Moscow and the Middle East: Repeat Performance?
No. 3 2012 July/September
Mark Katz

Mark Katz — professor of government and politics in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, is a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Is Syria for Russia Like Afghanistan for the Soviet Union?

When Vladimir Putin first came to power over a decade ago, he launched a foreign policy initiative to improve Russia’s relations with and influence in the countries of the Middle East, which had languished during the Yeltsin era. By 2010, this initiative had succeeded dramatically. With the active involvement of Putin himself both through visiting several Middle Eastern countries as well as receiving their leaders in Moscow, Russia had established good working relations with all the major actors in the Middle East: anti-American Muslim governments (Iran and Syria) as well as pro-American ones (such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar) and even American-installed ones (Iraq and Afghanistan); Israel as well as Fatah and even Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, Russia had good relations with every government and most major opposition movements, with the notable exception of Al Qaeda (which did not want good relations with anyone except for movements similar to itself).

Putin’s achievement stood in stark contrast to that of the United States. While the U.S. had retained the Middle Eastern allies that it had at the end of the Cold War (notably Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states), Washington was still at odds – and unable to positively influence – its longtime regional adversaries such as Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Further, anti-American sentiment in the region had only grown stronger in the first decade of the 21st century not only because of continued U.S. support for Israel, but also because of how the U.S. conducted its “War on Terror” as well as its unpopular intervention in Iraq. While Russia’s friendships in the Middle East may not have been as strong as some of America’s there, Moscow did not have fierce adversaries or face widespread resentment in the region like the U.S. did either.

Since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, however, much of what the previous decade of Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East accomplished has either been reversed or put in jeopardy. Although the sudden explosion of popular opposition against longstanding Arab autocrats caught everyone off guard, America and the West have been reasonably successful at establishing good working relations with the forces of change in the Arab World. Russia, though, has not. While America, the West, and even the Arab League backed Qaddafi’s opponents, Moscow continued to support Qaddafi. When his regime was ousted, then, Libya’s new rulers were unhappy with Russia and suspended economic cooperation with it – something that Moscow might have avoided had it not backed Qaddafi so vocally. Similarly, while the West has called for him to step down, Moscow has continued its strong support for the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Even though it remains in power, Russia’s continued support for the Assad regime has already resulted in the rise of popular animosity toward Russia in the Arab World. And if the Assad regime does fall, it is doubtful that the new regime will look favorably upon Russia as a partner.

But in addition to running afoul of the forces of change in the Arab World, Russia’s relations with certain status quo Arab states – Saudi Arabia and Qatar most notably – have also deteriorated. This stands in contrast to the U.S. which has managed to establish working relations (at least so far) with the new regimes that have come to power in the Arab world while maintaining good relations with its traditional Arab allies where they have remained in power. Unlike before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the U.S. appears to have more friends in the Middle East than Russia – which really only has good relations now with Israel, Fatah, and Jordan (whose leaders Putin visited in June 2012) plus Algeria (a staunch opponent of the Arab Spring) and Iran (a supporter of the Arab Spring – except in Syria).

However, a comparison that ought to be of greater interest to those concerned with Russian foreign policy is that between the trajectory of Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East before and after the Arab Spring and the trajectory of Soviet foreign policy toward the region before and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.


While they have often been ridiculed by Russians in recent decades, both Khrushchev and Brezhnev conducted a remarkably successful foreign policy toward the Middle East. Up until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979, Moscow was highly adept at aligning itself with Arab public opinion as well as with the “forces of change” at work in the region. Despite its anti-communist nature, Khrushchev early on recognized Arab nationalism as a powerful, anti-Western force which Moscow could ally with. In all seven countries where Arab nationalist regimes came to power – Egypt (1952), Syria (1958), Iraq (1958), Algeria (1962), North Yemen (1962), Libya (1969), and Sudan (1969) – their international alignments shifted from West to East (at least for a time). The same phenomenon occurred as a result of the Arab World’s one and only Marxist revolution in South Yemen (1967).

