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The Russians trumping the Middle East game of chess




Not since the early 1970s – when Moscow was already a diminishing force – has Russia been as significant a diplomatic player in the region as she is now. And as her power grows, so America’s wanes, particularly against the backdrop of a largely incoherent US foreign policy.

The path to the Kremlin is becoming increasingly well-trodden.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited no less than four times in the last 18 months. In October, the Saudi king went knocking – a first for a sitting Saudi monarch; and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is full of gushing accolades for his friend Putin.

What is significant is that these are leaders of countries traditionally allied with Washington, but who are increasingly now hedging their bets with Moscow.

Two years ago, it seemed as if Russia and Turkey – and by extension Nato (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), of which member state Turkey has the second largest army after the United States – were on the brink of war.

Ankara (Turkey’s capital) shot down a Russian plane, claiming it had crossed into its airspace. Words of fury then passed between the two countries. Fast-forward to today and Turkey is now set to buy Russian S400 air defence systems (much to the chagrin of Nato).

In a remarkable turnaround, Ankara has also sided with Moscow in the Syrian conflict. For years Ankara insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who the Russians support, must go. Now Turkish leader, Erdogan, is seemingly okay if Assad stays (so long as he doesn’t support the Kurds who make up nearly 20 per cent of the Turkish population).

It takes a special kind of diplomatic genius to achieve this and it is all kudos to Putin and his team. They also have to be credited with turning the Syrian conflict on its head.

At the end of September 2015, Assad was clearly losing the war. Enter Moscow and her deadly airstrikes, which forever changed the face of that conflict and ensured the regime’s survival.

At the time, no country mentioned Russia when discussing a resolution, whereas today it is inconceivable that there can be any Syrian peace treaty without the direct involvement of Putin.

Recent talks in the Russian city of Sochi saw the Europeans and Americans sidelined as a Russian-Iranian-Turkey-Syrian alliance took centre stage in hammering out a peace deal.

Moscow emerged from the Syrian crisis with its diplomatic hand strengthened. In many ways it outplayed the Obama administration that had focused on building and arming a coherent Syrian opposition against Assad, but which collapsed numerous times. Moscow similarly ran rings round President Trump’s team.

And what of Saudi Arabia? Russia is an ally of Iran, the Gulf State’s number one nemesis. And yet, the Saudis have signed a three billion dollar arms deal with the Russians and are even co-operating with Moscow in Syria, where here too, they were against Assad and supporting his opponents. They’ve also seemingly done a complete turnaround. It takes some very sophisticated chess moves to be able to pull this off. 

And yet, while Russia seems to be playing all sides in the Middle East – and playing countries off against each other – it’s a very tricky path to follow and ultimately not everyone can, or will, be satisfied.

The Israelis are not thrilled – to say the least – about Iranian encroachments in Syria that the Russians allow; while at the same time the Iranians are not happy when Russia turns a blind eye to Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah – the latest occurring on Monday night when Israel reportedly attacked a Syrian military site outside Damascus.

And yet, there’s no denying that as America increasingly withdraws from the Middle East, Russia is stepping up to the mark. Her reputation was boosted after the Arab Spring when countries like Egypt felt that Washington had betrayed her by supporting the overthrow of then President Hosni Mubarak, who the United States has previously backed.

By comparison, Moscow has remained truthful to the Assad regime in Syria – even when the global community was against him – and is seen as a reliable and consistent partner by most Middle Eastern countries. Her military forces have shown their ability to mount, and win, a complex operation. What’s more, Syria provided the perfect “shop-window” for Russia to demonstrate her most modern weapons systems.

And so, the Middle East is changing. But it’s not Moscow’s intention to be the major leader in the region – her post-Soviet states are much more important to her. Instead, by becoming a force to be reckoned with here, she is lining up bargaining chips for elsewhere.

Her isolation after her annexation of Crimea and operations in Ukraine, both of which were heavily criticised by the West, left her vulnerable and strapped for cash. She can now ask for something in Europe by promising something in the Middle East.

But whether this policy is sustainable, though, is questionable. Moscow’s current alliances with Damascus, Ankara, Tehran and others, may fall apart in the future as different long-term goals come to the fore. Russia is under pressure from the Israelis to curb Iran’s influence in Syria and her plans for the future of that country are also unclear. It’s far from obvious whether Russia can win the peace there.

In the ever-changing sands of the Middle East, new alliances are forming and priorities are shifting. Still, for now at least, it seems backing the Russians is a good move.



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1 Comment

  1. David B

    Dec 8, 2017 at 8:06 am

    ‘Putin is outplaying the total Western world with every step — His strength is the fact that he does what Putin says and no one else has a say — so much for democracy when nothing can be done or said without some or many voicing their opposition and protestations physically as well as verbally

    There is a lot to be said about Eastern type ‘democracy’ sic’

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