Vladimir Putin is positioning himself as the main player in the Middle East

Robert Fisk — The Independent Oct 19, 2017


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.

Putin knows the Saudi weaknesses; Riyadh’s shameful war in Yemen (not unlike the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and the attacks on the kingdom, not least the mysterious explosion outside the king’s palace just before his visit to Moscow; after which the Saudi Press Agency admitted that three armed men had tried to enter the building. And beware, if the Saudis resist the Russian offer on Syria, Putin can always turn – and many there are in Syria who believe this – to Qatar, with which the Saudis still maintain their childish feud. The Saudis will remember how Putin encouraged an Islamic conference in Chechnya – but sent no invitations to Saudi clerics. Putin still keeps a Russian military base in the Caucasus – in formerly Soviet Armenia. The Armenian parliament has this month, quite unnoticed in the Western media, ratified a new military defence treaty with Russia. So, please note, Turkey – which still claims to “protect” Turkish Azerbaijan against the “aggression” of Armenia.

And watch out to the Kurds south of Turkey’s border (both the Syrian and Turkish variety), whose notional independence has received no support from Moscow. They will not be defended by Putin when the US betrays them again (Kurds having died in lieu of US ground troops in Raqqa and Mosul). Putin knows who the major powers are. Yes, he would like to take over the pseudo-neutral peace-making role of the US in securing a Palestinian state but, as a Palestinian socialist (of whom few are left) says in Beirut, don’t hold your breath. When Moscow agreed to sell Kornet anti-tank missiles to little Lebanon last month, prime minister Saad Hariri was apparently a bit stunned to be told that the Russians would not hand over the weapons on credit. Russian and Lebanese finance ministry officials are to discuss this matter. Readers will wait in vain for the outcome.

Wearying clichés about the Russian Bear or Putin the Fox – as he is actually called in Cairo – do no credit to any serious analysis of Russian behaviour in the Middle East. This is ruthless power politics, of course, only accentuated by Washington’s inane and insane President. Everything must be in Russia’s interest – militarily, economically, internationally and domestically. And amorally, too.

But sometimes the Arabs – and the Iranians and the Turks, and the Israelis, too – must wonder if there is, here, just a little bit of Putin’s own persona, the one he wants to show to the world: warrior, peacemaker, negotiator, friend of all who do not threaten Russia. And enemy of all those who do. Who will be the next, then, to offer Moscow another Russian air base or warm-water harbour, military facilities in the Mediterranean, even welcome Russian warships into Middle Eastern ports? And who will be the last to deny Putin?

But he’s not trying to solve the region’s problems, whatever he may say. He’s still taking risks, not least in Syria. To some extent, he’s playing with the people of the region. More importantly, however, he’s establishing Russia in the Middle East. No one will do anything now without first thinking of Putin’s reaction. That’s what political power is really about.


Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there

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