Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the process of reviving a tradition of Russian Church-State diplomacy in the Middle East that may hold the key to successfully solving the Syrian and Iranian crises.   In the course of these efforts, Russia is also in the process of greatly enhancing its power projection in the region and reopening large-scale arms sales to countries that been outside Russian reach since the fall of Nasser.  The Russian footprint in the Near East has greatly expanded.   After brokering the Syria chemical weapons deal and helping to enforce strict adherence by the Assad government, President Putin is pressing for the convening of a Geneva II conference to solve the real Syria crisis.  On Sunday, November 10, Putin initiated a telephone call with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.  While details of the phone conversation have been kept secret, it was notable that the very next day, the Saudi-linked head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba announced that the group's leadership had agreed to participate in the Geneva II meeting without the precondition that Assad leave power.    

Simultaneous to the Putin-Abdullah talks, Russian foreign minister Lavrov and defense minister Shoigu made an historic visit to Cairo, where they reached a series of agreements, including a $2 billion arms sale which will be paid by Saudi Arabia.  In Cairo, Lavrov gave a defacto endorsement to the "non-coup" that took place in July with the ouster of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power. 

As Lavrov and Shoigu were meeting with their Egyptian counterparts and Gen. al-Sissi, the foreign affairs director of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, was in Beirut and Vatican City, promoting a joint Russian Orthodox-Catholic protection of the Christians living in the Levant. On November 25, President Putin will be in Rome to meet personally with Pope Francis I.  

All of these Russian diplomatic manuevers have a common objective:  to expand Russia's political, military and economic clout in the region, while helping to bring about an added degree of stability in the most volatile region in the world.  Russia has given Washington the lead role in pursuing the P5+1 agenda with Iran, given the apparent rapport that has developed between secretary of state Kerry and foreign minister Zarif.  Lavrov has recently praised Kerry's tireless work in pursuit of an interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1.  We could see the makings of a new arrangement among leading powers to bring a modicum of stability to the Persian Gulf and Near East.  

For President Obama, this would be a welcome relief from the collapse of his presidency into lame duck status or worse.  It burned him badly that Forbes magazine this week declared President Putin of Russia to be the most powerful leader in the world, with Obama coming in a very weak second.  But so what.

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  1. Walrus says:

    Time to get all of the old Russia specialists out of retirement – the ones who played and won “the great game” against the USSR.

  2. Is a “warm water” port still a driver for Russian FP or is it just oil politics?

  3. kao_hsien_chih says:

    It’s not clear to me bringing back the old USSR hands is the best idea.
    The New Russia (TM) bears the resemblance to the old USSR, but it isn’t. Its leaders seem to be much more aware that it is no longer a superpower and needs deft diplomacy to advance its interests much more than the threat of force. It is not an intractable opponent of US, or indeed, anyone else. It is willing to cut deals and cooperate if it suits their interests, certainly a lot more than USSR did. I’d say this Russia bears a lot of resemblance to the Russian Empire after the Crimean War. The one man who could play that Russia well was Otto von Bismarck. I don’t know if there is anyone in the West who can play a Bismarck in this day and age–or, indeed, if a Bismarck can emerge in the West (of today, at any rate.)

  4. Alba Etie says:

    Would Russian resurgence in the long run in the Near East & SW Asia not be a fundamental stabilizing force for the Levant ? In my inexpert opinion it would be – especially if protected Minority interest in the region .

  5. If this account of what the Saudis have been doing is accurate, does it suggest that people with clout in Riyadh have realised that letting Bandar loose was not necessarily the brightest of ideas? Or perhaps that he himself has, as it were, sobered up a little?

