Russia moves to middle ground on Syria

When a big ship changes direction, it has to be over a wide arc. These are early days, but Russia is changing course on Syria. There were persisting rumors in the Middle Eastern grapevine in the recent weeks that Moscow is slowly disengaging from the Syrian regime.

Without doubt, President Vladimir Putin sprang a surprise on the visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at their meeting in the Kremlin on Monday. Putin’s conversation had two templates.

The first one was absolutely predictable. Putin renewed the assurance Russia continued support to Syria “politically, economically and militarily,” as Moualem put it later at a press conference.

But the second part was an out-of-the-box suggestion to the Syrian leadership that “we (Russia) think that we can only fight terrorism and extremist radicalism effectively if all countries in the region unite their efforts.”

Moualem and Putin at Kremlin

Moualem and Putin at Kremlin

Prima facie, that is the right thing to say. But what takes the breath away was the manner in which Putin fleshed out the idea: “Russia has very good relations with all countries in the region without exception, and our contacts with these countries show that all of them are ready to make their contribution to fighting the evil that is the Islamic State. This is true of Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.”

Putin urged the Syrian government “to do everything possible to establish constructive dialogue between all countries that want to fight terrorism and, of course, continue developing constructive relations with everyone.”

He saw Syria’s tensions with its neighbors as “misunderstandings, friction and temporary problems (which) do frequently arise between neighbors.”

Moualem quickly understood that the ground beneath his feet was shifting. He cautioned Putin: “As you know, the main problem in Syria is that the countries that you mentioned (Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) are supporting terrorists operating in our country.”

Moualem drew an analogy with the “Soviet experience in the Great Patriotic War, when your people succeeded in its stand against the Nazi invaders. I am thinking particularly of the battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad. We (Syrian government) count on your (Russian) support and we are sure that the Syrian people, like the Soviet people, will stand firm against terrorism.”

However, Putin persisted and repeated the offer that Russia “will use our good relations with the countries in the region to at least make an attempt to build this coalition (between Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia).”

Later, at the press conference in Moscow, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by his side, Moualem was devastating – “I know that Putin is a man who works miracles, but an alliance with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States would require a very big miracle.”

Indeed, we may be witnessing the fallouts of the recent visit by the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (son of King Salman) to Russia. The Saudi outreach to Russia has encouraged Moscow to move to the middle ground.

Saudi Arabia now becomes Russia’s partner in the struggle against the Islamic State.

The latest Russian mantra is that all other issues in Syria should be put on the backburner and a “new phase” should commence where the exclusive focus is on the threat of terrorism. Lavrov explained at the press conference:

“We are focused on practical policy, which requires that we should suspend as soon as possible everything that does not concern the anti-terrorist struggle and concentrate our common efforts on countering ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other similar groups. As I said, today we have a bit more objective conditions for this because all countries of the region – and not only them – realise the scale of the threat. ISIS is spilling into Afghanistan and looking at Central Asia. As many testimonies show, acts of terror in Europe are also directly linked with ISIS. Therefore, the common awareness of global danger should prevail over individual geopolitical schemes and unilateral goals.”

What explains this extraordinary shift in the Russian policy! Moualem is right that terrorism in Syria is the outcome of the interference by countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. There is documented evidence regarding the nexus between these countries and the al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. Wouldn’t Moscow know all that?

Quite obviously, Moscow has its own considerations. Russia does not view the Syrian conflict in zero sum terms. The support for President Bashar Al-Assad does not become an end in itself. At any rate, despite all American rhetoric, overthrowing Assad is not the US priority today.

Nonetheless, a big question mark falls on the clean certificate Putin gave to Saudi Arabia as a partner in the fight against extremist Islamists. The important thing is that Putin has staked his prestige and that could only have happened on the basis of some tangible Saudi assurances conveyed to the Russian president on behalf of King Salman.

