Russia’s role in the Middle East

Like Jerusalem, Moscow was dismayed by the fall of stable, albeit undemocratic, regimes during the Arab Spring.

June 28, 2019 08:00
Russia’s role in the Middle East

The writer on the Syria-Iraq border, entering villages that have just been abandoned by Islamic State fighters. (photo credit: PAULA SLIER)

The Russian ambassador to Israel extended his hand.

“Happy to meet you,” he said in Russian.

I smiled and answered in English.

“I apologize sir, but I don’t speak Russian,” I grinned back.

Perplexed, he peered over the top of his dark-rimmed glasses.

“You are the Middle East bureau chief for RT, Russia Today television, are you not?” he queried.

I nodded.

“And you don’t speak Russian?” he asked in bewilderment.

I nodded again, thinking it best not to profess to the eight words of Russian I knew quite well, thanks to the various Russian cameramen I’d worked with over the years. Not one should be uttered in polite company!

For the umpteenth time I promised myself I was going to learn Russian.

Not that this was the career path I’d planned, mind you. I had cut my teeth in journalism on the tip of the African continent to where my Belarussian grandmother had arrived as a child. I learned precious little about the Soviet Union growing up in South Africa during the ’80s. My knowledge extended no further than the occasional school drill during which we were ordered to hide under our desks while an imaginary Red Army attacked us. When we misbehaved, my mother would threaten to send us to Siberia, which, although I had no idea where it was, I understood was a place that people never returned from. Dinner time was the admonishment to eat the food on my plate because children in the Soviet Union were starving. Later, a Russian colleague professed he’d grown up with the same refrain – except in his case it was the children in Africa who were hungry.

So when, many years on, I arrived for a job interview with RT, a channel set up precisely to counter these myths and misconceptions and present the Russian view of events, I was concerned that my knowledge of the motherland would reveal itself to be somewhat lacking. Thinking it would impress my soon-to-become boss, no sooner had we said our hellos then I blurted out, “My grandmother comes from Russia.”

He smiled.

“Everyone has a grandmother who comes from Russia,” he observed. “That’s not going to help you get the job!”

Fast forward one year. I’m on the roof of an abandoned building somewhere on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Tulkarm in the West Bank.

“I only agreed to meet with you because you’re with Russian television,” murmurs the mid-thirties fighter sitting opposite me with a keffiyeh wrapped around his face and a Kalashnikov resting against his right knee.

“If the Israelis find me, they’ll blow this whole place apart,” he confesses, glancing up at the quiet night sky.

A fighter with the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the so-called armed wing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, he was on an Israeli wanted list.

Moscow has courted controversy in not regarding this fighting unit, and more importantly Hamas, as terrorist organizations. The latter paid an official visit to the Russian capital in 2006 after winning Palestinian legislative elections and receiving its first invitation to travel abroad from Moscow.

The Russian government views Hamas as a legitimate political force that should be involved in the search for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It believes that in labeling Hamas a terrorist group, that process is undermined.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated on numerous occasions that until the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians is resolved, stability in the region cannot be achieved. He is adamant that US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is the wrong way to go about it.

“We are ready to talk with Israel without any conditions... as long as the invitation comes from [Russian] President Putin, as long as President Putin is the host,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Maliki told Russia’s Sputnik news agency recently.

With the Palestinians no longer regarding Washington as an honest broker and insisting they’ll reject the Trump plan if it does not offer them statehood (which it reportedly doesn’t), Russia is uniquely placed to mediate between the sides. It holds credibility with the Palestinian and Arab world, and has close ties with Israel whom it regards as an important, geopolitical partner that is home to 1.5 million people from the former Soviet Union.

As such, Moscow has stepped up efforts to become involved in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, offering on several occasions to host a meeting, without any preconditions, between the sides. Palestinians are confident Russia will put Jerusalem back on the table.

In the meantime, according to the Palestinian ambassador to Russia, Abdel Hafiz Nofal, Moscow is coordinating with the European Union to present a different vision for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process “based on international legitimacy” and “an alternative” to Trump’s plan.

While Russia’s relationship with Hamas no doubt angers Israel, there are more pressing issues for the two countries to concern themselves with.

Flashback. It is 2013. Homs, Syria.

I’m with Bassem, a soldier who before the conflict was a school art teacher. He has since swapped his paintbrush for a Kalashnikov, and looks very much at home with it hanging across his chest.

We’re meandering our way in and out of rubble that was once his country’s third largest city.

“I was teaching when a mortar shell landed in the school yard,” the 29-year-old Syrian sharpshooter tells me. His long black beard covers most of his face, and he’s wearing the fatigues of the Syrian army.