  6. On Saudi policy, an interesting account appeared in this morning’s Sunday Times, suggesting that the country may be willing to cooperate in an Israeli attack on Iran. The full text is behind a paywall, but the opening paragraphs are available:
    ‘ONCE they were sworn enemies. Now Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is working with Saudi officials on contingency plans for a possible attack on Iran if its nuclear programme is not significantly curbed in a deal that could be signed in Geneva this week.
    ‘Both the Israeli and Saudi governments are convinced that the international talks to place limits on Tehran’s military nuclear development amount to appeasement and will do little to slow its development of a nuclear warhead.
    ‘As part of the growing co-operation, Riyadh is understood already to have given the go-ahead for Israeli planes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran.’
    (See http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1341561.ece?CMP=OTH-gnws-standard-2013_11_16 )
    The report was picked up in the ‘Times of Israel’, among other places.
    (See http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-said-to-be-working-with-saudi-arabia-on-iran-strike-plan/ )
    Obviously, it would be unwise in the extreme to assume that the ‘Sunday Times’ report is accurate. The Murdoch papers have a history of being used for disinformation, not least from Mossad. And one can see how this kind of disinformation, at this point, might make sense as a means of trying to influencing the upcoming talks on Iran’s nuclear programme.
    However, it seems to me interesting to ponder whether there is any inherent tension between this report, and the suggestions of some kind of Saudi-Russian cooperation contained in this fascinating report by ‘Harper’.

  7. The beaver says:

    I saw this in the Globe & Mail yesterday:
    It’s about the billionnaire nephew of the current king of KSA:
    [quote]“It is a pivot moment for any oil-producing country that has not diversified,” he says. “Ninety-two per cent of Saudi Arabia’s annual budget comes from oil. Definitely it is a worry and a concern.”
    Does Saudi Arabia get it?
    “I will make them get it; there is no doubt about that. I’ll make them get it. It is matter of survival. There is no choice but to get it. I will keep pushing until they do.
    “The majority of Saudi Arabians get it. We will mobilize the media; mobilize the people to put maximum pressure on the government to do things to rectify the problem.”[/end of quote]
    This is an example of the dividing line between the younger crowd of the 3000+ princes and princesses versus the sons or sons of sons (like Bandar) in line for the throne. It seems that even the gent feminine, those who were/are lucky to go west for their university studies are quietly trying to change the views of the old guards

  8. Charles I says:

    I’m not going to look for cites but do recall seeing the agreement of Saudi air space noted in the press – or maybe it was here, many, many months ago during a previous rev up in, er, urgency.

  9. LeaNder says:

    A surprisingly optimist post by Harper.
    “Rome, Italy, Nov 11, 2013 / 03:48 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 25 at the Vatican, according to the director of the Holy See’s Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi…
    The first meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian president comes after the Holy Father sent Putin a letter on Sept. 5, at the opening of the G-20 summit, calling on the group’s leaders to set aside the “useless” search for a military solution to the conflict in Syria and to pursue a peaceful resolution through dialogue and negotiation.”

  10. zanzibar says:

    I suppose this is about the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I wonder when the House of Saud will experience blowback for all their covert & overt interventions around the world that have caused so much grief to innocent bystanders.
    On another thread you raised a very important question regarding the loyalty of Jews. It would truly be tragic to the many contributions Jews have made to their native lands, some of which you noted, if in many countries in the west, the people conclude that the loyalty of the Jews is to Israel and consequently their views & actions become suspect.
    The many Israeli technology entrepreneurs that I have invested in the past have emigrated, as they no longer feel they “belong” there. That to me says how far Israeli society has evolved.

  11. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The Cold War against Iran will continue; there is no strategic re-assessment as far as I can tell.

  12. LeaNder says:

    should I have called it cynical not optimist?
    “The Obama administration last month suspended some military aid to Egypt, including US$260 million in cash and deliveries of F-16 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks in an effort to prod the North African country toward democracy. Egypt’s army ousted President Mohamed Mursi in July, leading to clashes between security forces and Mursi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood that have left more than 1,000 people dead. …
    Egyptian officials are seeking financing from an unidentified Persian Gulf country to buy as much as US$4 billion of Russian arms, Palestinian newspaper Dunia al-Watan reported Nov. 6, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged at least US$12 billion to Egypt’s new government.”
    With William R. Polk’s Understanding Syria in mind, what could an agreement between Sad(d)ad regime and the insurance look like?

  13. Charles I says:

    Let us recall this has been going on domestically with the already well penetrated Russian Orthodox Church since Putin’s accession.

