The military operation in Syria marked the return of Russia to the role of an active player in the Middle East. The experience of recent years has shown that its presence irritates the West, but is perceived by most countries it the region as a positive factor. Experts from the Valdai Club explain the basic features of Russian politics in the Middle East, how Moscow manages to establish a dialogue with almost all parties to regional conflicts and what role the memory of the role of the USSR plays in Middle Eastern affairs.
By September 2015, the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL and Daesh; banned in Russia) controlled as much as 70% of the territory of Syria and 30% of the territory of Iraq. Its fighting force numbered in the tens of thousands. The de jure government of Syria factually only maintained control over the nation’s capital Damascus and a number of coastal provinces.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the creation of a genuine, broad-based international anti-terrorist coalition against ISIS. He also condemned the refusal of Western countries to cooperate with the Syrian authorities and the Syrian Army (which he commended for their courageous fight against terror), calling their actions a “huge mistake.” He also made mention of the refugee crisis that had swept over Europe. According to Putin, the only way to solve this problem for good would be “to restore statehood where it has been destroyed, to strengthen government institutions where they still exist, or are being re-established, to provide comprehensive military, economic and material assistance to countries in a difficult situation and certainly to people who, despite all their ordeals, did not abandon their homes.”
His words concerned the consequences of the so-called Arab Spring, which had been enthusiastically supported by Western countries. Since 2011, protests had been sweeping across the Arab world with demands for change. In several states of the Middle East and North Africa, there were revolutions that had led to the overthrow of ruling regimes, and Libya, Syria and Yemen had been plunged into bloody civil wars. ISIS, which originated in Iraq after the country was invaded by the United States and its allies in 2003, sharply increased its influence in 2014, when its militants took the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa. Since September 2014, a coalition led by the United States had launched air strikes in Syria. Washington did not hide the fact that the goal of this operation was not only to fight ISIS, but also to support the Syrian opposition, which since 2011 has opposed the government in Damascus.
“We are aware of all the problems and conflicts in the region, but we definitely have to consider the actual situation on the ground,” Putin said at the General Assembly meeting. In the conflicts in the Middle East and particularly in Syria, external players were participating directly or indirectly: not only Western countries, but also regional powers that supported one group or another, including those opposing the so-called Islamic State. But the situation on the ground was worsening every day: ISIS militants were extending their control, occupying more and more communities and sowing terror in the territories they already occupied.
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
On August 26, 2015, Moscow and Damascus signed an agreement on the deployment of Russian warplanes to Syria. In accordance with this, Russia began to transfer its aircraft to Khmeimim Air Base near the city of Latakia in September. On September 30, the Federation Council approved the president’s request for the use of the Russian armed forces outside the country, and on the same day, the warplanes dealt their first blows against the militants. Russian support strengthened the morale of the Syrian Army, which a month later launched a large-scale offensive.
One of the reasons that prompted Russia to take a direct part in the Syrian conflict was that ISIS constituted a completely new type of terrorist threat. Using modern means of communication, the group has recruited supporters in many countries around the world, most notably in Western Europe and in the former Soviet countries. “In the camps of the Islamic State, fighters from many countries, including European ones, are gaining combat experience,” Putin said at the General Assembly. “Unfortunately, and I must say this directly, dear colleagues, Russia is no exception here.”
The participation of the Russian armed forces in the Syrian conflict has become a visible sign of Russia’s return to the Middle East as an active player. It is noteworthy that it was perceived with wariness in the West, but warmly received in the region itself. “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,” said Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, a Valdai Club expert, who is senior advisor to the Foreign Policy Planning Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. 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.
This amiable reaction is largely due to the fact that most of the countries in the Middle East had been disappointed with the US role in resolving regional crises. “Russia’s return was a clear result of the failure of the American policy in solving the political problems existing in our region,” said Amal Abou Zeid, a member of the Lebanese parliament from the Free Patriotic Movement. This paved the way for Russia “to introduce itself as a decent broker and mediator, while maintaining close ties with different players and factors.”
The return of Russia was perceived by the countries of the Middle East as “a positive, balancing factor that could keep one player (notably, the United States) from pursuing an unpredictable anything-goes policy,” Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva notes. Countries seeking to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad realized that Russia’s presence in Syria made this task harder, but, nevertheless, saw the arrival of the new player as offering a new chance to resolve the region’s long-standing problems.
A paradoxical situation had arisen: accusations against Russia because of its participation in the Syrian conflict were heard from the West, but not in the Middle East. None of them, says Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, did not officially join the Western information campaign aimed at criticizing the actions of the Russian leadership: “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.”
