The rush of regional and international developments in the final months of the past year began to forge a new map of alliances in the region, generating a Middle East unlike the one that Washington envisioned when it began to implement a plan designed to tighten its control over the region by fragmenting it and leveraging Islamist groups into power. Just as 2015 concluded with the blow to the American scheme delivered by Russian intervention in Syria, which dramatically altered the balances of forces on the ground and breathed new life into a moribund Syrian negotiating process, 2016 drew to a close with no less significant changes that are shaping a Middle East in which there is no place for extremism and terrorism. This process is being spearheaded by Russia whose strong and increasing military and political presence are helping to steer the region towards stability after years of the uncreative chaos that continues to wreak its destruction and far-reaching anguish.
Despite some breaches, the Russian-Turkish comprehensive ceasefire agreement for Syria, which went into effect on midnight, 29 December, marks a turning point in the Syrian crisis in two respects. Firstly, it ended the Russia-Iran versus Turkey-US polarisation that had long impeded a breakthrough. This is largely due to Moscow’s ability to convince Ankara, the chief political and military supporter of the opposition groups and militias in Syria, to shift its positions enough to reach an understanding with the Russia-Iran axis. Secondly, this is the first time that the militant Syrian opposition groups, of which seven signed the truce accord, were officially distinguished from the terrorist groups that the agreement identified as Daesh and Fatah Al-Sham (Syria Conquest, formerly Al-Nusra Front) and groups collaborating with them. The terrorist groups are exempted from the truce so that the fight against them can continue until they are routed and eliminated entirely.
The peace negotiations that are scheduled to be held between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition factions in Astana, Kazakhstan, this month, and the frameworks for which are currently being worked out by Russia and Turkey, will mark another qualitative step towards a solution to the Syrian crisis and the realisation of relative stability for Syria and the rest of this region. This is not to suggest that there will not be some major hurdles to overcome, above all Turkish opposition to the participation of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the peace talks and the declaration of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria in the cantons under Kurdish control in the north (Afrin, Jazira and Kobane). Both the government in Damascus and the opposition Syrian National Coalition reject this step taken by the Syrian Kurds.
Another significant development was the recent communication between Turkish President Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, which promises to alleviate the tension between the two countries and support Turkish understandings with Russia and Iran.
Undoubtedly these important developments will bolster Russian-Turkish cooperation, making Russia the only great power to maintain strategic and cooperative relations with the three non-Arab countries in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran and Israel. Naturally, this will enhance Moscow’s ability to steer regional developments or at least to have a powerful influence over them.
Moscow and Tehran have been working for some time to strengthen their strategic partnership. During President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran in November 2015 on the occasion of the third summit of the Gas Exporting Nations Forum, officials from the two sides met bilaterally on the sidelines of that event and reaffirmed their continuing cooperation in the field of nuclear energy and the construction of new nuclear power stations in Iran. Also during that visit, Putin’s first to Tehran since 2007, the two sides signed seven agreements and memorandums of understanding on cooperation in energy and other domains. Then, in June 2016, a tripartite meeting was held in Tehran between the Iranian, Russian and Syrian defence ministers for the purposes of coordinating in the fight against terrorism and in operations towards this end in Syria. In August, Russian TU-22M strategic bombers and SU-34 jet fighters took off from the Hamedan Air Base in Iran in order to strike Daesh and Al-Nusra Front locations in the vicinities of Aleppo, Deir Al-Zor and Idlib. This was the first time that Russia used a third country as a base for launching raids against terrorist targets in Syria.
Russia’s good relations and open communication channels with Israel are also well known. In a visit to Israel in June 2012, President Putin succeeded in reviving warmth in that bilateral relationship after a period of relative cool. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has undertaken several visits to Moscow since then. The most recent, in June 2016, was the second in the space of a month and a half and coincided with the 25th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In their meetings, the Russian and Israeli officials focussed on cooperation in the fight against terrorism and matters of co-ordination with regard to Russian operations in Syria, subjects that the two sides explored further during Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev’s visit to Israel in November 2016.
As tensions in the Russian-US relationship ease off after Trump is sworn into office on 20 January and the two sides reach some hope for understandings and agreements on Syria and other issues in the Middle East and elsewhere, the map of regional alliances will be redrawn. But what role will the Arabs play in all of this? Clearly, the Arabs need to start studying the regional and international developments that are unfolding and coordinate over the most effective ways to respond to them.