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Russian rush to the Middle East: breakthrough of the year

2015 has become a real ordeal for the Middle East. The region has been fighting terrorism throughout the year and this year too it has survived and has avoided a global war. One of the forces that helped it in the matter was Russia.

Russia appeared with Syria on Sept 30. In the autumn 2013, it prevented the West from bombing Syria by convincing Bashar al-Assad to throw away his chemical weapons. This time the Russians were forced to use own bombs to fight a threat extending far beyond the region.

The Russians acted legally and very impressively. In a very short period of time they deployed a whole squadron of bombers, destroyers and helicopters to the Hmeimim air base in Latakia. Their subsequent air strikes were no less impressive.

It took the Russians just three months to carry out as many as 5,240 missions against ISIL and other Jihadist forces, while the U.S.-led coalition of 65 (!) states needed more than a year for their 9,000 air strikes in Syria and Iraq.

The Russians had a clear idea of their goals: to support the Syrian governmental forces and their allies from the air, to destroy terrorists acting in Syria and to protect Syria as a state. The next year will show if the Russians will have to stay in the region or will have to go home. But one thing is clear: after years of U.S. dominance in the Middle East, Russia has gained a significant role in that region.

2015 saw regress in Russia’s relations with Turkey. Nostalgic about the times of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks and their current leaders are acting very unwisely. On Nov 24, they stabbed the Russians in the back by downing their Su-24 bomber.

Such a reaction was easy to predict. The Turks were enraged when Crimea joined Russia and when the Russians appeared near their southern border, they lost their nerves. They stabbed the Russians in the back and rushed to NATO for protection. But they in Washington and Brussels made it clear to them that they had gone much too far and had made things worse for NATO – for a complex of Russian S-400 systems in Latakia cannot but worry the alliance.

Today, the Russian-Turkish relations are spoiled. But the good thing about this is that it is better to know an open enemy than to be deceived by a hidden “partner.”

But this is the only black page of the last year for the Russians. In all other pages they registered progress.

2015 saw their efforts to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis want to be friends with the Russians despite a whole number of obstacles. Perhaps, the new Saudi leaders have realized that it is very counterproductive to be rivals with the Russians in the Middle East.

Their partners in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates followed suit and began actively improving their ties with Russia.

With Egypt, Russia was constructive. The current leader of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gives special preference to Russia. He proved this during President Putin’s visit to Egypt on Feb 9-10 and his visit to Russia on Aug 26.

The air accident in Sinai, when a Russian plane with 224 people onboard was blown up by terrorists, was an acid test for Russian-Egyptian relations. Multi-billion contracts are not enough for mutual confidence. Russia had all grounds for reproaching Egypt for poor security and for calling its tourists back home. But once the Egyptian authorities give proofs that their country is secure, the Russians will go back there.

The end of the year was much better for Russian-Egyptian relations: Rosatom agreed to build a 4,800MW nuclear power plant in the Egyptian territory.

With Iran Russia enjoys a real breakthrough. Today, after years of nuclear talks, that country is almost free from sanctions but it still has a need for a real consistent partner. Russia can be such a partner.

Iran and Russia have lots of common grounds in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. This year due to Syria the countries have restored their political ties. For the first time since 1979 the Iranians coordinated their military operation with another state and that state was Russia.

This all ended in a contract on the supply of Russian S-300 systems to Iran.

Putin’s visit to Tehran and his meeting with Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei paved the way for the next year.

Iraq is also becoming a partner for Russia. Today that country is experiencing one of the most dramatic periods in its history. Due mostly to Jihadists, it has fallen apart into three sectors: Shiastan, Sunnistan and Kurdistan.

Though having lost several towns in Iraq, ISIL still enjoys a stronghold in the north of the country, particularly, in the second biggest Iraqi city of Mosul. So, next year we may see the Iraqis’ attempt to fight Mosul back and to force ISIL out of their country.

But Russia is ready to support Iraq here. Last autumn the Iraqis opened an anti-ISIL intelligence center. There the general staffs of Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria are actively working to detect and to neutralize terrorists and extremists acting in the region.

The Russians are also helpful in the military and diplomatic spheres – especially now that the Turks have stabbed the Iraqis in the back by invading their northern territories.  

Israel is also annoyed by Turkey’s policies in Syria and is searching for ways to push its interests in the region.

The Israelis do not trust the Russians enough to join their measures against Turkish provocations. But Syria may become a good ground for future Israeli-Russian partnership.

This year Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met twice to coordinate their actions in the Syrian air.

The Israelis showed tolerance towards the Russians’ short-term actions in Syria. Their Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that even though some Russians planes violated Israel’s air border, the Israelis preferred not to hit them as they posed no potential threat to their country.

But not everybody in the Middle East is showing a constructive approach to the Russians’ policy in the region. The Sunni camp is mostly suspicious. Saudi Arabia was among the first to censure the Russian air strikes in Syria. But today, just three months after their appearance in the region, the Russians have managed to make themselves indispensable.

The last two meetings in Vienna and the summit in New York marked the start of a dialogue on Syria, with the Russians actively searching for common grounds with the Americans and the Europeans on the problems of Syria and the Middle East.

Obviously, this year Russia has strengthened its positions in the Middle East. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country has shown that it can be a global player. So, 2016 may prove to be quite promising for the Russians.

EADaily Middle East Bureau

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