Moscow and the Middle East: Return of the Cold War?
Russian involvement in the Middle East increased dramatically in 2015. Moscow was deeply involved in the negotiations that led to the Iranian nuclear accord and there were meetings involving Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with high-level officials from several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Syria.
In September, Moscow deepened its involvement in the Syrian conflict by initiating direct military intervention that shows no signs of abating. Russia also launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at rallying countries with otherwise divergent interests to form a united front against the Islamic State (ISIS), reminiscent of the united struggle against Hitler in World War II.
Russian military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad greatly reduces the likelihood that Syrian opposition forces can topple his regime, a possibility that seemed increasingly likely before Moscow’s military intervention began. Further, Russian support for Assad reduces the ability of those calling for him to relinquish power to obtain this goal through the ongoing diplomatic negotiations in which Moscow has claimed a central role.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, even those Middle Eastern governments that disapprove of Russian policy towards Syria have increasingly sought to engage with Moscow.
It is no exaggeration to say that during 2015, Russia became more influential in the Middle East than it has been since the Cold War era.
Yet, while Russian influence in the region has grown, and may well grow further, the experience of the more powerful Soviet Union in the Middle East during the Cold War suggests limits that Putin might face.
During that time, Moscow had far more allies in the Middle East than it does now. Of course, Moscow lost some of those allies (most notably Egypt and Somalia) and could see some of its current partnerships deteriorate as well. Already, Moscow’s relations with Turkey — with which it enjoyed a substantial trade relationship — have deteriorated markedly over the shooting down by Turkish forces of a Russian bomber flying close to the Syrian-Turkish border.
Regardless of whether Ankara should have taken this action, it would not have occurred if Russian aircraft had not been flying so close to the border and Putin’s belligerent response has only driven Turkey closer to the United States and Europe, thus vitiating his earlier success in supporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his differences with the West.
Will Putin act in a similar way if Syrian opposition forces backed by Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar attack Russian personnel based in Syria?
During the Cold War, Moscow provided weaponry to several Middle Eastern allies and its pilots flew occasional combat missions during the North Yemeni civil war and in the Arab-Israeli theatre.
Soviet military support, though, was not sufficient to allow its allies to prevail militarily over their regional adversaries, which were also receiving external military assistance. Similarly, Russian military assistance to the Assad regime may prevent it from being overthrown but so far is well short of enabling it to overcome its externally backed opponents.
Also during the Cold War, Moscow frequently attempted to drum up support for its vision of a “comprehensive” diplomatic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moscow, though, was never able to coerce its adversaries or cajole its allies into making the concessions needed to achieve this.
Moscow’s current efforts to bring about a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war are encountering similar obstacles: Russia is not in a position to coerce its adversaries or persuade its allies to make sufficient concessions to bring about an agreement and, if that is the case, those Arab governments that have recently been courting Moscow may no longer find it worthwhile to continue doing so.
One difference between the Cold War and now, some might point out, is that Soviet policy faced vigorous US opposition, while US President Barack Obama’s administration has prioritised reducing US involvement in the region after the traumatic experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But as the US experience in both those countries shows, the strength of regional and local opposition to external intervention can be highly effective. Russian intervention in Syria or its ability to influence the Middle East as a whole, then, faces significant obstacles even if it does not face the sort of vigorous American opposition that it did during the Cold War.
Moscow’s increased involvement in the Middle East in 2015 has led to a renewal of the Cold War that will continue into 2016 and perhaps many more years. This is not good for those who oppose Putin’s policies in the region. Moscow’s past Cold War experience, though, suggests that a renewed Cold War in the Middle East will not benefit Russia either.