Over the last two months, Russia has been using increasingly direct language to state the following:
These are incredibly serious allegations, although they are little different than what the Syrian government has been saying for many years. The allegations amount to backing up Damascus, Wikileaks and some of things said by candidate Trump, implying that the US is seriously in cahoots with ISIS, that the known US proxy SDF is a also in cahoots with ISIS and is de-facto a militant group working to undermine Syria’s security and territorial unity and that the US is not actually fighting terrorism in Syria, contrary to boasts from Washington.
In this sense, Russia has seemingly given up on trying to insensitivity the US into cooperation and is instead telling blunt truths about the negative role the US plays in Syrian conflict, truths that Russia had previously been less reticent to spell out so overtly. While Russia has more or less given up on Washington, Moscow remains highly eager to work with traditional US allies throughout the Middle East and Eurasia, many of whom are now equally eager to work with Russia and take advantages of the many benefits of good relations with the Eurasian super-power.
Israel, which is a close US ally and a country that still maintains good relations with Russia, has also weighed in on this new reality. Hardline, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has recently said that the US must do more in the region to counter Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and refreshed Arab powers like Syria. While Israel does not necessarily mind Russia’s military presence in the region, Tel Aviv is well aware that Russia’s geo-political strategy in the Middle East is one balance and generally, one of fairness. This contrasts with the adversarial US approach, which virtually always takes Israel’s side over that of any country having a dispute with Tel Aviv. With Russia becoming a more important player in the region and with the US slowly but surely coming to realise its own failures, Israel will have to get used to the Russian language of compromise becoming increasingly prominent. Clearly Israel would prefer US language of undying pro-Israeli rhetoric, but realities are changing and Israel knows this.
While all this is being said, America’s two most prominent state allies in the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are speaking more and more like Russia. Turkey is now standing with Iran and Iraq in saying Ankara has a commitment to the territorial integrity of Syria, Iraq and the wider Arab world and just yesterday the Saudi Foreign Minister said the same, even going further stating that Riyadh supports the stability of the political institutions of Syria. When decoding the diplomatic language, Saudi is essentially saying that it has dropped its long held militant opposition to the secular government of Syrian Prettiness Bashar al-Assad. During a recent meeting of the so-called Syrian opposition in Saudi, the Saudi regime delegates more or less said the same thing.
Just as Russia’s new found partnership with Turkey has brought Ankara’s leadership closer to Moscow’s regional partners, namely Iran, it is now highly probable that the wide ranging meeting between Saudi and Russian leaders in Moscow, could help ease tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Earlier this year, the Qatari Foreign Minister praised Russia’s role of being a neutral power in the Saudi, Bahraini, Emirati and Egyptian row with Qatar. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia which has led the boycott of Qatar, is now also praising Russia, using incredibly warm language, especially when one considers Saudi’s recent positions in the region which ran totally contrary to that of Russia.
In this sense, if any major power is going to ease tensions between Riyadh and Doha, this will likely be Russia.
As I explained yesterday, by creating an intertwined relationship between Saudi and Russia, this is actually good for Iran, as it gives Russia the ability to use economic incentives to quietly tell Saudi to tone down its anti-Iranian rhetoric. In other words, just as Russia brought Turkey and Iran together, that same economic and geo-political influence can now help to at least ease tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. For clear ideological reasons, Tehran and Riyadh will likely never be partners, but nor do they need to live in a state of constant tension. This is now increasingly possible.
Russia has also exposed a great many failures in Saudi’s own 20 year + geo-strategy. For all the money that Saudi has poured into proxy militant and terrorist groups, in attempts to foment regime change, none of it has worked, particularly in Syria. Iraq’s predominately Shi’a government is stabilising and has an ally in not only non-Arab Shi’a Iran but also now in non-Arab Sunni Turkey. Saudi is increasingly having to accept this reality. In Syria, Saudi’s failure is America’s failure and while it was Turkey’s failure, Ankara has saved face by more or less switching to the winning side, before the conflict officially ends.
In respect of Libya, this was always far more of a Qatari “project regime change” than a Saudi one and Saudi’s increasingly close relations with Sisi’s Egypt which supports the secular Libyan House of Representatives, effectively makes Riyadh’s machinations in Libya redundant, as Egypt has taken the lead. Saudi can do little more than tacitly consent to Egypt’s support for Libya’s leading secular faction, led by Khalifa Haftar.
