Russia’s president Vladimir Putin landed in Saudi Arabia, starting his first visit to the country after a gap of 12 years. This was a significant moment, as a few hours earlier the US had pulled its support of the Syrian Kurds, giving Turkey a green light to undertake military options against the Kurds who had spent the past few years fighting ISIS, and helping America ‘defeat’ the Islamic State’s khilafat (caliphate).
Putin’s visit comes at a time when President Donald Trump, who has taken to twitter multiple times over the past few days to highlight that he is trying to end America’s “endless wars” abroad, is unsystematically, and chaotically, dismembering US influence and power in the region. Over the past two years, Moscow, despite its limited economic prowess has made steadfast moves to fill in some of the major gaps of American policy in the region. The first gaps Russia found were during the former president Barack Obama’s tenure, where the then president took a far too idealistic stance on the anti-government developments in West Asia (Middle East), known better as the ‘Arab Spring’. During this period, Moscow backed the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and sent in air power to strengthen the regime against Islamist groups, Western forces and Western backed groups, and last but not the least, ISIS.
The Russian support for Assad was strengthened by Iran, which was active in the country as it tried to manage its own political clashes with the Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Israel. Assad, in Moscow and Tehran, found not just two political heavyweights in the region to secure his survival, but an air power and ground power to use while preserving his own Syrian Arab Army around the capital, comparatively minimizing and controlling his own immediate military losses. During this period, which was also the time when the so-called Islamic State was at its rise, most jihadist groups and regional state powers alike found a common sense of purpose in defeating ISIS. Groups such as the erstwhile Jabhat al-Nusra, despite its proximity with Al Qaeda, also was a tool in the larger battle to defeat the Islamic State’s territorial holds in both northern Iraq and Syria. Once the Islamic State’s khilafat was mostly taken away from it, the various other elements of the Syrian war that had been sidelined came back to the forefront.
Moscow’s moves in West Asia were multidimensional, both to expand its reach in the region which had been diminished in the recent past, and to challenge the traditional absoluteness of American supremacy in the region, aided by a turbulent White House. “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”, tweeted Trump as part of multiple tweets on the issue over the past few days as his decision to abruptly move out was panned by a wide section of Capitol Hill.
The US withdrawal has given regional heavyweight Turkey a mandate to take on the Kurds and disallow them any chance to strengthen there political and military structures any further. The US military, stationed along with the Kurds in towns such as Qamishli, Manbij and so on, left behind security ecosystems which were now directly being taken over by the Syrian army and Russian interests. Videos of the Syrian armed forces driving on the same roads towards these towns, and crossing retreating US military vehicles offered a surreal glimpse on the unprecedented pace at which events unfolded in the region this month. Russian journalist Oleg Blokhin posted a video on social media within hours of US withdrawal in Manbij, walking around abandoned US infrastructure. Furthermore, General Alexei Bakin, chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria said that municipalities in northeastern Syria, as Turkey began its ‘Operation Peace Spring’, had resumed their “subordination” back to Syria’s central authorities. In other words, betrayed by the US, the Kurds had accepted the safety net of Syrian state and Russia. One of the major fallouts of this new reality has been that many ISIS jihadists held in camps by the Kurds, escaped (or were deliberately let go), escalating the time line on an expected ISIS resurgence by months.
However, the narratives being played out in some quarters of public discourse of Russia “replacing” the US in the region may be far too optimistic on both Moscow’s capabilities and aims, and ground realities. While there is no doubt that Russia has been challenging American supremacy in West Asia since it started to strike ISIS targets in 2015 and backing the Assad regime, playing the role of a principle mediator may offer a window into the ground realities of the region’s inherently complex political, social and cultural roadblocks that have ned centuries.
Nonetheless, Moscow has been making granular, yet notable diplomatic progress. But perhaps more importantly, it is the Gulf countries, which have been receptive of Russia’s presence in the region. While much can be attributed to the feckless attitudes of the Trump administration’s resolve towards Saudi and UAE, the disenchantment from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies comes from the Obama era. Trump was expected to herald in an unquestioned support for the Gulf against Iran, however the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi made it difficult at many levels for the US to out rightly support and prop up heir apparent Mohammed Bin Salman. Furthermore, both Moscow and Riyadh found acceptable parity over global oil prices as both in concert kept oil production low to bump up global crude prices, keeping their exchequers in relatively good health.
It is perhaps too soon, and even irresponsible, to declare Putin’s visit to the Gulf as a “victory lap”, or that Russia has assumed the “mantle of supreme power broker in the Middle East”. However, the fact remains that there is a significant trust deficit playing out in the Gulf countries over America’s role. While Trump plays to a domestic audience with elections looming in 2020 amidst a number of serious challenges to his campaign and legacy, it is indeed Moscow’s upper hand to make a place for itself in the volatile politics of West Asia and even beyond.
Any expectations that Russia could replace American influence pound for pound in the region are mythical at best. Russia’s nominal GDP, which stands at a mere $1.63 trillion, is its biggest hurdle. However, in its capacity building measures, Putin’s personal gestures and via smart diplomacy of minimal interference, economic partnerships and military assistance, Moscow is in a position to construct a long lasting presence. A successful outcome of this geo-political maneuvering is perhaps more strengthened by the fact that Putin’s style of authoritarian politics is more easily navigable and palatable to the Gulf monarchies. The overall forecast today is definitely advantage Moscow in West Asia over the next few months if not years at least.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +