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Russia 'consulted, heard and feared' in the Middle East

Moscow weighs benefits and risks of leverage and leadership in the Syria crisis and the Middle East peace process.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia October 5, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1C4DF4B090

To use a stock market metaphor, for Russia, “the political market of the Middle East is booming,” Maxim Suchkov writes. “The ‘shares’ it has acquired by engaging with Syria and other countries are rising in political value, and Russia feels it’s prepared for long-position investments.”

“It may be just a matter of perception,” Suchkov adds, “but Moscow is now seen as a primary go-to for regional states that have been flocking to the Russian capital throughout the year. Most, if not all, only hope to get Moscow on board to solve their own regional, local and even tribal conflicts of interests. Nevertheless, Russia can praise itself for getting what it was aiming for: to be consulted, heard and feared.”

The US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has given new life to Russia’s role in what was once known as the Middle East “peace process.” Dmitry Maryasis reports, “There is some consensus that the Trump decision will provide Moscow with additional opportunities to strengthen its influence on this process, where it already has good working relations with all parties to the conflict. Yet opinions differ between experts and policymakers on whether Moscow needs to step up its peacemaking efforts now. Some believe Russia should take advantage of what they see as favorable political conditions and try to revive the settlement process — this time managed by Moscow. Others consider it necessary to keep monitoring the latest developments on Jerusalem, but be modest in actions given that the parties’ own readiness to negotiate is at best minimal.”

Moscow and Riyadh have also agreed, with other parties, to extend the 2016 “OPEC plus” deal aimed at decreasing oil production to keep up prices on the international market. Consultations on oil and gas collaboration have allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud to discuss regional political matters, although the extent of Russia-Saudi cooperation may have its ceiling, if oil prices stabilize or fall, writes Nikolay Kozhanov.

The bump in Russia-Saudi ties comes as Riyadh deals with disappointment regarding US decisions on Jerusalem and Yemen, Bruce Riedel reports. “The crown prince is especially vulnerable,” he writes. “He has flaunted his relationship with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He also owns the Yemeni debacle. Human rights groups are calling for him to be sanctioned, and he has no credentials as an opponent of Israel or a defender of Jerusalem. Rumors eagerly fed by the Israeli press abound that he has visited Israel. His many enemies are only too eager to portray him as a tool of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

“The Saudis were outmaneuvered on Jerusalem both by their traditional rival Iran and by Turkey,” Riedel adds. “Even worse for Riyadh, Jordan is posturing as the foremost defender of Arab and Islamic claims to Jerusalem. The Saudis took the Hijaz and the two holy cities from the Hashemites just a century ago. It is very humiliating for the Saudis to appear weak on Jerusalem compared with the Hashemites. The Saudis tried to persuade Jordanian King Abdullah not to attend the Islamic summit in Turkey and then briefly detained a prominent Palestinian-Jordanian businessman to intimidate Abdullah by threatening the Jordanian economy. The Saudi detention of Sabih al-Masri was reminiscent of the detention and forced the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November.”

It is Syria where Russia has invested the most in the region, and ownership of the Syria crisis comes with risks. Moscow’s close ties with the Syrian government have allowed conversations to begin about oil, energy, infrastructure, agricultural cooperation and investment, Anton Mardasov reports. “Operationally,” Suchkov adds, “the Syrian campaign has been a testing ground for Russian military reform, with Moscow having tested about 200 types of newly manufactured and modernized arms. Senior officials in the Russian government observe a much bigger demand for Russian weaponry around the globe.”

Moscow can claim credit for brokering cease-fires based on de-escalation zones, worked out with Turkey and Iran, which have dramatically reduced the violence and become the on-the-ground reality driving the Astana-Sochi negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition parties. As Mardasov writes, “The Kremlin’s idea to summon the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi and to later embed its results into the stalling Geneva process is fully based on the four existing de-escalation zones. The Kurdish Afrin district may theoretically also become a new de-escalation zone. However, to function steadily, the zones need stability on the lines of contact between government forces and the opposition. With the existing system of control over the cease-fire allowing punitive measures only against the opposition, it is profitable for Damascus and Tehran to delay any real political dialogue with the dissidents, especially as the world community still hasn’t precisely defined the principles of the transition stage that should lead to actual reforms in Assad’s regime. … The Syrian government is evidently ready for dialogue with the opposition and even for some sort of integration with it, provided opposition forces disarm under conditions set by Damascus.”

A major hurdle for the Syrian National Dialogue Conference to be held Jan. 29-30 in Sochi is the participation of the Democratic Union Party and its armed wing, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It is perhaps no coincidence that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a “terrorist” with whom cooperation is not possible, as Moscow flirted with an invite to Sochi for the Syrian Kurdish parties. “Russia searches for ways to have the Kurds represented without breaking its promise to Iran and Turkey to jointly agree on invitees,” Fehim Tastekin reports. “By doing so, Moscow gives the impression that it respects Ankara’s red lines but isn't hesitating to display its relations with the Kurds. The latest such display was to invite Sipan Hemo, general commander of the YPG, to Moscow several weeks ago. “

For its part, Turkey is seeking to position itself for post-conflict political and economic advantage. Khaled al-Khateb reports from Aleppo that Turkey has reopened the al-Rai border crossing, which is “bustling. … The crossing's location is distinct because of its proximity to al-Bab, one of the largest cities in terms of area and population and a valuable strategic site in the Euphrates Shield area in northern Aleppo. Turkey has provided modern facilities and equipment to manage the crossing, which is expected to receive an increasing number of commercial trucks and help move the reconstruction process forward.”

While Russia’s Syria commitment is providing the Kremlin with the benefits of a newfound respect and leadership in the region, Suchkov says the arrangement could also represent “a serious long-term liability. Moscow owns this problem, from the fate of Assad to the humanitarian aid to the restoration of Syria. To address these challenges in 2018 in an adequate and face-saving manner, Russia might need much closer engagement with regional stakeholders. This is where ‘the shares’ of political influence accumulated over 2017 may come in handy.”

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