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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 
March.

   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 
Afghanistan.

   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 
Associated Press.

   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 
and bombers.

   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.


(KA)

 
 
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