Opinion: Vladimir Putin's Mideast Victory Lap

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reach out to shake hands following their talks in Putin's residence in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 3, 2017. (AP photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reach out to shake hands following their talks in Putin's residence in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 3, 2017. (AP photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

On Monday, Dec. 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned a previously scheduled trip to Egypt into a whirlwind, one day, three nations, victory lap around the Middle East.

The Russian president made an unscheduled stop at the Russian Air Base at Hmeymim, in Syria, and after his meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President al Sisi stopped for a brief meeting with Turkish President Erdogan on his return trip to Moscow.

In a series of brief remarks addressed primarily to Russian troops stationed at the Hmeymim Air Base in Latakia, Putin announced the Russian mission in Syria had been successful and that he was ordering a partial pullout of Russian forces in Syria.

He was clear, however, that some Russian military, especially air forces, would remain in Syria and that Moscow would retain both its air base and its naval base in Tartous, Syria.

This was not the first time that Putin had announced a pullout of Russian troops in Syria. He made a similar announcement in March 2016, although no troops were ever withdrawn. Significantly, he did not offer a timetable for the pullout.

Moscow's Syrian Objectives

The Kremlin's intervention in Syria has resulted in hundreds of Russia casualties and is deeply unpopular back in Russia. Officially, the Kremlin has claimed that 38 Russian soldiers have been killed in Syria.

Many of the Russian military personnel in Syria, however, are there in the guise of third party contractors. Their casualties are not part of the official casualty count. The announcement of a troop pullout may have more to do with placating public opinion for the forthcoming March 2018 presidential election than Moscow's Syrian plans.

Following his comments, Putin met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. This was the first time that a foreign head of state has traveled to Syria since the start of the civil war almost seven years ago.

Moscow's Syrian strategy has been very clear from the start. The Russian intervention was prompted by the aim of keeping Bashar Assad in power. The Assad family have been a long-standing Russian, and before that, a Soviet, client. Putin has made it equally clear that notwithstanding the defeat of the Islamic State, Russia intends to keep its bases in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Equally significant, Moscow has made it clear that unlike the United States, that poured hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid into Iraq and Afghanistan, it does not intend to finance or contribute to the reconstruction of Syria.

Given that the U.S. and its NATO allies are equally opposed to any assistance to the Syrian government if Assad is in power, it is likely that Syrian reconstruction will take decades.

Instead the Kremlin has positioned itself as the ultimate power broker in any eventual Syrian settlement. It has taken the lead in organizing Syrian peace talks between Damascus and the Syrian rebels in Astana, under the supervision of the three "guarantor states" of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The U.S. and its NATO allies have been conspicuously left out of those talks. In the meantime, the peace talks being held under UN supervision in Geneva, which have been supported by the U.S. and the EU, have gone nowhere. The Syrian government has refused to discuss any matter with its Syrian opposition beyond the issue of terrorism.

Russia has also positioned itself as the main interlocutor between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. Moscow quickly announced that it would provide air support and assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish based militia, which has played a key role in defeating Islamic State forces in Syria when the White House announced that it would be ending its support of the SDF.

Anywhere you look across all the Syrian fault lines, Kurds versus Turkey, Erdogan versus Assad, Syrian rebels versus Damascus, Moscow has positioned itself as a key player on which one or both sides are dependent. In the process, it has made the U.S. and NATO largely irrelevant in the Syrian peace process and to the eventual outcome of the conflict there.

Warming Russian-Egyptian Relations

Following his meeting with Syrian president Assad, Putin traveled to Cairo for a meeting with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The meeting, which had been previously scheduled, underscores the deepening ties between Moscow and Cairo.

After the meeting, the two men announced that Russia had agreed to resume civilian flights between Russia and Egypt. Those flights had been suspended more than two years ago when a jihadist group in the Sinai, affiliated with Islamic State, placed a bomb in a Russian Metrojet plane.

