Russia: Coming Back to Middle East as Major Actor
Andrei AKULOV | 06.08.2015 | OPINION

Russia: Coming Back to Middle East as Major Actor

The world attention has been focused on the Middle East recently. The ebb and flow of the war against the Islamic State, the stalemated Syrian civil war, the framework agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the situation in Iraq, the war in Yemen, the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia in open rift over Iran – all these events have been hitting the radar screen in recent months. Another aspect worth of mentioning is the emergence of Russia as a relevant player that could have a major impact on the situation in the volatile region. Moscow’s recent decision to deliver S300 air defense systems to Iran is just another example of its return.

Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi visited Moscow in late July. The parties signed a bilateral agreement on military-technical cooperation. The details of the new agreement are not known yet. Last year Russia concluded a major arms deal with Iraq; an indication of the Baghdad-based government's frustration at its dealings with the USA. As the Islamic State seized big chunks of Iraqi territory Russia rushed to supply Iraq with SU-25 attack aircraft, Mi-28NE and Mi-35 combat helicopters, TOS-1A multiple rocket launchers, Pantsir-S1 medium range surface-to-air and anti-aircraft artillery weapon systems, Jigit man-portable SAMs, artillery pieces and BRM-3M reconnaissancevehicles.

Khaled al-Obeidi said that the Americans are not very good when there is «a war of attrition» going on where Iraq needs large amounts of military supplies. He expressed gratitude for Russia’s readiness to provide all-round assistance to his country. «The war we are waging is not a traditional one. We are building our armed forces in peacetime… Our enemy is changing its tactic every month, every day and we need adequate weapons to respond to this», al-Obeidi stressed.

Despite the billions of dollars spent on training and equipment by the United States during its eight-year occupation, Iraq's million-strong army completely folded when insurgents attacked last year. Islamic State militants overran the Iraqi city of Ramadi some time ago in the most significant setback for the Baghdad government in a year, exposing the weakness of Iraq’s army and the limitations of U.S. air strikes. Last month the group seized full control of Palmyra in neighboring Syria.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited Iraq on July 20 for talks with Iraqi officials and Sunni tribal leaders, as well as US commanders. The surprise visit was his first in Iraq since he took office earlier this year. The next day he flew to Irbil for unannounced talks with Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. In late April, the House Armed Services Committee introduced a bill calling to directly arm "Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal forces" with a "national security mission" in Iraq. Iraqi reactions to a bill laid bare the extent of the divisions among Iraqi groups. Members of the Iraqi parliament's Shia-majority bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), passed a resolution in early May to reject it. The parliamentarians representing Kurdish and Sunni Arab-dominated blocs boycotted the vote.

Iraq is angry with US military aid going around Baghdad straight to Kurds and Sunnis. In April the Iraqi Ministry of Defense has denounced the bill now in the US Senate that would send weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga for the war against the Islamic State, according to an official's statement to Rudaw. »We will reject the arming of the Peshmerga directly by the US», said Iraq’s Defense Minister Khalid Al-Obeidi.

The cooperation with Iraq is an element of major trend as Russia’s presence in the region becomes a factor to reckon with. It has military cooperation agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Jordan.

Moscow’s biggest and most reliable regional customer, Algeria, has acquired $7.5 billion worth of military hardware from Russia since 2006, including MiG-29 and Su-30 fighters, S-300 missile systems and T-90 tanks.

Last year, Russia signed deals worth more than $3, 5 billion deal with Egypt and about $4,2 billion deal with Iraq for aircraft, rockets and missile systems. Egypt appears to be one of Moscow’s largest customers. Two major deals signed in 2014 worth over $6.5 billion for MiG-29Ms, Mi-35s, S-300 SAMs, mobile coastal defense missiles and submarines, as well as the opening of the Russian helicopter maintenance center in Egypt scheduled for 2015 are the most recent transactions.

Within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Russia has been fostering close relationships with influential regional power brokers. Russia and the UAE are reported in talks about selling Russian MiG jets to the Emiratis and launching joint production of weapons.

It’s not military cooperation only. The Russian government has signed major nuclear cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan since the start of this year increasing its influence among traditional U.S. allies in the region.

In February, Russia and Egypt secured a preliminary deal in which Russia signaled its willingness to assist Egypt in building its first nuclear power plant. The agreement was announced during President Vladimir Putin’s February visit to Cairo, during which he also solidified Russia’s overall political and trade relationships with his Egyptian counterpart, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Shortly thereafter, the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission and Russia’s Rosatom, the state-run nuclear energy corporation, agreed on a plan for the construction of Jordan’s first nuclear power plant. Under the agreement two nuclear reactors of 1000 megawatts each would be built.

In June, Russia closed a major deal on nuclear cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Since the end of the last decade the Saudis have been implementing plans to construct as many as 16 commercial nuclear power plants. Russia is now expected to play a sizable role in operating the nuclear plants, which are still to be built. The Saudis have indicated that a nuclear program will free up oil reserves to be used almost exclusively for foreign sales that generate hard currency earnings.

It’s worth to note here that Moscow and Riyadh maintain high-profile ties despite the reshuffle in the Saudi leadership following the death of King Abdullah in January. The Saudis have also expressed their desire to buy a certain number of Russian tanks and ‘Iskander-E’ complexes, to implement joint projects on the basis of the Russian GLONASS system, and in addition, to invest in agriculture and even in «Russian Housing and Communal Services». 

In July, Riyadh agreed to invest some $10 billion to the Russian economy within the next 4-5 years. These funds will boost Russia’s economy against the background of Western economic sanctions. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir will make his first visit to Russia in mid-August to discuss pressing topics on bilateral agenda, as well as international issues. The ministers will also discuss the King of Saudi Arabia’s visit to Russia, which is scheduled for the end of this year.

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Russia has returned to the Middle East to become a major player. This is the most volatile region in the world with burning problems to tackle at the international level. Any effort to do it without Russia is doomed to failure.

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