There are no zero-sum games or ideological motivated polarization in Russian policy in the Middle East. There are well calculated moves.
The consequences of the Russian operation in Syria are still shaping events in Levant. Some eyebrows are getting higher, since the separation lines between Moscow and Tehran in the Syrian crisis appear clearer with the time. Russia returned to the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu an Israeli tank, captured by the Syrian army during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was a resounding message that Russia's intervention in Syria was not on behalf of any party, involved in the regional conflict, but according to the pragmatic calculations and far away from Ideology. The rumoured announcement of joint Russian - Israeli naval manoeuvres in eastern Mediterranean broke the widely circulated illusions in the Middle East of presumed dual polarization between Russia, Syrian regime, Iran and its regional allies on one side against USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the armed opposition factions in Syria, on the other side. The matter is much more complicated than these simplistic ideological imaginations.
Russia in Levant: Characterization of the case
The Russian Federation has much more power than any of the regional powers in the Middle East, at least by virtue of the hierarchy in the current international system. According to that hierarchy major powers can exert influence on options of regional powers. We can presume that the Russian intervention in Syria came within the framework of a Russian plan to fill the gaps in the international system, left by the relative decline of the US influence. Since the Russian intervention in Syria, local conflicts in the Middle East are no longer the monopoly of regional powers, the international dimension of those conflicts is capturing the moment.
We have to keep in mind that Russian presence in Syria put it between Iran and Israel. In the first phase of the Russian operation the coordination with Tehran on land and with Tel Aviv in the air was very important for the military success. The reason was clear, in addition to geography both Tehran and Tel Aviv are shaping to a large extent the regional security agenda. In the next phase of the operation Moscow was keen to open the door for diplomatic solution of the Syrian crisis despite the fact, that it is a very hard goal to achieve. Russia had two motives, first to enhance its new position in the region, secondly to influence on the USA to make Washington negotiate the unsolved bilateral issues, starting from Ukraine crisis to Western sanctions against Russia. Russia's presence in Syria seems not to be of temporarily nature and can be hardly linked to the Syrian crisis exclusively. Control of two ports of Latakia and Tartous on the Syrian coast offer an excellent position on the eastern Mediterranean and a precious chance to influence the balance of power in Levant.
Russia as a regional player in the Middle East
Moscow is aware that the nuclear agreement between Iran and the six major powers did not reap the full fruition for Tehran until now. Tense relations between Tehran and Washington still exist. Moscow probably could pass its perceptions on Syria and Levant relatively easier, even in contrast to Tehran’s position. Turkey, the historical rival of Iran in the Levant, marginalized itself from the Syrian arena since the shutdown of the Russian jet, and seems to be the biggest regional loser after the Russian intervention in Syria. The Russian actions limited the Saudi margin of manoeuvre in Syria, but due to the relatively limited ambitions of Saudi Arabia in Syria (the aim is only to remove Bashar Al Assad from power, contrary to Turkey and its compositional goals there), the negotiation channels between Moscow and Riyadh could be opened in a later stage. Israel discovered that the cooperation with Moscow will provide it with a reasonable amount of influence on the events, much more than opposition to the Russian intervention from the very beginning, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia did. Tel Aviv would not abandon its alliance with the USA to Moscow’s favor, but it is ready to cooperate with Russia as long as it serves its interests, considering the Russian presence in the region.
If Moscow maintains good working relations with both Tehran and Tel Aviv, it could have the opportunity to launch settlement initiatives in the region on different issues, which ensures a permanent seat for Russia on Middle Eastern negotiation tables. On the other side, it is logical and understandable, that Moscow is trying to reevaluate its relations with other regional powers in the region in order to bolster its new position. The doors for negotiations with Turkey are not completely closed and there is a common interest between Moscow and Ankara to improve bilateral ties. Turkey wants a wider margin of manoeuvre, than its current status, and Moscow does not want to limit its options to one regional power, since Russia became a major regional player in the Middle East since its military presence in Syria.
Russia and its energy calculations
On the surface, nothing can bring together the four competing regional powers in the Middle East: Iran, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They have different goals, conflicting policies and collisional ideologies. However, a deeper look could reveal a very important similarity for Moscow: all four regional powers could influence the Russian energy calculations in one way or another. Iran is the second producer of natural gas worldwide after Russia; Turkish geography could facilitate the penetration of Russian natural gas to the Mediterranean via pipelines. Saudi Arabia has a crucial position in oil market and can influence the prices; Israel claims huge natural gas resources in eastern Mediterranean. In this context the rumoured Russian-Israeli naval exercises would mean that Russia is marking its new sphere of influence in eastern Mediterranean, and demonstrates that it is not siding with one party against others. In general, Russian companies’ participation in shareholdings of natural gas reserves along Syrian, Israeli, and later Lebanese coasts would boost the Russian status as global energy provider.
There are no zero-sum games or ideological motivated polarization in Russian policy in the Middle East. There are well calculated moves. Vladimir Putin follows in the region a new form of the dialectic law "unity and conflict of opposites", without taking into consideration pure ideological matters. But despite the complexity of the Russian calculations, there is no guaranty for its success. Everything is related to the balance of power in the international arena, rather than the power constellations in the Middle East.