It should not come as surprise if there is a sense of fatigue in Moscow over Syria. The Syrian regime, despite all Russian help, suffered major reverses lately on the ground. The country is tottering toward fragmentation and the ultimate victor could well be the Islamic State.

Of course, Russia’s self-interest lies in optimally developing the relations with Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. There is vast untapped potential for cooperation. For instance, all these three countries have proposed lucrative business deals worth billions of dollars for Russia’s nuclear power industry.

Above all, Putin is keen to partner with the West wherever he can. The recent economic summit in St- Petersburg was most encouraging. BP (Shell) is returning to the Sakhalin-2 LNG project, European companies are joining hands with Gazprom to lay two additional gas pipelines within the Nord Stream (one of which will connect Russian gas fields with Britain), and, most important, there was significant participation by American companies in the event in St. Petersburg, signaling that Washington is not averse to picking up the threads of business ties with Putin’s Russia.

Now, terrorism is an issue where the interests of Russia and the West overlap and there is a sense of urgency in the West. When Putin telephoned US President Barack Obama last week, the fight against the Islamic State and the Syrian conflict figured prominently in their conversation.

Putin and Obama reached a rare accord that Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry will hold discussions regarding Syria. Interestingly, Putin’s conversation with Moualem was on the eve of Lavrov’s meeting with Kerry in Vienna later today.

Putin understands that Obama feels frustrated that the US-led campaign against the IS is floundering. It is smart diplomacy on Russia’s part to push the fight against the IS as the pilot project of Russian-American regional cooperation in the Middle East, with Syria as the testing ground.

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Categories: AT Top Writers, Middle East

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  • Maria Adams

    Who’s the imbecile that put a M.K. Bhadrakumar in the lower pages, rather than the top carousel??

  • Maria Adams

    Putin selling out an ally in exchange for better relations with a country who threatens Russia’s interest in Ukraine (usa)?? Putin is betting too much on the importance of the anti-ISIS venture, as the US has said ISIS isn’t a threat to US interests (as long as the oil keeps flowing & US’s M.E. allies are in place, the US is happy). This is why Putin can expect very limited concessions to translate into E Ukraine in a negotiation…This is a stupid strategy by Putin…Xi is looking at this, and likely says to himself (If Putin sells out an ally (the spirit of SCO), Putin is inclined to make a special deal with Japan over the Kuriles at the expense of support for China on the Senkakus). Not a good way to build your credibility, Mr Putin, in the long run, you shoot yourself in the foot.

  • Maria Adams

    “…and concentrate our common efforts on countering ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other similar groups”, Hmm, does this mean an end to Saudi Arabia & Turkey’s support for the OTHER (“moderate”) foreign groups fighting in Syria??…HOW can Syria “concentrate it’s efforts” on ISIS if the OTHER groups are trying to topple the Syrian government?? Will SA & Turkey broker a ceasefire??…this sounds like pure nonsense by Lavrov.

  • ross

    I guess that if Russia’s efforts at bringing all parties together in dialogue are successful, it might be of benefit. I would have never seen it coming though to witness the Syrians, Turks, Jordanians and Saudis sit down and discuss their differences. Stranger things have happened though…

  • Maria Adams

    You have no reason to think that Syria will be treated fairly, and you gotta remember that

    this arrangement is ultimately initiated on SA’s behalf (and SA is Syria’s enemy)…I’m amazed the Syrian gov has lasted THIS long, I don’t see what they have to “give” in any negotiation without burying themselves.

  • ross

    thanks for the tip. Russia has always been advocating political settlement to the crisis. which would mean dialogue. perhaps a minsk 2 type ceasefire could be effected. not perfect, but certainly better than the current situation. i’m no oracle though, maria, all i do is hope for the best.

