with Putin. Turkey first stood on the side of Russia and Iran, when, after the fall of Aleppo, it seemed that the fate of the Syrian war had turned in favor of Assad’s allies. Then, after the surprise attack by the Americans on the regime’s base, they changed their stance and returned to the side of the United States. Then again, after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow and the passing of several days, it turned out that this was an incidental military move by the Americans and did not signify a radical change in their strategy in Syria, and the Turks turned once more to Russia and Iran. In early May, Erdogan flew to Sochi to support a new Russian plan for Syria during a meeting with Putin, namely the establishment of security zones. But all of these about-faces mean that the Kremlin cannot be sure of Turkey as a reliable partner.

For Russia, the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is of paramount importance. It is a guarantee of stability in Syria and several other countries in the region. The influence of the Saudis on part of the Syrian opposition is as large as that of Iran on Hezbollah. Riyadh had clear moments of warming to Russia, but Moscow’s close relations with Tehran always served as a brake. The differences of opinion still remain with regard to the political future of the Syrian dictator. In mid-April, Saudi Arabia hosted a delegation from the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud personally greeted the Russians. The monarch confirmed that Riyadh’s position is unchanged: Assad must go. After Trump came to power, the Saudis are again much closer to the United States, primarily due to the stance of the new administration towards the Ayatollahs, which suits Saudi interests perfectly. Russia finds itself in a difficult situation and is trying to balance relations with all partners in the region: Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, while having an uneasy relationship with Tehran.

Putin has even managed to improve relations with Israel, the primary and traditional U.S. ally in the Middle East. The best possible cooperation between Moscow and Israel is also important for Russia because of the stable relations of the Jewish state with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. Netanyahu has visited Putin in Moscow four times since September 2015, more often than Obama. Moscow is trying to replace the Middle East Quartet (UN, EU, Russia, U.S.) with a new format of negotiations, as in the case of Syria, where they found an alternative to negotiations in Geneva by organizing talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. In December 2016, the Russians stepped up their initiative to hold a peace conference in Moscow, although it was clear that due to objections from Netanyahu, this wasn’t very realistic. In mid-January, Russia acted as a meeting organizer and intermediary between the main Palestinian political forces. Back then, the Palestinians didn’t conceal that they were convinced that Russia and Trump would cooperate closely in the Middle East and that it would help their cause. The events in Syria in April showed, however, that this was a false hope. Israel supported the U.S. attack on Shayrat, which was criticized by Moscow. It’s not just Netanyahu’s distrust of the Palestinian mediation offer; but also Israel is most worried by Russia’s cooperation with the two traditional enemies of the Jewish state: Iran and Hezbollah. Although Moscow does not oppose Israeli air attacks on Hezbollah’s positions in Syria, it will not give up its Iranian ally, and Jerusalem will never agree to the presence of Iran in the peace process in Syria. In this context, the appointment of General James Mattis as Pentagon chief was bad news for Moscow. After all, five years ago, as the commander of American forces in the Middle East, he said that the three most pressing problems in the region for the United States are: “Number one Iran, number two Iran. Number three Iran”. In February of this year, Mattis stated that Iran is “the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”, and in April he praised the alliance with Riyadh and announced the development of an Israeli-Sunni coalition against the so-called “Shiite crescent” bloc.

© Maxim Shipennkov/POOL (PAP/EPA)

At present, it seems that the best prospects for Russian diplomats and generals are in Egypt and neighboring Libya. Cairo, from the moment of reaching full independence, generally clung to the pro-American line, although under Nasser there was a brief period of cooperation with the Soviets. But under Mubarak, the Egyptians received huge, annual, military and economic assistance from the United States. After the Arab Spring, the fall of the regime, the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, and finally another coup and the takeover by military rule, Cairo saw an alternative to the U.S. in Moscow. This was even more so when Obama began to drastically reduce aid. Since 2012, Russia has sold Egypt arms worth more than $4 billion, and the Egyptian government, which opposed U.S. intervention in Syria in the summer of 2013, backed Russia’s intervention two years later. Another factor that brings current President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi closer to Putin is Moscow’s position on the Libyan conflict. The Russians have established close relations with General Khalifa Haftar, the virtual ruler of the eastern part of the country, and a sworn enemy of the Islamists. Egypt and the UAE strongly support the Libyan general. Moscow has placed its bets on Haftar to gain access to the natural resources of Libya if he wins, to sell them weapons and, possibly, to build military installations. According to some Italian sources, Haftar has even signed an agreement with Moscow to allow Russia to create two military bases near Tobruk and Benghazi. There is also unofficial information that the Russians want to lease a former Soviet base in Sidi Barrani from Egypt. Until 1972, the Soviets had a small naval military installation there to monitor the movements of the U.S. Navy in the eastern Mediterranean. From this location, the Russians could threaten the Suez Canal. Acting from Tartus, they can also threaten the Turkish straits. Possibilities like these to paralyze traffic in the eastern Mediterranean did not even exist for Moscow in Soviet times.

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