While in Cairo, Egyptian and Russian officials signed a $30 billion agreement to begin construction on Egypt's Dabaa nuclear energy plant. The complex, which will be partially funded by Russia, will host four nuclear reactors and is Egypt's first nuclear power facility.

Under the agreement, Russia's Rosatom will be responsible for the construction of the 4,800 MW plant as well as providing training, nuclear fuel, disposing of spent fuel and the operations and maintenance of the facility, as well as other services.

Rosatom has been implicated in the alleged Uranium One scandal involving the sale of approximately 20% of America's uranium reserves. Nuclear power plant financing, construction and operations has emerged as a key component of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East.

The company recently opened an office in Dubai and has announced nuclear power development projects with Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Turkey, and has signed a "program of cooperation" regarding the peaceful uses of nuclear energy with Saudi Arabia.

Following their meeting, Putin and el-Sisi issued a statement denouncing the Trump Administration's announcement that it would recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and that it would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Significantly, neither of the two presidents made any reference to Russian military bases in Egypt. In November, Moscow had released a draft agreement between Russia and Egypt permitting either country's military aircraft to use their respective airspace and air bases.

Egypt has been the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel, since the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978. U.S.-Egyptian relations have been strained, however, ever since the Obama White House's criticism of the military coup led by al-Sisi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Relations have remained tense, especially after the U.S. government denied Cairo $95.7 million in previously agreed upon aid and delayed another $195 million in the summer of 2017.

Ankara and Moscow in the Middle East

Following his meeting in Cairo, Vladimir Putin traveled to Ankara for a meeting with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan. This was Putin's third meeting with Erdogan in the last 30 days and the seventh in 2017. That means Erdogan has met more times with Vladimir Putin than he has with all the leaders of his NATO allies combined.

In Ankara, Putin and Erdogan confirmed that Turkey would be purchasing a Russian made S-400 air defense system. The Russian made surface to air missiles cannot be integrated into NATO defense infrastructure and the purchase was interpreted as a slap to Ankara's NATO allies. The $2.5-billion deal will be financed in part by Moscow.

Russian technicians will help operate the air defense system raising questions about who the missiles are designed to deter. Presumably, Russian technicians would not participate in any attempt to use the missiles to shoot down Russian aircraft. Who does that leave? The virtually nonexistent Syrian air force or perhaps Turkey's NATO partners?

Both men described the Trump Administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital as destabilizing to the Middle East. On Syria, both expressed support for the Syrian peace negotiations that had been going on in Astana and most recently in Sochi.

On Sunday, December 17, Erdogan issued a statement that Turkey would open an embassy to the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem.

Since the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military two years ago, Russian-Turkish relations have steadily improved. Russian-Turkish trade is up 30% in 2017. More than 4.5 million Russians visited Turkey this year. Russia is now the single largest source of tourism in Turkey, slightly ahead of Germany.

Long-term, Russian and Turkish interests are at odds with one another. Turkey's desire for more influence in the Caucasus and with the Turkic speaking people of Central Asia run counter to Moscow's desire to retain its influence there.

Likewise, Erdogan's ambition to play a larger role in both the Middle East and the Islamic world runs counter to the interests of Russia and will bring him into conflict with Russia's principal Mideast ally Iran.

Turkey's alignment with Russia, however, allows Ankara to project a measure of independence and Mideast leadership and to emerge from what it sees as its treatment as a junior partner by both NATO and the European Union. Ankara's claims on historic Ottoman territories also creates new fault lines in the region, ones that create additional opportunities for projecting Russian influence.

Under Erdogan, Turkish foreign policy has become increasingly nationalistic and revisionist. In July 2016 for example, he criticized the Treaty of Lausanne, claiming that "in Lausanne we gave away the islands that you could shout across to." The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was the peace agreement that formally ended the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied powers in World War I.

