Saturday, 9 November 2013

Russia resurgent in the Middle East

        It is a melancholy fact, but true, that for much of the world, and certainly for the Middle East, the old adage “might is right” holds sway.  Power engenders respect.  In the Western world, however, this mindset is at odds with popular feeling, which has come to regard authority and dominance with suspicion.  The popular imagination in the USA, the UK and other Western nations is gripped by shame and contrition for a past littered with episodes that could be labelled aggressive, racist, colonial or imperialist, and Western opinion now shies away from overt displays of muscle by its leaders. 

            This dispiriting phenomenon was vividly illustrated last August, when the results of the horrific chemical attack by Syria’s President Bashar Assad on his own people filled the world’s TV screens.  The use of chemical weapons by the Assad régime was a red line which, if crossed, the US and the UK had agreed would trigger an immediate and forceful reaction.  What happened?  In both countries opinion polls revealed convincing majorities opposed to involvement in the conflict. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, failed to get parliamentary approval to take military action, while President Obama dithered, announced he would seek congressional endorsement for a forceful response which, however, would not involve American boots touching Syrian soil.

            “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Into the breach stepped Russia, seizing a golden opportunity to take advantage of Western hesitancy.  Russia’s national interest had already dictated its support for Assad, a long-time ally, against the opposition that was seeking to depose him.  So Russia was able to act as a sort of honest broker, masterminding an agreement that resulted in Syria consenting to dispose of its chemical weapons stockpile and destroy its manufacturing facilities. In return, the US and its allies would refrain from military action in support of the rebels, and would leave Bashar Assad in power.

              There is reason to believe that Russia is also behind a deal, already drafted, in respect of the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran which, via the Hezbollah fighting force, is supporting Assad in the Syrian conflict.  The deal is constructed on the shaky foundations of Iran’s new soft-soap approach, by which the US and the West have allowed themselves to be seduced, preferring to be fooled rather than adopt more forceful methods of thwarting Iran. The result is that Iran will probably be left with sufficient nuclear capability to make a dash for nuclear weaponry whenever it chooses.

            Who now stands tall on the world stage following this intensive spate of diplomatic activity?  Russia, which has re-assumed the key role in the Middle East once held by the old USSR, when two super-powers straddled the globe.  The implications of this shift in the balance of power are beginning to emerge.

   On November 5 Russia announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would visit Moscow on November 20 for talks with President Vladimir Putin. It seems that the Israeli leader has decided to explore the route trodden by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Egypt who, feeling let down by Washington’s weak-kneed attitude towards Syria, Iran and Egypt’s interim government, turned to Moscow in search of closer diplomatic and military ties.

It is not all plain sailing. Mustafa Alani, of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, is reported in the Washington Post as believing that Saudi Arabia is deeply suspicious of Russia’s manoeuvring.  “The view is that Russia is looking at the whole problem in the Middle East from the old position of the Cold War,” he said. “They don’t have any principles. Their only policy is to counter the Americans.”

That is not the case, says Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-­based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Russian intentions in the region are rooted in many concerns, but foremost among them is Moscow’s determination “to emphasize Russia’s role in the world as an indispensable nation, especially vis-à-vis American helplessness to settle problems.”

A view strengthened by the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has made two trips to Moscow in the past year and none to Washington. His talks were focused on a $4 billion defence deal under which Russia will supply Iraq with a range of armaments, including fighter jets, which are expected to be delivered soon. Iraqi officials say they turned to Moscow only because they were frustrated by the slow pace of US arms deliveries at a time when the conflict in neighbouring Syria has heightened anxieties about Iraq’s stability.

Russia’s growing involvement in the Middle East turns also, and inevitably, on oil and gas.  Aware that if Europe were able to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, supply from the east Mediterranean would be the biggest threat, Moscow spent 2012 wooing Israel so as to buy into a piece of the action. The courtship was successful. On February 26, 2013 Russia’s Gazprom clinched a key deal to market Israeli liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Informed observers of the energy scene believe that the 20-year contract represents only the first step in Russia’s new Middle East energy game. Veteran observer M K Bhadrakumar designated the deal “an important milestone for strengthening Gazprom’s position in the global LNG market.”

Due to come online in 2017, the Tamar and Dalit offshore fields hold around nine trillion cubic feet of gas. A multi-billion dollar floating terminal is to be built near Cyprus to handle the conversion to LNG. It will also handle gas piped from the island’s own Aphrodite field – another seven trillion cubic feet. Apart from the potential of supplying Europe by pipeline, this deal offers Russia, already the global leader in LNG supply, a major role in exporting Mediterranean gas to the highly lucrative and burgeoning Asian market, including China, India and Japan.

But the Kremlin is playing a much bigger game. Gazprom has its sights set on a role in the development of Israel’s gigantic Leviathan gas field with its estimated 25 trillion cubic feet of gas.

At a stroke Russia has achieved a major role in eastern Mediterranean energy development – and by doing so, it has vastly enhanced its clout in the Middle East.  The economic, political and strategic value to Russia of its burgeoning energy partnership with Israel is so great that Moscow is highly unlikely to allow anything to jeopardize it.  How long will it be before the West realizes that the balance of power in the Middle East is shifting and that Russia has positioned itself to gain maximum advantage from its relationship with what has been termed “the Middle East’s coming energy superpower, Israel.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 10 November 2013: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 November 2013: 

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