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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Year in review: Russia strengthens bid for Middle East influence

Moscow's seeming gains in the region may be limited if Trump administration follows through on its plans to reassert US dominance

The support of Vladimir Putin has given Syrian president Bashar Al Assad free rein to hit back at rebels. Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik
The support of Vladimir Putin has given Syrian president Bashar Al Assad free rein to hit back at rebels. Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

To judge from President Vladimir Putin’s demeanour during his recent victory parade through the Middle East, the Russian leader is feeling pretty pleased with what he has achieved in the region during the past year.

Mr Putin’s first port of call was the Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, which the Russians have been using to conduct their barbaric bombing operations against Syrian rebel groups. Mr Putin, who has already begun his campaign for re-election next year, used the visit as a vehicle to demonstrate Russia’s growing influence in the region, telling a crowd of Russian military personnel: “You are coming back home with victory."

From Syria, Mr Putin flew to Egypt for talks with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. After successfully forging ties with Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, the Kremlin is now looking at expanding its influence to Cairo, with the Russians announcing a multi-billion dollar deal to build Egypt’s first nuclear plant. Mr Putin clearly hopes that building closer trade ties with Egypt will result in Russia being offered access to a number of Egyptian military bases, including Sidi Barrani, the site on the Mediterranean which the Soviet Union used until 1972 to monitor Nato naval actions in the region.

In addition to these new diplomatic bonds with Syria and Egypt, Mr Putin can also point to Moscow’s strengthened relations with Turkey, another country he visited during his whistle-stop tour of the region. Mr Putin says he is working closely with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on finding a mutually beneficial solution to the Syrian crisis, and is now looking to sell the Turks Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defence system as part of his drive to form a new alliance with Ankara.

And then there is Russia’s newly formed relationship with Iran, one that has developed over their joint support for the Assad regime.

Indeed, it was as a result of the direct intervention of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards all-powerful Quds Force, that Mr Putin was persuaded to intervene in Syria in the first place. In the summer of 2015, the Assad regime had suffered significant losses, and looked to be on the point of defeat, a prospect that Tehran — which relies heavily on Damascus to keep its supply lines open with Hizbollah in southern Lebanon — regarded with deep consternation.

The Russians, too, had a vested interest in keeping Mr Al Assad in power as it was key to maintaining their naval base at Tartus, their prized warm water port in the eastern Mediterranean. So when Mr Soleimani flew to Moscow in the summer of 2015 to warn the Kremlin of the Assad regime’s plight, Mr Putin was persuaded to respond.

And the Russians have certainly come a long way since the early days of its military intervention in September 2015, when many military experts warned that Moscow was entering a quagmire similar to America's Vietnam experience 40 years ago.

But Mr Putin can now claim the opposite has been the case and that, far from finding themselves bogged down in a war without end, they have achieved their strategic objectives of keeping the Assad regime in power and defeating the rebels.

Much of the success Mr Putin can claim with regard to the advances he has made throughout the Middle East can be laid at the door of the Obama administration, and its refusal to fulfil Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the region’s political status quo.

Barack Obama’s preference for “leadership from behind” created a vacuum that was readily filled by countries that had for decades been held in check by America’s dominance - countries such as Russia and Iran.

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But before Mr Putin gets too carried away with Russia's gains in the region during the last two years, he also needs to understand that Moscow still has a long way to go before it replaces Washington as the pre-eminent power broker in the Middle East.

For a start, Moscow’s relationship with Tehran is based more on a convergence of interests, particularly with regard to Syria, rather than a genuine political re-alignment.

The Russians, who have a complex relationship with Iran dating back centuries, are not natural allies of Tehran, a fact that was graphically illustrated when Russian commanders based in Syria gave their permission for Israeli warplanes to bomb Iranian convoys in Syria being used to supply weapons to Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Russia might still entertain hopes of opening a military base in Iran, but this will only happen if another issue arises — the threat of an American military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, for example — where close military co-operation between Moscow and Tehran are deemed to be vital.

And so far as Syria is concerned, Mr Putin can hardly brag over Russian achievements there. The claim that the Russians helped destroy ISIL is pure fiction. The main effort to destroy ISIL's Raqqa base came from Arab-Kurdish forces supported by the US-led coalition, not the Russians. And while Mr Putin might congratulate himself on keeping Mr Al Assad in power, all he has achieved is to sustain a psychopath who loves nothing more than to kill, murder and maim his own people, as evidenced by his regime’s treatment of the beleaguered civilian population of the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.

If Mr Putin wants to claim success in his attempts to build influence in the Middle East, it may well prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, especially as it now seems clear, following this week’s publication of the Trump administration’s new security strategy, that Washington has every intention of reclaiming its traditional leadership role in the region.

The Trump administration says it regards Russia as a “strategic competitor”, while Iran has once more been designated a “rogue state”, designations that suggest Washington will be working a lot more closely in future with long-standing regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as it seeks to rebuild the Pax Americana.

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