Alvydas Medalinskas *: Middle East policy of Russia and the International Security


If Russia’s policy in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine, starting from 2014, had to show to the world that Russia is back, as a strong regional power in this part of Europe, so Russia’s actions in Syria was in some way a manifestation of claim that Russia is also the country with global foreign and security policy interests.

Everything started from Syria, because it was the only remaining place, where Russia had abroad, outside of CIS countries region, some military presence.

But it was also another explanation, why Russia started its way towards the participation in global politics from Syria and the Middle East.

Four years ago Tom Nichols and John Schindler warned on the real possibility that Russia might come back to the Middle East and will seek to regain some lost positions in the world politics after the end of Cold War.  

One of the main reasons for Kremlin comeback to Middle East, as they pointed out, was U.S feckless policy of in this region, which created conditions, where Russia was able to emerge as a key player in the security of this region.

There are more and more signs that American power in the region is in retreat.

Everybody realize that this is the testimony to the success of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which saved President Bashar al-Assad after years of U.S. and Western allies in the region insistence that he must finally go.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Russia was a bystander, unable to do more than protest.

The situation began to change in 2013, when the U.S. under Obama decided not to attack Assad. Two years later, Putin sent troops and planes to defend him.

A regional war, that President Obama was not interested, became a theatre where Russia got to show off its military strength, accumulate diplomatic capital and give a domestic audience a steady diet of stirring military victory.

Syria was in some way a weak link in the Western policy in the Middle East.

Western allies in the region, Arab Sunni countries, supported in the Syrian war a very loose grouping of rebel fighters, so called opposition to President Assad, which had many conflicting interests among themselves.

Some of these fighters at the end became radicalized. It was very difficult for the West to rely on them, at the end even to distinguish from radical Islamists.

On the other side, Kurds in Syria were against interests of Western ally in the NATO: Turkey. But apart of them, US did not have reliable partners in Syria.

Strong, organized domestic political opposition, who’s representatives would express deep sympathy towards the West, also did not exist in Syria, as such.

When Moscow managed to create a loose alliance between Damascus regime forces, Iran Guards and also Hezbollah, other Shia military groups in the region, supported by Teheran, Russia became an influential player. At the beginning this concerned Syria. Now influence reach to Libya, Iraq Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia.    

Such new reality is recognized by the Americans themselves.

For example, by Dennis Rosss, former America’s chief Mideast peace negotiator, who advised to several presidents from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama, is saying now : “It changed the reality and the balance of power on the ground,”. Putin has succeeded in making Russia a factor in the Middle East. That’s why a constant stream of Middle Eastern visitors going to Moscow.”

He is right.

The Israelis and Turks, the Egyptians and Jordanians, also Kurds -- they’re all went this year to Kremlin with the hope that Vladimir Putin, the new master of the Middle East, can secure their interests and fix their problems.

The latest in the line was Saudi King Salman.

Americans and Europeans are particularly alarmed by Russia giving it’s S-300 air defence missile systems to Syria and selling it’s S-400 air defense missile systems to former allies of the West:  Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a NATO country.

The presence of these systems increases vulnerability of Western interests there.

During the same time, when Russia and Belarus this September organized military exercises Zapad 2017 close to the borders of Baltic States, Moscow organized also military exercises with the Egypt in the Middle Eastern region.

Ivo Daalder, the former US representative in NATO Council, draws attention, that by increasing military presence in the sea and air, (because of involvement in Syria), Russia put the end to full Western control of Eastern Mediterranean, including very strategic Suez Canal region. He also says that Moscow’ s presence there, creates possibility for Russia to be able to attack European countries from the naval forces in Mediterranean, which carry long range rockets. Therefore, he makes conclusion, that Russia’s military presence in The Mediterranean is no less dangerous than forces located on the border of Baltic States and Poland.

 ,,Bloomberg” in the recent publication called Vladimir Putin a new master of the Middle East, following a visible American retreat.

Political analysts from the European countries also recognized effectiveness of Moscow actions and involvement in Syria’s affairs.

For example, Stefan Meisner from the German Association of Foreign Policy says that military operations in Crimea and Syria showed the Russian army’s astonishing progress in speed, communication, discipline, and equipment.

However, he points out that Russia’s economy do not support such long terms actions and could turn against Russia’s achievements in the long run. 

In the period between 2015 and up to now it looked like that for Vladimir Putin events in Syria came as a real gift. His 2015 military intervention propelled Russia back to the top diplomatic tables of the world.

At home, the war took over as a booster of Putin’s prestige, just as the euphoria over the annexation of Crimea was being eroded by economic bad news caused by low oil prices and sanctions. Syria was also a exit for Putin after he did not achieve his goals in Ukraine with his idea to set up a Novorosya there.

 In the Middle East, Russia was able to show friends and enemies that it once again able to project power, as effectively, as the Soviet Union had once done.

However, most of Western analysts say that there is a significant difference between Soviet Union involvement in the Middle East policy and Russian policy.

