How Russia played its bad cards well to enlarge Middle East role
Middle Eastern leaders have long grown accustomed to attending Syria “peace conferences” in one city or another. Vienna, Geneva or New York were the perennial favourites, but even Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, served as a venue for such gatherings.
Today, however, a new destination is being added to this summitry map: Sochi, a Russian city on the shores of the Black Sea, where representatives of many Arab nations are gathering in another effort to bring to an end Syria’s civil war.
Nobody knows what the agenda of today’s (Jan 29) Sochi summit is. Nobody is even sure how many delegations will be present. But that, as participants know only too well, hardly matters. For the very fact that they are gathering in Sochi is a public acknowledgement of Russia’s growing importance in the Middle East.
The Russians are not yet the region’s final arbiters. But they are already influential enough to be able to veto any regional settlement they don’t like. And their involvement in the Middle East is also a reminder of how the Russians may succeed in inserting themselves as key players in other parts of the world as well.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin first ordered his troops to intervene directly in the Syrian conflict by launching air strikes against anti-government rebels in late September 2015, his action took all Western governments by surprise. Of course, everyone was aware of Russia’s support for the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. Western intelligence agencies also knew that Russia was keen to keep its two military bases on Syrian soil, the only ones it had in the Mediterranean Sea.
But the bases were far too small to support a sustained Russian military intervention. And President Putin cooperated with the Americans during the early years of the Syrian war in removing Syria’s chemical weapons arsenals, a unilateral Russian military move that was not expected.
Western governments then consoled themselves with the thought that the Russian involvement in Syria won’t last. Moscow did not have the resources to sustain the operation, armchair strategists in the West hastened to explain, and if Russians wanted to send more military assets, they’d get bogged down in a Middle East “quagmire”, as American officials from the president down were fond of saying at the time.
The appearance of some antiquated Russian military equipment of 1970s vintage – including Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, which huffed and puffed its way under a black plume of smoke to the theatre of operations in Syria – only appeared to confirm the dismissive assessment of President Putin’s capabilities.
How wrong all these analysts were, for the Russian operation was carefully thought out, and skilfully implemented with the objective of inserting Russia into the Middle East as a significant player.
Mr Putin rushed to help Syrian President Assad because at that time, Mr Assad seemed to be on the brink of total collapse. The Russian intervention, however, was never intended to safeguard Mr Assad forever by providing the Syrian leader with a blank security cheque. The Russians dropped plenty of hints that, under the right circumstances and for the right price (which, conveniently, they never specified), they were prepared to drop Mr Assad.
The strategy allowed Moscow to exercise maximum influence over Syria’s President, who never knew whether his back was truly covered. But it also gave Moscow maximum diplomatic flexibility with other governments, both in the region and in the West.
Engaging all players
Furthermore, Mr Putin was careful not to present his Syria operation as anti-American; the official explanation from Moscow was that Russian aircraft were bombing “terrorists”, precisely what Western militaries were also claiming to be doing in the Middle East. That was not necessarily the whole truth – Russian jets tended to hit only those terrorists who were also against the Syrian regime – but it avoided the danger of a major Russia-US showdown, something President Putin knew he could not afford, nor win.
More significantly, Mr Putin was determined to avoid the mistake which the Soviet Union committed during the Cold War, when Moscow aligned itself to a “rejectionist camp” composed of every anti-Western Middle East nation, only to end propping up the poorest and most marginalised of the region’s countries. This time, Mr Putin engaged with everyone, and especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, nations which were never pro-Russian, by making to each one of them offers they could not refuse.
The country which President Putin visited most frequently in the Middle East is actually Israel, where millions of local residents are Russian immigrants and where the use of the Russian language still predominates. Not only did he nourish these links, but he also offered the Israelis security cooperation over Syria: Russia would ensure that neither Syrian troops nor the Hizbollah militia would get near Israel’s border with Syria, in return for Israel’s acquiescence in Mr Assad’s survival.
The same happened with Saudi Arabia, a country which for decades refused to even have diplomatic relations with Moscow. Now, ministers from the two countries meet before any summit of the Opec, the oil-exporting nations’ organisation, to fix their oil production quotas. The Saudis may hate what the Russians are doing in Syria, but they need the Russians to maintain a good oil price. And the Russians, in turn, have persuaded the Saudis that Moscow respects oil agreements and can manage energy markets.
Almost every other Middle Eastern country was offered a similar deal. The current Turkish military incursion in Syria would not have been possible without Russian acquiescence. And the more the US became unpredictable in the Middle East, the more Russia seemed to be indispensable. It was a good strategy, superbly well executed.
Can anything stop Russia’s ascendancy in the Middle East? Plenty of developments can still stand in Moscow’s way. Much of what President Putin has achieved is due to the fact that the US under President Barack Obama was unwilling to shoulder its traditional regional responsibilities, so Mr Putin knew he could afford to be adventurous, for Mr Obama made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the region.
Yet matters could be different with President Donald Trump, who not only authorised a missile strike against Syria as a reminder to both Mr Assad and Mr Putin that the US retains many military options, but also recently announced – to Russia’s annoyance – that a certain US military presence around Syria will continue almost indefinitely.
There were also the mysterious recent attacks by unidentified drones on Russian military bases in Syria. The Russians accuse the US of being behind the attacks, and the Americans are remaining quiet, a sure sign that, regardless of who sent the drones, Washington intends to keep the Russians guessing about America’s future regional intentions. The days when Mr Putin called all the shots in Syria both metaphorically and in practice may soon be over.
Rising tensions between Iran and the US, as well as Washington’s encouragement to the Saudis, could also force Russia to come off the fence. The days when Moscow could pretend to be both everyone’s friend and everyone’s potential opponent may now draw to a close.
And the Russians are also bound to discover – as did any other power involved in the Middle East – that it’s easy to be sucked into the region’s games, but it is far more difficult to be listened to, or forge close alliances. If the US was unable to impose its will on either its friends or foes in the region, Russia is unlikely to fare any better.
Still, the way the Russians have managed to gain an important role in the Middle East despite their inherent weaknesses shows that Moscow is able to combine shrewd diplomacy with precise military aims, is much better than it ever was before at judging the appropriate timings of its interventions, and is nimble enough not to be stuck in situations from which it cannot extricate itself.
Don’t be surprised if the Russians apply a similar strategy in Asia in order to increase their influence. The crisis over North Korea is not one in which the Russians can use force, but is one in which they can intercede, as they are already doing. And don’t be surprised if a similar tactic is applied to Latin America, where Russia also wishes to regain a foothold.
For a country which has so many economic problems and which is still in decline, the Russians have learnt to play their bad cards well.
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