The Russian diplomacy took two significant steps toward the Middle East during the past couple of days – engaging Saudi Arabia and sounding out Turkey.

But, Turkey first. Indeed, the warm references to Russia-Turkey relations by the Kremlin chief of staff Sergey Ivanov on Monday were far from accidental. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Ivanov speaks only for President Vladimir Putin. What is less known, perhaps, is that Ivanov is also a veteran ‘Orientalist’ who can fathom the subtleties of Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s ‘Look East’ policies and their import for Russian strategies.

Ivanov stated the obvious when he called attention to the good neighborly relations and close ties between Moscow and Ankara. But his real purpose was to underscore,

  • Sometimes we [Russia and Turkey] have certain contradictions in international relations but we discuss them publicly and privately and publicly with account for mutual interests.

By ‘contradictions’, Ivanov probably took into account the recent diplomatic spat over the incident of a Russian aircraft trespassing into Turkish air space, but by “interests” (with which he rounded off his remark) the powerful Kremlin figure most certainly alluded to the recent horrific terrorist strike by the Islamic State in Ankara, resulting in the death of around 100 people.

Ivanov has spoken at a time when, curiously, the NATO is courting Turkey to exercise its prerogative to seek the alliance’s help to ward off any menace from the prowling Russian bear in the Eastern Mediterranean region (which Erdogan, of course, is loath to do for a variety of reasons), and, secondly, when the range of Russian intentions in launching the military operations in Syria is engaging Ankara.

Moscow knows that no country in the Muslim Middle East (which excludes Israel, of course) is interested in the conflict in Syria morphing into an ‘East-West’ proxy war of the cold war era. There was time when some of them (including Turkey) keenly sought an American intervention, but President Barack Obama would not agree. Obama was savvy enough to sense that the US’ allies had own separate agenda to pursue in Syria.

But a proxy war is something else: in principle, one can be kick started over Syria, but eventually it will entangle the region and at some point the wind of democracy will also blow eastward and the Gulf monarchies may also be gone with the wind.

Erdogan does not need tutoring on what tragedy could befall Turkey if he allowed his country’s territory to be used as the staging ground for waging a proxy war against Russia and Iran in next-door Syria (and Iraq). Turkey is beset internally with so many fault lines – secularist-Islamist, Turkish-Kurdish, Anatolian-Aegean, Sunni-Alawite, and so on.

Having said that, an ‘East-West’ proxy war in Syria will only look like Shakespeare’s play Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark if Turkey is not willing to make the supreme sacrifice of offering itself as the indispensable ‘frontline state’. Ivanov’s remarks suggest that Moscow understands the paradigm perfectly well.

On the other hand, the weekend’s terrorist strike in Ankara only reinforces Moscow’s contention that the fight against the Islamic State [IS] and the extremist groups operating in Syria is the number one priority today. The Russian media reported Monday that the anti-terror police found a trigger mechanism during a raid in Moscow on a hideout of suspected IS activists which is similar to those used in Ankara.

No matter the IS’s calculus in terrorizing Turkey, the terrorist strike has triggered a wave of anger among Turks of all walks of life against the predatory beast which has settled in next door.

So, when Ivanov flagged that the two countries have “common interests”, it is an explicit message from the Kremlin to Ankara – ‘We are not your enemy and our boys next door mean no harm to you’.

It is difficult to assess whether Moscow’s overture to Ankara or its intensifying engagement with Saudi Arabia, becomes more important. The point is, they complement each other and their dynamics could reinforce the thrust of the Russian regional diplomacy.

In this context, a close evaluation becomes necessary regarding Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s joint press briefing on Sunday in Sochi with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir following the talks between President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Lavrov divulged:

  • Putin and Mohammed put “special emphasis” on the “situation in and around Syria”.
  • Russia and Saudi Arabia “share common goals” in preventing an Islamist takeover in Syria.
  • Both countries seek to facilitate a political process and national reconciliation in Syria that would “help all Syrians, regardless of their ethnicity and faith, feel at home in their country”.
  • Putin and Mohammed discussed in detail in a candid spirit the “measures” that could bring the two countries closer to realizing a Syrian political process.
  • They discussed “a range of options” and the “various approaches” in this regard, and agreed to “use them to guide their further action”.
  • Putin sought a “maximally concrete” Russian-Saudi interaction in the coming period and “relevant understandings have been reached.”

Lavrov is a vastly experienced diplomat and reading and reading the transcript of what he said, the icing on the cake in the Sochi talks appears to be that Mohammed sought and obtained from Putin a categorical affirmation that the Russian air strikes in Syria will exclusively focus on the IS and other terrorist groups.

As Lavrov put it,

  • We [Putin] expressed readiness – readiness that found a reciprocal response – for encouraging our military and Special Forces to start working together as closely as possible so as to erase any doubt as to the fact that the Russian aviation’s targets are really the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist groups.

It is possible to decode that Putin and Mohammed will instruct their security agencies concerned to enter into a system of mutual consultations regarding the targets that appear in the crosshairs of the Russian jets crisscrossing the Syrian skies.

No doubt, this goes far beyond anything that the US and its allies would ever concede in comparable circumstances to an outsider.

In political terms, Moscow agrees to pay heed to Saudi Arabia’s concerns as a stakeholder. It is a major concession that needs to be pitted against the overall framework of the Russian diplomatic thrust, which is to create a mutually reinforcing process of the military operations in Syria generating new dynamics for the political process.

For sure, this does not look like a classic East-West proxy war. The only intriguing part would be that if Moscow concedes a say to Riyadh as regards the red lines of the Syrian military operations, it cannot be a one-way street. Put differently, Putin too would have expectations from Mohammed and King Salman.

On Monday, in fact, Lavrov issued a call on “all the interested countries to attend the information centre we [Russia] set up with Iraq, Syria, and Iran in Baghdad”.

He added that Moscow is open to “review proposals for establishing new coordination centres in the region for the anti-terror fight”. Thereupon he disclosed, “We are considering setting up similar coordination centres in other places in this [Middle East] region”.

Perhaps, a coordination centre is struggling to be born in Cairo. Lavrov talked on the phone with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry last Friday (on the eve of Mohammed’s visit to Sochi) and they “agreed that regional and international organizations should coordinate their fight against IS and other terrorist groups in the region”.

A coordination centre under the roof of the Arab League?

At any rate, Ivanov also made what may prove to be seminal remarks regarding the scope for Russian-Turkish coordination as well.

Putin ought to dial Erdogan’s phone number one of these days.

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