Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow on October 5, 2017. Photo: Sputnik via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow on October 5, 2017. Photo: Sputnik via Reuters

Russia’s newfound role as balancer of the Middle East is facing its toughest moment, the balance among Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Since coming to the rescue in Syria, Russia has found the Iranian workhorse to be a useful ally to salvage the war-ravaged Arab republic.

The tide turned in favor of Damascus with the relentless advance of Western proxies decisively halted by the Eurasian behemoth. The Syrian campaign cemented Russia’s position as the new Sheriff of the Middle East, giving the Iran-led resistance axis impetus to spread its dominance across the region and get the upper hand over its arch-foe Saudi Arabia.

But these Iranian overtures have made Russia visibly uncomfortable, as they pose a challenge to Moscow’s credibility in the region, and the formal request made by Russia for the pulling back of Hezbollah and Iran from Syria has made Russia’s resolve to address the Persian Gulf monarchies’ concerns and to calm down Israel more adamant.

Before the recapture of Aleppo from Western proxies, the Russian economy was facing hard times because of Western sanctions and falling oil prices worldwide. Despite feeling the economic pressure, Russia did not wish to lose its Syrian foothold, realizing how bad the situation could be after witnessing the catastrophic consequences of the West’s intervention in Libya. An internationally sponsored terrorist stronghold in Syria would have seriously undermined the security of the Muslim-majority Caucasian regions under the rule of Russia.

While engaging the Syrian conflict militarily, Russia kept its diplomatic channels active to pursue the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, by getting them disengaged from the conflict.

Saudi Arabia under the late King Abdullah had been actively engaged in funding and arming the Western proxies in Syria. At the same time, the oil-producing monarchies were bearing the brunt of the oil-price meltdown. This provided the opportunity to break the ice between the two Cold War–era foes, Saudi Arabia and Russia, that had battled each other in proxy wars in Afghanistan and in the Caucasus.

The common consensus on raising oil prices enabled Riyadh and Moscow to bring in the Russia-OPEC oil deal, which opened the way for a drastic improvement of ties between the two. Surprisingly enough, Iran did not enter the Moscow-Riyadh-led oil alliance, citing its need to regain market share lost because of Western sanctions back then.

Russia’s military achievements in Syria, which went on an upward trend since the retaking of Aleppo, shifted the onus of the leading Arab Gulf monarchies to Moscow. After the arrival of King Salman on the throne, the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia embarked on a roller-coaster ride, thanks mostly to the ambitious Mohammad bin Salman, who is now the crown prince of the Kingdom.

It has been established thus far that MBS is the real power behind the king, who is suffering from dementia. MBS was seen as one of the main architects of the deal with Russia to cut oil production. When veteran oil minister Ali al-Naimi was not in favor of that deal, he was replaced  by Khaled al-Falih. This move clearly depicted the eagerness of the Saudi leadership to build rapprochement with Russia.

The Saudi king’s visit to Moscow can be regarded as the probable beginning of a prospective strategic partnership, where the leaders of Moscow and Riyadh agreed to cooperate in nuclear energy, agriculture, information technology, trade, investments and social development.

Russia’s rapprochement with the Arab powers is confirmed by its multi-layered relations with Egypt, which are turning away from the West for arming its military and looking to Russia to take on that role. Russia is also financing the building of nuclear power plants in Egypt, after the two countries inked US$30 billion worth of nuclear deals.

Russia’s strategic relations with Egypt are significant because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the principal allies of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and Riyadh and Cairo are equally interested in having Moscow backed Khalifa Haftar as the ruler of Libya, instead of the NATO-backed government currently in Tripoli.

By securing Riyadh on its side, Moscow will not only consolidate its gains in Middle East, but will also secure key markets for military armaments and nuclear technology

By securing Riyadh on its side, Moscow will not only consolidate its gains in Middle East, but will also secure key markets for military armaments and nuclear technology, and hence Moscow will try every diplomatic option to alleviate concerns regarding Tehran in the region.

The commitment with Riyadh was of course in exchange for Saudi disengagement from Syria, which became evident after the Saudi crown prince agreed to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power and the Syrian recapture of the Eastern Ghouta enclave of Damascus. The enclave was previously occupied by a Saudi-backed militia enjoying Western support.

In return for Saudi disengagement from Syria, Russia chose to stay neutral in the raging Yemen conflict and in the Qatari crisis, where Iran actively chose an anti-Riyadh stance. Russia even went on to condemn repeated missile attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia. During those attacks, the failure of US systems to intercept some Houthi missiles has raised Saudi interest in Russian interceptors. This will give a boost to Russian negotiations with potential Saudi customers.

Russia knows very well that any lapse in thwarting the alleged Iranian project of a “Shia crescent” in the region will throw the balance of the power into a tailspin.

Russia’s other concern in the Middle east is the Israeli complaints against Tehran. Moscow is often irked by routine “rhetorical” attacks on the Israeli regime by Tehran, which only helps to deteriorate calm situations. Israel use the “Iran and Hezbollah” excuse to encroach into Syria, which only destabilizes Russia’s foothold in the Arab republic.

Moscow had to act to curb Israeli fears of Iran using Russia’s standing as cover in order to advance Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions in the region. Russia’s decision to backtrack from its plan to transfer S-300 missile systems to Syria was due to Israeli concerns that the defensive system would be used to the advantage of Iran.

Russia has been extra-cautious in dealing with the regional actors, as they are traditionally allies of Western powers. Moreover, giving in to one of those actors’ demands will spark cries of “sellout” from others. Russia’s internal politics is also largely influenced by its dealings with Israel, since Israel hosts a large Russian diaspora that projects significant influence in Moscow politics through Atlantic integrationists.

As the US looks to scale down its military involvement in Syria by delegating the role to an Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia, the only way Russia can solve the crisis is by forcing its traditional ally into a more restrained tone. In order to maintain the balance in the region, Russia might even force Assad to compromise with Syria’s regional foes, which are increasingly looking to Moscow for restoration of parity in the region.

The effect of Saudi-led military overtures in Syria will be scaled down if Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah remove their military presence from Syria. The Saudi-led monarchial bloc is only concerned with Iran – they will accept anyone’s mediation that helps to scale down Iranian projection.

Walking a tightropes between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran seems to be the only option left for Russia to maintain balance in the most volatile geopolitical theater on the globe. Walking that tightropes means restraining Tehran, whereby the Israeli regime loses the casus belli to intervene militarily in Syria, and the Sunni Gulf monarchies investing their money in Russian ventures in the kingdoms and emirates instead of spending them on proxy wars against Russia.

Khalid Ibn Muneer is an independent foreign affairs analyst with an engineering background based in Dhaka. He is a keen follower of South Asian and Middle Eastern affairs, and is an editor of the foreign affairs blog Qutnyti. He has also authored articles that were featured in Geopolitica.Ru, Daily New Age, Regional Rapport, Millat Times and South Asian Monitor.

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