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Vladimir Putin's Big Push Into the Middle East



Last December, the day after President Donald Trump abruptly announced that the U.S. was pulling out of Syria, Vladimir Putin sounded magnanimous about the American decision. When asked at his annual year-end press conference on Mr. Trump's assessment that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, the Russian strongman replied, "Overall, I agree with the president of the United States." Putin added, “Is the presence of American troops required there? I do not think it is. ”

Mr. Trump's move was a major victory for Mr. Putin, bolster his effort to make Russia the Middle East's new power broker. The economic and military presence of the U.S. in the region is too extensive for Moscow to replace Washington, but over the past three years, Mr. Putin has re-established Russia as a major player. As a senior Israeli official told me, "Middle East policy is aggressive, flexible and cognizant of its limits."

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        "Russian policy in the Middle East is aggressive, flexible and cognizant of its limits."
        


—ior Israeli official

Mr. Putin has extensively exploited the ambivalence of the US, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, about continuing its expansive post-9/1

1 presence in the region. Mr. Trump's particular focus on countering Iran's influence has given Mr. Putin the space to pursue his vision of a pragmatic, interest-based policy. Russia is the only big foreign power that talks to all of the region's key actors: Iran, the Sunni Arab states, Israel, Turkey, the Kurds, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria. Having precipitously collapsed in 1989 from the Middle East after the Soviet, and its growing regional influence stands as one of Mr. Putin's key foreign-policy achievements, alongside its new partnership with Xi Jinping’s China. Russia's first big thrust came in September 2015, when Moscow surprised the world with a bombing campaign in Syria that saved from defeat the bloodstained regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Putin's intervention was not only bailed out and had been close to Moscow since the Soviet era but also served as a declaration that Russia – despite a per capita GDP lower than Italy's, a declining population and a still-modernizing military – was back in the game. In an arrangement, back to the Cold War, U.S. Pat. and Russian commanders now needed to communicate with one another to "deconflict" the airspace over Syria.

No longer burdened with communist ideology, Mr. Putin's Russia has emerged as a stalwart opponent of regime change — a particular selling point for the governments of the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring of 2011. Putin was rebel hands at the October 2011 death of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. He has positioned Russia as a defender of the region's status quo, offering support and arms to friendly regimes. A particular beneficiary of this approach has been Egypt, where the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was soon followed by the arrival of a new strongman, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Moscow and Cairo now have stronger than at any time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and signed a strategic partnership agreement last year, including deals for new arms and nuclear power.

Mr. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown

 Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Moscow, May 9, 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Moscow, May 9, 2018. </span><br />
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Photo:
            

        Sputnik / Mikhael Klimentyev / Kremlin / Reuters
          

Mr. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have developed close ties, contributed by what Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center calls the two countries' shared "no-nonsense, hard-nosed realpolitik-based view of the world." Netanyahu was the only major Western leader to attend the Victory Day parade in Moscow last May, standing next to Mr. Putin and wearing the orange-and-black ribbon or st. George, a symbol of Russian sacrifice in World War II and of Mr. Putin's recent incursions into Crimea and Ukraine.

Israel's agenda with Russia revolves around the Jewish state's nemesis, Iran. Mr. Netanyahu hopes that Mr. Putin will use his influence to restrain Iran and reduce the risk that the Syrian civil war will leave Iran and Hezbollah – its proxy in Lebanon and a pro-Assad fighting force in Syria – closer to Israel's northern border and with a bigger, more lethal arsenal .

Russia's warming relationship with Israel is particularly striking given centuries of officially sanctioned anti-Semitism under both the czars and the Soviets. For all of Mr. Putin's authoritarian tendencies, Russian Jews are now more of a practice religion and to participate in public life than any other time in Russian history.

Russia's ties to Israel have also been deepened by the 1.2 million Israelis — almost a sixth of Israel's population — whose families emigrated from the former Soviet Union. The countries now have visa-free travel and flourishing business, especially in the high-tech sector.

As with Israel, Moscow's burgeoning relationship with Saudi Arabia represents a sea change from the Soviet era. During the Cold War, the Saudis — avowed enemies of atheistic Soviet communism — were in Washington's camp. Moscow and Riyadh resumed diplomatic relations only after the Soviet Union's case.

 A Russian instructor trainer Syrian army soldiers and militia members at a training camp in Aleppo province, Syria, Jan. 25. Russia's military intervention in civil war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

A Russian instructor trainer Syrian army soldiers and militia members at a training camp in Aleppo province, Syria, Jan. 25. Russia's military intervention turned to civil war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


Photo:
            

        Mikhail Voskresenskiy / Sputnik / Associated Press
          

When oil prices collapsed in 2014, a shared need to drive them back became the backdrop for a Saudi Russian report. For the first time, the two countries agreed to work together to limit output and reduce the global oil glut. Mr. Putin later with the kingdom's rising star, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and called him a "very reliable partner." In 2017, King Salman made a state visit to Moscow, complete with a lavish welcoming ceremony and an honorary degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (which is run by Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Like the Israelis, the Saudis hope that Russia will curb Iran's ambitions.

Putin's Middle East Ambitions

But Mr. Putin's outreach to form enemies has costs. Iran's leaders are suspicious of Russia's upgraded relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia; Many are dependent on a regime that, like the U.S., has often been involved in its affairs. Israel and Saudi Arabia probably overestimate Russia's leverage with Iran – and Mr. Putin's willingness to use it. Both countries loathed the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, but Russia was among the parties to the deal and has publicly criticized the Trump administration for unilaterally withdrawing from it. (Behind the scenes, Moscow has been quietly pleased to see Mr. Trump's team busily foreclosing the Obama era prospect of a reconciliation between Washington and Tehran. As one Russian diplomat puts it, "A pro-American Iran is far more dangerous for us than a nuclear Iran. ”

The US remains the most important foreign player in the Middle East and is likely to stay so for some time to come. Russia is still hobbled by its limited economic and military resources and by worries that elements of its own or restive Muslim population will be radicalized by exposure to Middle Eastern battlefields. As Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the Russian Duma, has put it, "Our main aim in Syria is to make sure that our citizens who go out there [to fight for Islamic State] never come back."

But as the Trump team accelerates the US retreat from the Middle East, Mr. Putin has been quick to spot and take advantage of openings, and operates without many of the Soviet predecessors. The U.S. Will be used for dealing with a savvy rival for influence in the Middle East.


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