  • Bianca

    Well, well, if your analysis is based on what you LIKE to see, then you will always find proof to support your desires. But the reality is actually less complicated then it looks. I am surprised at otherwise rather accurate Bhadrakumar. This analysis seem to indicate that all of that came out of the blue, and Syria was shocked at the turnaround. Things never work in such simplistic way. Before we work ourselves up in a foam, let’s keep in mind that Russia has not changed its policy at all.
    Yet, all that happened is that Turkey weathered the storm and was not forced by US to get militarily involved. In spite of huffing and puffing — mostly to keep domestic NATO enthusiasts happy, Turkey stayed focused on its priorities. One of them is to prevent Saudi Wahhabis to infiltrate via Saudi/US Gulen project into domestic religious community. Saudi proselytizing has been the bone of contention since the fall of Ottoman empire. Turkey is keeping good relations with Iran and with Russia, as witnessed by a myriad facts on the ground. From nuclear plants to be built by Russia in Turkey, to joint mega gas pipeline project with potentially far reaching strategic goal. Turkey and Iran and consulting with Russia and China within Shanghai Cooperation Organization where both are members. Saudi Arabia is on the losing end. Having extended itself into too many directions on behest of US/UK agenda — in Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Syria and Libya, it is looking for a way out. Price of energy, combined with the restive Shia population in its oil producing regions, inability to make a dent in campaign against the well entrenched enemy — Zaidi tribes of North Yemen, financing the Sunni rebellion in neighboring Iraq to counter Shia Baghdad, financing Syrian “opposition”, and the continued military propping up of Bahrain regime, while the cost of propping up Egypt is colossal. Involvement in Libya, however small, is not negligent.
    Russia knows that the energy is fading around Syria. Syrian Foreign Minister was certainly not unprepared for what Putin had to say — he just had retained his sense of humor by hoping for a miracle that may find a common ground among countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. We do not mention Jordan often — but it is economically devastated country that is hosting on its borders US training and equipping for Syria “moderates”. Interestingly enough, Syria moderates are by CIA account nowhere to be found!
    What Russia is doing is taking the DECLARED goals of these countries to fight ISIS. As if they do not know who is actually feeding ISIS, and who keeps their web sites running and hundreds of their Twitter accounts twitting. But what Russia is doing is the following — taking the exhaustion of many countries in the area, and the inability of US to energize them for specific missions — be that collapse of Shia of Iraq, crushing of Zaidi of Yemen, or crushing Syria. Not to mention the heavy financial load in Egypt and Libya. So, knowing full well that ISIS is a well funded and intelligence supplied mercenary force, it is Russia’s job to get the key actors together and commit them to fight ISIS. That may not suit US interest, as ISIS seems to show up always very conveniently wherever some ticklish geopolitical problems are to be stimulated or crisis stoked. Syria is not being in danger from ISIS — or at least not yet. What Syria has always done is to husband its energy and military so not to expose it to fast moving ISIS. However, US and allies are in trouble as the evidence shows that somebody has been helping ISIS. Palmira is the case in point. ISIS managed to travel hundreds of miles over open desert towards Palmira. Nobody is naïve to believe that “coalition” military did not notice its movements and was unable to wipe them clean on open space. Ditto renewed attack on Kobani. What Putin is doing is draining the pond. Over time, entities that are in the process of disentangling themselves from the ISIS mess — will be able to do so. As ISIS is a many layered beast, it will become clearer over time, who is still in the pond. US cannot afford to continue once the pond becomes too small and exposed to probing eyes.
    End game may be at hand, but I would not bet on it. Hawks in US Senate have gone crazy, at this point accusing Iran for terrorism because it is helping Iraq fight ISIS! Neocon in US are all for supporting what is left of Al-Qaeda in Syria, so that the pond will keep on boiling. But if Saudi Arabia is ready to lower its expectations in being able to reshape the Middle East, and wants to get something from Russia and/or China, it may be willing to pull some plugs on financing ISIS and providing them political and intelligence cover. ISIS by now must be choke full of spies — from Iraqi and Iranian, to Russian Chechens, from Turks to Lebanese. All them easily fit into ISIS world without being noticed. Interestingly enough, ISIS is getting nervous, as they just executed one of their own leaders. All that will have to happen is for Saudi Arabia to pull plug on support in exchange for getting Iran to mediate with Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Shia population. That would get Saudi Arabia out of the line of fire. All that Jordan wants is to get some concessions for Palestinians, as 50% of its population is Palestinian, and are afraid of economic explosion. All that Turkey want is settlement with Kurds, and frustrated Kurds both in Syria and Iraq may be more inclined to listen to Russia and China, then US and British. It will over time all depend on the structure of elites in these regions, but without some massive financial injections from the West, these entities will prefer looking East. Given the mess in Libya, US and UK do not have that much money to spread around. Egypt must be kept quiet and the massive waves of migrants from Africa is landing on European shores. That is at present their big priority. Typically for Western Europeans, they are redirecting the migrants onto the shores of Balkans, and they are now filling Greece, Macedonia, Serbia — while Hungary is building electric fence to stop the influx of thousands refugees a day. So, Europe as a whole does not have much capacity to contribute to solving Iraq-Kurdistan-Syria-Lebanon-Saudi Arabia-Bahrain-Yemen mess. It is succumbing under the floods of humanity from North and Central Africa. And then — there is Greece.
    Is this time for clipping neocon fangs just a bit? Looks like. As they are now actually confused who is to be supported, and cannot figure out why did they support others only few years ago, they are actually caught in the web of their own making. That will not prevent them from talking big — but even US military may eventually pose a question: is there a purpose to this? How do we know we are successful?
    As for Putin, he can wait until the pond dries somewhat. In the meantime, relationship with Turkey has been strengthened, and with Iran solid. Chinese interests are underpinning some of the geopolitics as well. As the Middle East pond dries up, so will over time Ukrainian. As economy of Ukraine stands at the abyss — IMF off all things gives them loans! Speaking of stupidity — these loans cannot ever be paid back. All that Russia and China have to do is wait, and offer their good offices for sorting the mess. And if the participants feel like fighting some more, why not? The principal funders of the chaos are the only ones that will pay the bill.

