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Russian Factors in the Middle East

Taisuke Abiru
Senior Research Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation

In January 2009, the Brookings Institution released a report titled "The New Geopolitics of the Middle East."1 It argues that a new geopolitical structure is appearing in the Middle East due to the declining US influence and the rise of other countries. According to the summary of the report:

"The perception of U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East overstates reality, but American influence in the region is certainly on the decline. The United States retains a significant troop presence in the region, but the American public has limited support for military engagement in Middle Eastern conflicts. The perception that the United States is no longer dependent on the region's oil supplies is not borne out by the realities of the global oil market, but does shape contemporary American decisionmaking. The United States has stepped back from diplomatic leadership on the Middle East peace process and conflict management across the region. Only on issues related to Iran has the United States had a sustained—but not consistent—focus."

"Other actors have been inserting themselves into regional decisionmaking. As these two dynamics converge, a new geopolitical structure is evolving. It has six primary countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the United States, and Russia. Others, like Egypt, maintain some of their past influence, although at significantly diminished levels. China does not currently play a central role in directing regional affairs, but is building its economic and diplomatic ties across the region and is poised to be more influential in the future."

In recent years, Russia has rapidly been restoring its influence in the Middle East and is now regarded as one of the six key actors that have influence in the new geopolitical structure that the Brookings report discussed. The purpose of this article is to elaborate on the aims, methods, the effectiveness and limitations of Russia's active engagement policy toward the Middle East.

Russia's military intervention in Syria realized its comeback to the global arena as a great power.

In the Brookings report, Georgetown University professor Angela Stent, a leading US-Russian relations expert, referred to Russia's growing influence in the Middle East in recent years: "Russia's return to the Middle East after the withdrawal from the region that followed the Soviet collapse is one of Putin's major foreign policy achievements... Putin has taken advantage of the U.S. ambivalence about its future role in the region to re-assert Russia's influence there. Indeed, Russia has begun to replace the United States as the go-to player in this fractured region. Its intervention in Syria and support for Assad have enabled Putin to achieve one of his major goals—Russia's return to the global board of directors."

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, points out that Putin's main foreign policy objective has been to the top level of global politics, and that he chose the Middle East as the area for that breakthrough.2

The direct motive of Russia's military intervention in Syria was to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime.

The largest turning point for Russia to increase its influence in the Middle East was the full-scale military intervention by the Russian army in the Syrian civil war that began on September 30, 2015. Russia's direct motive was to protect the moribund Assad regime with its all might.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russian magazine of foreign affairs "Russia in Global Affairs" and research director of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club under the de facto control of the Presidential Executive Office of Russia, commented as follows on Russia's policy of active involvement in the Syrian civil war that began amidst the Arab Spring of 2011.3

"Unlike other Russian diplomatic adventures that are characterized by their impulsivity, its behavior in Syria is free from ambiguity. From the outset of the Syrian crisis, Russia declared its support for the Bashar al-Assad administration with a definite end of staying him in power. This is because of not only the long-standing relationship between Damascus and Moscow, but also of Russia's firm belief that the restoration of regional stability would be possible not by changing the existing regimes, but by strengthening them. The change of regimes, as shown by the experiences in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, will lead to the expansion of chaos. Russia's present position was inspired by the event in Libya, where Moscow did not attempt to block foreign interference. The symbolic and visually atrocious murder of Qaddafi was a result of the change of regime in Libya."

"Since then, Russia's task has not changed --- the strengthening of the Assad regime and the maximum possible restoration of its own supremacy over the Syrian territory within internationally recognized borders. Russia took sides with Assad, initially by political and diplomatic means, and afterward by military means. Russia resorted to armed intervention, when it became clear that without it Damascus would fall."

In a research report entitled "Understanding Russia's Intervention in Syria," Samuel Charap, an American expert on Russian affairs with the RAND Corporation, points out that the prevention of the fall of the Assad regime was of crucial importance for Russia in the following two respects.

