Russia Increases Clout in Middle East 12/13 06:24
MOSCOW (AP) -- When Russia launched a military campaign in Syria two years
ago, President Vladimir Putin sought to save his ally from imminent collapse
and break Russia's international isolation over a crisis in Ukraine.
He achieved that and more, emerging as a key stakeholder in the Middle East
who has brokered deals with many of its key players --- from Iran to Saudi
Arabia to Turkey and Israel. It's a regional footprint that comes with a degree
of clout that even the Soviet Union, which depended on a handful of Arab
allies, couldn't dream of during the Cold War era.
And it was accomplished with limited resources and a lot of audacity.
"Vladimir Putin is determined to restore a greater role for Russia as a
global power ... and the Middle East is really the main area where Russia has
that potential, in part because the Soviet Union played that role in the Soviet
period," said William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at RAND Corporation.
With just a few dozen jets and several thousand troops, Russia waded into
Syria's war and stubbornly pressed its campaign despite international scorn and
an outcry over resulting civilian casualties.
Russia's bold intervention in Syria came as the United States under
President Barack Obama steered clear of military engagement and found itself in
a series of acrimonious disputes with key allies, including Israel and Saudi
Arabia. Under the vastly inconsistent policies of Donald Trump, and in an era
of an inward looking, America-first U.S. policy, Russia's maneuvers became all
the more poignant on the global stage.
Putin's success in the region was on full display Monday, with the confident
and upbeat leader moving between Syria, Egypt and Turkey in a whirlwind tour a
week after announcing he will seek re-election for another six-year term in
Speaking to Russian troops on the tarmac at Hemeimeem air base in Syria,
Putin declared victory over the Islamic State group and Syrian rebels and
announced he had ordered a scaling down of the Russian contingent in Syria. In
Egypt, he signed a deal for the construction of a nuclear reactor on the
country's Mediterranean coast and sought to strengthen his relationship with a
key regional power that has in the past three years bought billions of dollars
in Russian weapons. And in Turkey, a NATO member, the Russian leader appeared
to be on the same page with strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan on key issues.
The Russian president was frequently derided for his penchant for a 19th
century-style Realpolitik characterized by cynical political calculus. But
Putin's approach paid off in Syria, where he managed to play on the conflicting
interests of regional powers and strike deals with various players.
When Putin decided to intervene in Syria, President Bashar Assad was on the
verge of collapse, his forces losing on all fronts. Within weeks, the Russian
military had airlifted supplies needed to set up a base in Assad's heartland
and launched an air campaign at the end of September 2015.
At first, observers were skeptical about Putin's Syria adventure given
Russia's economic troubles and the overwhelming negative odds on the chaotic
Syrian battlefield, where the Islamic State group, al-Qaida militants and a
motley collection of rebels backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others
were routing Assad's shrinking military.
Many in the West and in Russia predicted Syria would turn into another
Afghanistan --- a botched Soviet intervention that led to massive losses and
ended in a humiliating 1989 withdrawal after nearly a decade of fighting. Putin
argued that Russia needed to intervene in Syria to fight a terror threat, but
made it clear that he wasn't going to walk into a trap like the Soviet war in
Another reason for skepticism was the Russian military meltdown that
followed the Soviet collapse. The army's vulnerabilities were highlighted by
separatist wars in Chechnya and a brief 2008 war with Georgia, where the lack
of modern communications and weapons, lack of coordination between various
military branches and poor discipline were woefully apparent.
But the Syrian campaign suddenly saw a different Russian military --- one
armed with sophisticated precision weapons, well-trained, neatly-dressed and
proud of its mission.
"Putin managed to explain to the Russian people why Syria was important and
not only did he explain it, he also showed them Syria wasn't going to be
Afghanistan," Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, told The
The war saw the combat debut of an array of Russian weapons, including
long-range cruise missiles that were fired from surface navy ships, submarines
The display of Moscow's revamped arsenals also served another key goal ---
to show the U.S. and its NATO allies that Russia no longer exclusively relies
on nuclear weapons. The new cruise missiles gave Putin a long-sought long-range
precision cruise capability that only the U.S. had before.
Early in the campaign, Moscow found itself on the verge of a military
conflict with Ankara after a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian warplane on
the Syrian border in November 2015. But just a few months later, Putin mended
ties with Turkey, offering President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strong support after
a failed coup attempt. They struck a deal on Syria, setting up de-escalation
zones that helped reduce fighting.
Russia also reached out to other key players --- from Iran, which staunchly
backed Assad, to the Saudis, the Qataris and others who supported the
opposition. It also communicated with Israel to make sure the conflict didn't
hurt their friendly relationship.
Russian military successes in Syria and its rapprochement with Turkey paved
the way for another Putin diplomatic coup --- a warming of ties with Saudi
Arabia, Moscow's opponent since Cold War times when it armed Afghan fighters
battling the Soviet invasion. In a first-ever visit by a Saudi monarch, King
Salman visited Russia in October.
While declaring victory in Syria, Putin made it clear Russia is there to
stay. He plans to expand the air base and turn a crumbling Soviet-era naval
supply facility in Syria's port of Tartus into a full-fledged navy base capable
of hosting big ships.
Russia has also drafted a deal with Egypt to allow its warplanes to use
bases there --- a deployment unseen since the times when Egypt was a key Soviet
ally in the Mideast before going to the U.S. side in the mid-1970s.
Courtney, the RAND analyst, said despite Putin's successes in the region,
Russia will remain a limited great power that serves mainly as a military
supplier because it lacks the resources and capability that the West has for
nation building or reconstruction.
"The challenge for Putin is to turn the use of his military force and
military weapons supplies in the Middle East to something that is a lasting
success, and we don't yet see how Russia is going to get there," he said.