Daily Briefing: Russia Plays a Weak Hand Well in the Middle East (October 29,2019)


President Vladimir Putin during an interview with Megyn Kelly, journalist of the American television channel NBC. (Source: Wikipedia)

Table of Contents:

Putin Takes Centre Stage in Syria:  Stanly Johny, The Hindu, Oct. 25, 2019

How Moscow Inherited The Middle East:  Ilan I Berman, AFPC, Oct. 24, 2019

Russia’s Middle East Power Play Vance Serchuk, National Review, Sept. 12, 2019

Putin Takes Centre Stage in Syria
Stanly Johny
The Hindu, Oct. 25, 2019Initially, it appeared to be a geopolitical puzzle. First, the United States announced that it was pulling out of northern Syria, leaving its Kurdish allies to the mercy of Turkey. Then Turkey launched an offensive in Kurdish towns along the Syrian border. Neither the Syrian government nor its Russian allies did anything to stop the Turkish incursion. For reasons that are unclear, it seemed that everybody was on board when it comes to taking on the Kurds.Then everything fell into place when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in the Black Sea town of Sochi. Mr. Erdoğan wants to carve out a 400-km long and 30-km wide buffer across the Turkish border, stretching from Manbij in northwestern Syria to its northeastern corner on the Iraqi border. His plan is to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia out of this buffer, which he calls the “safe zone,” and resettle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey in this region. The “safe zone” will be run by pro-Turkish Syrian militias. In the Sochi summit, Mr. Putin practically accepted this proposal, but with one rider: the “safe zone” would be jointly patrolled by both Russian and Turkish troops. Russian and Syrian troops will push the YPG away from the buffer.Win-win dealIn the end it was a win-win deal. Ankara got what it wanted without fighting a full-scale war with the Kurds — a buffer along the border; Damascus got what it wanted without fighting the Rojava — sovereignty over northeastern Syria; Moscow got what it wanted — the Americans out of Syria (only a small contingent of U.S. troops are likely to stay back); and U.S. President Donald Trump got what he wanted — to end America’s role in at least one of the several long-drawn wars it’s fighting.The only losers in this great game are the Kurds. For over four years, they have been on the front line of the war against the Islamic State (IS). They defeated the terrorist group and established a semi-autonomous administration in areas liberated from the IS, only to lose both territories and autonomy. The U.S. has abandoned them. Turkey is bombing them. For Russia, they are just a pawn on the geopolitical chessboard. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK– Ed.]

How Moscow Inherited The Middle East
Ilan I Berman
AFPC, Oct. 24, 2019

What a difference four years can make. In the Fall of 2015, Russia’s government made the decision to formally launch a military offensive in support of the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Back then, the Kremlin’s regional position was profoundly weak. After a period of protracted post-Cold War decline, Moscow’s Mideast presence had been whittled down to just one permanent military outpost: its naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus. And, at the time, even that facility was in danger of being lost if Assad’s government ended up falling to rebel forces.

Today, by contrast, Russia’s regional presence is robust – and getting even stronger. In Syria, Moscow has succeeded in bolstering its naval base at Tartus (where it now has an open-ended long term lease), building at least three additional military facilities in the country, and significantly beefing up its maritime presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Simultaneously, Russia has also managed to leverage its involvement in Syria to launch a landmark expansion into the region via stepped-up arms sales, new bases in North Africa, and a more robust presence in regional politics. Over the past several years, this strategy has helped restore Russia to the role of a key power broker in regional affairs.

That status was cemented earlier this week, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi to hammer out a bilateral agreement over the future of Syria. The new deal, which comes on the heels of Turkey’s recent military invasion, includes a number of key provisions that simultaneously help strengthen the Russo-Turkish strategic relationship and secure Moscow’s now-dominant regional position.

The first is the codification of a shared commitment to deeper counterterrorism cooperation. That pledge is significant, because it foreshadows a further Turkish turn away from Europe. Ankara, after all, has blamed European nations for not resolutely combat Islamic extremism, and that failure was one of the core rationales behind Erdogan’s decision to take independent military action. Turkey’s conclusion, clearly, is that Russia – which has military assets deployed and operational in Syria – will be both willing and able to do much more than Europe ever was.

