Russia: The New ‘Great Friend’ in the Middle East?

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Context

200_medvedev_and_bashar-1Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Syria and Turkey last week with a bevy of discussion topics on the agenda. From Iran to the Middle East Peace Process, Moscow is signaling to the Middle East, and the region at large, that it is serious about taking a leading role in the future of the region.

This Vantage Point Analysis takes a closer at the changing balance of power in Middle East and how the Russians envision their role in the region. This article also provides clues to understanding potential Russian engagement in other regions, for example the Af-Pak Theater.

Analysis

250_lulaSyria played host to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the May 10, two day visit. While Russia and Syria were previously close allies and formed a very important partnership in the region, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a period of retrenchment for both countries during the ’90s, the relationship diminished somewhat. In recent years the bilateral relationship has been regaining some of its polish, with the visit by Medvedev an important signal that the two countries are well on the way to a new, firm strategic partnership.

The visit comes just days after the US renewed its sanctions regime against Syria because of Syria’s alleged “continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs,[which]continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.” US President Obama said on the May 3 in a press conference about the sanctions.

The US and Israel are concerned that the Russian high-level visit is sending a tacit signal of approval to Syria, who will feel emboldened by the Russian show of support in the face of the recent sanctions. Israel is especially concerned about the Russian visit, and keen to know if there will be any more arms deals between the two countries. Israel has previously accused the Syrians of passing on weapons acquired in Russian arms deals to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a claim which Syria denies. This will likely dampen the possibility of renewed armament deals, especially as Israel has also accused Syria of intending to pass on weapons to Iran as well.

Russian sentiment during the visit is overwhelmingly that Russia is ‘a friend to all’. Medvedev met with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal during his visit, and at the same time promised to ‘send a message’ from Israel to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to try and ease the tensions between the two states: whether he actually did or not is still unclear.

The Russian visit is also a signal that Russia is looking to boost its status as a moderator and mediator in the region, with Medvedev stating his concern that “Tensions in the Middle East threaten to lead to a new explosion or even a catastrophe.” Russia is perhaps trying to show itself as the ‘unbiased’ mediator, in contrast to the perceived Israel-bias of the US when it comes to the Middle East Peace Process.

The Russian President continued his overseas tour with a trip to Turkey, where business was on the agenda. Medvedev stated that “We can confidently say that Russian-Turkish relations have advanced to the level of a multidimensional strategic partnership,” which was actualized by the signing of a visa-free agreement between citizens of the two countries. The 2 million+ Russians who visit Turkey every year as tourists will be very pleased with that particular dimension of the multidimensional partnership.

Russia and Turkey share a mutual vision to some extent as far as their roles in the Middle East are concerned, with Turkey renewing overtures to moderate peace talks between Israel and Syria. The feeling is that Turkish-Russian relations are much more mutually beneficial, and less benefactor/beneficiary than those of Russia and Syria, despite how Syria would protest this statement.

Energy played a key role in the Turkish and Russian talks, with the proposed Blue Stream-2 and South Stream gas pipelines discussed, as well as the possibility of a Russian-built nuclear power plant on Turkish soil.

It is overwhelmingly clear that Russia is positioning herself as the ‘Great Friend’ in the Middle East neighborhood. Russia is doing a good job of being friends with everybody, even those who have unbridled antagonism towards one another, like Israel and Syria-how long Russia can continue pull this off is yet to be seen.

Russian statements also make it clear that Syria is considered a pivotal country in the success of the Middle East Peace Process. Russia’s playing down of weapons deals, and the keen interest in joint economic activity may be a ploy to pry Syria open economically, into the open-market economics that Russia has embraced. Economic openness is often a precursor to political openness and moderation, but then again, Russia is not overly concerned with the types of polities it does business with, so long as business is beneficial.

The relationship of both Syria and Russia with Iran was also under scrutiny during the visit. Many thought that Syria’s Assad would use the visit to try and convince Medvedev to block the planned fourth round of Iranian sanctions in the Security Council: sanctions which Russia as it is seems reluctant to endorse. This is perhaps due to the fact that a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Bushehr in Iran is set to be completed this year. While the power plant was endorsed by the US because it would mitigate the need for Iran to continue with uranium enrichment programs, this has not been the case in reality, so the sanctions are being tightened.

As Russia seems to want to take a leading role in the neighborhood of the Middle East, it is also positioning for a role in the Af-Pak region.

Russia and Pakistan have a rollercoaster relationship, with relations at their sourest during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the cozy bond that existed between India and the Soviet Union at this time. Irked by the American criticism, Karzai has recently made a number of overtures towards the Russians, a scene reminding the players of the cold war days. India also stands disillusioned by the new US Af-Pak strategy, which has caused it to strive for closer Indo-Russian ties once again.

Russia and Pakistan seem to skirt around their possibly strong bilateral relationships-on Pakistan’s end, perhaps this is in fear of upsetting allies in Washington. On Russia’s end perhaps they are biding their time until the US withdraws from Afghanistan. Then they can have free reign to play the ‘Great Friend’ and benefactor role in this region, as it is showing overtures to want to play in the Middle East. Russia, like China, has shown a keen interest in Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline Project.

Soon after Medvedev’s visit to the region came the joint declaration yesterday by Iran, Turkey and Brazil on the signing of the Nuclear Swap Agreement. This development has caught everyone by surprise. PoliTact will be examining the ramifications of this development.

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