  14. Probably should have mentioned that even today Russia is the Russian Federation with 82 components. Few in the USA FP can name even 1/2 of the 82! See Wikipedia!

  15. Harper says:

    I reply to several thoughtful comments. First, I agree that a Bismark in the West would be a most desirable partner to work with Russia to stabilize some of the hot spots that could trigger a larger war. Clearly Obama is no Bismark, but General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while not an elected politician, has played a crucial role in boosting US-Russian and US-Chinese cooperation on some of these crisis spots. He famously said that he is committed to the idea that the US and China can avoid the “Thucydides Trap” of inevitable conflict between contending rising and declining powers. Bravo to him! I call your attention to a fascinating article in the first edition of a Politico magazine by Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official early in the Obama Administration, called “Obama versus the Generals.”
    As was demonstrated with the Syria chemical weapons deal, which averted a US strike on Syria and the prospect of a larger regional war or worse, the Russians can be a force for stability, which transcends their immediate interests in warm water access, arms sales, etc.
    I do not believe that Bandar is in any way softening his profile, but I do believe that his time is running out as a major provocateur of regional conflict. The opening of direct dialogue between Putin and King Abdullah, following Bandar’s own bungled visit to Moscow a month or so back, is one indication. A Daily Beast profile of “Bandar Gatsby” by Christopher Dickey paints a picture of Bandar falling from grace after failure after failure in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. Worth reading.

  16. Tony says:

    I highly doubt Saudis are that dumb to let Israelis use their airspace to invade Iran, then again I can be wrong. The consequence of such Saudi action would certainly be a catastrophic regional war.

  17. different clue says:

    I wonder if this was released by someone on the inside in order to generate counterpressure against the governments of I and KSA to drop that plan.

  18. Norbert M Salamon says:

    There was another story, that President Putin has called King Abdullah, and there is some change in the policy of some “rebels” in Syria.

  19. LeaNder says:

    Insurance???? How did that get there, the rebel forces. I guess I was heading towards insurrection.

  20. mac says:

    ” there is no strategic re-assessment as far as I can tell.”
    Is it possible that the JCS, IC et al were blindsided by the inevitable re-orienting of Iraq towards their co-religionists in Qom? It seems impossible to me that this outcome was not a fait accompli with the removal of SH, and in my view, is the very definition of strategic re-assessment, par excellence….

  21. turcopolier says:

    Believe it. We are idiots. pl

  22. mac says:

    Since 2006 I have visited SST and grown to respect your superior experience and knowledge on the Pax Americana and will 99% of time defer to your position….forgive me, however, for this is a premise I cannot rationally digest. I understood the 2003 WMD/democracy arguments as strange canards, for the masses. But given what has unfolded since, and now continues to play out throughout the ME, and more recently in Geneva, everything is connected, and I see the whole thing, one long chain of events that stretch all the way back to 2001 as strategic re-assessment.

  23. Harper says:

    There is definitely a growing gap between the younger generation of Saudi Royals and the ruling inner circle. I applaud the fact that there are well over 100,000 Saudis studying in the United States at universities and military training academies. The KSA is footing all the bills and there are some people in the US who see this as an opportunity to help shape a gradual change in the Kingdom. In the interim, there will be a large number of pot holes in the road ahead. I caution that the primary source on the Saudi-Israeli military compact is Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times of London. So the words of caution regarding such a hard Israel-Saudi military alliance are well taken.

  24. Tyler says:

    Harper, thanks for the post!
    I’ve said it before and will keep saying it but it appears that Russia has taken up the role of tending the flame of Christianity and is the opposing force to the hedonistic “if it feels good do it” cancer that has infected the West.
    Who could have seen that coming?

  25. mac,
    There is a remark attributed to Mark Twain, apparently wrongly, which seems apposite: ‘Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.’
    As regards both the American and British advocates of war with Iraq, the verdict is really in: they were imbeciles who really meant it.

  26. Harper,
    Thanks for the references, in particular to the one on Bandar.
    If indeed the Saudis are putting up the money for very substantial Egyptian arms purchases from Russia, would that not suggest that, after the fiasco of Bandar’s visit to Putin, some kind deal of Saudi-Russian deal has been worked out?
    If so, what might its terms have been?

