Qioptiq logo Raytheon

Russia in a Changing Middle East

russianflagThe Middle East holds a special meaning for Russia. The region links Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa. Any conflicts and terrorist attacks in the region arouse Russian concern, since the Former Soviet Union’s borders are not well fortified, and Russia remains vulnerable to the flow of radicalism, terrorists and terrorist recruiters into the Caucasus and Central Asia. Before the Arab Spring, Russia managed to build relationships with a number of different players in the Middle East, including Iran, Israel, certain Arab states, Hamas and Hezbollah. Under today’s conditions of deepening interstate and inter-faith tensions in the Middle East, this problem of conflicting interests has become very acute for Russian policy-makers. Russia’s policy in and toward the Middle East has developed a more clearly defined position, in response to new trends and profound changes in the region. The political processes unfolding in the Middle East have seen the formation of a new regional landscape. As a result of powerful social, ethnic, tribal, religious, and ideological differences, many Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa have endured periods of grave crisis. Mass protests, revolutions, revolts, and coups have had a serious impact on hitherto delicately balanced domestic political situations, challenged local elites, escalated into civil wars and left the future of the state itself in doubt. Many who have been analyzing the Arab Spring phenomenon focus on the fact that its causes and results formed a kind of crisis of the Middle Eastern nation-state. Ethnic, sectarian, and faith-based identities, local loyalties and solidarity groups have become much more viable than could have been expected within the paradigm of modernity. Domestic developments in the region were either caused or accompanied by regional actors and global powers following much more militant policies. Judging by the extent of the impact on the situation, regional powers have been increasingly overplaying the role of external actors. Countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE are working to strengthen their role in the region and beyond. Global powers also contributed to making the situation even less manageable. Attempts to rebuild institutions in Iraq were only partially successful. Sectarianism started to dominate political 2 transformation, with Sunni politicians and managers mostly replaced by Shiites. The law on “debaathification” and the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces left many Sunni professionals on the street. It is no surprise that a significant number of them joined ISIS. An important element in the Middle East scene is the deepening Sunni-Shiite confrontation. The tensions between the two are nothing new, however in recent years a number of factors have contributed to the strengthening of inter-faith tensions and to their further politicization. For example, Shiite dominance in various institutions in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein sent a signal to Shiite communities and groups in other countries. Hezbollah became much more active in Lebanon. The defeat of the Iraqi military machine and the new balance of political forces in Iraq have led to the consolidation of Iran’s role in Iraq, in the Gulf and beyond, as it pursues its claim to leadership in the Middle East and in the Muslim world. Iranian-Saudi rivalry has been even more obvious. This dynamic has been especially clearly expressed in Yemen. In addition to heightened Shiite-Sunni tensions, the situation was also marked by a deep split in the Sunni camp caused by cross-border activities of an extremist organization – Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS has positioned itself as working toward a global project – establishing the caliphate. Its activists denounce and condemn Arab national movements and states. Islamic State has huge resources and ideological appeal, controls vast territories, and unites supporters from all around the world. This is a new phenomenon, since it has not only been fighting against all that runs counter to its concept of the world order, but has also put forward its own state-building project. As the Middle East is coming to the forefront of international relations, Russia’s objectives in the region have taken on several new dimensions. First, Moscow has tried to put an end to interference by the U.S. and its NATO allies in the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern states aiming to achieve regime change. The toppling of dictators (Iraq, Libya) resulted in chaos, new waves of migration and the emergence of new jihadist groups. According to Russian analysts, this interference is becoming more universal and has even extended to Ukraine. Moscow has therefore been trying to create new rules for this new world order. These rules include principles banning the United States or other powers from unilaterally declaring regimes illegitimate and demanding their dismissal. The Russian leadership believes that the UN should develop clear criteria to distinguish between genuine national uprisings and rebellions instigated by outside forces. “Color revolutions” and interventions to support the opposition should be renounced. Second, Russia was ready to implement a new activist policy in the region that was to prove its indispensability as a major international player, hence its policy vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program and its intervention in Syria. The third objective can be achieved following the success of the second. The Russian leadership has been trying to overcome the sanctions and political isolation imposed on the country following the Ukraine crisis. Western sanctions were a key factor leading Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek new diplomatic openings and exploit growing Arab frustrations with the U.S., for example during a visit to Egypt, which included a Saudi-financed arms deal. On the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin and Prince Salman reportedly signed six deals, including contracts in space cooperation, infrastructure development, and a nuclear cooperation