Whilst many continue to regard Russia’s increasing sphere of influence in the Middle East with suspicion, we must guard against viewing this through the eyes of US hegemony which has sought to control and subjugate nations who either refused to cooperate on their terms or those nations who defied their will. Few asked the obvious questions why the likes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were allowed to remain in power for so long before they were removed in such a relatively short period of time.
Naturally we should assess the most likely reasons why Russia would choose to play a pivotal role in developments in the region, particularly in relation to Syria and the desire for the West to promote regime change with the removal of Assad from power.
It would be a natural conclusion that Russia would wish to contain and eliminate Islamic extremism in that region for fear that it might spread to Russia and their neighbouring former Soviet Era republics.
Whilst it may seem a contentious statement to make, the problems in the likes of Syria and Iraq relate to Western sponsored terrorism, whereby such terrorist groups are armed, trained and financed by the West to further their political ideology to redraw the map of the Middle East and seize control of oil, gas and other assets in such nations. The need to contain the threat in the likes of Syria is to preserve the integrity of the region itself and less about eliminating such a threat because of perceived actions, which may occur in Russia and its surrounding nations.
Russia no doubt seeks to build cordial relations with all nations in the Middle East and to build geo-political and geo-economic relations which are of mutual benefit to all parties. They have no desire to impose a US hegemonic model on such nations. Furthermore Russia will also seek inward investment, particularly from nations such as Iran.
Many may see Russia’s involvement in this region as a means by why they can secure a military presence but that is absolutely not their intention unless nations request their assistance and only for the duration of time it takes to deal with such needs for their intervention in the first place.
One would also be forgiven for believing that Russia would wish to assert some influence in this region with respect to oil and gas production policies but given Russia has publicly stated that they expect that in the near future they will not be economically dependent on oil and gas resources, this is unlikely to figure strongly in their mind-set with regards to the OPEC nations.
Whilst it is only natural that we tend to focus on Russia’s robust military response to the attempted overthrow of Assad in Syria, as discussed elsewhere, we should also look at very recent developments to see that their influence spreads far beyond that nation, as illustrated below.
We have written an article elsewhere on this site, regarding the Russian involvement in providing intelligence to Turkey with regards to the recent coup attempt, but it worth noting the following statement, which Turkey has made on this matter very recently. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the following with regards to the recent coup attempt: “Russia has expressed unconditional support to us. First of all, I’d like to thank Mr. Putin and other Russian officials.” He went on to say that a meeting between Putin and Erdogan might be held in August before the G20 with a focus on removing the economic barriers and on other steps to restore bilateral relations between the two nations.
In the last year or so we have seen Russia developing political and economic ties with Egypt. In March 2016, Egyptian minister of military production Mohamed El-Assar travelled to Russia to discuss cooperation with Russian officials in the field of joint military production. Strategic and military cooperation between Egypt and Russia has been gathering momentum ever since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi took office in June 2014.
In addition, Moscow and Cairo signed a number of agreements whereby Russia would sell jet fighters and other military hardware to Egypt. Both nations signed an agreement on November 19th 2015 for Russia to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant and grant them a loan to cover the cost of construction. Egypt will pay annual interest of 3% with 43 instalment payments not due to commence until October 2029. In May 2016, Russia extended Egypt a $25-billion loan to finance the construction of this nuclear power plant.
Russia has pledged to assist Afghanistan and Iraq in their efforts to rid these nations of the scourge of terrorist attacks, which continue to blight them. Only yesterday, Russia condemned the twin explosions, which occurred at a demonstration in the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday, killing 80 people and wounding more than 230. Daesh group claimed responsibility for these killings.
Russia condemned the attack and renewed pledges of security assistance to Kabul. Putin reiterated his “readiness for a most active cooperation with Afghanistan’s authorities and people in the fight against all forms of terrorism”. Furthermore, Russia is due to start talks with the government to supply combat helicopters during a visit due to start today in Moscow. The main aim of this visit is to purchase Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters as well as discuss maintenance and repair contracts for such purchases. Russia has already supplied 10,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition. Russia and Afghanistan intend to have broader political and security cooperation going forward, as well as bilateral anti-terror and anti-drug strategies.
Iraq has become increasingly frustrated with US-led efforts to combat the threat of terrorism and also the pace at which the removal of US forces has been occurring. With this in mind, Iraq has turned to Russia, who they regard as a credible presence in their nation to assist with dealing with the incursions of the Islamic State into the county.
In October 2015, the Iraqi government authorised Russia to target Islamic State group convoys coming from Syria, amid security coordination between Iraq, Russia, Iran and Syria. Iraqi security officials stated that Russia was invited because the US-led coalition air strikes proved slow and ineffective.