  • If the Assad administration were overthrown, Syria would be taken over by the Sunni radical forces represented by IS. The threat of terrorism by these forces could then extend beyond the Middle East to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and even to Russia.
  • If the Assad regime were overthrown by the hands of the anti-government coalition supported by the United States and its allies, Russia would legitimize Western-backed regime change, which Russia recognizes as a threat to its national security.

Like Lukyanov, Charap argues that Russia's perspective was largely affected by the fact that the military support of Western countries overthrew the Qaddafi regime in Libya, and that the resulting chaotic state in Libya allowed the subsequent rise of the IS. The Kremlin viewed the situation in Syria at that time in connection with NATO's airstrikes on Serbia, the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan, the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Hussein regime, and the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya under NATO's military support. "The Kremlin also saw the 'color revolutions' in several former Soviet republics and the Arab Spring as instruments of US policy to achieve the same objective without using military force. Russia saw this pattern of Western interventions as a significant threat to its own national security."4

US-Russia "anti-terrorism" alignment attempted in Syria

Angela Stent describes the characteristics of Russia's Middle Eastern diplomacy in recent years: "Unlike in Soviet times, Russian policy is pragmatic and non-ideological, which gives it considerable flexibility. Russia has ties with all the major regional players, irrespective of their internal politics. Indeed, Russia is the only major power that talks to the Shiite states, the Sunni states, and to Israel. It has been able to establish cooperative ties with the region's main protagonists and antagonists: Israel and the Palestinians; Israel and Iran; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Turkey and the Kurds; both Libyan governments; and Hamas and Hezbollah…. Russia is in the Middle East for the long haul. It is seeking to convert its decisive role in Syria—ensuring that Assad prevailed and stayed in power—to a broader role of regional power broker."5

The notable feature of Russia's Middle Eastern diplomacy in recent years lies in the maintenance of channels of dialogue with all these major actors in the region. This is what is shared by many analysts inside and outside Russia, including Eugen Rumer, a national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council during the Obama administration, currently director of the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.6

However, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) director general Andrey Kortunov said, "It seems that initially, the Russian return to the MENA region had no goal of becoming such a power broker."

"After the United States demonstrated its apparent inability to "fix" places like Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, Moscow wanted to be seen as the bearer of a different, more practical, and more efficient approach to the region. This was particularly important after the Ukraine crisis in 2013 cast a dark shadow over Russia's relations with its Western partners and, above all, with the Obama administration."

"The Kremlin had to demonstrate to leaders at the White House that it could be a part of the solution, not a part of a problem. The idea was not to replace the United States in the Middle East, but to change the US approach to the region, most importantly to convince Americans that their enthusiastic support for the Arab Spring in 2011 had been irresponsible, shortsighted, and dangerous. This idea reflects the overall mental framework of contemporary Russian leaders, who believe that the real borderline in global politics today divides not democracy and authoritarianism, but order and chaos."7

In his speech at the UN General Assembly on September 28, 2015, just two days before the Russian army began airstrikes on Syria, President Putin criticized the United States and Western countries for their actions in the invasion of Iraq through the Arab Spring. On the other hand, he called for the global alignment against terrorism in Syria, saying "Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism."8

Immediately after Russia's launch of airstrikes on Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began cooperation to find a political solution to the civil war in Syria. The first meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), co-chaired by both of them, was held in November of the same year.9 Under this framework, the cease-fire agreement was concluded respectively in February and September 2016 between the Syrian government forces and the rebel forces (excluding IS and the al-Nusra Front10) with the approval of the UN Security Council and under the watch of the US and Russian forces. The basic concept of the US-Russia alignment in Syria was that Russia should exert pressure on the Assad administration and the US on the rebels, thereby first achieving a ceasefire and then a political solution.

