By John Drennan, Special Assistant to the Executive Director, IISS-Americas
On 6 December, Donald Trump announced, in a major policy shift, that the United States would officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The president instructed the State Department to begin preparations to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv. Arab governments responded quickly, decrying the move as counterproductive to the peace process. Their people reacted violently, protesting the decision in cities across the region.
Analysis of the announcement’s effects on US diplomatic efforts and relationships in the Middle East ranges from gloomy to gloomier. In recent years Russia has sought to revive long-defunct links to the region, and decisions like Trump’s Jerusalem announcement will likely open more doors through which Moscow can extend its influence.
Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov registered the Kremlin’s concern, noting a rise in tensions since Trump’s announcement. He said: ‘We believe that this decision, at a minimum, does not immediately contribute to any progress toward a Middle East settlement, but on the contrary, as we see it, leads to a split among the international community.’ Putin also discussed the issue by telephone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On the same day, the Kremlin announced that Putin would travel to Turkey and Egypt on 11 December in order to meet with Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on a range of topics. Although it is unlikely that the Jerusalem announcement itself prompted the trip, the issue likely made the Turkish and Egyptian leaders more receptive to Russia’s outreach.
Russia plans expanded presence in Syria
In an unannounced stopover in Syria en route to Cairo, Putin met his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, and the commander of the Russian forces in Syria at the Russian air base in Hmeimim. The base – which Moscow leased from the Assad government for 49 years in January 2017 – has served as a hub for Russian operations in Syria, housing combat and support aircraft, air defence systems, and ground forces. In a speech laced with patriotic adulations, Putin thanked the troops for their service to the fatherland and announced (for the second time in under two years) that, mission accomplished, Russian forces would be partially withdrawn.
Though the overall Russian presence in Syria may be reduced, perhaps in favour of short-term rotations or to make way for a larger number of contractors, it is unlikely that Moscow intends to abandon its hard-fought military and political gains. Along with Hmeimim, Russia has also extended the lease on its naval facility at Tartus. Moscow plans to expand both facilities to allow for the deployment of more defence hardware. Russia is backing the beleaguered Syrian president, but is probably willing to see him replaced by another leader favourable to Russian interests.
Egypt and Turkey: major trade and defence deals
In Egypt, Putin and Sisi discussed political, economic and military issues. Sisi said the two leaders were in lock-step on a resolution to the Jerusalem issue: the US announcement was serious and dangerous, and the dispute should be solved on the basis of international law. Putin praised Sisi’s support of Russia’s Syrian National Dialogue Congress initiative, a plan to bring opposition groups together to discuss a settlement to the conflict. In a boost for tourism links, they announced the resumption of direct flights between the two countries – suspended after the downing of a Russian civilian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in 2015.
The pair also confirmed that Russia would build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, a deal estimated at US$30 billion, and that they made progress on a proposal for a Russian industrial zone in Egypt, projecting investment at US$7bn. They also likely considered a preliminary agreement on allowing Russian jets to use Egyptian airspace and access Egyptian bases. Although still notional, a formal deal would allow Russia greater military reach in the region – particularly in North Africa, where Moscow is closely monitoring developments in Libya – and alternative bases to those in Syria.
Putin’s meeting with Erdogan, the eighth this year, focused on a broad set of issues. The two discussed the effects of the Jerusalem announcement and efforts to find a settlement to the conflict in Syria. Putin highlighted a 36% increase in bilateral trade from January to September 2017, as well as efforts to further liberalise trade and expand energy cooperation. Perhaps most importantly, both noted deeper military cooperation and a planned sale of Russia’s advanced S-400 air defence system. Erdogan said: ‘I can say that the relevant agencies of our countries are expected to complete what needs to be done this week.’ Although the Turkish president has previously dismissed concerns about the purchase, NATO officials have said the presence of Russian systems would create ‘challenges’ for the alliance’s assets in the country.
Lack of cohesion in US policy allows room for Russian re-engagement
Trump’s Jerusalem announcement alone did not create the means for Russia’s deal making in the Middle East, but it has highlighted two countervailing trends: Moscow has hastened its efforts to re-engage with the region in recent years, while the US has been pulling out. Russia has demonstrated its interest in rebuilding ties, expanding economic cooperation, and projecting power – in Syria most notably – while taking advantage of opportunities to displace US influence.
Meanwhile, the US commitment to the region continues to be questioned. While this issue predated Trump’s presidency, self-inflicted wounds and a lack of coherent strategy have further damaged Washington’s ability to effect change in the region. Most notable is the hobbling of its diplomatic corps (the US currently lacks ambassadors to Turkey and Egypt, for instance, and there are widespread reports of low morale in the department).
A major policy shift like the Jerusalem announcement would be a difficult sell even with a US State Department operating at full capacity. Though Moscow is probably still a long way off from displacing Washington’s leadership role in the Middle East, sustained diplomatic bumbling will only give Washington’s competitors more opportunities to expand their influence.