What is Putin’s next ambitious gambit in the Middle East?

It cannot be denied that Putin has been successful in a Syrian intervention which most observers (including myself) thought would be a catastrophic mistake

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Russia’s President Putin has stomped his authority on the Syrian war. It was not pretty, and it was not clean. But it seems to have gotten him everything he could have wanted out of the conflict.

And it looks like he is not about to stop there. I have made the point many times before that Obama’s approach to the Middle East has left a gaping power vacuum in the region, into which Russia and Iran are moving, while the Saudis and Israel are getting increasingly insecure about what happens next.

But Russia’s next gambit is truly ambitious: he seems intent to win over public opinion on the Arab Street. At an Arab League summit in Egypt last month he has made a strong commitment to the cause of Palestinian Statehood. This in stark contrast to the US’s attitude of unconditional support for Israel, even in times such as now when there is no love lost between the Israelis and an obviously frustrated President Obama.

Getting his hands dirty

So far Putin has two things going for him. The first is an obvious willingness to get his hands dirty on issues in the Middle East while the US continues to be extremely squeamish about getting dragged into the region’s problems. The most President Obama would do in the region is throw drone-bombs at a raging fire. And given the extremely low appetite for further engagement in US public opinion after the Iraq debacle, his successor in the presidency, whoever they may be, will probably continue with the same policy regardless of how hawkish they are sounding in the election campaign.

It cannot be denied that Putin has been successful in a Syrian intervention which most observers (including myself) thought would be a catastrophic mistake

Azeem Ibrahim

The second is a track-record of success. It cannot be denied that Putin has been successful in a Syrian intervention which most observers (including myself) thought would be a catastrophic mistake.

But whether this charm offensive will actually work is another thing altogether. One cannot wade into the Middle East at the moment without stepping on some sectarian tails. Both of Russia’s allies in the region are hated regimes: Iran and Syria, and together they have now, as they have historically, aligned against the power interests who were the traditional US allies in the region, most notably, the Saudis, Egypt and Jordanians.

Now it is all very nice for Putin to go to the Arab League summit and talk about the single issue on which all of them can agree. But most Gulf member countries in attendance will have probably found it difficult to gloss over the fact that Putin was still bombing their proxies in northern Syria.

Still, Russia and the Saudis at least have found common ground on some issues recently: most notably, the oil deal. So perhaps there is some scope for Russia to wiggle its way into the graces of the Sunni Arab world. And if we look beyond the regimes and consider the opinions of the man on the street, they are surely even more likely to respond well to these overtures.

But I don’t see quite how this is going to materialise into much tangible benefit for Putin – unless he performs some kind of miracle where he delivers statehood for the Palestinians by himself where all others have failed, Gulf states will continue to have every reason to be weary of any Russian involvement in the region. Even if the US were to completely abandon the region to its fate, it simply does not follow naturally that everyone else would neatly fall into the Russian sphere. The rather more likely outcome is that they will come together themselves to form an anti-Iran (and consequently anti-Russian) bloc.

Nevertheless, if Putin sees a chance to drive a wedge between the United States and their clients, he is sure to take it to take it: so of course he will try to cause mischief with the Israel-Palestine issue.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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