Russia’s Mideast Strategy

In a smooth two-step, Putin implemented a bold military move changing the strategic situation of the whole Mideast with his third hand behind his back while warmly embracing Erdogan publicly with the other two.

One might wonder if Erdogan feels used. While the world watched Putin smoothly entice NATO’s only Muslim member into a backroom deal, Putin was setting up a new Russian military base in Iran. The sequence of events is stunning:

  • August 9 – Erdogan meets Putin, supposedly resetting bilateral ties

  • August 16 – Russian bombers depart from Iran and bomb Syrian rebels.

Where exactly does this leave Turkey?

Whatever the long-term role for Turkey planned by Putin, for the moment, Turkey appears sidelined: Ankara’s new Russian friend is slaughtering Turkey’s allies in Syria and consolidating a network of military bases across the center of the Mideast, with the very significant features of being done with the permission of the official regimes involved and without any military opposition. Low cost/big impact.

The facts so far are consistent with a variety of possible Russian strategies including an intent to displace Washington region-wide and the simple desire to establish a strong, short-term negotiating position, but the most likely appears to be a low-risk effort to establish a permanent Mideast position that will put Moscow at the center of any international decision-making process. In a year of tactical prowess, Putin has assembled an impressive series of bargaining chips. Certainly as their value mounts, the temptation to view them as “essential” will also increase, but by his quick pseudo-withdrawal (fly in/fly out) from Syria earlier in 2016, Putin has already demonstrated that he is capable of changing course without warning and treating it as something to brag about. At the moment, Putin appears to have assembled at very low cost to Russia chips of significant value for the purpose of making Moscow the new co-decision-maker about Mideast affairs hand-in-hand with Washington, whether Washington likes it or not.

Moscow: Co-Mideast Decisionmaker with Washington.

Perhaps Putin will stop supporting the Kurds and turn his back on Turkish military moves against them in a hard-ball effort to undermine the U.S. How well Turkey would fare as the only Sunni member of a Shi’i-Russian coalition is something for Erdogan to ponder. The initiative at the moment is clearly with Tehran and is likely to stay there: Tehran and Moscow have a wide range of strategic interests in common, while Moscow’s intent regarding Ankara is probably more to weaken Turkish ties with the West and minimize Turkish support for anti-Assad rebels than to pull Turkey into an alliance. This is a negative mission that Putin can abandon at any time at little cost as part of an overarching effort to establish a permanent position making Russia a key Mideast decision-maker. Given the inability of Washington to find a winning strategy in the Mideast despite incredible commitment of resources over the last half century, such a strategic plan seems quite within the realm of possibility for Moscow.

 

 

A pointed comment in an RT article about the Russian bombing campaign from Iran lays out a rather clear picture of Moscow’s mid-term plans:

As for Khmeimim Airbase in Syria’s Latakia province, used by Russian task force since September 2015 to deliver airstrikes against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) – its airstrip is not suitable for the heavy Tu-22M3. But that is subject to change, as Damascus granted Moscow permission to station a permanent military airbase at Khmeimim, and the Russian Air Force is preparing to thoroughly refurbish and modernize the airfield, so it will be able to accommodate all types of military aircraft in the near future. [RT.]

As for Turkey, it is starting to look like one of Moscow’s new chips.

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