Analysis

Russian Octopus Reaches Beyond Syria

From Israel to Turkey, Libya to Iraq, Moscow expands its influence in attempt to pose alternative to U.S. With Trump in White House, nothing seems to stand in Putin's way.

This undated handout photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry claims to show Russian Military engineers driving in their APC to operate in Aleppo, Syria.
/AP

On Monday, representatives of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The next day, they announced they had agreed to establish a national-unity government, changing the composition of the Palestine National Council so that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would also be members. There would also be elections as soon as possible.

In Israel, there was no official reaction to this news; as long as the Palestinians aren’t breaking down the doors of the UN General Assembly, they don’t interest Israel’s government. As far as Israel was concerned, this was nothing more than another irrelevant meeting of the Palestinian factions. It was another empty agreement just two years or so after the last Palestinian agreement on reconciliation and a unity government. It was another Palestinian effort that will bear no fruit.

Even Islamic Jihad’s representative in Lebanon, Abu Amad al-Rifai, sounded skeptical. “The talks in Moscow were positive, but an honest desire by the parties will be needed to let these agreements be implemented in practice,” he said. The desire may exist, but relations between the factions apparently still haven’t improved to the point where the rifts can be healed.

What’s far more interesting is Russia’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which it has avoided in recent years. It has made no effort to advance this process, despite being a member of the Quartet set up to oversee it. (The other members are the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.) But this time it was Russia that initiated the meeting, and according to a Palestinian source, Moscow issued the invitation after coordinating with Egypt, but not with Israel.

Yet this Russian activity shouldn’t surprise anyone. Over the last year, Moscow has sent long arms into many parts of the Middle East, not only to expand its influence, but also to pose an alternative to American involvement, especially given its assessment that Donald Trump will prove isolationist – and not only in the Mideast.

Luring Libya

Another example of Russia’s growing influence is Libya. This week Gen. Khalifa Hiftar boarded the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which was anchored off the Libyan coast, to meet with senior Russian officials and hold a conference call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Reports from Libya say Hiftar asked Shoigu to arm his forces with modern weaponry and train his troops, and even signed an agreement for the construction of two military bases for Hiftar’s militia, one near Tobruk and the other in Benghazi. Russia, which is bound by the arms embargo the United Nations imposed on Libya, can’t yet sell weapons to Hiftar. But it can make efforts to get the UN to lift the embargo, and apparently promised Hiftar that it would do so.

Hiftar, it must be stressed, isn’t an official representative of the schismatic Libyan government, nor is he commander of the Libyan army, despite his title “commander of the Libyan National Army.” Moreover, he doesn’t recognize the presidency of Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads Libya’s presidency council but hasn’t yet managed to form a government, even though the agreement establishing the council was signed back in December 2015.

The elected Libyan parliament – one of two parliaments operating in the country – also doesn’t cooperate with Sarraj, and it has twice rejected the cabinet he presented to it. Still, the presidency council is the institution recognized by the international community as Libya’s official government, though this recognition hasn’t contributed anything to Sarraj’s ability to run the country.

Hiftar’s partners are Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. All of them believe he’s likely to be Libya’s next president, even though he’ll have to compete against bitter political rivals, especially the Islamist groups that he has managed to exclude from Benghazi, which he controls. The Libyan government established after Muammar Gadhafi's ouster has failed, and Russia thinks Hiftar is the person with the best chance of taking over.

In part, this is because he has a skilled, well-trained military force. In addition, he controls most of the oil terminals in the east of the country and can therefore finance his operations without being dependent on the state budget, though he also receives a slice of that.

Hiftar has also set up governing institutions in Benghazi, which is the home of one of the country’s two central banks. (The other is in the capital Tripoli.) Hiftar prints Benghazi’s banknotes in Russia; the other central bank prints its currency in Britain.

The vacuum that the United States left behind in Libya after its forces and NATO helped the rebels oust Gadhafi gave Russia a huge opening to enter through by helping Hiftar. This opening is enabling Moscow to set up military and economic outposts in the Mediterranean, on top of the ports it already has in Syria. It is thus expanding its access to Africa.

Iraq and Iran

On the other side of the Mediterranean, Russia is also nurturing ties with Iraq. It recently offered to sell both warplanes and passenger planes to the Iraqi government, and even reached an agreement to let Russian planes use Iraq’s airspace to attack Islamic State targets.

Last February, the largest Russian delegation ever came to Baghdad to sign a series of economic agreements. Ever since, Iraq and Russia have also been engaged in military and intelligence cooperation. And just recently, they signed a memorandum of understanding on developing new infrastructure for Iraq’s electricity and water systems and doubling the volume of bilateral trade, which currently totals some $2 billion.

Russia’s involvement in Iraq has developed even though Iraq is considered an Iranian client. Iraq maintains only limited cooperation with America, mainly in the war against the Islamic State, including the current campaign to liberate Mosul from the organization.

Thus Russia, which pushed Iran into a corner in Syria and doesn’t want it to end up controlling that country if and when a diplomatic solution to its civil war is found, also isn’t hesitating to challenge Iran in Iraq. This effort accelerated after the failure of Moscow’s attempt last August to forge military ties with Tehran that would allow Russia to station warplanes at Iran’s Hamadan airport.

Russia had to remove its planes within a week because Iran’s government came under such strident public and political criticism for allowing a foreign military to use its territory. Some members of Iran’s parliament even described Russia as an enemy that must be thwarted.

Turkey and Syria

Another extremely important recent development is the turnabout in relations between Russia and Turkey, which were nearly severed after Turkey downed a Russian plane on the Turkish-Syrian border in late 2015. Now they’ve formed a new military and economic alliance that this week produced a sight that would once have seemed impossible. For the first time, Russian and Turkish planes jointly attacked Islamic State targets in Syria.

The Russian-Turkish alliance, to which Iran is not a party, also produced the agreement for a cease-fire in Aleppo. Turkey now appears willing to waive its demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad leave, at least during a transition period, if Russia backs Turkey in setting up a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border. This buffer would help Ankara thwart the Syrian Kurds’ aspiration to establish an autonomous zone along Turkey’s border.

Russia’s cooperation with Turkey, which also takes advantage of America’s absence from the Syrian theater, has given it major leverage for launching a diplomatic process to end the war, and it seeks to make this process conform to its interests.

The next step will be a meeting later this month between representatives of rebel militias and the Syrian government in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. They will discuss a nationwide cease-fire and prepare the ground for the peace conference that’s supposed to take place next month in Geneva. That conference will explore the possibility of establishing a transitional government.

Russia’s breakthrough into the Middle East and its creation of spheres of influence, coupled with the changing of the guard in America, could also benefit Israel. Aside from Israel’s coordination with Russia on attacks in Syria, where the latter has turned a blind eye to Israeli airstrikes, Moscow could be a partner in efforts to check Iran and its satellite organizations and serve as the responsible adult in Syria once a new government is established there.

The traditional division in the Arab world between pro-Russian and pro-American states might be blurred once Trump takes office, since he seems to aspire to diplomatic cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Finally, one can predict with a fair degree of confidence that neither Trump nor Putin will jump on Israel or push it into peace talks with the Palestinians for the sake of solving a conflict that neither leader sees as a strategic threat to the region.