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Russia and China in particular have exploited the opening that Barack Obama initially provided to them and that Trump has considerably widened. Russia, long an outlier in the Middle East, is today perhaps its most active and forceful player with increasingly greater influence especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. Whereas the Soviet Union had no relations with Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Jewish state’s long-serving prime minister, is a frequent flyer to Moscow, as is his defense minister Avigdor Liberman.

Similarly, while Egypt’s Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviets in 1972, its current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has welcomed Russia back with open arms. For years America’s most powerful Arab ally, Egypt signed a major deal with Moscow in 2014 to acquire its S-300 air defence system and the following year purchased up to 50 upgraded Russian Mig-29M and MiG 35 combat aircraft and 46 Ka-50 combat helicopters at a cost of some $2 billion. In addition, in November 2016 the two countries signed an agreement calling for Russia to build and finance Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Sisi, like the Israelis, with whom he is extremely close, is hedging his bets regarding America’s reliability as an ally.

Russia has also upgraded its relations with Turkey, its historic rival. Despite the Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24M all-weather attack aircraft over its border in November 2016, Ankara’s relations with Moscow have become increasingly warmer. Indeed, Russia refused to support the Kurdish referendum on independence out of Vladimir Putin’s deference to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, Turkey and Russia, together with Iran, concluded the Astana agreement on Syria in May 2017 without active American involvement. The agreement, and ongoing talks that have followed between the three countries, has resulted in the creation of four de-escalation zones in Syria, which are functioning with some degree of success.

Syria is the scene of Russia’s most forceful and successful incursion into the region. Having been dismissed by Barack Obama as having little capacity for influencing the outcome of the civil war, Russia’s military intervention has not only ensured the survival of the Assad regime, if not of Assad himself, but also expanded its long-term presence in the country. Moscow long had port privileges at the Syrian naval base of Tartus, but had no formal basing agreement. That has now changed: last January, Russia signed a 49-year renewable lease for both the Tartus base and the Khmeimim air base that it built in 2015. Russia continues to maintain good relations with Iran, not only with respect to their joint support of Assad, but also in the realm of military arms sales.

Lastly, Russia has signed a major arms deal with Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who effectively controls the eastern region of Libya, which is governed from Tobruk. Washington, for its part, only recognises the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. As is the case elsewhere in the Middle East, however, it has lost the initiative in resolving that country’s civil war.
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