Russia’s dramatic re-emergence
Russia’s stalwart support for Syrian President Bashar Assad has perplexed and angered a number of governments, including the United States, EU members and a number of Middle Eastern Sunni-dominated states, including Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which would like to see regime change in Syria.
Stripped of the overblown Western and Middle Eastern critical rhetoric, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated his philosophy for providing such support — “colour revolutions” in the post-Soviet space and “Arab spring” uprisings are underwritten by outside countries seeking to expand their influence in the targeted nations.
But the destruction of state structures has led to chaos and extremism. As proof, the Russian government cites Ukraine, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In the case of the latter, Putin’s belief is that those who take up arms against the Assad regime are de facto terrorists and that the resulting political power vacuum in “liberated” areas has allowed extremism, from the al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front to the Islamic State (ISIS) to flourish.
This view stands in stark contrast to Western governments, led by the United States, and the aforementioned Middle Eastern governments that maintain there are “pro-democratic” elements in the Syrian resistance that deserve both financial support and armaments.
Despite these policy polar opposites, in an extraordinarily adroit display of diplomacy, Putin’s Russia has not only managed to bridge the Middle East’s deepening Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, maintaining good relations not only with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Shia Iran and, perhaps most extraordinarily, Israel as well, a performance unmatched by any other nation.
To give an idea of the depth of Putin’s relations with Middle East leaders, in the past five weeks Putin met Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Sabah and had telephone conversations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
This otherwise singular diplomatic accomplishment has been marred by the sudden dramatic worsening of Russia’s relations with its Black Sea neighbour Turkey following the latter’s November 24th shooting down of a Russian Su-24 bomber operating in Syria after Turkish authorities said it had violated Turkish airspace.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to see Assad replaced; in the worsening diplomatic situation Russia has accused Ankara of aiding and abetting the Syrian opposition, including the Islamic State (ISIS). Since the aircraft’s downing Russia has imposed sanctions on Turkey and the diplomatic stalemate shows no signs of abating any time soon.
Russia’s interest in assisting Middle East allies combat terrorism is not totally altruistic as a significant number of Russian citizens are fighting in the ranks of ISIS and Moscow is understandably nervous about them returning home with combat skills honed on Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan battlefields.
Since the 1991 collapse of the USSR, Russia has fought two brutal wars in the Caucasus against its Chechen citizens and the northern Caucasus still remains turbulent. About 10% of Russia’s citizenry is Muslim, whose ranks swell every year with guest workers from Central Asian nations, primarily Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Russia’s policies are accordingly far more in tune with many Middle Eastern governments than those of the West, which deliver lectures on human rights and democracy even as they undercut uncooperative regimes. Small wonder then at the queue of Middle Eastern leaders wanting to meet with Putin.
In the Middle East cauldron, stability trumps both Western democracy and jihadi extremism, leading to perceptions there that Russia’s presence helps guarantee stability. It is a simple truth that Ankara, Brussels and Washington have yet to acknowledge but one that they ignore at their peril.