24.11.2015 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Success of Russia’s Political Front in the Middle East

cdbedcf28bThere’s no denying that the Russian military campaign against ISIS in Syria has really off-set the organization’s militant stranglehold and that this campaign has practically led to re-orientation of the Middle East’s strategic landscape that had previously become intensely disturbed due to the rise of umpteen Western supported proxy groups. Notwithstanding the rapidity of Russian air strikes’ success in Syria, military campaign is however not the only way Russia has adopted to play its role in ridding the Middle East of its worst nightmare. Apart from bombing ISIS hideouts, the Russians have also been busy, especially during the last few days, in opening a ‘political front’ to maintain a balance between its strategic as well as political objectives.

It is quite obvious that Russia does not want to just bomb the ISIS out of the Middle East; it has to counter the West’s larger strategic objectives that greatly aim at controlling the region’s energy flows and thereby undercut Russian economy. To counter-balance the Western agenda, Russia does need to solidify its political relations across the region. Since the beginning of Russian campaign, two most visible countries that Russia has been actively engaged with are Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is not to suggest that it is Russia only that needs to engage with these countries. In fact, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia do realize that without engaging with Russia, they might not be able to come out the crisis they, directly and indirectly, themselves have created in the first place.

One such example of Russia’s political manoeuvering in the Middle East appeared a few days ago when the Kremlin chief of staff Sergey Ivanov spoke about Russia-Turkey relations from the angel of maintaining balanced relations with Turkey in the wake of the recent diplomatic spat over the incident of a Russian aircraft accidently trespassing into Turkish air space. He said, “Sometimes we have certain contradictions in international relations but we discuss them publicly and privately and publicly with account for mutual interests.”

Although he was speaking against the context of that air-space incident, he was however mainly underscoring Russia-Turkey relations in the wake of an ever increasing pressure from NATO countries on Turkey, urging her to use her prerogative to seek their help to counter-balance Russian strategic manoeuvering in the Mediterranean region.

However, the fact that Turkey has not made any such formal request to the alliance is an indication of just how carefully and subtly Turkey is constructing its position vis-à-vis both the West and Russia amid fast changing geo-political scenario of the Middle East.

As a matter of fact, as Ivanov pointed out, the bomb blasts in Turkey seem to reinforce the need for partnering with Russia against ISIS— a menace that is threatening all. Russian President Vladimir Putin also called his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer his condolences. Later on, he said in an interview the terrorist attacks in Turkey were a provocation:

What happened in Turkey is certainly, a daring terrorist attack, a crime with numerous victims and of course, an attempt to destabilize the situation in the country friendly to us. Moreover, it took place during the electoral campaign,” said Putin. “Actually, it is a clear provocation,” he added further.

While Turkey has chosen to tread a cautious path with regard to her relations with the West and Russia, she is also quite clear about the fact that she would not be able to withstand the tragedy that would befall if it were to allow its territory to be used to counter Russian campaign in the region. It is not to suggest that Russia would in turn attack Turkey. The tragedy that we are talking about can very well take place due to Turkey’s internal socio-political landscape.

As a matter of fact, Turkey is beset internally with so many fault lines – secularist-Islamist, Turkish-Kurdish, Anatolian-Aegean, Sunni-Alawite, and so on. And as it stands today, given its internal political turmoil that ensued due to Erdogan’s failure to form a coalition government, Turkey has never been as deeply divided as it is today. Different social groups are trying to settle various historic and political accounts. All of these are highly active amid a highly charged political atmosphere. In this behalf, Erdogan’s warning to Russia and the US against supporting Kurdish militias is just another attempt on his part to play political stunts to actually downplay Turkey’s internal turmoil and clear his name of all responsibility for mishandling the entire crisis situation, both at home and abroad.

On the other end of political spectrum is Russia’s re-newed engagement with Saudi Arabia. It is rather difficult to assess at this point whether Russia’s overture to Turkey or its engagement with Saudi Arabia, becomes more important. However what is quite obviously clear is that they complement each other and their dynamics could reinforce the re-newed thrust of the Russian regional diplomacy.

As such the meeting that took place between Saudi Defence Minister and Vladimir Putin clearly emphasised the need for focusing on “common interests” that the two countries share in Syria. The most significant of these “common” interests being the need to prevent and Islamist takeover in Syria. In Russian Foreign Minister joint press briefing on Sunday in Sochi with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, following talks between Saudi Prince and Putin, Lavrov clearly emphasized that both countries discussed “a range of options” and the “various approaches” in this regard, and agreed to “use them to guide their further action”. He also revealed that Putin has sought a “maximally concrete” Russian-Saudi interaction in the coming period and that in this regard “relevant understandings have been reached.”

He also added that in order to boost mutual confidence, Vladimir Putin also expressed Russian willingness for “encouraging our military and Special Forces to start working together as closely as possible so as to erase any doubt as to the fact that the Russian aviation’s targets are really the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist groups.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that Riyadh is concerned over Russia military operations in Syria. Jubeir, who appeared alongside Lavrov, said Saudia wants to find common grounds with Russia to guard unity of Syria. Lavrov said Moscow understood Saudi concerns and the two countries shared the aim of “preventing the establishment of a terrorist caliphate in Syria.”

On Russian part, it is a major move towards neutralizing the US propaganda about projecting Russian campaign as directly “strengthening ISIS” in Syria. By drawing Saudi Arabia into its own camp and by throwing down proposals for opening up co-ordination centers throughout the region in the anti-terror fight, Russian has been able to make significant gains, as far as its political front is concerned.

If Russia succeeds in formally including Saudi Arabia and Turkey in its fight against terror groups in Syria, the US might find itself in a hitherto unexperienced and awfully awkward geo-political conundrum. Not only would it have to acknowledge Russian success in the Middle East but might also have to re-adjust its erstwhile “grand strategy.”

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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