Russia now a key force in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, at the World Energy Congress in Istanbul on Oct. 10. © AP


TOKYO — On Sept. 28, when OPEC made a surprise agreement to cut oil production, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a heated phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. A cease-fire in Syria brokered by the U.S. and Russia was on the brink of collapse. Kerry and Lavrov would continue to talk during the following two days but in the end failed to keep the truce alive.

On Oct. 3, the U.S. government proclaimed bilateral peace talks regarding Syria dead.

Just like that, Russia has emerged as the decisive force in two situations reshaping Middle East politics — the Syrian civil war and oil prices.

U.S. President Barack Obama, well into the lame-duck months of his second term, lacks the necessary political capital to end the conflict in Syria.

With no diplomatic solution in sight, Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by Moscow, is stepping up the regime’s offensive against rebel forces.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s largest oil producer, has gotten serious about propping up depressed prices, which have delivered a heavy blow to its state finances.

But if it wants to significantly push up oil prices, Saudi Arabia needs cooperation from non-OPEC oil producers, particularly Russia.

This puts Russia in a key position to broker peace in Syria and trigger an oil market upturn.

The Syrian cease-fire deal, which came into effect on Sept. 12, offered the last chance for the Obama administration to help end the civil war without resorting to military power.

But Moscow, willing to take advantage of the Obama administration’s waning political clout, has been lukewarm about the arrangement from the beginning.

A possible mistaken airstrike on Syrian government troops by the U.S.-led coalition further accelerated the unraveling of the agreement.

Russia is using its influence over the Assad regime in its efforts to save itself from the international isolation it has fallen into because of its role in the Ukraine crisis.

At an international conference in Istanbul, Russian President Putin on Oct. 10 said his government is ready to join OPEC in curbing oil production.

It was no coincidence that Putin made the announcement in Turkey, right next door to Syria. It was a calculated move with huge diplomatic implications.

Full article: Russia now a key force in the Middle East (Nikkei Asia Review)

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