Russia is trying to avoid alliances with these or other groups of players in order to ensure freedom of action for itself, in part, in developing bilateral relations with each of these states, writes Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, Senior Advisor of the Foreign Policy Planning Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Moscow’s initiatives in the Middle East are aimed at pooling efforts to counter common threats or ensuring de-escalation.
The history of the Soviet involvement in Middle Eastern affairs is bound to affect Russia’s current policy in the region. The nations of the Middle East remember the Soviet role in the context of decolonization, formation of their statehood, military assistance and construction of key infrastructure facilities. However, the current conditions allow Russia to make better use of its natural competitive advantages. The Middle East is no longer an arena of confrontation between the superpowers in the classic understanding of blocs. The end of the Cold War and, hence, Moscow’s new ability to pursue a policy free of ideological confrontation allows Russia to conduct a multi-vector course in the Middle East. It is noteworthy that Russia’s policy in the Middle East is currently the most diversified and ideology-free – at least compared with the US policy (and especially the line of the Trump administration).
Russia’s bloc-free foreign policy mentality allowed it to take part in all multilateral efforts of Syrian settlement – from the ISSG to Astana, and to carry out in parallel bilateral agreements by putting them into the context of other existing formats, such as the ceasefire agreements in Eastern Ghouta, Jobar and Homs signed by the Russian military and armed opposition groups in Cairo in the summer of 2017 or the talks of Russian representatives with illegal armed groups on eliminating de-escalation zones, which led to the transfer of three or four such zones – Eastern Ghouta, South, Hama/Homs – under the control of the Syrian government; all of this was presented in the context of implementing the Astana agreements. Deals with the forces “on the ground” were insured by contacts with sponsors of these or other units because the domestic political situation allowed them to make concessions or exchanges as distinct from the United States.
The start of the operation by the Russian Aerospace Forces in support of the counterterrorism efforts by the Syrian Arab Republic in the fall of 2015 obviously became a turning point, a kind of a game changer in the context of the Syrian settlement. Paradoxically, this use of force received a positive response from the majority of regional players – even from those that supported the anti-government forces in Syria at that time: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was particularly welcomed by the countries that emphasize their counterterrorism agenda or objected to the suspension of Syria’s membership of the Arab League, for instance Egypt, Iraq and Algeria. Although the operation by the Russian Aerospace Forces objectively strengthened the positions of the Syrian government “on the ground” (and hence in the political process), in the global context “Russia’s return to the Middle East” (this is how Arab representatives often formulated it) was perceived as a positive factor capable of counterweighing US policy in the region, which was not assessed unequivocally even by the US allies in the Middle East and North Africa.
Characteristically, the task of discrediting the humanitarian and human rights aspects of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation was entrusted to Western-funded organizations, such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, as well as structures with headquarters in the West that operated with reliance on “the Syrian activists” (either from among the migrants or elements on the ground that were oriented towards illegal armed units, such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (London), the Syrian Human Rights Committee (London), and Physicians for Human Rights (New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.), to name a few. These organizations collected and processed information with a view to accusing the Bashar al-Assad “regime” and the Russian military of war crimes and crimes against humanity (the latter accusation was made against Damascus). To become legitimate, this information went through the UN “black box” (the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic established by the Human Rights Council, etc.) and was later used by the Western leaders to create a simple logical chain: “In the UN estimate, Bashar al-Assad and his entourage are war criminals. Russia is helping al-Assad to commit human rights violations on a mass scale and therefore bears its share of responsibility.”
As distinct from their Western colleagues, if the region’s countries criticized the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria, they did so through opposition members or the clerics under their control but abstained from direct attacks against Moscow at the official level.
If the West perceived the start of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria as a “challenge,” the region’s countries saw it as an indication of returning to square one. They considered the “reincarnation of the rivalry of the great powers” that was taken to the periphery as a positive, balancing factor that could keep one player (notably, the United States) from pursuing an unpredictable anything-goes policy. In the long-term, this prevailed over the negative consequences of Russia’s presence on the ground, which that complicated the task of overthrowing the al-Assad regime.
Unlike the United States, Russia is able to maintain working relations with all regional playe
Incidentally, the emphasis of some colleagues (primarily from the West) on some “other side of the medal” as regards the Russia-Iran cooperation on Syria (in the bilateral format and the Astana venue) makes no sense. They are trying to present this cooperation as some Russia-Shia axis that is alienating the Arab world from Moscow, primarily the countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and the Sunni opposition in Syria. However, this view is contrary to hard facts. Russia has become the only country involved in the Syrian file to preserve contacts with all players in Syria without exception: the Syrian Government, political and armed opposition’s organizations (except those classified as terrorist) and the states involved in the Syrian settlement. There are examples of joint action by Russia and the armed Sunni opposition “on the ground”, for instance, the participation of the Shabab Al Sunnah in the operation to free the valley of the Yarmouk River from ISIS, in which the Russian Aerospace Forces were involved. The same is true of Russia-Israel interaction, which has not been marred by Moscow-Tehran cooperation. In the framework of Syrian settlement, Russia and Israel not only discussed “deconflicting” initiatives but also cooperated “on the ground”. Importantly, it was Russia that ensured the withdrawal of the pro-Iran forces from the Golan Heights and the Russian military police ensures security in this area, thereby creating the conditions for the mission of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
Russia is trying to avoid alliances with these or other groups of players in order to ensure freedom of action for itself, in part, in developing bilateral relations with each of these states. Moscow’s initiatives in the Middle East are aimed at pooling efforts to counter common threats or ensuring de-escalation, be it the idea of establishing an international anti-terrorist coalition proposed by Vladimir Putin in 2015 or the initiative on drafting security- and trust-building measures in the Persian Gulf (2007), to name a few.
Today a lot is said about the formation of a polycentric world order. This process is clearly visible in the Middle East, where there is an increase in the number of regional players who are ready to defend their interests more actively. The current situation provides a chance only for a state that is positioning itself outside of any blocks.
Of course, the complex of bilateral relations with each country of the Middle East has a sufficient value for Russia. If we rise above the bilateral agenda and take the regional problems, then the most important priority for Moscow is to reduce the terrorist threat. This is due to the interests of the national security of the country. One of the most important tasks, including MENA, is to preserve the statehood of Middle East countries and to direct any processes of transformation of the existing regimes into a constitutional course. This principle is of continuing importance regardless of a country (whether it is Ukraine, Venezuela or Syria) and is determined not least by the domestic political considerations, but also by the desire to prevent the implementation of foreign engineering projects in a strategically important post-Soviet space.
In a broader sense, the long-term goal of Russia is to create a “net” of sustainable partnerships with all major regional players in order to consolidate and subsequently increase its presence in the Middle East. Equal approaches to the main regional centers of power and de-ideologization are the only non-competitive basic concepts of Russia's successful policy in the region at the present stage.