agreement that could see Russia help to build up to 16 nuclear power stations in the Kingdom. Russian involvement in Syria has sparked tensions with the Saudis, while the explosion of the Russian Airbus passenger liner over Sinai stopped the flow of Russian tourists to Egypt, dealing the Egyptian tourist industry a powerful blow. 3 The terrorist attacks in France and terrorist arrests in Belgium and Germany have marked a change in the situation. The Russian military operation against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria has taken on additional rationale and gained legitimacy. What’s more, France has been referred to as a Russian ally in the military operation in Syria. The Syrian dimension The Russian military operation in Syria and the creation of a new coalition (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, the Kurds) to fight the enemy on the ground has drawn significant attention to Russia’s Middle East policy. From the military and political point of view, Russia’s actions are unprecedented. The combination of air and naval forces, an element of surprise both at the strategic and at the decision-making levels, new types of arms and equipment, combined with sorties carried out by highly trained pilots are all parts of what make this so unprecedented. Russian military intervention in this conflict in the Arab world has no historical precedent per se – as unlike other global powers neither the Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union ever fought with the Arabs. In order to address the factors that prompted the Russian Federation to start a military operation, one has to look at the history of Soviet-Syrian and Russian-Syrian relations. The evolution of Syrian Baathists into the main Soviet ally in the Arab world was not accidental. Syria as a secular regime, and as one of the region’s most socially and economically effective states, became a kind of showcase for Soviet aid and support. Syria had acquired even greater significance for Moscow than Egypt, which even at the height of friendship and cooperation sought to diversify its ties and tried to distance itself from the tight embrace of the USSR. While for the Syrian regime developing relations with the USSR meant following in the footsteps of Soviet policy, for Moscow it meant lending a more responsive ear to Syrian concerns and fears, which did not always coincide with the Soviet Union’s broader interests in the Middle East. For example, the Syrians, who had been in permanent conflict with Israel, impacted Soviet policy on the eve of the 1967 war. Hafez al-Assad, after coming to power in 1971, made a bid for a more realistic course and a greater autonomy in Syria’s domestic and foreign policy. Extensive military aid and training enabled Syria to achieve a very limited, but psychologically important gain in the October 1973 war. Syria became the number one Soviet ally after U.S. mediation had brought Anwar Sadat to sign the Camp David Accords in 1978. In the early 1990s a relative decrease in the region’s importance to Russia was primarily dictated by fundamental changes to the system of international relations after the collapse of the USSR. The rejection of confrontation with the West as the main component of the bipolar world, Russia’s limited resources, the gradual formation of a polycentric world with the U.S. still playing the leading role, the elimination of the ideological factor in foreign policy decision-making – all this could not but affect the Russian approach to the Middle East. Russia under President Boris Yeltsin retained an interest in cooperation with its former Arab allies, albeit limited in remit and without binding obligations. Syria remained on the list and there were good reasons for this. First, Damascus was still a Soviet debtor; issues related to the resolution of this problem were constantly discussed at the bilateral meetings. Second, the Syrian army, once armed with Soviet weapons, was still in need of spare parts and supplies that could be obtained only from the Russian Federation. In turn, Russia was striving to retain its position in the Middle East arms market. Third, Syria has continued to play a leading role in the region, including its impact on the prospects for the ArabIsraeli conflict settlement. Accordingly, the Russian Federation had to take into account the position of Damascus toward the Palestinian problem and even try to influence it, since Moscow wished to retain its traditional involvement in the Middle East peace process. 4 The situation changed after the death of Hafez al-Assad and Bashar came to power. Bashar was never as close to Moscow as his father was, and were it not for the civil war and foreign interference in Syria, Russian policy toward this country would have not become as pro-active. Moscow’s goal of preventing the overthrow of the Assad regime was informed by the following considerations. First, the Russian Federation opposed the creation of preconditions for the repetition either of a Libyan scenario (Russia felt deceived following the missions expansion) or that of a “color revolution”. Second, events in Syria following a collapse of the regime could have had powerful destructive consequences for the entire region. One option would be the capture of Damascus by ISIS, bringing them very close to realizing their goal of creating a caliphate. Meanwhile the situation on the ground has been getting more and more dramatic. ISIS and other Islamic radical groups gained control over up to 80 percent of Syria’s territory. In practical terms, the Russian Federation would prefer to see the secular regime in Syria preserved, possibly encouraging it to implement the necessary reforms and to prevent a spillover of radical Islam to other countries in the Middle East and beyond. A resurrection of Syrian statehood would secure Moscow’s foothold in the area, including coastal infrastructure such as a modernized naval base in Tartus (providing refuelling, repair services etc.) for the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, and an airbase in Latakia. This can explain Russia’s actions vis-a-vis Syria, which is often interpreted solely as support for Assad. Unfortunately certain Russian propagandists have contributed