Putin projects dominance in Middle East but is not without challengers
Tunis - Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of victory in Syria underscored Russia’s newfound dominance in a region where the United States had typically enjoyed a leading role.
However, as he seeks to rebuild that influence to a level reminiscent of the Soviet Union, Putin risks reviving frictions with the United States and sparking new rivalries, not least with France, which is looking to reclaim its sphere of influence and pursue independent policies.
Russia’s ascendancy has been dramatic. Entering the Syrian war two years ago in support of a regime thought to be on the point of collapse, Moscow announced its “partial” departure on December 11 while maintaining bases at Tartus and Latakia.
Putin’s motivations are likely as tied to domestic politics as to foreign ambitions. Against a background of falling oil prices, a stagnating economy and rising public anger over official corruption, Putin’s foreign power plays tap into the romance of past imperial greatness that has fuelled his second sojourn at the Kremlin.
Allied to Russia’s rise within the region has been the disengagement of its geopolitical archrival, the United States. From its 2003 invasion of Iraq to its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US policies have proven ill-inspired and unpopular. To people in the Middle East, they were disastrous. Russia’s stands have been much more steadfast and credible.
In extending Russian influence throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Putin is actively seeking a new order shaped in his own image. In Libya, Turkey, Egypt and even in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Putin is looking for benefits for his country while bolstering the rule of the region’s strongmen.
During his “victory tour” in early December — beyond his dramatic stop in Syria, visits were made to Egypt and Turkey — Putin gave indications of the contours of Russia’s ambitions.
Turkey, angered by Washington’s partnership with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group Ankara sees as tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), seeks to partner with a more consistent international ally. Eliminating any doubt was Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S400 missile defence system, a move essentially welding Turkey’s military future to Russia.
Egypt’s pivot to the east has been dramatic, too. Cairo, which, the New York Times reported, has received as much as $70 billion in US aid since the ouster of the Soviet ambassador there in 1973, has been assumed to be a key US ally. However, with the signing of a preliminary agreement to share airbases with Russia, as well as the expected resumption of desperately needed Russian tourism to Egypt’s coastal resorts, Putin’s influence appears firmly in the ascendant.
The Russian leader is not without competition, however.
French President Emmanuel Macron is a new kid on the block who seems determined to challenge Moscow’s dominance in the Middle East. With Washington’s disengagement, Macron sees an opportunity for a greater political role and economic dividends.
His ambition is only equalled by his energy. In December, he made official visits to Algeria and Qatar. In Paris, he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to discuss peace plans. For Lebanon, he not only staged an elaborate Paris support conference but proved instrumental in resolving the crisis sparked by Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s shock resignation announcement.
It is unclear how different visions will define the two powers’ strategies. Less constrained as Russia is by a compromising attitude towards Iran, France has spoken sharply against Tehran’s designs. To “the Iranian presence and the desire to make an axis from the Mediterranean to Tehran, (I say) no!” French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said recently.
Moscow and Paris are equally attentive to events in Libya, with Russia eyeing a political-military role there. Libya can be a source of competition but could offer Paris and Moscow common ground, with both seemingly keen on maintaining close relations with the country’s strongman, Khalifa Haftar.
In a Middle East increasingly outside the US radar and beset by security threats and uncertainties, it remains to be seen how Russia and its competitors will define the endgames.