Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) during their meeting on December 11, 2017 in Cairo, Egypt
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quick tour to three Middle Eastern countries on December 11 was in fact a symbol of how quickly Russia has managed to regain the influence it used to enjoy in the region. The big picture of the trip was overshadowed by Putin’s unannounced visit to Russia’s Hmeimim air base, in which he ordered for the Russian troops to start withdrawing from Syria. This does not mean, however, that his two other destinations, namely Cairo and Ankara were of a lesser significance in Moscow’s regional approach.
Given the topics raised during Putin’s meetings with his Egyptian and Turkish counterparts, as well as the current state of regional interactions in the Middle East, it could be said that the visits were important from several different but interrelated aspects.
First, while the current US administration led by President Donald Trump still lacks a clear Middle East strategy to exactly define its long-term goals, priorities and – most importantly – allies in the region, Russia’s attempt to consolidate its ties with Turkey and Egypt, as the two weaker rings in the chain of American regional alliances, entails clear messages about Moscow’s new regional plans.
Since the failed July 2016 coup in Turkey, an ever-widening gap started to take shape between Ankara and Washington – and the West in general – with issues such as the US support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters and making a legal case against the Turkish government over its deals with Iran during the sanctions period further deterioration of the relations. US relationship with Egypt has also been an uneasy one during the recent years over issues such as “human rights situation” in the country.
In this context, Moscow is apparently trying to build upon the opportunity provided by Washington’s vague and passive regional approach, as well as its tense relations with Ankara and Cairo, and introduce itself as a reliable partner for the two countries. Moving toward finalizing the deal to provide Turkey with S-400 anti-missile system and signing a deal to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant could be interpreted in the same vein. Therefore, an integral part of the new Russian Middle East policy is to move forward wherever the US is moving back, with Putin’s visits to Cairo and Ankara as its latest representations.
Second, the Russian President’s tour to the Middle East came at a time that the region has been rattled by Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As the move has already diminished Washington’s potential to be recognized as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Russia is doubling down on its efforts to take the initiative and enhance its position in this equation.
In fact, Moscow has long enjoyed friendly relations with both Israel and influential Palestinian groups and now is apparently trying to stay in touch with the influential regional actors involved in the issue. The Jerusalem issue was at the top of the agenda of Putin’s meeting with both Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In this vein, one could arguably say that Russia is to be recognized as the sole global power with the ability to make a compromise between the diverging approaches of many parties involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Finally, there’s a direct link between what Putin declared in Hmeimim and his visits to Egypt and Turkey the same day. At a time that Russia has started to reduce its military commitments in Syria and to shift toward a viable political solution for the Syrian Crisis, it needs as much regional actors as possible on board to support its political and diplomatic initiatives. As both Egypt and Ankara have had an important role in organizing a front of “moderate” Syrian opposition groups to take part at the political talks, keeping close contacts with them is crucial for Moscow to preserve its long-term interests regarding Syria.
One should remind, however, that this is just one piece of the complex Middle East puzzle Russia is now facing and to make a compromise between the long-term interests of its old and new regional partners (Iran, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, etc.) is a harder task to do by Moscow. Nonetheless, one thing’s for sure that we are just witnessing a totally new era of Russia’s activism in the Middle East.
© Valdai Discussion Club
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
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