significantly to this misperception. Third, in its fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups Russia is motivated by domestic concerns. Thousands of Russian citizens from the North Caucasus, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan have already fled to fight for ISIS. The risk remains that they might return. ISIS activities in Central Asia are no less dangerous from the security point of view, particularly given the absence of a visa regime and porous borders. Pros and cons of military action Russian activism in Syria may have both positive and negative consequences. Potential political gains from the Russian Federation’s demonstration of determination, its increased international role and responsibility, its ability to cooperate during crises with a variety of powers – the U.S., EU, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian leadership, and parts of the Syrian opposition (albeit with differing degrees of success). A significant contribution by the Russian Federation to collective efforts to achieve a settlement could help build international trust, which is so needed at the moment. Moscow has leverage over Assad, who is known for his stubbornness, lack of vision, and rejection of even minor compromises. For Assad, his departure at the end of the transitional period or even before would not be acceptable. For him leaving the political heritage, built up by his father, to an obscure future would be a sort of personal trauma. His family has ruled Syria for a great many years, and the thought that he may not be able to keep this system intact is more than he can bear. Despite this, coordinated international efforts could make him accept the outcome of the eventual negotiations and national elections, particularly if coupled with guarantees that could be extended to him. This said, there are scant reasons for cautious optimism. Military involvement in Syria is fraught with serious risks for Russia. It has already strongly impacted Russian relations with Turkey. From the very beginning Turkey took an anti-Assad stand. It supported radical opposition groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, allowed Islamic fighters and volunteers to sneak through its border into Syria, and bombed the Kurds not ISIS. Turkish leaders believe that the Russian military operation in Syria is contrary to Turkish interests. Increasing tensions resulted in the shooting down of a Russian SU-24 by a Turkish F-16. This threatens to endanger bilateral relations and to puts the concept of a broader international coalition under question. The fact that Turkey is a 5 NATO member makes the situation even worse. It is obvious that cool heads are needed, but it is not clear if President Erdogan is interested in defusing the crisis. The worsening of recently improved relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states is also possible. For them the presence of Iran and Hezbollah, who have been fighting alongside the Syrian army, is totally unacceptable. Nor can aggravated tensions with Iran be excluded, even though Iran and Russia are on the same side against a common enemy. A significant Iranian presence in Syria may put Russia, which is protecting the Syrian state, in a difficult position. There could also be some friction with Israel. The Israelis have been trying to keep the skies over Syria open for the Israeli air force to operate freely in case of emergency. The containment of Hezbollah is much more important for Israel than the fight against ISIS. Israeli bombing of Hezbollah positions in Syria has already taken place. Israel is also concerned that the Iranian army will become stronger due to its military experience in Syria. Finally, ISIS has been continuously threatening Russia with a terrorist campaign on its soil. The November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris proved again that these threats should be taken very seriously. Any war tends to acquire logic of its own. A military operation of the kind that is required to achieve a quick victory involves a significant increase in strength. A slow, drawn-out war does not deliver positive results, and quickly becomes counterproductive. Some experts fear that Russia may eventually be forced to start a ground operation with all related consequences. If the offensive of the Syrian army and its allies runs out of steam, airstrikes alone would not be enough to defeat the extremists. Whether Russia will be forced to put boots on the ground is a question that has no answer right now. One cannot ignore the fact that Russia’s Shiite allies in Syria do little for its popularity in Sunni states, including some of the Muslim community in Russia itself. The prospects for the liberation of Syrian territories remain vague. Despite the Vienna agreement among 20 states that Syrian territorial integrity shall be kept intact, realistically speaking, the international community might end up with a “small” Syria, given the uncertain future of its other parts. Even if Syrian troops and their allies are able to make significant progress, it is unclear who (and how) will ensure good governance in the liberated territories, and who will provide the enormous financial assistance clearly needed for their recovery. In other words, a military victory could be just the beginning of an unknown path, with the notion of victory becoming increasingly blurred. The focus of the November 2015 meeting on Syria in Vienna was transformed by the Paris terrorist attacks. It was stressed that ISIS is an overt threat, one that cannot be defeated without ending the crisis in Syria, which requires a political process. High-level talks have produced an agreement to seek meetings between the opposition and the government of President Bashar al-Assad by the end of the year. The elections in Syria are supposed to take place within the next 18 months. The move from international discussions to action will not be easy, given the differences of goals and approaches of the parties involved. For Russia, a political process may open up the chance of improving relations and building trust with global and regional actors. It is important not to allow ongoing or upcoming crises to undermine this trend.

Back to article list