The Independent: Vladimir Putin Positioning Russia as the Main Player in the Middle East

It would be Russia who does the rebuilding of Syria after the war and Saudi Arabia who paid for it. The two vast oil nations now seem to be set on a course of mutual collaboration. So much for Trump’s $300bn weapons deal with the king

After Israel’s victory in the 1973 Middle East war, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko went on 22 October to see President Brezhnev at his dacha at Zavidovo just outside Moscow. The Israelis were not much interested in accepting a ceasefire set to begin the previous day, and, according to Anatoly Chernyaev, a Soviet official present at the talks, Brezhnev wanted to encourage the Israelis to keep the truce by offering a Soviet guarantee of Israel’s borders. Gromyko replied that the Arabs would take offence – but Brezhnev burst out that “we have been offering them (the Arabs) a sensible course of action for so many years. They wanted war and they are welcome to it … To hell with them.”

It was a view long shared by Soviet military officers. I recall the remaining anger of a former Soviet instructor in Yemen during the 1962-70 civil war, who, showing me Red Square one cold afternoon, made a remark almost as contemptuous as Brezhnev’s. “We helped to train the Arabs [against the monarchists] and they were useless and I think they should be on their own. Let someone else save them. Why should it be us all over again?”

In October 1973, Brezhnev was saying the same thing. He swore at Gromyko, said Chernyaev, for “wanting to keep our flag and bases in the Middle East”. And Brezhnev then shouted out: “We will not let these f***ing people involve us in a world war!” According to author and former British intelligence official Gordon Barrass, who wrote one of the best books on the Cold War eight years ago, the Soviet airlift of military equipment to Syria stopped that very day.

How lucky now are the Arab potentates and dictators to have a Russian rather than a Soviet to talk to, and a fit – some might say almost too fit – Vladimir Putin to rely on, rather than a Brezhnev. A vacillating Obama and a lunatic Trump, of course, do the impossible: they make Putin look like a Roosevelt or an Eisenhower – perhaps even the swashbuckling Theodore Roosevelt with his Rough Riders.

Putin’s Rough Riders in Syria are crushing the Isis threat – and any other threat – for Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Russians are not just bombing Assad’s enemies and re-arming the Syrian army but helping to arrange ceasefires. I watched them escorting al-Nusrah and other still-armed Islamist fighters from Homs all the way to the Turkish front line at al-Bab (inside Syria). Russian armoured vehicles stood on both sides of that line this year – I saw them with my own eyes – alongside both Syrian and Turkish occupation troops.

Putin has learned a few tricks from the Brezhnev days. Just as the bankrupt Soviet president put Tajik Muslim Soviet military units into bases west of Kabul, so Putin has deployed Chechen Muslim Russian soldiers into Palmyra. But these Russians are not the Soviets of Afghanistan infamy.

Many of the officers speak fluent Arabic (and, please note, pretty good English). Putin knows how to measure Russian power in the Middle East, happy to keep Moscow’s “flag and bases” in the region. And playing Bismark across the Arab world, even in Turkey and Israel.

Egypt’s field marshal/president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi took Putin to a Verdi performance in Cairo. Iran will host him before the end of this year. Putin welcomes both Assad loyalists and Syrian rebels to Astana. He invites both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his racist (and Soviet-born) defence minister Lieberman – who once advocated drowning Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea – to the Kremlin. And of course, he won the cachet of a visit from King Salman of Saudi Arabia to the Kremlin.

Undemocratic, brutally suppressing his own internal political opponents, hateful of all Muslim extremists – he suggested that Moscow doctors could emasculate them – careless of what others say of his air force’s bombing in Syria and we must not forget Ukraine and the Crimea and Western sanctions, in the Middle East he can wear the mantle of an international statesman. It might all come to grief for Putin.

Failing to foresee the outcome of his actions was regarded as his greatest fault when he was a KGB officer in Dresden. But he’s been sending in groups of Russian military non-FSB intelligence men to Syria, some of them – in Aleppo – reporting directly to the Kremlin. Maybe he has learned a thing or two.

And so we come back to King Salman’s visit to Moscow. Here is a man whose kingdom maintains the same purist Wahhabi faith which inspires Isis and the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He signed preliminary agreements to buy Russia’s S-400 air defence missile systems.

Of course, the king’s long speech – he enjoyed his Kremlin banquet, they say – talked about the necessity of preventing Iran’s destabilisation of the Middle East. Russian foreign minister Lavrov said Russia “supports the efforts of the Saudi kingdom in trying to unify the Syrian opposition”. Which particular opposition, one might like to know? So, I imagine, would Assad.

Yet the king was, according to Russian officials in the Middle East, asked to participate in the rebuilding of Syria when its war finally peters out. Quite a role for King Salman if Assad – as all believe he will – remains the president (or in some similar role) in Syria. But of course, it would be Russia who does the rebuilding, Saudi Arabia who paid for it.

So the two vast oil nations now seem to be set on a course of mutual collaboration. So much for Trump’s $300bn weapons deal with the King. Maybe Salman is smarter than we think. If Putin might, for Washington, be Ivan the Terrible, that’s better than being Trump the Farcical for the Arabs


Robert Fisk is the multi-award winning Middle East correspondent of The Independent, based in Beirut. He has lived in the Arab world for more than 40 years, covering Lebanon, five Israeli invasions, the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the 2011 Arab revolutions.


This article was originally published by The Independent 



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