Russian Chess in the Middle East - Part II

Monday, August 27, 2012 |  Elizabeth Blade

This is part two of a four-part series on Russian maneuvering in the Middle East, and how it affects Israel. If you have not done so already, we recommend first reading Russian Chess in the Middle East - Part I

US-Russian confrontation:

Dr. Rajab Safarov, the director of the Center for Modern Iranian Research (a pro-Iranian think tank based in Moscow) hints that the Kremlin’s stance might originate in Russia's objection to America’s attempts to reconstruct the Middle East.

“The US managed to organize the chaos that followed the Arab Spring, creating a region that has no place for Russian influence,” argued the pundit, pointing out that the Kremlin lost its foothold in Libya – including billions of dollars in energy and infrastructure deals – after the Gaddafi regime was hastily replaced with elements favoring Washington.

According to the expert, US attempts to limit Russian influence began back in the early 2000s after a series of non-violent revolutions (a.k.a. the "color revolutions") toppled governments in several former Soviet republics as well as some Balkan states. “Color revolts were just a rehearsal. Now Washington is trying to apply the same strategy to the Middle East,” he reasoned.

Apart from hegemonic ambitions, the expert said US actions have always been dictated by the strong appetite for the region’s rich energy resources.

“To secure the stable flow of oil, Washington tries to establish local regimes, faithful to their masters. In exchange for loyalty, the US is ready to turn a blind eye to numerous violations of human rights and abuse of women,” charged the expert. “Saudi Arabia – one of the main exporters of terrorism – is just one of such examples,” he added.

Syria:

Referring to the developments in Syria, Safarov explained that Damascus’ only fault is that it’s not ready to dance to the tune of the US State Department, provoking Washington’s ire. Therefore, no matter what reforms President Assad implements, they won’t suit the American government, which hopes to replace the current regime with more West-friendly puppets,” he added.

Addressing the issue of what’s going to happen next, Safarov said: “The ouster of the Syrian president will push the country into chaos and destruction, potentially leading to a civil war. Syria could fall apart into small states that would be difficult to control, while the US will encounter serious hardships in appointing a new leader.”

Iran:

However, the replacement of the current regime in Syria is far from Washington’s main objective. “Syria is a gateway to Iran,” said Safarov, explaining that the fall of the regime in Damascus will weaken Tehran and its regional allies (like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip) and will get the US closer to the footsteps of Russia and China.

“If Iran falls, Washington will tighten the noose around the neck of the Russian regime. Pro-western Iran will put an end to the stability inside Russia. The country will be surrounded by US military bases and will be forced to spend billions of dollars on security, trying to protect itself from potentially hostile neighbors. The economy will sink, as Washington will control energy-rich areas and vital transportation routes. Moreover, by controlling Iran, the US will be able to dictate the rules of the game to China, a country that’s currently importing some 20% of its energy from the Islamic Republic,” Safarov told Israel Today, suggesting that Moscow is unlikely to support any military action against Iran.

Israel and Other Minorities:

In a bid to tackle the rising challenges, secure its interests, and restore its shattered reputation (after losing the support of the Arab street following Russia’s backing of Assad's government), the Kremlin seems to be working to establish ties with some minorities of the region.

Several weeks ago, a Middle East subsidiary of one of Russia’s biggest energy titans Gazprom Neft sealed two oil deals with Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region, acquiring 40% and 80% share in two blocks, said to hold 3.6 billion barrels of crude reserves.

The contract – promising billions of dollars in revenue – was signed shortly after a visit by top-ranking Russian officials to the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where the parties discussed a series of “regional and national issues,” indicating that the move was driven by political considerations.

Yet, Safarov believes the cooperation between Russia and the Kurds won’t bear any fruit. “The Iraqi Kurdistan has signed the contract with Russia after getting the approval of Washington, which controls the area. America can call the deal off at any moment by saying that they cannot provide Russian companies with any security guarantees. This means that Russian staff can be kidnapped or even killed, a risk that no Russian company would be willing to take,” he stressed.

This leaves Moscow with limited options. As Syria shows signs of potential dissolution, the currently ruling Alawites could grow closer to Russia, fearing future persecution by the Sunni majority. Even though the creation of an Alawi state is still being debated, some reports indicate that Assad is already building the infrastructure for such a state along the Mediterranean coast. Some reports claim that he is building his fortress, deploying troops to the area, and training the region’s inhabitants to become the backbone of the Alawi state's future army.

Israel could also become a potential ally of Russia. After President Vladimir Putin visited the country last June, Moscow cancelled the supply of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria, indicating that the two countries might find a common ground for strategic cooperation.

But Safarov says the Kremlin is unlikely to side with Jerusalem, given the fact that Russia has always eyed with suspicion Israel’s close ties with the US. “This is a marriage of convenience not love,” he said, referring to the recent boost in relations. “Apart from being an American client, Israel is also helping the rivals of Russia like Azerbaijan and Georgia, destroying Russian weapons that cost millions of dollars. So even though some sort of cooperation does exist, it’s not going to be strategic,” he concluded, while pointing out that a strong pro-Israel lobby inside the Kremlin has been influencing Russian decision-makers towards greater cooperation with the Jewish state.

Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this important story.

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