One feature of Russia’s presence in the Middle East is its ability to build relationships with all parties. “Russia has been able to maintain its relations and develop cooperation with all main regional players in the Middle East, despite the contradictions among them,” says Valdai expert Nourhan ElSheikh, a professor of political science at the University of Cairo, naming Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine and Israel. “Russia has seemed open to all parties with high diplomatic capabilities and wisdom in managing its policy. It is moving along parallel paths to achieve its objectives and interests, while avoiding confrontation with other great powers active in the region.”
Two countries listed by Professor ElSheikh stand out from the rest mentioned. Turkey is an external player for the region, although historically the territory of a significant number of modern Arab states was part of the Ottoman Empire or was within its sphere of influence. President Erdogan, more than any of his predecessors, has sought to assert Turkey’s influence in the Arab world, and his ambitions have yielded a mixed reaction. Pro-Turkish forces continue to operate in Syria; it was they who killed the Russian pilot Oleg Peshkov in November 2015 after his plane was shot down by the Turkish Air Force. The destruction of the Russian aircraft caused a crisis in relations between the two countries, but contact wasn’t interrupted. Following the attempted coup in Turkey the following summer, when the Russian president expressed support for Erdogan, the two countries quickly managed to reverse the negative trend in relations. Since then, the Astana peace talks, in which Russia, Turkey and Iran participate, have become the most effective mechanism for resolving the Syrian crisis today.
While Syria’s post-war governance and the Kurdish issue remain the most contentious issues in Russian-Turkish relations, Valdai Club expert Dmitry Egorchenkov, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at Peoples’ Friendship University, admits, in his own words, that practice has shown “the tactic of taking small steps is allowing the two countries to restore balance in their relations”.
The other special case is Israel. “While Israel has been in a state of permanent confrontation with the Assad regimes for decades and is therefore interested in new forces taking power in Damascus, if radical Islamists gained control over Syria, Israel would face the biggest threat to its national security since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egorchenkov says. Iran’s military interest in Syria is a factor that is of no less concern to Israel: it is the most important topic discussed in numerous meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin. “In the case of Tel Aviv,” continues Egorchenkov, “Russia is a unique international actor that simultaneously enjoys respect among Arab countries and the Israeli leadership, tacitly acting as a mediator at critical moments.”
The Valdai Club’s Lebanese expert agrees with this opinion. According to Amal Abou Zeid, Russia can play an important role in resolving the Palestinian crisis. “This is due to the fact that it has close ties with both the Palestinians and Israel, and we expect Russia to become the main engine of the peace process and the resolution of the crisis,” he says. “We in Lebanon, as well as other Arab countries, approve of and appreciate the diplomacy of Russia in the region. It is diplomacy based on a respect for national interests, dedication and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
“Despite the contradictions created by the Russian stance on the Syrian crisis with some countries in the region, in the long-term the Russian position was appreciated, said Nourhan ElSheikh. “Russia seemed to be a ‘respectable’ partner supporting its allies, does not interfere in the internal affairs of the countries in the region, and does not manipulate the stability of these countries, using ethnic, religious, sectarian differences to serve its interests. Similarly, with regard to regional differences, Moscow usually takes a position that supports containment and compromise solutions through dialogue and direct negotiations between the parties concerned, which gained respect and confidence of regional players and encouraged them to build ‘stable’ partnership with Russia. This is quite different from the impression on US policy.”
Russia not only effectively conducted its military operation in Syria, which allowed the country to reverse the situation on the ground in the first several months, it also played a key role in the peace process. This would not have been possible without its interaction with Iran and Turkey. According to Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, the starting point for the activation of interaction between Russia and the countries of the region on issues aside from bilateral relations was the failure of the implementation of the Russian-American agreement on Eastern Aleppo in September 2016. The United States was unable to comply with the terms of its agreement to compel the withdrawal of units of the armed opposition and its heavy weapons from Castello Road, reminds the expert. “This demonstrated Washington’s extremely limited influence on the forces ‘on the ground’ and prompted Moscow to look for alternative negotiating partners in the region, which had much greater influence on the illegal armed formations,” says Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva. “The solution of the Eastern Aleppo issue through contacts with Turkey in late 2016 (by way of pullout of the radical part of the armed opposition into Idlib) created the conditions for the emergence of the Astana format (Russia, Turkey and Iran), which enabled the sides to reach important agreements on the situation on the ground and a number of political issues (such as the holding of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi and the decision to establish a Constitutional Committee). The experience of Russia’s participation in different formats of the Syrian settlement confirms that the best results are achieved when a stake is made on the players that have a real influence on conflict participants.”
