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Putin: Anti-Russia hysteria growing in US

Story highlights

It wasn't that long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were at war in Afghanistan

Russia's Putin is positioning himself as the lynchpin of the Middle East

CNN  — 

When Donald Trump took the oath of office in January there were great expectations among many of America’s allies in the Middle East that he would be an improvement on his predecessor, someone they’d felt had gone from showing them tepid support to middling neglect.

President Barack Obama had famously “pivoted to Asia” during his time in office, shifting his focus and American resources to beefing up US presence in the Pacific to counter an ever-rising China.

Obama’s actions in office, from choosing to side with the Egyptian people over long-time ally President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, to the US response to state-sponsored atrocities in the Syrian conflict and the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, have all contributed to a growing unease among many US allies in the Middle East.

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“For years now, there has been a perception in the Gulf that the US is retreating from the kind of commitment that it had to Gulf security when it liberated Kuwait from the invasion by Iraq,” said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

Obama, she said, “made it pretty clear he didn’t much like the Gulf monarchs. Now Trump has come in, and he’s embraced them, he’s promised arms sales, but there’s still a sense of the ‘America first’ rhetoric, that the US will be in the Gulf as long as it’s seen as being in its own interest.”

To be sure, there have been some attempts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to resolve the crisis between Qatar and the other Gulf states. Trump’s son-in-law and presidential adviser Jared Kushner has focused on the Israel-Palestinian conflict among other regional issues.

The administration has been slow to appoint ambassadors. A recent New York Times report outlined the scale of the exodus of experienced diplomats from the State Department since Rex Tillerson moved in, and the hiring of new capable foreign service officers has lagged.

Tillerson’s mandate over a thinning State Department is further confused by what many Democrats and even some Republicans call mixed signals and contradictory tweets coming out of the White House.

Putin’s Middle East outreach

The Gulf nations, Kinninmont says, realized that when it came to allies, they needed to branch out. Enter, Russia.

“They’re hedging their bets with Moscow,” said Mohamad Bazzi, associate professor of journalism at New York University and former adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. That was exemplified, he says, by the visit in October by Saudi King Salman to Russia, where he rode down a golden escalator and reviewed an honor guard after landing.

The importance of the visit cannot be overstated, says Bazzi.

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“This is the first sitting Saudi monarch to visit Moscow, and it wasn’t that long ago, two decades ago when Saudis were pumping money into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union,” Bazzi told CNN. “It didn’t get the kind of attention it deserved in the US, and I don’t think the Saudis are switching allegiances, it’s just smart foreign policy by them and by Putin, who is really positioning himself as the lynchpin of the Middle East.”

Putin, who was in Turkey last month and has a good working relationship with Iran, appears to have better standing in the region now than President Trump. “The regional players are looking to Putin to either take their side or help them or be involved (in major conflicts in the region), because of this vacuum that’s being left by this confused US policy,” said Bazzi.

Frayed relations with Ankara

While some world leaders are quietly making connections with other leaders and diplomats, other are becoming increasingly disaffected with the US.

Turkey’s relationship with the US has degenerated in recent years. Earlier this month the US banned Turkish tourists, students, diplomats and journalists from applying for visas to visit what is a NATO ally. Hours after the announcement Turkey imposed a ban of its own. Iranians and Russians remain free to enter Turkish borders without a visa.

President Obama had considered Turkish leader Tayyip Recep Erdogan a political reformer when the new president made Turkey the first Muslim country on his list to visit. “I’m trying to make a statement about the importance of Turkey,” he said at the time, hoping that Washington and Ankara could “build a model partnership.”

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting at the White House on December 7, 2009.

But in the years since, Erdogan has assumed sweeping new powers, and, critics say, steadily increased the trappings of dictatorship. A failed coup in July 2016 sent him on a purging spree, cracking down on dissent, arresting opponents military and otherwise, and firing over 150,000 government employees.

Tellingly, it was Russia’s Vladimir Putin who was among the first world leaders to call and offer his support to Erdogan in the days after the botched coup, a fact Erdogan couldn’t help but compare to the lack of response from the US and much of Europe.

“Both Russia and Iran rushed to support Erdogan, saying they believed in an elected government, and so his attitude to them has become quite a bit more favorable since,” said Kinninmont.

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Erdogan, who is essentially using his geographical position as gatekeeper to Europe to demand billions of dollars to stem the flow of refugees into the continent, managed to move beyond his estrangement with Putin over the Turks’ downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, part of the Kremlin’s push to keep in power Syria’s Assad, a man Erdogan wanted gone.