In February 2016, a large Russian delegation attended Baghdad with a view to strengthening commercial and security ties with Iraq. The discussions principally revolved around Russia providing military assistance to defeat the Islamic State militants who gained control of about one third of Iraq in 2014 with a desire to redraw the map of the Middle East, in keeping with their strategy within Syria.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said: “We need international support from multiple sources, be it from within the international coalition or outside of it,” he continued, “we need support, training and intelligence-sharing. Intelligence plays an important role in the war on Daesh, and we’ve been coordinating for a while now with the Russian side to place this information in the hands of Iraqis.”
In addition, Russia has invested millions of dollars in Iraq’s energy sector and is considering selling civilian aircraft to Iraq. In 2015 Russia opened a command centre in Baghdad under an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran and Syria aimed at combating the Islamic State. Russia intends to continue providing Iraq with military equipment to improve the combat readiness of the Iraqi armed forces.
In April 2016, Russia sent another three Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes to Iraq according to their defence Ministry spokesman Nasir Nouri Mohammad al-Tamimi. On July 1st Iraq received the last of its ordered Mi-28 NE Night Hunter attack helicopters from Russia.
The successful conclusion of the P5+1 talks with Iran in 2015 culminated in a deal being reached with Iran on limiting Iranian nuclear activity in return for the lifting of international economic sanctions. Once Iran was effectively brought back in from the cold, Russia quickly sought to normalise relations. In October 2015, Iran assisted Russia in Syria as part of this newly developed relationship.
In February 2016, Russia and Iran signed trade deals worth around $40bn for the construction of the second and third units of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, as well as the development of railway infrastructure. In addition, Iran’s potential membership inÂ the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was discussed with Putin in Moscow. Furthermore, Iran together with Russia, view the creation of a more equitable system inÂ the world as a primary goal in their future relations.
In April 2016, Moscow and Tehran held talks to construct a ship canal from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf with any canal linking the two having to go through Iran. In the same month Iran took delivery of the first parts of an advanced Russian air defence S-300 system demonstrating clear evidence of a growing relationship between Russia and Iran since their co-operation with regards to Syria. In addition, deals to purchase jets and tanks were finalised.
A further development in Russia’s blossoming role within the Middle East has seen a strengthening in ties between Israel and Russia. Clearly there are mutually beneficial reasons for such relations. After Netanyahu’s third visit to Moscow since October 2015, Putin reiterated Russia’s intention to bolster its cooperation with Israel against the threat posed by Islamic terrorism in Syria. Furthermore, it is clear that Netanyahu regards Russia’s presence in Syria will enable them to act as a mediator in relations between Israel and the Assad regime and as such would welcome a limited Russia presence to remain there for the foreseeable future.
Both Russia and Israel recognise the need for political stability in Syria, as the removal of Assad could pose more of a direct threat by Syria to Israel, even though this flies in the face of their most natural ally the US, who wish to see the removal of Assad. Furthermore, Israel regards Russia as an ally who can broker better relations between them and Iran going forward. Clearly there are areas of disagreement, amongst other things, in relation to Palestine and Israel’s frequent complaints about Russian arms supplies to Hezbollah.
Clearly these ongoing developments by Russia in the Middle East are a source of major concern for the US administration, who are rapidly losing their ability to assert their influence in this region. It is now quite clear that Russia will increasingly become a major player in this region but without the rhetoric, overtures and unholy trinity of death, destruction and grand larceny that have sadly blighted US policy in this region for decades. We should expect further developments between Russia and the nations discussed here, together with other nations such as Saudi Arabia as we move away from US hegemony towards a multipolar world. Perhaps it is fitting that we leave the final words to Putin.
Putin’s statement to the Arab League Heads of State and Government 25th July 2016:
“Your meeting has a very substantial agenda. This is due, of course, to the escalation in many problems that the Middle East and North Africa have faced of late. State institutions have weakened in a number of countries, socioeconomic difficulties have increased, and there has been an upsurge in extremism and religious intolerance. This means there is greater need than ever for the Arab League’s constructive role as an important mechanism for multilateral dialogue and collective decision-making.
I want to reaffirm that Russia is ready to do all it can to strengthen cooperation with the Arab League in ensuring regional security, above all, in combating the international terrorism threat. Our position is that efforts to combat terrorism must go hand-in-hand with work towards political settlement of the crisis situations in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and other hotspots, based on respect for all countries sovereignty and territorial integrity and through inclusive dialogue andÂ national consensus.
We will continue to provide all possible assistance in resolving the problem in Palestine, working through bilateral channels and through various multilateral groups. We consider the current status quo unacceptable and call for efforts to ensure the swift relaunch of negotiations on the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state with territorial integrity, its capital in East Jerusalem, and living in peaceful coexistence with its neighbours.
I am sure that developing partnership ties between Russia and the Arab League in the spirit of the decisions taken at the February meeting of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum in Moscow will play a big part in ensuring international stability.”