Russia seeks to straddle Sunni-Shi'ite divide

This new attempt at creating a strong presence in the Middle East will begins with Putin's current visit to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar.

By YANIV SALAMA-SCHEER
February 11, 2007 23:43
2 minute read.
Russia seeks to straddle Sunni-Shi'ite divide

Putin 298 88 ap. (photo credit: AP [file])

Russian President Vladimir Putin has embarked on a diplomatic blitz aimed at maintaining Russia's relationships with the Shi'ite world, while at the same time recruiting Sunni governments for a Russo-Arab alliance, according to Israeli experts. Such a relationship with both Muslim camps is an asset that the Americans do not have, and would put the Russians at the head of Middle Eastern mediation. If the Russians are able to assert themselves as the agent of dialogue in respect to both Shi'ites and the Sunnis, they might be able to dispel the growing concern among Sunnis concerning a Shi'ite takeover. This concern was previously voiced by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who said that "all Shi'ites are loyal to Iran while the countries they live in are not." Outside Iran and Iraq, Sunnis dominate the Middle East politically and demographically, while there is a significant Shi'ite presence in countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who are allies of the West. This new attempt at creating a strong presence in the Middle East will begins with Putin's current visit to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. Ahead of his arrival in Riyadh, Saudi officials and media described Putin's visit as historic, highlighting Moscow's clout as a UN Security Council member, one of the so-called Quartet members and a significant player in the oil and gas market. The visit is being described as a coming-out party for the Kremlin's influence in the Middle East. Zvi Magen, director of the Institute for Eurasian Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and a former ambassador to Russia, believes the trip is a reflection of Putin's new "assertive position" regarding foreign affairs. The Russians are trying to put themselves in a unique position that would give them a clear advantage over the other players on the Middle East, he suggested. Gaining such an advantage over the Americans is one of Putin's key objectives. According to Eyal Zisser, the head of the Middle Eastern and African History Department at Tel Aviv University, Middle East peace is not the Kremlin's goal, but securing its own interests. Russia is playing a negative role in the region through its arms dealing, he said, providing Syria and Iran with weapons that go to Hizbullah. Zisser believes that nothing good can come out of the Russian-Saudi meeting because the two countries have diametrically opposed interests, with the Saudis interested in peace and stability in the Middle East while the Russians are not. Russia is willing to support the extremist regimes in the Middle East, including Hamas whose representatives were invited to Moscow. These alliances and policies pose a real problem for Israel and for the US, because only a real and effective peace agreement supported by the US, Europe and Russia can keep the Palestinians away from Iran.


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