However, the situation turned out to be more difficult than expected. The February 2016 ceasefire agreement was not fully implemented by both sides. In September of the same year, another ceasefire agreement was concluded, which was immediately followed by two fatal incidents. First, US troops attacked Syrian government troops in Deir ez-Zor, claiming dozens of deaths. The US military later announced that it was an accidental bombing. Soon after, the Red Cross humanitarian convoy was attacked by an unidentified party, and numerous humanitarian workers were killed. The US military announced that either the Syrian army or the Russian army was responsible, but both of them denied it. The Obama administration terminated cooperation with Russia in Syria.11

Dmitry Trenin points out that Moscow ascribed the failure of the US-Russia alignment in Syria to the US inability to separate the Nusra fighters from the rest of the opposition forces and, more seriously, to the disagreement within Washington regarding the wisdom of cooperating with Russia. While John Kelly advocated such cooperation, the Pentagon and the intelligence community were highly negative, and President Obama himself was ambivalent.12

The Astana process led by three countries: Russia, Turkey, and Iran

After the failure to create a US-Russian alliance, the Kremlin drastically altered its approach to Syria and the Middle East. First, in tandem with Turkey, Russia helped the Assad administration to recapture Aleppo, a strategic point in northern Syria. In January 2017, Russia together with Turkey and Iran launched the Syria cease-fire process (Astana process) in Kazakhstan's capital Astana and seized the initiative in Syria leveraging the Astana process.13

Meanwhile, Russia invited the Trump administration, inaugurated in January of the same year, to attend the Astana meeting as an observer calling on President Trump for US involvement in the Syrian issue. However, the Trump administration made a limited engagement including the deployment of military forces in relation to issues of particular interest such as anti-IS operations. Otherwise, President Trump rather avoided involvement in the Syrian issue, and finally in October 2019, issued an order to withdraw US troops from Syria.14

Lukyanov describes the characteristics of Russia's sophisticated policy toward Syria as follows: "Fulfilling this task --- the strengthening of the Assad regime and the maximum possible restoration of its supremacy over the Syrian territory within internationally recognized borders ---, Russia has demonstrated the capability of skillfully using various instruments --- military, political, diplomatic, cultural, and information. The flexibility that Moscow shows in realizing its course of action in Syria is not as typical as Russia's diplomatic practice. This is partly due to the existence of numerous actors standing in the way of achieving results. Their interests either do not coincide with hers at all or coincide only in certain respects. This complicates her pursuit of a consistent course of action, while concurrently creating situational opportunities advantageous to Russia. Moscow deftly takes advantage of this, managing to maintain practical relations with all significant actors without exception."

He also explains the Astana process that is the linchpin of Russia's policy toward Syria as follows: "The so-called Astana Triangle represents Russia's diplomatic ingenuity --- a permanent framework for discussing the situation in Syria with the participation of Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the three parties have varied, if not opposite, interests in Syria, while the level of mutual trust between them, to put it mildly, leaves much to be desired. That is why, when negotiations began in January 2017, most commentators believed that this framework would not last long. However, after a lapse of almost three years, the three parties manage to overcome acute crises and maintain cooperation. The basis of this stability is not a coincidence of interests or mutual sympathy, but a strictly pragmatic understanding that none of the three parties could achieve their goals in Syria without the assistance or at least neutrality of the other two. This has turned out a very effective basis for cooperation."15

The above remarks of Lukyanov may require some explanation. First, as far as Russia-Turkey relations are concerned, three of the four de-escalation zones16 set up at the Astana meeting in May 2017 came under the control of the Assad administration in 2018. Over the remaining area of Idlib and its environs, however, touch-and-go incidents have occurred more than once between the Assad army and the Free Syrian Army under the umbrella of the Turkish government. The Astana process has managed to survive the crises owing to Russia's intermediary efforts of reconciling conflicting interests.

