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August 19, 2016
Russia's recent use of Iranian airbases to launch airstrikes in Syria has surprised many in the Middle Eastern media. There are still a lot of questions about the depth of Russo-Iranian cooperation, but few commentators doubt that Russia’s regional influence is set to increase as traditional alliances fray. After all, Russia’s tacit alliance with Iran against the anti-Assad opposition in Syria is not the only example of Moscow making inroads in the Middle East. Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Moscow last week there is discussion of further Russian-Turkish cooperation. Some commentators even predict that Turkey will turn its back on the United States in favor of cooperation with Russia, Iran and Israel. It is often the case in the Middle East that things are not always as they seem, but there is no question about Russia’s re-discovered assertiveness.
Iran’s Press TV reports confirm Russia’s use of Iran as a launching pad for attacks against anti-Assad forces, characterizing the cooperation between the two countries as “strategic”: “A senior Iranian official says Iran and Russia are engaged in ‘strategic’ cooperation and exchange of capacities to fight terrorism in Syria....The SNSC secretary also stated that Iran has managed to establish stability and security in the country and will continue to provide advisory assistance to those countries plagued with terrorism....Iran and Russia are Syria’s main allies and have been assisting the government in Damascus in its fight against foreign-backed terrorist groups, including the Daesh Takfiri terrorists....Shamkhani further said constructive cooperation among Iran, Russia and Syria has created a “very tough” situation for terrorists.”
However, as this AP report published in the Saudi Gazette makes clear, the Iranians, who have a proud tradition of not allowing foreign bases on their territory, have been quick to point out that the bases are not of a permanent nature: “The speaker of Iran’s parliament stressed on Wednesday that Russia does not have a permanent military base within the republic, a day after Moscow announced launching airstrikes on Syria from Iran. The fact that Iran allowed Russian warplanes to take off from its territory to bomb targets in Syria was an unprecedented move, underscoring the deepening cooperation between two powerhouses heavily invested in the Syrian civil war....It is virtually unheard in recent history for Iran to allow a foreign power to use one of its bases to stage attacks. Russia has also never used the territory of another country in the Middle East for its operations inside Syria, where it has been carrying out an aerial campaign in support of President Bashar Assad’s government for nearly a year. Iran is also a major supporter of Assad.”
But could Russian planes find their next host in a NATO member? Hurriyet Daily News reports on news that a Russian parliamentarian has called for Turkey to play such a role amid the rapprochement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin: “A member of Russia’s upper house of parliament has reportedly suggested that Turkey could provide its İncirlik air base for Russian Air Forces jets in their campaign across the border in Syria....According to Russian news agencies, Ozerov did not rule out that Ankara could offer the use of its air base after Erdoğan’s reconciliatory visit to St. Petersburg last week, where he affirmed support for Russia’s anti-terrorist mission in Syria....The Russian senator’s remarks came just days after Turkey called on Moscow to carry out joint operations against the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, following crucial talks between President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdoğan aimed at ending a diplomatic crisis....Still, Ankara and Moscow still disagree on how to resolve the Syrian conflict, with Russian forces carrying out a bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad but Ankara considering al-Assad’s exit as a key to any solution.”
It is not clear how serious Mr. Erdogan is about his newfound fondness for Russia, but as Burak Bekdil writes in a recent op-ed for Hurriyet Daily News, there is enough uncertainty at the moment to make many observers nervous about Russia’s designs in Turkey: “Flying over Turkish airspace, the Russians were playing a smart set of chess game. They sacrificed one fighter and, consequently, reinforced their military deployments in Syria. They created a de facto no-fly zone against any Turkish military aircraft flying over the Syrian skies; they cost the Turkish economy in several billions of dollars; they won a shy Turkish apology, which the Turks said they would never grant them; and they are now aligning Turkey into their line of policy in Syria – one that Turkey once so passionately opposed to. Even Vladimir Putin could not imagine, nine months ago, that Turkey would propose joint military operations in Syria with Russia. In contrast, the game Turkey played looks like “Turkish roulette” in which the pistol is fully loaded and a non-Russian player volunteers to take the first shot. Mr. Putin may once have been, or pretended to have been, awfully angry with the Turks for shooting down the Russian SU-24. But at least he must admit that Turks are fun.”
Gulf News’s Mohammad Hassan Al Harbi wonders if this realignment of formal and informal alliances in the Middle East will lead to a Russia-Iran-Turkey-Israel axis: “The situation in Aleppo today is chaotic due to battles between different parties and everyone wants to win the fight for the control of the Syrian city because whoever succeeds in Aleppo will also succeed in other battles to come....The reason behind such a battle is that the new alliances that have emerged after the failed coup in Turkey have affected events in Syria, thereby setting new rules to the game that will serve Turkey’s interests. A new alliance is expected to emerge in the international political arena comprising Russia, Turkey and Iran and perhaps Israel as well. This alliance will have a hand in the events in Syria, and therefore, Turkey will have a presence in Syria. This will not be the same old Turkey, but rather a new Turkey that has switched its allegiance from the US-European alliance to the Russian-Iranian-Israeli one. This switch will provide Turkey with an opportunity to be present in Syria in order to face its arch-enemy — the Kurdistan party and its foreign supporters.”
Writing for Al Jazeera, James Denselow paints a similarly confusing and contradictory web of relationships, all of them playing out in a dystopian Syria: “Several conflict trends are simultaneously at play in Syria. The first is the retreat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) across the country and the second is the unpredictability of events in and around Aleppo where regular regime gains have seemingly been stunningly reversed. Both trends reveal the many layers of ongoing fighting. While all fighting has international, regional and local components, there are two central conflicts that are making the weather in the country.... While all sides talk a good game about their willingness to engage in dialogue, they all see the potential for getting what they want through military means — which is bad news for the people and buildings that make up Aleppo. To understand the Syria of today, you have to peer through the thick fog of war and have eyes simultaneously on the different actors and their very different conflicts.”
The general perception in the regional media, right or wrong, is that the Russians are outsmarting and outmaneuvering the United States at every turn. For an example, see this recent National editorial: “Russian jets are now using Iranian airbases to launch raids into Syria. The announcement this week highlights the degree to which Russia has entrenched itself in the Middle East as well as the pragmatism that currently defines Moscow’s relationships across the region....As opposed to the United States, which has walked away from its self-declared red lines on intervention in Syria, Russia has willingly inserted itself in the Syrian civil war. At the same time, Moscow has been open to forming alliances with a diverse variety of countries from Turkey to the next U.S. administration. Russia’s pragmatic aggression and willingness to establish itself on the ground should be a wake-up call for western countries looking for a solution to the region’s conflicts....The U.S.-led coalition has made great gains in defeating ISIL on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. But those are small victories in a much larger war. To stay ahead of the curve, the Arab world and our partners in the West will have to adopt proactive solutions or run the risk that Iran and Russia will fill the vacuum.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.