Syria was a win-win game for Russia. Continuing war would sow useful chaos in Europe, sending the wave of migrants, while a Russian-brokered peace would bring Moscow a new sphere of influence and create a strategic victory for Putin.

By the involvement in Syria affairs Russia was trying to show for the people in Russia and abroad that is able to stop US monopoly to intervene or keep under control every piece of land in the planet. Involvement in Syria was the beginning of Russia’s involvement in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.

For example, the famous political analyst from US publication National Interest, Nikolas Gvozdev, is saying that Russia lessons from its activities in the Middle East over the past four years is going to apply to East Asia, playing on the same fears among US partners and competitors in this region on US unreliability.

He is making the point that the first steps with Chinese, Japanese and Korean meetings with Vladimir Putin over the North Korea crisis looks like that Russia is hoping that its diplomatic efforts in this arena will generate some of the same economic benefits it hopes to reap from the Middle East.

By the way, Nikolas Gvozdev is one of the few Western political analysts, who believes that Putin’s policy in Syria and the Middle East in general is dictated not only by the sense of prestige both for Russia, as the country and for the President Putin, as a statesmen. He is saying that it is also dictated by very real economical interests and could be called, as some sort of geo-economics.

For example, he says, Russia used its new-found influence in the region to thwart the U.S. effort to use Saudi Arabia as a pressure point against Russian economy. Now, instead of competing against Moscow, Riyadh is trying to coordinate with the Russians in an effort to set a stable price “floor” for energy.

Moscow hopes also to attract funds from Middle Eastern sources into Russia’s  economy, particularly, when Moscow  still face Western economical sanctions.

Energy interests also dictate Moscow’s policy in Libya and Northern Kurdistan.

Russian energy giant Rosneft have got major deals ( bigger one than has, for example, Exxon Mobil) to develop oil and gas resources in the Iraq Kurdistan and even to participate in the building gas pipelines to Turkey and Europe.

However, Russia’s policy in Syria, which until now has been viewed as a success story, now cause real concern for Russia. Stratfor published analysis, which main conclusion was that Russia is looking for the exit strategy from Syria.

According to this analysis, Moscow doesn’t want to be stuck in Syrian conflict, but neither does it want to lose gains it has made there in solidifying its presence in the country, establishing itself, as a critical influence in the region.

But, as Moscow is finding out, achieving its goals in Syria will be far more complicated that it anticipated.

Despite Russia’s apparent advantages in Syria, the flaws in its exit plan are starting to show. The de-escalation zones the country is set up during earlier peace talks in Kazakhstan have all, but collapsed.

Part of the problem is that independent rebel groups in the regions have shown no sign of acceding to outside pressure. The militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, for example, refused to recognize the ceasefire negotiations and has launched offensive operations on loyalist positions in Hama province.

Though Iran and the Syrian Government understand the logic of the Russian strategy, they are reluctant to give up their claim to rebel-held territory.

Some of the authors, for example Julien Barnes-Dacey from the European Council on Foreign Affairs holds view that in the end Russia will have no choice but to bend to Iran’s will or risk losing the entirety of its Syria investment.

Therefore, there is a possibility that what looked like as a great achievement of Russia’s foreign and security policy might turn to victory of Iran in the region.

Teheran and Damascus, unlike Moscow, are in the war for the long haul and probably won’t back down until they achieve a complete victory.

Even more complicating matters for Moscow comes up from the decreasing popularity of it’s intervention in Syria back home. According to the survey in early September from the Levada Center, an independent pollster, less than one-third of Russia’s support their country’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, which is down from two thirds in 2015.

Protesters across Russia have turned out at demonstrations with signs calling on the Government to end the expensive operation and to focus its spending on feeding its people instead.

But is it possible to end?

This is probably the most serious question for Russia and President Putin today.

As Stefan Meister and other Western political analysts indicated, Russia’s military involvement in Syria is a too much expensive for the country budget.

But now, if peace will come to Syria or at least to the part of the Syria, which former EU Ambassador to Syria, Marc Pierini called, Assadland, the question is who will have to rebuild the devastated Syria and to help to Assad regime.

It seems that Western countries are not ready to do that. Rich Sunny countries from Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia also wanted to see Assad go, therefore there are many doubts that they will be willing to help financially to Damask regime.

Russia openly proclaimed to be the main country to save Assad’s regime. It might be difficult for Moscow to take off responsibility for the future of Syria.

If  Moscow will take at least part of the financial burden to rebuild Syria, it will drain money from the budget of Russia, which already have difficulties to cope, because of annexation of Crimea and support for separatist regime in Donbas.

In this case, Syria, which looked like a glory, might turn to the Pyraeus victory.


*Information about the Author:

Alvydas Medalinskas –  MP (1996-2003), political analyst, Mykolo Romerio Universitetas, Vilnius

The article is based on the presentation at the International Conference «Middle East vector in the Russian Foreign Policy: goals and consequences».

20.11.2017 23:00:00