Finally, with oil prices continuing to fall and with China’s progress in renewable energy threatening to keep the oil price down for many years to come, Saudi has found that as a non-OPEC energy producer, Russia may be a more useful economic partner than the United States, not least because quietly many in the Saudi deep state are privately upset that the US deep state favours former Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef (MBN) over the current Crown Prince and lead Saudi policy maker, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).
After years of close relations with the US, Saudi is now discovering what it is like when leading figures in Washington seek to control the internal political workings of one’s state, and the pro-MBS faction which apparently includes the elderly Saudi King, are not entirely happy about that. Hence. the Saudi Foreign Minister stated that both Saudi and Russia are similar in that they do not seek to interfere in the internal workings of other countries, nor impose alien political systems upon foreign states.
Forgetting the fact that in Saudi’s case, this is historically untrue, the intent of the statement is far more crucial than the context. Saudi is saying that it respects Russia’s hands off approach to the internal realities in the countries it works with, while Saudi is expressing its growing exacerbation over US aims for Saudi which some are saying may go as far as to foment a palace coup in Riyadh in favour of MBN and his supporters.
In this sense, one could say that the US observed the Qatar crisis as a test to see how united a Gulfi country’s elites would be in respect of supporting an embattled leader. In Qatar, the Emir has not fallen and this means that the US might have more difficulty than originally thought if they really seek to foment a palace coup in Saudi Arabia.
Russia is also aware that as oil prices inevitably fall in coming years and as Saudi at least attempts to diversify its economy in line with MBS’ ‘Vision 2030’ programme, Saudi may increasingly fall into Russia’s orbit in the next decade. As an energy producer desperate for unity among non-OPEC producers such as Russia and also as a country that will rely increasingly on the expertise of countries like Russia (and its ally China) to diversify an economy that since the inception of the Saudi state, has been entirely dependant on energy exports, Riyadh may well find itself embracing the so-called ‘eastern’ model of global commerce.
Saudi’s keenness to buy Russian weapons and also to purchase a licence to manufacture Kalashnikov automatic riffles, is a further sign that Riyadh seeks military independence from the United States. Unlike the case with Turkey, where Russian weapons were a more economic option, for Saudi Arabia, money is still essentially no object. In this sense, the weapons deals made with Russia are more of a symbolic gesture than an economic one, even when one accounts for the fact that in many instances, Russian weapons are simply more durable and better crafted than more ornate US made devices.
In this sense Russia is playing the long game which necessitates an understanding of where trends in the oil market will bring Saudi (whether they like it or not) in future years, while also playing the immediate term game of ‘leading from the front’ in the Middle East.
While the US has mastered the art of ‘leading from behind’ in the Middle East, first with Sunni jihadists and now Kurdish militants in Syria and to a degree Kurdish secessionists in Iraq, Russia is leading from the position of working openly with the major state players in both the Middle East and Eurasia. This includes Russia’s traditional allies like Syria and increasingly with its old Iraqi ally, with rejuvenated Eurasian players like Iran and Pakistan and now with traditional US allies Turkey and Saudi.
Ultimately, the Russian strategy seems to be consolidating more meaningful geo-political as well as economic gains than the US strategy. In this sense, America’s failure to respect the sovereignty of states and even the internal political workings of its own allies, has put the US in a position of having to work with proxies and militants in order to attempt and attain its aims.
Russia’s position of respecting all states, no matter how seemingly different a particular state’s geo-politics are from Russia, has paid off and ultimately, unless a proxy force is as strong as that of a state, the state will always win. Russia’s traditional thinking has once again proved to be a more timeless way of doing geo-politics than the dismemberment inducing proxy strategies of Washington. Distrust is often the first step before isolation. If these trends continue, the US may one day be as isolated from Saudi, as it seemingly already is from its once unshakeable ally Turkey.
Furthermore, this is the price the United States is paying for being unwilling and unable to engage in meaningful detente with Russia. Donald Trump’s failure to actively engage with Russia has led Russia to simply engage directly with US allies throughout the world from Turkey and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and South Korea.