Russia and Iran share the same interest in preventing the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria. However, Russia does not share Iran's strategic goal of securing Syria as a base for attacking Israel or for supporting and supplying Lebanon's Hezbollah. Consequently, Russia is striving to bridge the gap of interest between Iran and Israel through the creation of a buffer zone in southern Syria bordering the Israeli territory. Nonetheless, Russian efforts have fallen short of eliminating Israel's anxiety. Russia overlooks Israel's airstrikes on Iranian installations in Syria.

Acquisition of strategic assets through active involvement in niche spaces

What is the aim of Russia's Middle Eastern policy, which is elaborately structured on the subtle balance of interests over Syria with the countries concerned? Lukyanov describes it as follows: "Some Middle Eastern actors expect that Russia will now either replace the United States as the main patron in the region or try to at least restore the status of the USSR. Their expectations have no foundations…. The model of regional politics of the last century that continued to be valid for some time in the current century, or the model assuming the presence of a powerful regional patron or a powerful external patron, is becoming obsolete. No power can control a region. This is crystal-clear from the experiences in all parts of the world from East Asia to Latin America, and still more so in the Middle East. On the other hand, there are niche spaces in many regions as a balancer capable of regulating the level of tensions and mitigating contradictions among various actors in local politics."

"In this capacity, Russia scored points. Russia's potentials in the Middle East have markedly increased the country's status in the international hierarchy. To use the market language, this is a valuable asset for global interaction. It is worth recalling that by the time military operation began in Syria in the fall of 2015, Western countries had deliberately limited the space for dialogue with Russia to the Minsk process and the Ukrainian crisis, thereby trying to increase pressure on Moscow. Now the situation has changed dramatically, due largely to Russia's activity in the Middle East. The goal of Russia is to consolidate her strategic position in Syria by developing her bases there into strongholds in the Mediterranean. However, this is not a question of control over the region, but her position in a broader international sense."17

To sum up the above:

  • Russia has no intention to replace the United States in the Middle East.
  • The era when patrons with overwhelming influence like the United States existed in the Middle East and other regions has ended.
  • In such an era, various problems accompanied by tensions and contradictions occurred in each region, and temporary moves to attempt to adjust or alleviate them create niche spaces.
  • If some power took a risk by engaging actively in such temporary moves and occupied a niche space, the power could thereby acquire valuable strategic assets.
  • Russia aimed at occupying such a niche space and at acquiring strategic assets through military intervention in the Syrian civil war; its subsequent attempts for anti-terrorism alignment with the United States; and the shift to the Astana process after the failure of its alliance efforts.
  • As a result, Russia has succeeded in significantly raising its position in the international community.

Conclusion

As mentioned above, the immediate motive of Russia's military intervention in Syria was to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime. Russia wanted to prevent the possible threat of the proliferation of international terrorism originating from Syria after the fall of the Assad regime. Russia also wanted to prevent the change of regime by Western countries. The nightmare of the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya had a huge impact on Russia's decisions in its Middle Eastern policy.

Russia actively engaged as a solution provider in the Middle Eastern problems accompanied by tensions and contradictions resulting from the decline of the hegemonic power of the United States. These actions of Russia, as Lukyanov describes in detail, had an aspect of acquiring strategic assets that would contribute to raising Russia's international prestige. As a result, Russia has achieved a comeback as a major power in the world --- the main objective of Putin's foreign policy.

If so, it is obvious that Russia is implementing a careful risk management policy that cannot be put aside by saying that Russia's Middle Eastern policy is "filling the strategic vacuum in the wake of the US withdrawal."

The advantage of this approach by Russia is that the combination of coalitions can be changed flexibly according to the situation. Initially, Russia attempted an "anti-terror" alliance with the United States. But as soon as it failed, Russia lost no time in taking up the Astana process. It was the culmination of this approach. Unless Russia fails to make a proper risk assessment in advance, the approach will enable the country to acquire large strategic assets at relatively low cost.

Meanwhile, Russia does not possess a clear grand strategy on "What should the future of the Middle East be like?" This seemingly represents the limit of Russia's Middle Eastern policy.

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