Furthermore, the Soviet Union gained great popularity throughout the Arab World as a result of giving diplomatic support (and little more) for Egypt’s Nasser in his confrontation with Britain, France, and Israel in the 1956 Suez Crisis. The U.S., by contrast, lost popularity – despite the fact that Washington did far more to pressure Britain and France to abandon their intervention and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula than Moscow. Similarly, the Arab World lionized Moscow and vilified Washington as a result of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War – despite the fact that Moscow’s allies Egypt and Syria (as well as Jordan) were defeated in it. For years afterward, Moscow benefited from the fact that the U.S. was so closely associated with Israel while the USSR was not.

But in addition to successfully allying with Arab Nationalist and other anti-American forces in the Middle East during the Cold War, Moscow also established good relations with several pro-American governments allied to the U.S. Beginning with Brezhnev, the USSR maintained especially good relations with the oil rich emirate of Kuwait. Moscow also had good working relations with monarchical governments in Jordan, Morocco, and (before their overthrow) North Yemen and Iran. The USSR, though, did not succeed in establishing good relations with Saudi Arabia or the other Gulf monarchies. This was not, however, for lack of trying on Moscow’s part. This Soviet effort, though, finally paid off in the Gorbachev era.

Moscow, of course, also suffered setbacks in the Middle East during this period. The most notable of these was when Egypt under Sadat switched from being a Soviet ally to being an American one in the 1970s. Another was when Somalia did something similar a few years later. This latter event, though, occurred in the context of Ethiopia switching from being an American ally to being a Soviet one, and so did not involve a net loss in the region the way Egypt’s defection did. Finally, the Soviet Union did not succeed in establishing good relations with the Islamic revolutionary regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini which overthrew the pro-American Shah of Iran in 1979. But except for Syria, there were no other governments that succeeded at this either.

Despite these (and a few other) setbacks, Soviet policy toward the Middle East during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was remarkably successful. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union succeeded in allying with Arab nationalism – the principal force for change operating in the Arab World during this period – even though it was anti-communist. Further, Moscow benefited from the fact that Arab public opinion vilified the U.S. for supporting Israel, and valued the USSR for supporting the Arab and Palestinian causes. Finally, Moscow was always trying to establish or maintain good relations with the region’s pro-American governments. In short: despite the Marxist nature of the Soviet Union, Moscow pursued a highly pragmatic, flexible, and even versatile foreign policy toward the Middle East that was open to cooperation with a wide range of regional governments and actors across the political spectrum (except, of course, for Israel after the June 1967 War). One result of this was that Moscow kept America and the Middle Eastern governments allied to it on the defensive and ever fearful of losing ground to the USSR and its many allies in the region throughout this period.

The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, however, had an extremely negative impact on Moscow’s relations with and influence in the Middle East. When the Soviet intervention first occurred and appeared to be highly successful, many governments in the Middle East became fearful of Moscow. Afghanistan alone, many reasoned, could hardly be of sufficient importance for the mighty Soviet Union to bother about. Worst case analysis (a frame of reference often employed by governments in viewing the actions of their rivals) suggested that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was merely the first step in a larger Soviet plan to gain control of Persian Gulf oil, and hence a stranglehold over the world economy. Conspiracy theories arose about a supposed age-old Russian desire to obtain access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The fact that these theories were false was irrelevant. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave rise to a belief among the Middle East governments that their very survival was threatened by the USSR – a belief that Washington, naturally, exploited fully.

But Soviet policy toward the Middle East continued to suffer even after it became clear that Afghanistan was not going to serve as a base for Soviet influence to expand elsewhere in the region, but had become a quagmire for Moscow instead. Saudi Arabia in particular (which felt genuinely threatened not just by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but by Soviet-backed Marxist regimes in neighboring South Yemen and nearby Ethiopia) succeeded in turning Afghanistan into an anti-Soviet cause célèbre throughout the Muslim World. Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Moscow (among others) was able to put Saudi Arabia on the defensive for being allied to Israel’s principal supporter, the United States. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, by contrast, Saudi Arabia was able to rally public opinion and most governments in the Muslim World to condemn the Soviet Union as an oppressor of Muslims and to raise doubts about whether Moscow’s support for the Palestinian cause was genuine or merely a self-interested ploy.

