Whether one likes it or not, Russia’s presence in the Middle East contributes significantly to the region’s stability, Olivier d’Auzon, a French author, lawyer and consultant at the World Bank, stresses.
Furthermore, while tacking the crisis, Russia has garnered new allies in the Middle East.
D’Auzon points to the steady Russian-Iranian rapprochement in economic, political and military fields. “As a result Russia has become an unofficial partner of the Shia Axis in the Middle East,” the French author underscored, referring to such state actors as Iran, Iraq and Syria. In contrast, the US is losing its Sunni partners: the failure of the Arab Spring has discredited the Western model of society in the eyes of the Arabs. According to d’Auzon, trouble is brewing for the Western coalition in the Middle East. To add insult to injury, Riyadh, Ankara and Tehran are becoming increasingly disenchanted with Washington, the author continued. Saudi Arabia is fuming over the US’ nuclear deal with Iran; Turkey is disappointed by Washington’s unwillingness to extradite cleric Fethullah Gulen, the alleged mastermind behind the attempted July coup in Turkey; Iran is expressing its frustration over the US’ hesitancy to lift sanctions imposed on Tehran.
The irony of the situation is that the US’ is making efforts to strengthen the Sunni Axis under the pretext that it would constitute a bulwark against Daesh, which is in some sense itself an emanation of the Sunni Axis, the French author explained. In this context Syria has turned into a battleground for various coalitions and alliances, while the international game is becoming “polarized.” “Henceforth Western Alliance, comprising the Saudis, Qataris, the French and others, appears to be Washington’s proxy force in the global confrontation with Moscow [and Iran],” d’Auzon suggested.
For his part, Nikolai Surkov, Associate Professor in the Oriental Studies Department of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), notes that the Sunni-Shia confrontation in Syria is not as “polarized” as it seems.
According to Surkov, Turkey’s latest shift in foreign policy has become a game changer. “In spring 2016 it seemed that the Saudis had succeeded in creating the [Sunni] axis of Riyadh-Ankara,” Surkov wrote in his analysis for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) think tank. “In December 2015 Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed a deal of strategic cooperation, while in April 2016, King Salman visited the Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul. As a result of the summit [Turkey and Saudi Arabia] announced about their plans to expand military cooperation and politico-economic ties. However, the ink had barely dried on new agreements, when observers began to talk about the fragility of the Saudi-Turkish ‘affair,'” Surkov narrated.
The Russian academic stressed that the two Sunni countries have certain differences in ideology: while the Erdogan government was inclined to maintain strategic alliance with Egypt under Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Riyadh praised the military coup of 2013 which brought the rule of Morsi to an end.
Interestingly enough, following the attempted coup in Turkey, Ankara has reconsidered its foreign policy priorities. Ankara’s rapprochement with Iran has caught Sunni regimes in the Middle East as well as Western leaders by surprise. “On August 12, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif arrived in Ankara. Regional commentators believe that in the course of this very meeting Turkey found common ground on Syria with Russia and Iran,” Surkov stressed. According to Surkov, the Kurdish issue could have accelerated the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement: both Ankara and Tehran are interested in preventing the creation of an independent Kurdish entity in northern Syria as well as the transformation of the Iraqi Kurdistan into a sovereign state. It appears that Sunni Turkey has established an alliance with the Shia Axis, the Russian academic pointed out, adding, however, that such an alliance could be tactical and temporary. “Turkey and Iran are two powerful regional players. Each of them views the future of the Middle East in its own way. The question remains open whether their interests will come into conflict soon and they start competing again,” Surkov remarked.