“There were a lot of victims… I remember holding one little girl and I felt so sorry for her family. From then on I knew I had to get involved.”

We’re navigating our way through a so-called ‘sniper valley’ – one of the many frontlines in a war that has torn Syria apart. We’re climbing in and out of apartment walls that have been blasted away in fighting or deliberately by soldiers wanting to move throughout the city without being detected by those lying on rooftops, rifle at the ready.

We’re now in a family’s living room, and all around us are clothes and furniture strewn across the floor. The ceiling is covered with Islamic State graffiti and the remains of what appears to have been a mortar shell.

I move to the family kitchen and on the wall a clock still ticks…

When it’s time to leave, Bassem gives me a wooden cross to remember him and his comrades.

“Pray for us,” he pleads sadly. “Most of us will probably not make it out of here alive. We want the Russians to get involved because if not, we will lose this war.”

Two years later, at the end of September 2015, after an official request by the Syrian government for military aid against rebel groups, the Russian army enters the fray.

Unlike the involvement of the United States and her allies in the country, Moscow’s legitimacy comes in the form of an invitation from long-time ally Syrian President Bashar Assad. This is an important pillar of Russian foreign policy – to support the sovereignty and independence of countries (she justifies her actions elsewhere by arguing that a referendum in Crimea saw more than 95% of the population vote to join Russia and in Eastern Ukraine, the citizens were ethnic, Russian speakers).

Moscow’s support of Assad even when the global community was against him strengthened her reputation as a reliable and consistent partner among Arab countries who were quick to contrast how the West betrayed her former allies like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

One thing is clear: Russia is in Syria to stay. Her naval base in the port of Tartus is the only one she has in the Mediterranean Sea, and through it Russian vessels can reach the Red Sea (through the Suez Canal) and then the ocean. Three years ago Moscow and Damascus signed a 49-year agreement that allows nuclear-powered Russian warships to operate from there.

In the same way Moscow is uniquely positioned to play a role between the Palestinians and Israelis, so too can she mediate between Israel and Iran in the shadow war playing out between them on Syrian soil.

For Moscow, it is not mutually exclusive to maintain ties with both these countries, as part of her regional strategy to foster relations with all players. For the past four years she has maneuvered delicately and observed the deconfliction mechanisms with Israel that include a hotline between the two militaries. Moscow will try, at all costs, to avoid being forced to choose a side. It’s a challenge – but also an opportunity.

But Iran has no plan to release its grip on Syria, and Israel will do whatever it deems necessary to eject Iranian forces from the country. So while the Russian presence across her northern border puts constraints on the Israel Air Force, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes Putin will restrain Iranian influence in Syria and even help get Iranian forces out of the country.

The Syrian government’s control in the last remaining area of resistance – the country’s western part – seems imminent. Once secured, postwar reconstruction, likely to be controlled by Russia with assistance from the United States and other allies, will begin.
Flashback. It is 2014. Syria-Iraq border.

“It’s that we couldn’t save our women and children,” the commander tells me through a sad, vacant smile. “That’s the worst part.”
The stories echo through the refugee camps, which are eerily empty of women and where a heavy cloud of shame has descended. As is their practice, the jihadists always kill the men and then force the women and children onto buses where they are sold as sex slaves at local markets for a few hundred dollars. The younger women get the best bidding price.

Amira is 27 years old. Her blue eyes and acne-scarred skin are hidden in a green shawl as she whispers to me her sister’s fate. We’re sitting on the hard sand, holding hands as the sun burns through cracks in the tent. Three weeks earlier her sister was taken hostage.

“She managed to phone me and tell me the terrible things they were doing to her,” she sobs, tears falling onto our hands.
“And so I told her to kill herself.”

Here the interview stops. Through mangled gasps, Amira asks me what kind of sister tells her sister to kill herself.
Only Turkey separates Russia from Syria. At one stage as many as 7,000 Russian nationals were fighting in the ranks of Islamic State and other jihadist groups. Moscow has a long history of fighting Chechen terror, and many of those who fought against Assad in Syria were Chechens. The fear was that they’d return to Russia.

Like Jerusalem, Moscow was dismayed by the fall of stable, albeit undemocratic, regimes during the Arab Spring. The vacuum they left, exacerbated by an American withdrawal from the region that began with former US president Barack Obama and continues with a largely incoherent foreign policy under his successor, Donald Trump, allowed extremist groups to come to the fore.

Moscow believes democracy should not be promoted as the solution to all the problems in the Middle East, and people on the ground should decide what they want. Not since the early 1970s – when Russia was already a diminishing force – has the country been as significant a diplomatic player in the Middle East as she is now.

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