Nourhan ElSheikh, University of Cairo
Interestingly, Russia’s current network of partners and allies in the Middle East is noticeably different from those maintained by the Soviet Union. Perhaps Syria alone is a model of allied relations which have never been interrupted, despite the different level of intensity. “Contacts between the two countries before the start of the civil war in 2011 were limited due to Moscow’s modest involvement in the affairs of the Middle East,” says Dmitry Egorchenkov. As for other countries where the Soviet Union once exerted certain influence, Russia at one time or another “left” them. On the other hand, there are examples of partnerships that developed exclusively in the post-Soviet era: Russia now maintains a close relationship with Iran and Turkey, as well as intensive working contacts with Israel and an emerging partnership with Saudi Arabia; these relationships are the fruit of Russian diplomacy in recent years.
Russia’s Soviet legacy plays a dual role. “On the one hand, there is wide appreciation of the Soviet role, and Russia is an extension of this role in supporting the Arab countries both politically and militarily,” says Nourhan ElSheikh. “Russia is an important partner in achieving progress and development in Arab countries. But, on the other hand, many have not realized yet the changes in Russian politics and economy. The communist system and economic deterioration is still in their mind when thinking about Russia.”
However, this is clearly not the case in the poorest country of the region, Yemen. There, according to Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, there are quite curious sentiments about Russia. Many representatives of the political elite of the former South Yemen speak in favour of Russia participating more actively in the self-determination of these territories, with some even advocating the creation of an independent state. “The argument is fairly simple,” says the expert: “As a former ally of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Moscow should return to this territory in a new capacity and facilitate its self-determination and recovery. Such attitudes are bound to reach the local government in the south of that country, including the UAE-oriented Southern Transitional Council, which is forced to consider them in its policy.”
Russia’s current approach to relations with the countries of the Middle East differs from that of the Soviet Union. Moscow takes into account one of the main mistakes of the Soviet period and does not impose any historically untimely principles and guidelines on local governments, Dmitry Egorchenkov notes. “The US is now making the same mistake by demanding that its partners follow the main principles of democracy as interpreted by the US,” the policy expert says.
Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Since the Middle East is no longer an arena of confrontation between the superpowers in the classic “bloc” sense, Moscow has the ability to pursue a policy that is free from ideological confrontation, adds Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva. “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),” she says. “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.”
According to the Valdai Club experts, Russia’s policy goals in the Middle East are quite transparent. Their most important aim is the reduction of the terrorist threat: due to Russia’s geographic proximity to the Middle East (only about 600 kilometers from the northern border of Syria to the Russian border in the North Caucasus), Moscow is interested in a steadily developing and peaceful Middle East, says Egorchenkov. Preventing the “drift” of terrorism to the north will remain a key task.
Another important focal point for interaction is the energy sector. This represents a significant step forward from the Soviet era, when Moscow did not have the mechanisms to engage in a dialogue with Middle Eastern energy suppliers and the fall in oil prices in the late 1980s dealt a heavy blow to the USSR. “Trust-based relations with local political elites allow Russia, as one of the largest hydrocarbon exporters, to find a common language and coordinate interests with its partners,” emphasizes Yegorchenkov. OPEC+ was created thanks to the interaction between Moscow and Riyadh, which has proven its effectiveness in damping fluctuations in oil prices.
The fundamental principle of interaction between Moscow and the countries of the region is respect for sovereignty and encouraging any peaceful processes which transform the existing regimes into constitutional governments, emphasizes Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva. The nations of the Middle East, in the wake of the sometimes-disastrous consequences of the Arab Spring are beginning to appreciate it more and more. However, this does not mean that influential regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, will stop from attempting to interfere in the affairs of their neighbors. Yemen provides a vivid illustration of a chaotic situation which has arisen amid the active participation of external forces in internal political processes.
The current situation in the Middle East has been characterized by the powers of the region playing an increased role. This differs from the Cold War era, when the confrontation between the superpowers allowed the countries of the region to join one bloc or the other, or maneuver between them; it also differs from the epoch of American domination and “democratization” that followed. The region has become more fragile, and the threats of destabilization are higher than ever. Russia’s non-aligned status and equidistance have afforded the country many opportunities that it is able to use successfully. While the country has “returned” to the Middle East and many welcome its presence, there are still many new challenges ahead, which can only be answered in a comprehensive manner, through the use of the diplomatic, economic and military tools Moscow has at its disposal.