  • Maria Adams

    Bianca, thank you for your comment, it is the smartest comment I have ever read. You must be a PhD student in a graduate program for International Relations, I’ll go back & re-read your comment from time to time….You wrote: “All that will have to happen is for Saudi Arabia to pullplug on support in exchange for getting Iran to mediate with Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Shia population.” #1) So, are you suggesting that the Middle East is entering a new era, where Saudi Arabia will stop trying to topple Shiite regimes??…Are you saying that this might be a new & enduring era of peace & cooperation between Shia & Sunni?? WOW!! This is very difficult to imagine ( if so, Putin deserves the Nobel Peace Prize!!). #2) You wrote: “All that Turkey want is settlement with Kurds, and frustrated Kurds both in Syria and Iraq may be more inclined to listen to Russia and China”…Syria is a weak state with very few cards to play, Do you think Syria will be forced to give up territory (for Kurdistan) in exchange for Turkey & Saudi Arabia withdrawing aid from anti-Assad rebels? thank you.

  • par4

    Medveded cancelled the S300 contract.Try learning before writing otherwise you make a fool of yourself.

  • Maria Adams

    Everyone knows Putin was in charge of the “tandem”, and, if Medvedev cancelled the S300 contract, he did it AFTER he took Iran’s money…that was your defense?? If putin can screw iran, then France can screw putin.

  • Stein

    At this time the Atlantic Integrationist faction was strong and did have enough influence to pull through some near-fatal blunders on Russia’s part.

  • Stein

    yeah, obviously Turkey has not stayed out but done the utmost to destroy Syria through all kinds of aid to islamist death squads (created on the model of f.ex el Salvador, and by the same people, Ford, Negroponte, Steele).
    They have done everything except an invasion – in Latakia they aided the death squads directly with artillery.

  • Stein

    perhaps not at his best here.