  27. different clue,
    As a piece back in 2010 by Philip Giraldi brings out, the Sunday Times has a track record of disseminating disinformation from Mossad.
    (See http://www.theamericanconservative.com/how-disinformation-works/ )
    So unless Mossad is attempting to subvert Netanyahu’s policy, it would seem to me more likely that this report is a ploy by the Israelis to keep alive the idea that they might attack Iran unilaterally, probably with a view to trying to put a spanner in the works of the forthcoming talks.

  28. turcopolier says:

    I am not Harper. pl

  29. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Have it your way: “strategic reassessment” that failed.
    So what has been needed since at least 2006, per Lt. General Odom, is a strategic reassessment of the previous strategic reassessment.
    That is not in the cards.

  30. Charles I says:

    omg he found the truth.

  31. Alba Etie says:

    Putin has also been a champion of endangered species setting aside huge reserves in Siberia for the amur tiger & cloud leopard . Conservation is a conservative value as well .

  32. Fred says:

    “100,000 Saudis studying in the United States at universities and military training academies…”
    Well no wonder low middle class Americans are having such a hard time getting into or paying for a college education. When the inevitable collapse comes will these finely educated Saudi’s be coming here also?

  33. turcopolier says:

    I have known many 3rd world people who were educated in the West and it seemed to have had little cultural effect on them. Bandar bin Sultan is a Johns Hopkins man. What does have an effect is the educational outcome in places like India, Pakistan and Lebanon when people are schooled for a long time in a kind of hybrid local/post-colonial milieu. pl

  34. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Yes, as the Persian sayings go:
    Jesus’ donkey, if taken to Mecca,
    When brought back, still a donkey.
    From the vase oozes out that which is within

  35. Matthew says:

    Col: I wonder if Putin has to listen to “advice” like this. See http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/11/obamas-fight-with-israel-99964_Page2.html

  36. nick b says:

    Interesting. I never knew Bandar bin Sultan went to JHU. I see he got his masters at SAIS in DC. He was there when Robert W. Tucker was there. That would’ve been an interesting meeting to witness.

  37. mac says:

    I hear ya….and understand their is a certain measure of folly to foreign policy…
    However it is worded, it is, in my view, the equivalent of saying the ‘earth is flat’
    I distinctly recall a few lone dissenters to the ‘ra, ra, ra, lets attack Iraq’ chorus of 2002/03 who specifically mentioned that, in doing so, the post-war configuration would find common cause with Tehran (not that there is anything wrong with that)…
    Of course London and Washington knew….nations sometimes go to painstakingly obscure and circuitous lengths to conceal their true agendas. I think it speaks to the power of the forces they faced who opposed, and continue to oppose, the accomplishment of their unstated, yet actual objectives….

  38. mac says:

    Oh yee of little faith…
    Give it time good Sir 🙂
    We now know where Hollande and 5th Republic stands on the subject…I doubt the architects of the strategic reassessment expected opponents of the same to sit on their hands and do nothing at all…notwithstanding any other November Surprises, the die is cast….

  39. Fred says:

    President Morsi of Egypt too. Ineresting point about education in India, Pakistan and Lebanon. Our culture is too different for the cultural changes some hope for, that would be my tought anyway.

  40. Thomas says:

    Thanks for the tip to that article.
    A link for others here:
    I would love to know what Vladimir Vladimirovich said to Bandar Gatsby when he played the Chechen Card.

  41. LeaNder says:

    Mac, I don’t think events support your impression. Consider the longer strategic vision: WOT. The new horizon after the end of the Cold War. Remember “Mr. Faster Please”? On to Syria and then let’s take Iran after? Early mission accomplished? The size of the new US embassy in Baghdad? None of this supports your suspicion. Looks more like ideology trumped reality to me.