Indeed, the biggest price that Moscow paid for its occupation of Afghanistan was the loss of good will that the Soviet Union had previously enjoyed in the Middle East. And considering that the Soviet occupation ultimately ended in failure, Moscow ended up gaining absolutely no benefit in exchange for the costs it incurred in occupying Afghanistan. Saddest of all, though, was that Moscow’s sacrifice of the goodwill it had previously enjoyed in the Middle East was needless. If the USSR had not intervened in Afghanistan but had let the Marxist regime there fall to its opponents, Moscow may have been momentarily embarrassed but the Soviet Union would have avoided what Mikhail Gorbachev would term a “bleeding wound.”


The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan contributed to Gorbachev’s efforts to improve Soviet relations with the Middle East – including with such disparate governments as Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union as well as the many internal crises that Russia experienced during the 1990s, Russia became relatively inactive in the Middle East during the Yeltsin era (despite the efforts of Yevgeny Primakov both as foreign minister and as prime minister). Putin’s successful effort to establish, or re-establish, good relations with all governments in the Middle East (as well as with Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah), then, was a highly significant accomplishment.

Three accomplishments stand out. First, while Washington’s ties with the Arab and Muslim Worlds continued to suffer as a result of America’s close relationship with Israel, Putin improved Moscow’s relations with Israel without any apparent negative impact on his efforts to improve relations with the Arab World, including with Hamas and Hezbollah. Second, while America and the West expressed support (but did little else) for Tbilisi during the August 2008 Russian-Georgian War, Arab public opinion backed Moscow and applauded its victory. Not only did Israel end its arms sales to Georgia at the outset of the war in order to placate Moscow, but Hamas also expressed support for Russia – another example of Putin successfully bridging the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Third, while Soviet foreign policy failed miserably at keeping Afghanistan off the international Muslim agenda of causes to support, Russian foreign policy under Putin succeeded in keeping Chechnya and the North Caucasus off of it. This was no small feat, especially since there were indications that this might have happened during the first Chechen War in the mid-1990s and in the early stages of the second one that began in 1999.

Just like Soviet foreign policy toward the Middle East before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, then, Russian foreign policy under Putin toward the Middle East was highly successful – especially compared to American foreign policy in terms of appealing to Arab and Muslim public opinion. But just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served to undermine the positive image of the Soviet Union that Moscow had built up beforehand, Russian policy toward Syria since the outbreak of the Arab Spring there in 2011 has undermined the positive image of Russia that Putin did so much to re-establish.

It is understandable, of course, that Moscow does not want to see the downfall of the Assad regime, Russia’s last real ally in the Middle East, since this could result in potential costs for Russia, such as the loss of naval facilities in Tartus, arms sales, various economic interests, and a diminished role for Moscow not just in Syria, but in the Middle East as a whole. Finally, there are many in Russia who fear that the most likely replacement for the Assad regime is an Islamist regime, and that this will strengthen Islamist forces inside of Russia itself. But continued Russian support for the Assad regime poses potential risks for Moscow. One is that despite Russian support for it, the Assad regime will eventually fall anyway. The Assad dictatorship is a minority Alawite regime which suppresses the Sunni majority. As such, it has incurred the ire both of supporters and opponents of the Arab Spring within the Arab Sunni world. The more that Russia is seen as allying with their Alawite and Iranian Shi’a enemies in suppressing Sunnis in Syria, the more critically Sunnis throughout the Arab World and elsewhere are likely to look upon Russian foreign policy as well as Russia in general.

While the Arab World has so far paid little attention to the close ties that Putin has established with Israel, continued Russian support for the Assad regime may result in Russia being increasingly portrayed in it as an ally of Israel. This, of course, would not bother either Israel or the United States, but it would definitely be an unwelcome development in Russia. Similarly, another Russian action such as its 2008 intervention in Georgia would not garner the same sympathy and support from Sunnis now focusing on criticizing Putin’s support for the Assad regime.

