Putin, the New Middle East Kingmaker
With the United States largely absent from the Middle East during the Obama presidency and the country taking an uncertain policy line under Donald Trump, the region has been left in political purgatory. The void created by American indecision in the region and its volatile and capricious politics was quickly filled by a global rival: Russia and its ambitious president, Vladimir Putin.
He ventured into the Syrian quagmire with guns blazing, unafraid to commit his military, come what may. Unlike the United States and its allies, which were less than tepid about jumping into another seemingly endless Middle Eastern conflict, Russia did not shy away. Both the Europeans and Americans had tired of the drain caused by Mideast conflicts, taxing their economies and their military.
Unburdened by having to justify his policies and his decisions — be they political or military — to a checks-and-balances parliament or to an empowered electorate, Putin went on an all-out war against what he claimed was the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. The endeavour scored points with a number of Arab regimes, despite his bolstering of the Iranian-backed Syrian leader, Bashar Assad.
Putin’s successes in the region were not just military but also diplomatic. The former KGB boss used all the cunning he had learned while head of the Soviet secret police in East Germany to further his agenda in the region. Today, Putin has made great diplomatic inroads in the Middle East, convincing a number of countries to sign lucrative deals and supply them with Russian-made weaponry.
During the Cold War, most Arab countries were tied to the Soviet Union and received its weapons, despite their classification by many arms experts as inferior to US-made ones. But times have changed and so have Russia’s weapon systems. So also have members of the Arab leadership, who now feel they cannot rely on the United States as they did in the past.
During a recent visit to Turkey, Putin convinced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to buy the Russian-made missile system, a move that has angered Washington and set a questionable precedent in that a NATO country was buying Russian weapons.
Russia is playing by a different set of rules and for the moment seems to be scoring points. Among the Middle Eastern leaders in Putin’s corner are the king of Saudi Arabia and the prime minister of Israel, both of whom have made a political pilgrimage to Moscow for talks with Putin.
Western historians are cognisant that the Middle East’s century-old animosities that drive today’s conflicts cannot be solved through foreign military intervention. History has clearly demonstrated that to all foreign powers that have intervened in the Middle East, even if they are the mightiest military powers of their time, such as the Romans, Ottomans and the British or, in more recent times, the Americans.
But in Syria, Russia sensed the hesitation on the part of NATO countries to intervene and jumped in. Russia’s military intervention helped keep the beleaguered Assad regime’s head above water at a time when the West and his once close ally, Turkey, were all calling for his removal from power. At one point, there were rumours that even the Russians were contemplating pushing Assad to trade Damascus for Sochi in southern Russia. It was quite possibly Assad’s lowest moment.
But all that is now history with the Russian president recently receiving a warm greeting from the Syrian leader in the very town where it was suggested he might be exiled.
Russian intervention saved Assad’s regime, allowing him and his followers to resist and then go on the offensive against the opposition.
And now the Syrian president can thank Russian military efforts — and US disengagement in Syria — for his current footing. Putin can cash the chips he has won from the defeat of ISIS to become the ultimate kingmaker in the region while defying the multitude of Western nations that continue to call for the removal of the Syrian president. Putin today is no longer worried about NATO, as Russia was during the Cold War.
Moscow has long sought to own a warm water port for its Mediterranean fleet and now Syria provides those facilities in Tartus and Latakia. The Syrian government, should they emerge whole from the current phase of violence, is not about to forget those who jumped in to save it when everyone else simply jumped ship.
The result is Assad keeping his seat and the distributor of regional influence among Syrian, Iranian and Turkish leaders, with US President Donald Trump reduced to the distant leader to be briefed out of courtesy if at all.
Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.
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