Putin’s visit shows Russia’s return to the Middle East is about Tehran and Riyadh

It didn't move the needle on the Israel-Gaza war, but he did have important meetings in the Gulf

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Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin made a visit to the Gulf earlier this week, the US continues to be best placed to create peace in the Middle East, while preserving American, Arab, Israeli and global interests. Yet the biggest obstacle to this opportunity is Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinian people. This should be opposed unequivocally.

Shortly after his visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mr Putin hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow. There, Mr Putin is said to have urged his Iranian counterpart not to close the door to efforts to reach an agreement on Gaza. Mr Raisi agreed to Mr Putin’s request, marking a significant development.

However, reportedly, when Mr Putin asked Mr Raisi to reduce Iran’s support towards proxy groups in the region, his response was that this depended on Israel’s actions, particularly concerning Lebanon. In other words, Mr Raisi linked the activities of Iran’s network of non-state actors, from the Houthis in Yemen to the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, to Israel’s actions towards Hezbollah.

I am given to understand that Mr Raisi told Mr Putin that if Israel initiates a major attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran will not remain passive. But Mr Raisi also assured Mr Putin that Iran would not incite Hezbollah to take actions that could trigger retaliatory Israeli operations.

Mr Putin, meanwhile, sought Mr Raisi’s support for his efforts for greater reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He conveyed that he had discussed this matter with the Saudi leadership. While Russia would not attempt to replace China in sponsoring a Saudi-Iranian agreement, Beijing is currently preoccupied with its economic priorities.

The Russian President, it seems, would like to create a political coalition involving Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh, transforming the latter into partners of each other rather than adversaries and leading – as he might see it – to greater Saudi distance from the US. However, this may not necessarily align with Riyadh’s priorities.

Russia finds itself unable to confront Israel, and it cannot refrain from supporting Hamas either

Among Saudi priorities is the desire for Russia to convince Iran in restraining the destabilising activities of the Houthis, with the group provoking the US in the surrounding seas, undermining maritime security and freedom of navigation. Riyadh has also urged Washington to exercise patience and refrain from retaliation.

The Russian leadership assured the Iranian leadership of Moscow’s continued presence in Syria but made it clear that the primary responsibility lies with Tehran to ensure mutual interests there, namely the continuation of Bashar Al Assad’s presidency, while preventing conflict between Syria and Israel. Russia committed to providing Iran with all military assistance.

What about Russia’s role in Gaza? The reality is that Moscow’s positions vis-a-vis Israel and Hamas are uncomfortable, posing a dilemma for it – a new and unconventional development in its role in the Middle East that could constrain its options.

Russia finds itself unable to confront Israel, and it cannot refrain from supporting Hamas either. Therefore, it is unable to offer anything substantial to shift the Gaza issue to a new stage, but it can create the appearance of making a comeback in the Middle East, not necessarily through the Palestinian issue but rather in the Iranian-Arab-Israeli context.

There are those in Russia who appear to believe that Palestine’s future could lie in the hands of Hamas, contingent upon the decisions and fate of its military wing. According to Russia’s perspective, should Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas exit power due to deteriorating health, the West Bank could fall under Hamas control. Russia estimates that Fatah is weakened considerably, prompting the need for serious consideration regarding Palestine’s future without Mr Abbas.

If this Russian assessment proves correct, the question is how Israel might exploit the subsequent changes to serve its own interests.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to issue public criticisms against Israeli behaviour inside the Palestinian occupied territories, yet with minimal corresponding actions. Indeed, the US acts as if its hands are tied. Despite efforts from key figures in the Biden administration to exert political pressure, the continuous flow of military support to Israel makes the latter even more defiant against Washington, which is undermining its strategic and moral leadership as evident from the US refusal to allow the UN Security Council to address the Gaza issue.

The US will lose the initiative if it does not act promptly to assert with determination, wisdom and courage that the deadlines and ethical boundaries for Israeli operations in Gaza represent a serious US policy.

The Israeli military and national security considerations find understanding in Russia, not just in the US. This marks a turning point in Israeli military operations to demonstrate decisive strength to destroy Hamas’s military wing and subdue Gaza entirely if Hamas refuses to surrender.

Israel’s message to Hamas and its supporters is that this is an opportunity for the group to release all hostages, end its rule in Gaza, and allow for a new Palestinian leadership there. This, in Israel’s view, is how Hamas saves itself from complete destruction and saves Gaza from utter devastation.

Yet American and European understanding of this Israeli logic within the equations of war does not negate western leniency towards Israel’s violations of international law, the rules of war, and duties to protect civilians in an open-ended war. This serious slip jeopardises international security and peace, pushing the Biden administration off any moral high ground and robbing it of any initiative.

Mr Putin understands the calculations and timelines of US elections. By mid-January 2024, the US will enter into a new election cycle, redirecting its priorities towards domestic issues. This could present an opportunity for Mr Putin to restore his international standing and reassert himself as a global player.

America remains a superpower, of course, capable of reclaiming the initiative to safeguard its strategic interests. The Gaza war has reshaped all norms, underscoring the necessity of forging a mature relationship between the US and Israel – and one that is not built on reckless adventures and the whims of Israel.

Published: December 10, 2023, 2:00 PM