The agreement also enshrines a commitment by the two countries to jointly patrol Turkey’s newly-created buffer zone in northern Syria. Here, too, Russia has deftly positioned itself as a guarantor of Turkish security. The Trump administration, having initially given Turkey the “green light” to invade Syria, belatedly attempted to temper Ankara’s actions through biting new sanctions and hints of even more serious possible consequences. That, however, isn’t likely to happen so long as Russia is involved – something that Erdogan understands very well. His government thus sees Russia’s involvement in policing northern Syria as an insurance policy of sorts against America.

Finally, the agreement includes a Turkish commitment to abstain from pushing deeper into Syrian territory. That had previously been a real possibility, both because the initial ceasefire announced by Erdogan on October 17th was just temporary in nature, and because powerful ideological forces inside Turkey have been urging his government to press its advantage. By securing a pledge from the Turkish leader not to do so, Putin has managed to head off the possibility of a future conflict between two of Russia’s major strategic partners in which Moscow would inevitably be forced to take sides.

The October 22nd deal should thus be seen for what it is: a clear victory for Moscow. Through it, Russia has managed to outmaneuver both Europe and the United States, strengthen its political role in Syria, and make itself an indispensable player in regional geopolitics. The Kremlin, in other words, has succeeded in playing what was once a very weak political hand exceedingly well.

Valdai 2019 Shows Russia’s Disappointment with West Amid Hopes for New Kind of Link With Europe 
Anatol Lieven
Russia Matters, Oct. 25, 2019

The conference of the Valdai Club in Sochi took place before the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the new surge in Russian influence in the Middle East; but the increase in Russian confidence was already very marked. The mood, however, was one of sober confidence rather than arrogance. As Marc Champion remarked in his report for Bloomberg, “President Putin delivered his least vituperative performance for a decade or more” of annual speeches to the international gathering of policymakers, academics and journalists. There was in fact a good deal less for journalists at this year’s Valdai than previous ones. Rather, it was interesting as usual for the chance to gauge the current mood and attitudes of the Russian foreign policy establishment, and for a chance to look at global issues from a different perspective.

The Valdai this year reflected, and was intended to reflect, a certain turning away from the West. The topic of the conference was “The Dawn of the East and the World Political Order.” Particular emphasis was naturally given to speakers from China, India and to a lesser extent the Middle East.

On the Middle East, not just Putin but the Russians in general took the view (more or less politely phrased) that the U.S., and by extension Britain, have created such disasters in the region, from Iraq through Libya to Syria and acquiescence in Netanyahu’s aggressive chauvinism, as to forfeit any legitimate claim to a leading role. At the same time, I detected a certain nervousness among some of the participants about what Russia might be getting itself into by seeking predominant influence in a region that has generated (even without Western encouragement) so many terrible and insoluble crises in the past.

The number of Western participants was somewhat reduced, and the number of Western journalists greatly reduced compared to the conferences of earlier years. As one of the Russian participants told me, the Russian establishment has more or less given up on hoping for more balanced and objective coverage of Russia from the Western media (not, of course, that most of the Russian media coverage of the West is exactly fair and balanced either).

Concerning Ukraine and relations with Western Europe, the initiative of President Volodymyr Zelensky was welcomed by Russian participants as an attempt to implement the “Steinmeier Formula” for a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, drawn up by Germany’s then Foreign Minister (now President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2016. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative in September to “ease and clarify” Europe’s relations with Russia was also welcomed.

