World·Analysis

With eyes on the ball, it's been a Putin kind of year in Mideast: Nahlah Ayed

As Russia and Turkey prepare to face each other in a friendly match on the soccer field tonight, it’s clear Putin has positioned himself as a key player in the Middle East.

Turkey, playing an international friendly with Russia tonight, is Putin’s latest victory

Locomotiv Moscow's Dmitri Tarasov shows off an inner shirt with a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the slogan 'most polite president,' following a Europa League match against Fenerbahce in Istanbul on Feb. 16, 2016. (Emrah Gurel/The Associated Press)

The last time Russia and Turkey faced off on a soccer field, a cheeky Russian midfielder took off his jersey to reveal a picture of Vladimir Putin, along with the words: "most polite president."

It was at the height of a falling out between the two countries, and the Istanbul home crowd was naturally outraged.

Just six months later, the two countries face off again tonight in an international friendly match in the Turkish city of Antalya. And as they've patched up their differences, the burning question leading up to this game: might the Russian president make another appearance — this time in person.

This week a spokesman put the speculation to rest. Dmitry Peskov reportedly said the president wouldn't attend, and instead would watch the game "remotely."

For Putin, watching remotely has been a consistent strategy in the region, one that is now paying off.

Manoeuvring from Moscow

In terms of influence in the Mideast, it's been a Putin kind of year. Once left for politically dead in the Middle East, he has not only managed to woo Turkey back onside — prompting a visit from Turkey's president and an invitation to tonight's game from its foreign minister. But the Russian president's close watch — and his manoeuvring, from Moscow, to become a key player — now leave him with the upper hand in Syria, too, in the dying days of the Obama presidency.

It isn't quite as potent as it was in the Communist days, but Russia's growing influence in the tragic Mideast's great game has perceptibly upended the balance of power there.

Central to that has been Russia's bombing campaign in Syria, devastating civilians and infrastructure but putting Putin at the heart of any solution to the region's deadliest conflict — at the expense of the U.S. and the West.

That Russia would be at the table with the U.S. in Geneva attempting to negotiate a joint military strategy in Syria that could lead to a political solution is no surprise. That Russia has a firm upper hand in those talks is new.

"From the Kremlin, the world seen from Moscow in 2016 is more advantageous, is more in line with Russia's way of viewing the world, than the world when (Libya's Moammar) Gadhafi was removed," said Andrew Foxhall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, a conservative think-tank based in London.

"Not only would the Kremlin see Russia as being stronger, it would also see the West as being weaker."

An early call to Turkey

It was no accident that Putin — likely with memories of his ally Gadhafi in mind — was among the first to call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to show his support in the wake of a coup attempt last month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin , right, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan enter a hall during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, Aug. 9, 2016. (Alexei Nikolsky/Reuters)

Erdogan's first trip abroad post-coup attempt was to St. Petersburg to see Putin. And even though Erdogan stoked anti-U.S. sentiment at home — suggesting the U.S. was somehow behind the coup — it took U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden until last week to visit Turkey, a NATO ally.

The first time Erdogan will see U.S. President Barack Obama will be at the G20 meeting in Beijing next week.

All that is a reflection of both geographic reality and of Putin's more vigilant watch for opportunities to extend his regional influence.

In addition to the game-changing bombing campaign in Syria also notable is Putin's invitation last week — via Egypt — to host talks on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Putin expressed willingness to hostIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ­Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to rekindle negotiations.It isn't the first time, but it comes after the U.S. all but abandoned the effort, one that the French, too, have failed to resuscitate.

Getting cosy with Iran

Russia has also cosied up even closer to Iran, especially following Tehran's signing of a deal to curb its nuclear activity in exchange for lifting international sanctions — a deal, of course, Russia helped negotiate.

For a short period, Russian jets were even flying missions from an air base in Iran, the first time a foreign country has done so since the Second World War. The two countries are also perfectly aligned on the U.S., and somewhat in agreement on the need to preserve a Syrian state, if not President Bashar al-Assad himself.

Putin has cosied up to Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, left, since the signing of the deal to curb Iran's nuclear activity, which Russia helped broker. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin via Reuters)

None of this means Russia is immune to the occasional Mideast misstep or takedown.

Moscow's public trumpeting of the use of that Iranian airbase led to the termination of the privilege in an equally public apparent rebuke.

Strains are also showing again in the Turkey-Russia relationship over Turkey's incursion into Syrian territory. Moscow says it is "deeply concerned" over violence between Turkish and Kurd forces — in what is ostensibly an operation against ISIS — because it might aggravate antagonism "between Kurds and Arabs."

And while Russia covets the idea of a multipolar world — where the U.S. isn't the only powerbroker — spreading its influence in the Mideast isn't just about geopolitical considerations. There are enormous potential economic benefits, too.

Turkey also signs on for similar reasons — especially as tourism wanes in the wake of the attempted coup, and ISIS bombs fall more frequently on its soil.

Syria's new guarantor

But Russia's main role in the region is now as Syria's guarantor. And with an assertive and deadly presence on Syrian soil and its relentless bombing from Syrian skies, Russia remains the key to solving the Syria crisis.

Smoke rises after what activists said were cluster bombs dropped by the Russian air force in the town of Maaret al-Naaman, Syria. Putin's aggression in Syria has positioned Russia as the key to solving the crisis in that country. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

The Syrian crisis also remains key to Russia's influence.

"A major goal of the Russian intervention in Syria has been winning U.S. recognition of Moscow's great power role," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, wrote in an analysis last week.

It would seem Putin has achieved that goal as last-ditch talks resume between the two countries on Syria, possibly for the last time under the current U.S. administration.

But while Washington prepares for the changing of the guard, Putin continues to watch, remotely, playing the long game.