Historically, the Middle East has never been a Russia’s strategic priority comparable to Europe, the North-East Pacific or even the Central Asia. Unlike many other major European powers, Russia had no colonial ambitions in the region; it never considered the Middle East as its “sphere of influence” or as a critically important geostrategic or economic transit corridor. Until very recently, Russia had no experience of a direct use of its military power in the region, not to mention a claim to become the key external power broker in the Middle East.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in Moscow and in the West argued that the residual Russian influence in the Arab world, inherited from the heydays of the global Soviet imperial outreach, was doomed to decline continuously turning the Kremlin into an explicitly marginal player in the regional politics. Indeed, Russia’s interests and attention were limited mostly to three non-Arab states in the periphery of the Arab world. The first was Turkey — a highly controversial, but a very important partner in the Black Sea area and in the Northern and Southern Caucasus, in trade and investment, in energy and in tourism. The second was Iran — another difficult ally, which played an active role in many international matters very important to Moscow — from civil wars in Tajikistan and Afghanistan to the problem of the Caspian Sea partition. The third was Israel, with is large Russian and Russian-speaking diaspora and a thick fabric of political, economic, social, cultural, and human relations between the two countries.
As for the Arab core of the Middle East region, the climax of the Russian activism in the beginning of the XXI century was a successful effort to build a Russian-German-French coalition opposing the US-led international coalition invading Iraq in spring of 2003. However, even consorted efforts by Moscow, Berlin and Paris did not prevent the Iraqi War. Neither the situational trilateral collaboration grew into a multilateral strategic partnership on a broader range of Middle East problems. The United States, all the mistakes and blunders of the US Middle East policies notwithstanding, remained the unquestionable external hegemon of the Arab world. Russia could hope for only very modest progress in dealing with select Arab nations like Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
The relative stability of the region started to crumble in the wake of the Arab Spring. The changing situation presented Moscow both new challenges and new opportunities. On the one hand, the Kremlin had reasons to be concerned about a spillover effect of the Arab Spring, particularly in the post-Soviet Central Asia, but also in the Northern Caucasus and other Moslem populated regions of the Russian Federation. Politicians and policy pundits in Moscow looked at the Arab Spring through the lens of earlier ‘colored revolutions’ in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, which were regarded as direct threats to Russia’s security interests and Putin’s political system.
On the other hand, the Arab Spring and the apparent readiness of major Western counties to embrace enthusiastically ongoing changes in the Arab world presented the Kremlin a chance to demonstrate that Russia was different. Moscow stood by its strategic partners in the Middle East, articulated concerns about possible negative side effects of the swift and uncontrolled political and social transformation of the region and cautioned against a foreign support to anti-governmental, anti-regime forces riding the wave of the Arab Spring.
Vladimir Putin used the disappointments and frustrations, which the awakening of populist movements in the Middle East caused both within the region and outside of it, in order to offer his own narrative of the contemporary world politics. The traditional Western narrative defined the main dividing line in the world as the global divide between democracy and authoritarianism. Whatever that served the cause of democracy, should be encouraged and supported; whatever that contributed to the cause of authoritarianism, should be denounced and opposed.
The new Russia’s narrative, articulated after the beginning of the Arab Spring, argued that such a juxtaposition was no longer relevant in the post-modern world. The real dividing line was not between democracy and authoritarianism, but between “order” and “chaos”. With all the shortcomings and deficiencies of authoritarian regimes, these regimes were a preferred option compared to an uncontrolled and chaotic drive towards democracy. Whoever willingly or unwillingly, explicitly or implicitly supports chaos ends up on the ‘wrong side of history’; whoever stands for order against chaos, is on the ‘right side’. This interpretation of the can be regarded as biased, oversimplified and self-serving, but it clearly got a lot of traction in the Middle East region, especially among conservative political regimes concerned about a possible new wave of the Arab Spring.
