Monday, October 16, 2017

Russia emerging as new player in Middle East balance of power

From Asia Times, 16 October 2017, by David P. Goldman:

Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on October 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov
Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on October 12, 2017. 
Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov

Moscow's sale of a better defense system to the Saudis than to its "ally" Iran is consistent with the pattern of its attempts to influence outcomes in the region...

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow on October 5, 2017. Photo: Sputnik via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow on October 5, 2017. 
Photo: Sputnik via Reuters

Not only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but also Russia’s Cold War adversary Turkey will buy the far more advanced S-400, a “game-changer,” as former Pentagon official Stephen Bryen described it in an October 13 analysis for Asia Times. The S-400 is highly effective against the sort of cruise and ballistic missiles that Iran will be able to field during the next several years.

...On Ocotber 12, Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bodanov offered to mediate between Iran and the Saudi Arabia, but talk is cheap. Installation of top-of-the-line weapons systems is not. The United States belatedly offered the Saudis its THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system, probably as a rushed response to the Russian offer. In Dr. Bryen’s analysis, the S-400 is simply a better system, and gives the Saudis an important edge in any prospective conflict with Iran.

Factoring Israeli security concerns
Another Russian attempt to influence the balance of power is evident in Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s October 15 visit to Jerusalem, the first since Shoigu took office in 2012. The ceasefire plans now in place in Syria allow Iranian forces to range within 5 kilometers of the Golan Heights, the great escarpment overlooking northern Israel that Israeli took in the 1967 War.

With the help of Russian air power, Iranian Revolutionary Guards units supported by Hezbollah, as well as Pakistani and Afghan Shi’ite mercenaries, have become the dominant power in Syria, changing the regional power balance to Israel’s disadvantage. Israel reportedly demanded a buffer zone for Iranian forces of at least 60 kilometers from its border last summer, and Russia refused. Washington also signed on to the Syrian ceasefire, leaving Israel the odd man out.

Israel is now threatening to attack preemptively. Elliott Abrams, an official in the administration of George W. Bush, wrote last week:
“Israel has struck sites in Syria one hundred times in the last five years, bombing when it saw an Iranian effort to move high-tech materiel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Last month Israel bombed the so-called Scientific Studies and Researchers Center in Masyaf, a city in central Syria, a military site where chemical weapons and precision bombs were said to be produced. Now, there are reports (such as this column by the top Israeli military analyst, Alex Fishman, in the newspaper Yediot Achronot) that Iran is planning to build a military airfield near Damascus, where the IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) could build up their presence and operate. And that Iran and the Assad regime are negotiating over giving Iran its own naval pier in the port of Tartus. And that Iran may actually deploy a division of soldiers in Syria.”

FILE PHOTO - Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks during the International Institute for Counter Terrorism's 17th annual conference in Herzliya, Israel September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Files
Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. 
Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned last week: 
“If once we spoke about the Lebanese front — there is no longer such a front. There is the northern front. In any development there may be, it will be one front, Syria and Lebanon together, Hezbollah, the Assad regime and all the Assad regime supporters.”
The Israeli government has warned Lebanon that any attacks on Israel by Hezbollah — which reportedly has an arsenal of more than 100,000 ballistic missiles —would elicit a devastating counterattack against Lebanon’s infrastructure. Israeli preemptive action against a Hezbollah missile shower would occasion enormous collateral damage, because the missiles are mainly emplaced in civilian areas.

Israeli media observe that high-level consultations between Russia and Israel have been frequent, but almost always conducted on Russian soil – for example, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s August meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi. The Russian defense minister’s trip to Israel is a nod to Israeli security concerns.

Russia intervened in Syria primarily because the country’s civil war had turned into a Petri dish for jihadists from the Russian Caucasus to Southeast Asia. America’s longstanding support for Sunni jihadists had the unintended consequence of strengthening al-Qaeda and its offshoot Islamic State, as Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn famously warned. And the Sunni jihad threatened to spread to Russia’s own Muslim population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni. Backing the Shi’ites was the Kremlin’s obvious course of action. Moscow has achieved its objectives in Syria: the Assad regime is stabilized, the Sunni jihad is dwindling and Russia’s other perquisites in Syria, for example its naval port facility at Tartus, are secure. Evidently Russia now wants to take some risk off the table on the other side.

Diplomatic revolution of sorts
The fact that Russia wants to manage the balance of power, to be sure, does not mean that it will succeed in doing so. Iran is not a Russian puppet but an aspiring pocket empire with a will of its own and an apocalyptic sense of its own future. Russian air cover allowed Iran a bridgehead to the Mediterranean through Syria that it could not have imagined five years ago, and Iran will be reluctant to lose the opportunity to establish a Shi’ite corridor from Persia through Lebanon.

Moscow may not be in a position to forestall an Israeli-Iranian war...


The Americans, like the British before them, did poorly at balance-of-power politics in the Middle East, and there is nothing to indicate that the Russians will do any better. 

Nonetheless, the shift in Russia’s position from regional spoiler to would-be balancer of conflicting interests constitutes a diplomatic revolution of sorts. 

...We may be watching the first manifestations of a post-American Middle East.
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