Abdel Bari ATWAN
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lightning Middle East tour which took in three major stops – Syria, Egypt, and Turkey – reflects not only Russia’s rapidly expanding influence at the expense of the US, but also the rise of the resistance axis in the region as it refocuses attention on the central Arab cause.
It was only natural for the Russian president to begin his tour with a visit to Hmeimim Airbase near Latakia in northern Syria, which played they key role in deciding the outcome of the Syrian crisis in the Syrian army’s favour and foiling all schemes to topple the regime in Damascus. It was natural for him to use the occasion to declare ‘mission accomplished’ and order the return home of most of the Russian warplanes and pilots in Syria. He thereby sought to deny the US a pretext for keeping its forces in Iraq and Syria.
Putin’s success in Syria has flung the Middle East’s doors open to him. It sent a strong message to the region’s governments and peoples about Russia’s effectiveness as a partner and its ability, employing diplomacy backed by military force and a clear world-view, to garner achievements, alliances and victories.
There was a huge difference between Putin’s announcement and former US president George W. Bush’s ‘mission accomplished’ declaration in April 2004 after his forces entered Baghdad. Bush went on to suffer an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Iraqi resistance, losing thousands of his soldiers as well as his prestige. For he had sneaked into Iraq like a thief, based on the lies of the Israel lobby and at its incitement. But Putin is reaping the fruits of a victory achieved by his daring, courage and carefully calibrated management of the crisis. He did not hesitate to send his forces to support his Syrian ally and thwart the US project in Syria. As a result, he won the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Putin proceeded from Syria to Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President ‘Abdelfattah as-Sisi, the second largest purchaser of Russian weapons in the world. Whilst there, he signed a treaty to build a nuclear reaction and supply the training and expertise for Egyptian technicians to run it in future. His visit inaugurates a new phase in Russian-Egyptian relations, bringing Egypt closer to Russia which used to be its natural ally before late president Anwar as-Sadat threw it into the lap of the United States – a move which cost him his life and Egypt its leadership role in the Arab world as it wallowed in mounting debts and submission to Gulf money.
But the last stop in Putin’s tour Putin’s tour was arguably the most important, and not only because it preceded an Islamic summit called to condemn US President Donald Trump and his decision to recognize Israel’s takeover of occupied Jerusalem. It signified the extent Putin’s diplomacy has managed to extricate Turkey from under the American umbrella, if only partially, and transform its role in Syria into one of defeating terrorism and and preparing the conditions for a political solution. It is Putin who engineered the rapprochement – and burgeoning alliance — between Iran and Turkey, and brought them together under his auspices in Sochi for a summit that drew a new map for the Middle East. He can be expected next to try to bring Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – with whom he had had a ‘warm’ meeting at Hmeimim – into the new axis, and preparing the ground for a reconciliation meeting between him and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Such a reconciliation is looking more viable than ever before following Erdogan’s strong stand against Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem, his threat to sever relations with Israel, and his sharp verbal exchanges with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
While Putin has gained massively in stature in the Arab and Islamic worlds by supporting for his allies even if that requires his own forces to make sacrifices, Trump has garnered nothing but hatred with his racist policies and support for Israeli terrorism. Even worse, he has embarrassed his own Arab allies, isolating them and subjecting them to accusations of treason for normalizing relations with Israel and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on bolstering the US economy – money taken out of the pockets of their deprived and long-suffering peoples.
It is Putin’s allies who are currently in the forefront in the region. We have seen Iran and its Iraqi allies celebrating victory against Islamic State (IS), and Asad seated in the presidential palace looking relaxed with a broad smile on his face. Erdogan has regained much of his popularity in the Islamic world and is snatching his Saudi rivals’ leadership mantle by hosting an Islamic summit to effectively nullify the Islamic-US alliance that was proclaimed during Trump’s May 2017 visit to Riyadh. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has meanwhile been heralding the start of a third intifada which he predicted would signal the beginning of the end of the Zionist state.
Putin played the major role in supporting this axis, and did so with unrivalled dexterity. It is entitled to celebrate success in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and look forward to more very soon in Yemen and occupied Jerusalem. Pro-normalization Arabs be warned.