Russia moves to the desert

7 December 2017, 15:33

In the Middle East, one of the world’s most strategic regions, Russia now holds all the cards in its hand. President Putin’s recent visit to Tehran, where he signed a US $30 billion energy deal, completes the total of the countries he has courted that now depend crucially on Moscow for future economic and political stability. Meanwhile America, once a controlling power in the region, is nowhere to be seen.

 The change is as sudden as it is startling. The key has been Russia’s decisive intervention in Syria at a time when the Obama administration was distancing itself from the troubled Muslim world and was reluctant to commit troops to yet another Middle East conflict. The massive Russian military help to the Assad regime has changed the balance. The Damascus government, which was losing to the rebels, is now firmly in control. And those neighbouring countries which formerly backed the rebels – especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia – are reluctant to back an opposition that, more and more, is becoming dominated by Islamist extremists.

 Looking around the region, it is astonishing to see how rapidly Russia has gained influence at America’s expense. It has warm relations with President Sisi of Egypt, who has been disappointed by Washington’s lukewarm embrace of the military strongman, and has recently sold arms to Egypt. It is on good terms with Iraq, despite the large presence of Americans helping the Iraqi army. It has long enjoyed good relations with Iran, despite Moscow’s disapproval of Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear weapon. In Libya, Moscow is backing General Khalifa Haftar, the strongman widely regarded as the only person able to bring stability to the country.

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And in a major coup that has worried NATO, Moscow has forced President Erdogan of Turkey to abandon the hostility that followed the Turkish shooting down of a Russian military jet only two years ago. Putin’s sharp and immediate retaliation at the time, cutting off all trade and stopping the profitable flow of Russian tourists to Turkey, hurt the mercurial Turkish leader. But this was followed by Putin’s swift support for Erdogan after he defeated the coup attempt against him last year – in contrast to Turkey’s NATO allies, which appeared to regret the coup’s failure. As a result, Erdogan swallowed his pride, changed his policy of opposing Assad in Syria, joined Russia in co-sponsoring a Syrian peace conference in Kazakhstan and appears to be looking north now to Russia, rather than West to NATO, for future political cooperation. America, meanwhile, is still refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Islamist preacher whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the plot. And relations between Trump and Erdogan have sunk so low that both sides have now suspended the issue of visas to each other’s citizens.

But the real coup for Moscow is the new deal with Saudi Arabia. For years the Saudis refused to have relations with the Soviet Union, believing it to be the country of “godless communism”. But since the collapse of communism, the two countries have found their interests growing closer. In particular, both are huge exporters of oil, and have an interest in keeping the price of crude oil stable. There are now regular exchanges on this.

Saudi Arabia has also grown disillusioned with America, with which it has a long-standing defence and security relationship. The Saudis were outraged by the speed with which the US abandoned President Mubarak of Egypt when protests led to his overthrow during the Arab Spring. They were angry that Washington did not intervene in Syria after the Syrian use of chemical weapons against the opposition. And they were furious at President Obama’s negotiations with Iran, which led to the easing of sanctions. For the past 40 years, the Saudis, who see themselves as the leaders of Sunni Islam, have been locked in political, regional and religious conflict with Iran, the leading Shia Muslim nation in the Middle East. And the new generation of Saudi leaders believe the kingdom ought to be more assertive in promoting its own interests.

Russia’s support for the Assad government put the two countries on opposite sides. But with the defeat of moderate Syrian opposition forces and the growth of extremists such as Islamic State, the Saudis now see Islamic State as the bigger threat – and are willing to work with Russia to defeat IS.

The recent unprecedented visit to Moscow by King Salman of Saudi Arabia was a triumph for Putin. It coincided with three important economic agreements: the sale of Russian arms to the kingdom, which would have been unthinkable only a decade ago; the possible sale of Russian nuclear energy technology; and the huge $15 billion agreement on the export of Russian wheat. The Saudis will now abandon the wasteful and expensive attempt to grow their own wheat. And the deal now makes agriculture the third largest Russian export, after oil and arms. This is very important for Moscow at a time when Western sanctions have given a huge boost to Russia’s agricultural economy.

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Moscow is now the only important outside power in the region, and the only country with an active military role in the Middle East. It has even managed to maintain good relations with both Palestinians, whose cause Moscow has long supported, and the Israelis. Many of the large number of Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel maintain close links with Russia, to the economic and cultural benefit of both countries. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, is a frequent visitor to Moscow, and has warm relations with Putin.

“We are now on both sides of the chessboard,” said Alexey Pushkov, the former influential chairman of the Federation Council’s foreign relations committee. But maintaining close links with countries that are bitterly quarrelling each other is tricky. Soon Russia will be forced to choose sides – in particular, both Israel and Saudi Arabia want Moscow to put pressure on Iran to change its policies. “I don’t think any country can influence what happens in Iran,” Pushkov said. He said Moscow was grateful to Iran for never sending fighters to Chechnya. But he was sceptical that Moscow could change Iranian policy.

Nor does the Kremlin believe it will persuade Turkey to abandon NATO. “It is deeply embedded in the West. This is really just a quarrel within the family,” Pushkov said. The Saudis are also hoping to rekindle relations with America under President Trump. Adel al-Jubeir, the new Saudi foreign minister and former ambassador to Washington, sees the Saudi opening to Moscow as a way of bringing the Russians into the Middle East constructively. He recently told Western journalists that Saudi Arabia now sees no threat from Moscow.

Moscow will never be able to play a decisive role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict however, as it has little influence over Israeli policy and does not provide the huge military and economic support that the Americans do.

But for the moment, Putin’s bold initiative in Syria has paid off in a way he could not have imagined. The test now comes in Syria. Can Moscow persuade Assad to make peace with his enemies? Can Russia stabilise the country and then pull out? Or will Syria become a permanent burden, draining Russia of money, claiming Russian casualties and making relations with the West tenser and more difficult? It is easy to hold the cards in your hand. It is harder to know which ones to play and in what order.

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