Yaşar Yakış
Dec 15 2017

Putin engineers Russia's return to the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a quick tour of the Middle East last week to Syria, Egypt and Turkey. At the Russian air base at Hmeimim in Syria, he announced "a significant portion of the Russian contingent" would be withdrawn, but he added that if "terrorists raise their heads" in Syria, Russia would hit them with powerful strikes. The number of the Russian troops will be reduced from 7,000 to 2,000, he said.

“You are coming home with a victory … Your Motherland is waiting for you” Putin told his troops.

This statement was directed more at the Russian domestic audience. It may be a campaign kick-off for the election to be held in March 2018. A small detail confirms this impression: When Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad were walking side by side towards a microphone on the tarmac at Hmeimim, a Russian general is seen on television footage holding back Assad so that Putin is seen alone.

Putin may have thought that, since Islamic State (ISIS) has now been largely crippled, there is no need to keep Russian forces in Syria. The remainder of the job could be completed by the Syrian army.

After having proved that Russia has now become the main game-maker in Syria, Putin may have thought a deeper entanglement in Syria would not have much added value for his country.

Putin’s interest seems to be mainly focused in what is called the “useful Syria”, meaning the Mediterranean coastal belt and Damascus. He is less interested in territories of eastern Syria, rich in oil and gas and water resources. These areas are taken back from ISIS by the Syrian Democratic forces, dominated by the Kurds and supported by the United States. There may be an unannounced plan between the United States and Russia to divide Syria into zones of influence, because Washington withdraws also part of its soldiers from Syria.  

Later the same day, Putin visited Egypt where he met the President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. This leg of the visit had more economic content than political. The two countries are negotiating for the construction of a nuclear power plant by Russia, similar to the one to be built, again by Russia, in Turkey’s Mediterranean coastal town of Akkuyu. It will be composed of four units and will cost almost the same amount - around U.S. $21 billion. The construction of the plant is scheduled to start in 2028-29.

Egypt may have turned to Russia after its relations with the United States deteriorated. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem further hurt relations as it did with other Muslim countries. A statement issued by Sisi’s office said the president “had warned Trump” not to complicate the situation in the Middle East. Putin did not want to miss this opportunity to further Russia’s influence in the region.

Other subjects were also discussed during the visit to Egypt: One of them is the resumption of direct commercial flights between Cairo and Moscow, which were suspended after ISIS claimed the responsibility for blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt in 2015. The other is military equipment to be installed by Russia on a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship that Egypt purchased from France.

Putin flew from there to Turkey and met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This is the ninth time the two leaders have met in the last 16 months. The subjects discussed during this short meeting included the partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, which was a surprise for Turkey; Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; and the sale of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles to Turkey. The most concrete point in the statement made after the meeting was the progress achieved on this last subject. Erdoğan announced “the purchase will be finalised this week”. Putin used more cautious language, saying that it will be finalised “soon”. 

The visit to three countries indicates that Russia is not disengaging from the Middle East. On the contrary it is becoming more entrenched.