The Israelis and Turks, the Egyptians and Jordanians — #x 2019 & they;re all beating a path to the Kremlin in the hope that Vladimir Putin, the master of the Middle East, can secure their interests and fix their problems.
The latest in line is Saudi King Salman, who on Wednesday is supposed to become the kingdom’s first monarch to visit with with Moscow. At the top of the agenda will be reining in Iran, a close Russian ally seen by Gulf Arab states.
Until very recently, Washington stood alone as the go-to destination for such leaders. At the moment, American power in the region is perceptibly in retreat — testimony to the success of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which shored up President Bashar al-Assad after years of U.S. insistence that he must go.
“It changed the reality, the balance of power on the floor,” said Dennis Ross, who had been America’s chief Mideast peace negotiator and advised several presidents from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama. “Putin has succeeded in making Russia a factor in the Middle East. #x 2019 & that;s you find a continuous stream of Middle Eastern traffic going to Moscow. ”
Success brings its own issues. It & #x 2019; s difficult to send all those visitors home fulfilled as demands pile up. “The more you attempt to adopt a position of dealing with all sides, the more you discover that it’s hard to play with that game,’’ Ross said.
Moscow was a power in the Middle East during the Cold War, arming Arab states against Israel. Its influence collapsed along with communism. When the U.S. invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Russia was a bystander, unable to do more than protest.
The tables started to turn in 2013, when the U.S. under Obama chose to not attack Assad. Two years later, Putin sent troops and planes to defend him.
For the most part, America’s allies were firmly in the Assad-must-go camp. They were disillusioned when U.S. military might wasn’t deployed to force him out.
Russia’s clout in the region has grown “because Obama let it,’’ said Khaled Batarfi, a professor at Alfaisal University’s branch in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “Unfortunately he withdrew to a great extent in the Middle East. ’’
That opinion is widespread. It was bluntly expressed last month by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spent years urging American actions against Assad. Talks with the U.S. “couldn’t get any results,’’ he said.
Turkey has now joined Russia and Iran in a strategy to de-escalate the battle. It’s “achieving an outcome,’’ Erdogan said. Two years ago, tensions between Putin and Erdogan had threatened to boil over, after the Turkish army shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border. Last Friday, the Russian president flew to Ankara for dinner with his Turkish counterpart and “friend,’’ who’s agreed to purchase Russian S-400 air defense missile systems, riling fellow NATO members.
‘Here’s the King’
Meanwhile the Saudis, who had funded rebels fighting against Assad, are cooperating with Russia in coaxing the opposition to unite for peace talks – which will likely cement the Syrian leader.
America’s Middle East allies mostly welcomed the shift of U.S. president, and Donald Trump’s tough discuss challenging Iran. So far he’s stuck close to his predecessor’s policy in Syria, concentrating on combating Islamic State not Assad.
So, as the objective of regime-change in Syria recedes, priorities have shifted. The Saudis and other Arab Gulf powers are urging Russia to reduce Iran’s part in Syria, where Hezbollah and other Shiite militias supported by Tehran have supplied shock troops for Assad’s offensive.
“Russia is better off not to be on either side of it. That’s the key message,’’ stated Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a U.A.E.-based political analyst. “Here is the king, representing Arab Gulf countries, representing lots of weight that is geopolitical, coming to Russia. And Russia has to take that into account. ’’
However, Putin won’t change his stance on Iran to adapt Saudi wishes, according to a person close to the Kremlin.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has visited Russia four times in the past 18 months, has found it hard to influence the Russian leader.
In August, Netanyahu told Putin that Iran’s foothold in Syria is “. ’’ In September he told CNN that the Iranians are trying to “colonize’’ Syria with the aim of “ruining us and conquering the Middle East. ’’
Russia, though, refused his demand for a buffer zone within Syria that would maintain the forces of Iran and Hezbollah at least 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Israeli border, a person familiar with the matter in Moscow said. Instead, Russia offered a 5-kilometer exclusion zone, the person said.
Russia also rejected a U.S. demand to make the Euphrates river a dividing line between Syrian government troops and U.S.-supported forces in southern Syria. This has resulted in a race to capture territory from retreating Islamic State fighters in an tactical and oil-rich border region.
Yet Russia has succeeded in keeping open channels of communication from Iran to Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian radical Islamist group Hamas to Israel, said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group.
While Russia didn’t give way on the buffer zone, it’s a tacit understanding that permits Israel to carry out airstrikes against Hezbollah in Syria, said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research team set up by the Kremlin.
It’s been mediating, along with Egypt, to end the rift between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Putin invited rival Libyan factions to Moscow, after a series of peace efforts by other nations came to nothing. Russia has become a leading investor in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, and has been one of the few world powers to refrain from condemning its latest vote on independence.
In economic terms, the contest for influence appears to be an unequal one – America’s GDP is 13 times Russia’s. That’s not always the decisive factor, stated Alexander Zotov, Moscow’s ambassador to Syria from 1989 to 1994.
“Sometimes you have two boxers one is huge with bulging muscles and the other one is smaller but nimble, and has a better strategy,’’.
While economics are a limiting factor for Russia, Putin also enjoys several benefits over American presidents, according to Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. He’s no Congress to be worried about, and no elections that he risks losing. Putin has been around for two decades, quite a long time in geopolitics, with “#x 201D, & very consistent direction, a consistent message; Salem said. “He says what he does, he does what he says. ”
Russia’s rise came as U.S. policy makers grew preoccupied with Asia, and the American public tired of Middle East wars – something both Obama and Trump acknowledged.
“Washington remains the power in the region,’’ stated Eurasia’s Kamel. However, its commitment to traditional alliances is weakening, he said, and #x 2019 & that; s encouraged leaders to hedge their bets. “The Kremlin is on everyone’s mind. ’’
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