However, compared to some of the conversations I took part in at Valdai from 2005 to 2008, the Russian participants had no very great hopes that these moves would come to anything much. In the case of Ukraine, this is because of a belief that the Ukrainian government (even given Zelensky’s impressive electoral victory) is too weak to push through a compromise in the face of radical nationalist opposition, and because the critical issue of security in the Donbas during and after a peace process remains wholly unresolved. I could detect no readiness at all to hand the Donbas over to the unqualified control of the Ukrainian security forces—though of course this issue could in principle be resolved, as in other settlements, by the presence of U.N. peacekeepers. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]


Russia’s Middle East Power Play
Vance Serchuk
National Review, Sept. 12, 2019

Turkey flouted months of American warnings this summer and took delivery of the Russian-made S-400 air-defense system — triggering Ankara’s expulsion from the F-35 stealth-fighter program and obligating the imposition of additional sanctions by the Trump administration under U.S. law. Most immediately, these developments mark a new and precipitous deterioration in the long-unraveling U.S.–Turkish alliance. But Ankara’s decision to choose a Russian weapons system over a U.S. one also points to a wider and even more ominous geopolitical shift: the growing influence of the Kremlin as a strategic force across the greater Middle East, at America’s expense.
For close observers of the Middle East, Russia’s return as a great-power rival to Washington is as startling as it is disorienting. Leaders from once-stalwart U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia now shuttle regularly to Moscow for high-level consultations about regional developments, while Russian weapons deals and energy investments have proliferated from the Arabian Gulf to the Maghreb. In fractured states such as Lebanon and Iraq, the pursuit of closer ties with Russia has become a rare point of national consensus across sectarian fault lines: Iranian clients look to Moscow as a proven friend, while Tehran’s rivals woo the Kremlin as a potential counterweight to Persian hegemony.

Even Israel, America’s closest Middle Eastern partner, has come to embrace Moscow’s role as a regional power broker, hosting a first-of-its-kind summit of U.S. and Russian national-security advisers in Jerusalem in late June. While both the Trump administration and Israeli officials were quick to portray the gathering as an exercise in isolating Iran — testing the potential to separate the Kremlin from its erstwhile accomplice in Syria — the meeting sent another message to the region: about the acceptance of Russia by the Jewish state as a coequal to the U.S. in shaping the future of the Levant.

How did Moscow pull this off? In Washington foreign-policy circles, it is generally recognized that Russia’s return to great-power status in the Middle East has somehow run through the conflagration in Syria, where the Kremlin has — to use a shopworn phrase — “played a weak hand well.” What is less appreciated is that President Vladimir Putin has achieved this feat by applying the same great-power-competition playbook that was successfully deployed against Russia by the United States during another Middle East war nearly 50 years ago.

Specifically, it was the Cold War statecraft of President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, around the 1973 Yom Kippur War that maneuvered Moscow to the margins of the Middle East, where it was then consigned for decades. Now the Kremlin has reversed that defeat by harnessing precisely the principles of realpolitik that propelled American strategy to triumph in the region in an earlier era.

Indeed, while Putin famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union to be the greatest geopolitical calamity of the 20th century, the essential elements of his approach to the Middle East in recent years have been less Marxist-Leninist than Nixon-Kissinger. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

For Further Reference:

Russia Deploys Troops to Syria-Turkey Border with Goal of Removing Kurdish Fighters: Jackson Richman, Jewish Press, Oct. 24, 2019 — Russia has deployed troops to the Syria-Turkey border a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that his country and Russia had reached a “historic” agreement to remove all Syrian Kurdish fighters from that region.

Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean Strategy Explained – Analysis: Douglas J. Feith, Shaul Chorev, Jerusalem Post, Sept. 26, 2019 — Russia is taking advantage of the power vacuum created by America’s desire to disengage from the Middle East.

Trump Outsmarts Putin With Syria Retreat:  Ze’Ev Chafets, Bloomberg, Oct. 25, 2019 — After U.S. President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal from Syria, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution denouncing it as “a benefit to adversaries of the United States government, including Syria, Iran and Russia.”

How Vladimir Putin Falls Bret Stephens, NYTimes, Sept. 6, 2019 –– The Russian human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko once explained to me how Vladimir Putin’s machinery of repression works. “It isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail,” she said. “It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected. It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message.”