If Sunnis in general come to regard Russia as responsible for the oppression of their co-religionists in Syria, they can retaliate by supporting Sunni oppositionists in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia. In other words, Russian support for the Alawite minority regime in Syria risks undermining Putin’s most important foreign policy achievement vis-à-vis the Middle East: keeping the North Caucasus off the international Muslim agenda of causes to support. Indeed, should the North Caucasus ever become an anti-Russian cause célèbre in the Muslim World the way that Afghanistan did in the 1980s, Moscow would be hard pressed to staunch the flow of money, arms, and jihadists into Russian territory. The longer that the Syrian civil war drags on and Russia continues to support the minority Assad regime in it, the more likely that this scenario will become.


Many in Russia, of course, would argue that Moscow is not helping the Assad regime, but merely acting to prevent America and its allies from doing in Syria what they did in Libya. Russian officials and commentators have repeatedly expressed that they feel betrayed by the West for having gone beyond the terms of the UN Security Council’s no-fly resolution (which Russia and China allowed to pass) and actively assisted the Libyan opposition in toppling the Qaddafi regime. But Russian officials – including even Dmitry Medvedev – are not known for being naïve. Once Moscow and Beijing allowed the no-fly resolution against Libya to pass, they knew – or should have known – that they were acquiescing to the downfall of Qaddafi. It is not the West’s fault if Moscow tried to have it both ways by allowing the resolution to pass (thus aligning itself with the Arab League as well as the West), but then continuing to express strong diplomatic support (but do little else) for Qaddafi, and thus needlessly alienate the Libyan opposition.

Going forward, though, Moscow would surely be better off basing its policy toward Syria on what the trends are in that country now instead of in reaction to what happened in Libya in 2011. Moscow has nothing to gain and much to lose through supporting Assad  to the bitter end. On the other hand, just by calling for Assad to step down in order to resolve the conflict, supporting a Security Council resolution imposing economic sanctions on the regime (which at this point will do little or nothing to affect the situation on the ground), and proposing a face-saving (even if meaningless) diplomatic formula such as demanding an “Arab solution” to the Syrian problem, Moscow would begin to rebuild its positive image in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Yet even if the Assad regime somehow manages to remain in power, Russia would surely be better off aligning itself with the Arab World against the Assad regime rather than aligning itself with the Assad regime against the Arab World.

Moscow also needs to consider the China factor. While Beijing has joined with Moscow in blocking UN Security Council resolutions imposing economic sanctions on the Assad regime, there is absolutely no doubt that if and when it does fall, China will immediately move – without any hesitation or embarrassment – to establish good working relations with the new regime in Damascus. While Chinese foreign policy does not support the downfall of dictators, it quickly adjusts to the new situation when this occurs. Further, Chinese efforts to establish good relations with a new Syrian regime are likely to be successful both because every country wants and needs good economic relations with China, and because Beijing has not linked itself as closely to the Assad regime as Moscow has. While China has given support for Russia’s position on Syria up to now, Moscow cannot expect Beijing to continue doing so if the new Syrian government that replaces the Assad regime has acrimonious relations with Russia.

It is not inevitable, though, that Syria lead to as downward a trend for Moscow’s foreign policy toward the Middle East as Afghanistan did in the 1980s. Fortunately for Moscow, it does not have a large troop presence in Syria the way that the USSR did in Afghanistan (or later, the U.S. did in both Afghanistan and Iraq) which makes altering policy far more difficult, complex, costly, and time-consuming. There is nothing to prevent Moscow from distancing itself from Assad – and reaping the benefits of an improved image in the Arab and Muslim Worlds for doing so. Moscow could make its own proposals for resolving the crisis – such as offering to arrange “temporary” sanctuary for the Assad family in Russia or (better yet) Iran while new Syrian elections are held under United Nations and/or Arab League auspices. Assad would probably reject any such proposal, but Moscow would at least set itself up to do what China is already doing: avoid being condemned by public opinion in the Arab and Muslim Worlds for strongly supporting Assad, and minimize the obstacles to working with a new Syrian government in the (increasingly likely) event that it should arise.

Just as the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan vitiated many of the achievements made by Soviet foreign policy toward the Middle East from the 1950s through the 1970s, Moscow’s strong support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria against the forces of the Arab Spring threatens to negate the achievements of Putin’s foreign policy toward the Middle East in the first decade of the 21st century. History, though, need not repeat itself if Moscow would focus less on thwarting American foreign policy and concentrate more on identifying and pursuing Russia’s long-term interests.