During his meetings in Turkey with Erdogan, the two focused on issues dear to Erdogan’s heart: the Kurdish referendum across his border, the separatist Kurdish attacks at home, and the resolution of the Syrian conflict. Putin, who’d initiated negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan for a settlement to the Syrian war, brought together Turkey and Iran – who had opposing aims in the conflict – together to uphold a ceasefire. A US State Department official represented the US at the Astana talks, which some diplomats have described as Putin’s attempt to undermine other peace talks taking place in Geneva, Switzerland.

The message behind Putin’s most recent visit to Ankara was clear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on May 3, 2017.

“While Americans ignore Turkey, we respect the Turkish position,” said Dmitry Savelyev, a Russian parliamentarian who coordinates a joint Russian-Turkish dialogue. He added that Turkey was welcome to join the Eurasian Economic Union, a jab at the dwindling expectations that Turkey would ever become a member of the European Union.

“It is stunning that Russia has been able to make itself seen as such a player in the region by basically underwriting a brutal dictator who most regional governments and publics oppose,” said Kinninmont. “But it would be inaccurate to suggest that the region is turning towards Russia. The region is still very much more interested in the US. It’s more a signal that all the regional powers are trying to diversify their alliances and not be 100% dependent on the US in the way they were for the last 20 or 30 years.”

America’s retreat from the Middle East

The American exodus began largely under President George W. Bush after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorated prospects for positive US intervention in the region, but went into full swing under Obama. There were problems there the US shouldn’t be expected to intervene in, Obama argued in an interview with The Atlantic last year. He added that the Saudis needed to “share” the Middle East with Iran.

President George W. Bush poses with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud during a summit in Washington, DC in 2008.

“The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians – which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen – requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” Obama said at the time. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own, or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

“They [the Gulf countries] never really quite got over that,” said Bazzi, of Obama’s decision to pursue the Iran nuclear deal and dial back US involvement in the Middle East. “I think most of the Gulf got fixated on the idea that Obama chose Iran over them.”

Countering Iranian intervention

To the Gulf countries, Iran’s fingers were in every simmering pot across the region. The Gulf funded and equipped rebels to fight Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime forces which were propped up by Iranian arms and troops, it formed a coalition that pulverized much of Yemen in the war against Iran-supported rebels who’d ousted the Saudi-allied government in the capital Sana’a, and Iranian weapons, funds and fighters deluged the ranks of Iraqi security forces responsible for much of the sectarian conflict in once Sunni-led Iraq.

After that, Bazzi says, the Gulf countries began to do things to show their unhappiness with Washington, like skip major summits Obama was holding, or send subordinates instead.

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“He got snubbed. They would do these symbolic things, he wasn’t invited to one of the last Gulf summits [of his presidency]. The king didn’t even go meet him at the airport,” Bazzi noted of President Obama’s April 2016 visit to Riyadh for a separate summit with Gulf leaders. “Compare that to the reception Trump got. It was one indication of how upset they were with Obama.”

President Trump was met with incredible fanfare from the Saudi kingdom when he arrived in the country in May this year for his first foreign trip as president. There was a red carpet and a personal welcome by King Salman, a military flyover and a brass band.

“To Trump it was spectacular because it was how he thought he would be treated. One has to give the Saudis credit for that, for reading him correctly,” Bazzi said. “It worked.”

The positive vibes though, were temporary, argues Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen and principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

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“We’re now nine months into the new administration and yet I think that despite the very strong rhetoric that we see coming out of the new administration … they haven’t actually done very much to make people feel as though there’s any real policy behind the rhetoric,” he said.

“If you look at Syria, where the Trump administration has made a decision not even to do as much as Obama did in support of the Syrian opposition but to basically yield and to accept that Iran has won Syria, those things I think are being looked at in the Gulf, and I would say that the Gulf states pragmatically are making a decision that they need to broaden their policy and that they need to work on building solid relationships with governments that in the past they didn’t really have much to do with.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 30, 2017.

Putin may be struggling economically at home, but he stands to gain much in reciprocity for his outreach. There are energy contracts with the Gulf nations, and the supply of missiles to Turkey, among other deals. And there are the optics too.

“The Russians do want to be seen internationally as a soft power,” says Kinninmont. “They want their public at home to think that Russia is a respected and important player overseas, and not simply the loser of the Cold War.”