The treaty, considered the founding document of the Turkish Republic, also largely settled Turkey's post World War I borders. The islands refer to the Dodecanese Islands which were ceded to Italy after the war and then to Greece after the Second World War.

During the battle for Mosul, a conflict that Erdogan had insisted Turkish forces should play a part, he made numerous claims that Mosul was Turkish territory and that it had been illegally seized by British forces after the Armistice of Mudros and added to what eventually became the state of Iraq.

He has also made frequent references to the fact that the Treaty of Lausanne expires in 2023 and that Turkey will enter a "new era" that among other things, he claims, will allow it to begin collecting transit fees from ships travelling through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

On December 7, 2017, during a state visit to Athens, the first such visit by a Turkish president in 65 years, Erdogan stunned his Greek hosts by declaring that the Treaty of Lausanne "needs to be modernized."

Several Turkish scholars have tried to draw parallels between the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which ended the First Opium War between Great Britain and China and which led to the establishment of the British colony on Hong Kong Island, and the Treaty of Lausanne.

Noting that the territories seized by Britain were subsequently returned to China following the expiration of the treaty and its various extensions, they have suggested that historic Ottoman territories that were technically under the Caliphate's control at the end of the war should also be returned to Turkey.

Ankara has not endorsed this position, but Erdogan's public comments are consistent with it. Such aims would amount to nothing less than a redrawing of the Middle East's frontiers and a de facto partial revival of the historic Ottoman Empire. While such an outcome is unlikely, it may be an indication of Erdogan's mind set or at the very least an indication of a negotiating stance.

US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Putin's victory lap was a well-earned tribute to the success of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the plunge in oil prices, the imposition of crippling economic sanctions and a moribund economy, Moscow has clearly demonstrated that it is a player in Middle East affairs.

Russian troops preformed credibly in Syria and were successful in turning the tide of the Syrian civil war in Assad's favor. In the meantime, Moscow has strengthened its strategic alliance with Tehran and secured long-term access to military bases in the region.

It has also clearly demonstrated that it will stick with its clients and ensure their survival at a time when the reliability of American security guarantees is being called into question.

The success of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East is less an indication of Russian strength or the revival of Russian power than it is a measure of the success of a highly focused and cleverly executed strategy in an environment where American policy, the dominant power in the Middle East for the last 40-odd years, has lacked coherence and purpose.

The Obama Administration's on again and off again strategy of disengagement from the Middle East opened the door not only to the expansion of Islamic State, admittedly aided by the incompetence of the Iraqi military at the time, but also for an expanded Russian role.

Eventually, the atrocities committed by Islamic State and the destabilizing impact of its expansion on the rest of the Middle East, forced the Obama administration to intervene again in the region. That intervention, however, proved half-hearted and was constrained by rules of engagement that severely hampered the American military effort.

To its credit, the Trump Administration gave the Pentagon much more leeway in deciding how to conduct the military campaign against Islamic State. That is an important reason why the pace of operations and their success increased markedly over the last year. On the other hand, the Trump White House has failed to articulate a coherent policy in the Middle East.

It has reversed the Obama Administration's accommodation of Tehran and has been more vocal in support of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

On the other hand, all too often its actions, for example, the decertification of Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement or the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, seem little more than grand gestures; publicity stunts that are devoid of any policy direction or logic.

Indeed, at a time when the Palestinian Authority is being pressured by its Sunni Arab benefactors to support the White House's peace initiative, the sudden and unexpected recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a recognition that elements in the Israeli military and intelligence communities urged the White House to defer, torpedoed what could have been the administration's crowning foreign policy achievement.

It's hard to shake the feeling that American foreign policy in the Middle East is being orchestrated like a reality television show, complete with dramatic moments, unexpected developments and unforeseen twists and turns.

That may make for a highly entertaining drama, but it often leads to policy inconsistency, confusion and incoherence. In the meantime, at the Kremlin they are counting their winnings.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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