The Russian Federation in the New Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman and Russian President Putin at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan (Photo: AP)

In mid-October of last year, President Trump’s order to leave the Syrian territory as quickly as possible led the Russian military to quickly fill the void left by the US forces.

Certainly, some US Special Forces are still operational, but the strategic aim is obviously lacking.

On the edge of the 32-kilometer corridor from the border line between Turkey and Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s army now controls the area from Manbiji, on the edge of the buffer zone requested by Turkey, all the way to Ayn Issa, Tel Amer, and Qamishli.

Below this line there are only the YPG and PKK Kurds, whose militants are difficult to distinguish and separate from non-combatants.

When Assad regained control of northeast Syria, through decisive Russian assistant, President Putin was still on a diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

To say the least, none of the traditional Sunni allies of the USA has appreciated the fast American acquiescence and Turkey’s inequitable agreement with the USA. In fact, this is exactly the way in which the Syrian and Kurdish policy followed by the USA and Turkey has been interpreted by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

The Sunni powers regard Turkey as a dangerous side effect of the Muslim Brotherhood – this holds true at least for Saudi Arabia – or as a geopolitical wildcard – and this applies to the Emirates.

This also holds true for countries, like Qatar, which have always been interested friends of the Ikhwan, namely the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hostile to God and to his enemies – this is the future of the Turkish global strategy, rebus sic stantibus. Either Turkey binds itself to Russia, under its terms and conditions, or it remains alone in the new Greater Middle East, by now deprived of support from the USA.

The Sunnis who count, namely those of the Arabian Peninsula, and Al Jazeera have understood the US countermelody and are already looking for new allies. They cannot succeed on their own, so Russia is stepping in.

“Russia is my second home” – Prince Mohammed bin Zayed from the dynasty ruling Abu Dhabi has cleverly stated – but the withdrawal of US troops ordered by President Trump is actually a strategic, moral, and historical turning point.

The Kurds, betrayed in no time by the USA, have immediately negotiated a good agreement with Assad, mediated only by Russia and organized, above all, by the Shi’ite factions of the Kurdish nation, present mainly in Iraq and maintaining excellent relations with Iran.

Syria, i.e., the place Turkey wants to enter so as to prevent the strategic alliance between Syrian Kurds, Anatolian Kurds, and Iraqi Kurds – which would constitute a Kurdish state capable of annihilating the rest of the Turkish ethnic population – needs an ally that can “keep firm and alive” (as Machiavelli said with reference to France), namely maintain Syria as a solid unitary entity, Kurds included.

President Putin still wants to remain in Syria, because he hopes that, in the future, Turkey will leave NATO and become a Russian peripheral ally. Is this an impossible dream? Not necessarily.

Turkey may also adhere to Russia’s project. The North Atlantic alliance is now the wreck of a war which ended seventy years ago and which has never supported Turkey except in the long series of military coups in 1961, 1980, and again in 1997. Finally, in the changing of the guard that saw all of NATO’s Mediterranean countries oust their ruling classes, Turkey had to face the AKP, a party reborn from the ashes of an Islamist organization that had been banned by the Turkish Constitutional Court.

The Muslim Brotherhood, acted as US agents – including the period when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State – to “bring democracy,” i.e., its own democracy, to the Islamic world. A masterpiece of Doublespeak.

Currently, after the end of the Cold War, only those who can be blackmailed rise to power. Hence the transfer of power in Italy, in the Middle East, but also in Latin America and even in Asia.

Briefly, President Putin wants Turkey to leave NATO and start collaborating with Russia in Central Asia and, above all, in the great future business of pipelines running from Asia to Europe.

The “Middle Corridor” – if organized by Turkey – will favor the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

There is also the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway opened in October 2017, as well as Turkmenistan’s port on the Caspian Sea, built by Turkish companies closely linked to the Turkish Presidency, which has been operational since 2018.

As early as 1992, the western powers conveyed the message to Turkey that it only needs to become the secular Sunni rampart against Iran.

In 1993, Turkey founded the Alliance for Turkish Culture while in 2009, the Turkish regime established the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States.

Now, Turkey’s primary idea is to be a central power that operates freely in Asia and, in any case, outside of the sphere of interests of the North Atlantic alliance.

This is exactly what Vladimir Putin likes.

The Turkish energy mix is linked to natural gas. Turkey imports it from Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.

If the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline Project (TANAP) is implemented, Turkey’s energy connection from central Asian countries will be objectively more important than the old link with the USA and NATO.

Consequently, Russia could be a real trump card for Turkey.

President Putin, however, has favored the connection and operational communication between Assad’s forces and the “Turkmen” militias linked to Turkey.

There is no communication channel that Russia does not control in the Greater Middle East.

After all, if you wage war in the Middle East against a western-style “villain,” in the typical style of comic books, the only possible result is that your work will be done by the old enemy.

There is also the Iraqi insurgency which involves corruption, inefficiency, and government irrelevance.

So far, the toll has been 200 deaths, with at least 6,000 injured.

It is said that Iran supplied snipers to hit the crowd, but there is no evidence to support these allegations.

The Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, i.e., the Shi’ite network of Al Ghazali that had already operated in Syria, was also observed operating in Iraq and often had to face strong negative reactions from the local population.

Meanwhile, Russia is concluding agreements with all Middle Eastern countries, which obviously focus on energy, but also on the media – and above all TV – as well as on infrastructure and the armed forces.

In January 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov hosted his Iraqi counterpart, Mohammed Alì al-Hakim. Russian investment in Iraq has recently exceeded USD 10 billion, while Russia has stricken an old Iraqi debt of USD 12.2 billion in exchange for a new USD 4 billion oil contract, which provides Russia with the opportunity of starting to exploit West-Qurna 2, one of the largest oil fields in the world.

Lukoil and Gazprom Neft officially entered the Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil market in 2012, thus paving the way for many new contracts.

Russia has also directly funded Kurdistan’s government, with a USD 3.5 billion loan, which will be repaid with the oil sold to Russia’s Rosneft as soon as possible.

In October 2013, Russia sold to the Kurdish world in Iraq and Syria weapons worth USD 4.3 billion, to replace the Iraqi ones. These funds make the Kurdish Rojava autonomous from Iraq, even strategically.

The old intelligence operations center shared by Russia, Iran, and Syria – opened by Russia in Iraq – is still very active. Now, it also carries out geo-economic operations.

In September 2018, the Iraqi-Russian Cultural Centre in Baghdad – closed down in 2003 – was reopened.

In Iraq, however, Russia never wants to compete with Iran. Moreover, Iran and Iraq work very well with China.

The 1.7 billion dollars of trade between Iraq and the Russian Federation cover the USD 30 million of the Iraqi debt to China.

On October 21, 2019, President Putin received Erdogan in Sochi and, after seven hours of discussions, the Turkish-Russian bilateral plan they produced further diminished the role of the USA, while significantly increasing the Russian role.

All of this was the continuation of the meeting between the representatives of Russia, Turkey, and Iran held in Astana on September 16 last.

Russia wants to weaken the Iranian security forces still present in Syria, by using both the Iranian indifference about the Syrian conquest of Idlib and Iran’s traditional tendency to remain – with its forces – on the border between Iran and Syria and to operate, above all, in favor of the corridor between the Iranian Shi’ite capital and southern Lebanon.

Russia is not really interested in it.

Moreover, the Russian Federation wants Turkey to quickly disarm its Jihadist militia forces in Idlib, particularly Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, so as to enable its ally Bashar al-Assad achieve full control of the Afrin area, the key point of the northern Syrian border and, above all, over the military relations between Turkey and Syria.

With a view to counterbalancing this disagreement with Turkey, Iraq, and possibly Iran, Russia is working on agreements with the most important Sunni leaderships.

The issue is much broader: since early August 2019, Lebanon and Iraq have been an integral part of the “Astana process.”

Russia has also proposed a tripartite agreement between Lebanon, Syria, and Russia, exclusively for the repatriation of Syrian refugees. If Iraq manages to carve out a credible role as mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia could create a future duopoly with Iraq in Syria, so as to prevent the Iranian “mortmain” and the Jihadist and Sunni pressure on the borders of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

It should not seem strange that the other trump card of the Russian Federation is Egypt and the Emirates. It is by no mere coincidence that all of these countries have reopened their diplomatic channels with Syria.

Russia views Egypt as a reliable partner in Syria, considering, among other things, the longstanding support provided by Egypt to Assad.

There is also the “Two plus Two Dialogue” between Egypt and Russia, an agreement between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministries.

Incidentally, this agreement is obviously as valid for Syria as it is for Libya.

In the near future, Egypt will directly support the Russian contractors recently made operational in Cyrenaica and in the Libyan Fezzan.

In the meantime, the West is sadly counting the many useless ceasefires.

In December 2018, the United Arab Emirates reopened their embassy in Damascus.

Meanwhile, Russia continues to sell cutting-edge weapon systems to Iran.

It cannot be ruled out that, considering the USA is no longer in Syria except for “showing the flag,” Iraq should officially ask Russia to stage air raids against the ISIS networks currently present between Syria and Iraq, which are still operational outside the old “Islamic State.”

President Putin, however, will favor Iran’s access to the “Eurasian Union,” while Russia will do its utmost to minimize the risks associated both with Iran’s geopolitics and with the global energy market.

This means that the Russian leader will not reduce prices even when faced with a rather rhapsodic market of Canadian and US shale oil and gas.

Furthermore, Russia also wants to normalize relations with the USA, and its mediation between Iran and the USA is vital, as is the idea that each energy production area has and can maintain its optimal market without excessive overlapping between sellers.

Consequently, President Putin will mediate between all players in the Greater Middle East, by trying to focus both on investment in Syria’s reconstruction and in the new routes of the oil and gas market in Europe. Moreover, Russia will create ad hoc alliances to limit the use of weapons in the region and will finally try to protect Israel – its future pivot in the region – by finding a balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites and playing the Syrian card as the basis of economic communication between all of the relevant parties.