Within this context the initial stage of the Russian military operation in Syria, launched in September of 2015, should be regarded primarily as a “pedagogical” action. The Russian intention was not to diminish the US positions in the Middle East, not to mention — to drive the US out of the region. It was clear from the very beginning that Moscow could not hope for replacing Washington in the Arab world as the prime security provider: it simply did not have the needed economic, political and military resources to do that. If the United States for its own reasons decided to withdraw from the region, the vacuum left would be filled not by Russia, but rather by Islamist radicals — not a very attractive outcome for Moscow. Therefore, the goal was not to drive the US out, but to change the American policy in Syria and, hopefully, in the region at large by demonstrating the “right approach” to managing regional crises. It was particularly important in view of the ongoing conflict in and around Ukraine — the Kremlin was concerned about implications of the conflict for its relations with the West and was willing to demonstrate that a Russian involvement could be not necessarily a part of the problem, but a large part of the solution.
This stage of the Russian military involvement in Syria lasted for about a year; throughout this year, Moscow persistently tried to engage Washington. Its efforts culminated in September of 2016 with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister and John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, signing a ceasefire deal for Syria, also agreeing to a joint US-Russian air campaign against Islamic State and other extremist groups and new negotiations on the country’s political future.
However, the deal turned out to be short-lived. Both sides accused each other of failing to deliver on their respective commitments; the conclusion made in Moscow was that instead of trying to engage with the West in Syria and beyond, Russia should focus on building a “coalition of the willing” from regional actors interested in reaching a ceasefire in Syria.
Trying to forge an alliance of regional actors, Moscow counted on the major comparative advantage that distinguished Russia from other main out of area powers involved in Middle East crises — it enjoyed good relations with practically all local players — Sunnis and Shias, Iran and Arab states of the Gulf, Israelis and Palestinians, Turks and Kurds, and so on. The Russian regional activism was also inadvertently encouraged by the US Trump Administration that could not decide on its approach to either Syria or to the regional at large. The launch of the Astana process in the very end of 2016, turned out to be a significant political victory for Moscow. Throughout 2017 Russia was consistently trying to capitalize on this initial success by broadening the range of participants to the Astana process and expanding the conversation beyond tactical de-escalation and ceasefire mechanisms to a more sustainable political settlement.
The second stage of Russia’s direct engagement in the region turned out more successful than the first one. However, it also demonstrated a number of limitations. Iran and Turkey turned out to be incapable or unwilling to control many non-state groups fighting in Syria. Impressive military success on the ground made Damascus less incentivized to discuss a political settlement in Geneva, made Bashar Assad more self-confident and arrogant. Trying to engage Turkey, Moscow alienated Syrian Kurds, who turned to US for support and protection. Finally, Donald Trump turned out to be a loose cannon in the region, much more inclined to use the US military power against the Damascus regime directly than his predecessor without making any serious commitments to a political settlement and a post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. The so-called Congress of Peoples of Syria that Russia convened in Sochi in early 2018, clearly failed to produce a breakthrough in the situation on the ground; neither had it indicated a visible progress in conceptualizing the political transformation of Syria in the direction of a more pluralistic, more representative and less centralized state.
To maintain its current position of a critical power broker in Syria as well as in a broader Middle East context, the Kremlin has to figure out how to cope with three recent developments that call for significant adjustments in the Russian strategy.
First, the defeat of ISIS, which is definitely a positive development for everybody engaged in Syria and in neighboring countries, has an important downside. Old regional rivalries, animosities, fears and conflicts that were put aside in order to fight the common enemy, are back to stage. It might become increasingly difficult for Russia to forge even tactical alliances in the region, not to mention strategic coalitions.
Second, the current Israeli-Iranian and US — Iranian rift immensely complicates Russia’s role as an ‘honest broker’ in the region. Neither Israel, nor Iran is completely happy with the Russian policy of balancing its relations with the two states; each of the parties tries to pull Moscow to its side of the conflict. The risks of alienating either Teheran or Jerusalem, or even both of them, are on the rise.
Finally, if Damascus finally has a complete military victory and regains control over most of the Syrian territory, its current dependence on Moscow will inevitably decrease. Russia and its partners can arguably win the war, but they cannot win the peace in Syria in the sense that they do not have resources needed to launch the process of the post-conflict reconstruction in the country. No matter who is going to be in power in Damascus by the end of the war, the leadership of Syria will have to look for other partners and allies with pockets deeper than the ones that Moscow, Teheran or Ankara have.
First published in the ISPI Report Building Trust: the Challenge of Peace and Stability in the Mediterranean