  42. Bandolero says:

    What I’m curious about is that I’ld would assume that development should be very welcome by the US administration but what I read from your information looks more like the US is worried about a larger Russian footprint in MENA.
    When I look back the past decade the US fought wars in the larger Western Asia area that did cost some trillion of Dollars where it got in return very little for. And the US was just on the brink of more of that. From a US point of view, I would suggest a larger Russian footprint in the MENA area might be a good chance for the US to reduce it’s costly footprint there. Also, I wonder, whether the Russian Church diplomacy and Russian weapon sales in the region are not seen in the US administration as a chance to clip Netanyahu’s wings a bit, thereby making the success of the US-led diplomacy process with Iran, Syria and Palestinians in the region more likely to succeed.
    When I read that the Saudis were “shocked” when the US told them they lacked ships to protect the Saudi oil flow, it seemed to me that the US administration was very much aware of these implecations and welcomed them.
    The Forbes rating I find funny. I’m very sure in Russia it’s seen as an unwelcome trick of the Israeli propaganda trying to sabotage the diplomacy track in MENA. Does Obama really think it’s anything different?

  43. different clue says:

    I wonder why Saudi Arabia would permit its name to be co-equally used in this disinformation, if it is disinformation instead of pre-emptive undermining coverblowing. Or would the SA image handlers fear that angry denial would be taken as
    actual confirmation?

  44. Babak Makkinejad says:

    That is just a storm in a tea-cup.

  45. mac says:

    To the contrary….WOT? Always sounded quite corny to me, but notwithstanding my personal opinion, to whom is it targeted against? Sunni Jihadists…
    Syria? That only exacerbates your position….
    Mission accomplished, US embassy in Bagdad? Cui bono…

  46. Babak Makkinejad says:

    You asked to whom GWOT is directed.
    That is simple: against any and all enemies of Israel.

  47. What makes for the reality of governmental or non-governmental power, hard or soft, in the FP world today?
    Here is my list and the permutations and combinations are almost endless!
    1. Capital and money flows subject to direction by leaders;
    2. Belief in religions, including capitalism and communism;
    3. Demographics;
    4. Military capability for force projection;
    5. Political stability in the domestic geography in which the leaders are located;
    6. Vulnerabilities to natural or man-made hazards;
    7. Access and control of commodities and resources;
    8. Willingness to explain FP and discuss merits of FP openly;
    9. Control of existing technology, its enhancement, and ability to develop and implement new technology;
    10. Understanding of leaders own foibles and weaknesses domestically and internationally.
    Based on my analysis of these factors I find the USA about ready to lose the first place ranking held since 1945! If not now certainly by 2045!
    Russia will be lucky to be in top ten by 2045!

  48. I think it is very important for ALL to understand the deep linkage between criminal elements in the USA, Russia and Israel. A state within these Nation-states.

  49. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Yes, the was goes on and with no end in sight.

  50. J says:

    As i was watching Russian music Box chilling to the tunes lo and behold American actor Steven Segal came onstage and spattered a few words in his broken Russian, and then I recalled where he had recently become the ‘new face’ of the Russian arms industry.
    Now back to the music Box………..

  51. zanzibar,
    I think this situation is becoming something of a mess. What you say about the emigration of the technology entrepreneurs in whom you used to invest reinforces my suspicion that jdledell’s anticipation on this blog at the end of last year that ‘anyone with brains will eventually flee’ from Israel is, if perhaps somewhat overstated, not that far from the truth.
    The fixed conviction of many in Israel – echoed by quite a few British Jews – that hostility to their country here is the result of some kind of spontaneous revival of traditional anti-Semitism is delusional. The then president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Vivian Wineman, told the Jerusalem Post last year that in Britain ‘there is an awful lot of anti-Israeli feeling which sometimes morphs into anti-Semitism’: which I think is about accurate.
    (See http://wordfromjerusalem.com/?p=3927 )
    Questions to do with the compatibility of different loyalties are lurking in the background, in a way that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. And if indeed the situation in Israel deteriorates in the way that we anticipate, the tensions are liable to become significantly more difficult to handle.
    That said, the notion that there is a potential for Britain to turn into Nazi Germany seems to me nonsense, and those who disseminate it – like the author of the JP article to which I have linked, and some of those whom he quotes – are not helping matters, to put it mildly.

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