Russia set to continue pivotal role in the Middle East

Putin’s adroit diplomacy in the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly leaden-footed initiatives of the Trump administration.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Assertive moves. Syrian families receive aid from Russian soldiers at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, last October. (AFP)
Assertive moves. Syrian families receive aid from Russian soldiers at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, last October. (AFP)

For political scientists who study Russia, 2018 will be remembered as the year Vladimir Putin’s administration elevated the Russian presence in the Middle East to levels not seen since the Soviets in the 1960s-70s. The current year looks more of the same.

In return for increased economic and political influence Russia offers governmental and, if necessary, military support against “regime change” and political instability. The protection against both internal insurgencies and terrorism is an alluring package for a region that remembers the fate of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak.

Russia’s most visible regional accomplishment has been materially ensuring the survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. The Syrian regime was badly battered by the outbreak of the “Arab spring,” which erupted in the country in March 2011.

The uprising quickly became a contested matter in the region with majority-Shia Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah supporting Assad, while Sunni-majority countries, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia moved to support anti-Assad insurgents. From 2014, the US-armed, anti-Assad rebel groups and led an international coalition that bombed Islamic State (ISIS) targets, thus further internationalising the conflict.

At the direct invitation of the Assad government, beginning September 2015, Russia began direct military intervention. It began a bombing campaign against “terrorist groups” in Syria. These included ISIS as well as anti-Assad rebel groups backed by the United States. Russia deployed military advisers and naval forces to shore up the regime’s defences.

The pretext for Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war was targeting ISIS militants. Putin said about 4,000 Russian nationals and 5,000 others from former Soviet Union republics had joined ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and various radical groups in Syria and Iraq. Many of those groups were said to be covertly supported by foreign governments seeking regime change in Damascus. Accordingly, assisting Syria to fight terrorists before they returned to Russia and former Soviet republics was a wise, preventative policy. Beyond that, Moscow’s broader goal was to thwart Washington’s regime-change efforts.

Russia’s reward for its intervention? A 49-year lease for Syria’s Tartus naval base along with access to Hmeimim Air Force Base. Tartus is Russia’s only base in the Mediterranean. Russia is also being considered to rebuild post-war Syria’s shattered petrochemical industry.

Russia is the predominant foreign player in Syria with a role both in military support as well as facilitating peace talks. Russia is acknowledged by the region and beyond — both by friend and foe — as a key factor in the resolution of the Syrian civil war. Moscow hasn’t had such a dominant diplomatic role since the Soviet era.

A more important regional development is that, unlike the United States and the European Union, the main feature of Putin’s regime is its open communications with everyone. That seems to be the defining feature of Russia’s Middle East diplomacy. It is telling that Russia can have open and frank discussions with Israel, while maintaining excellent relations with Iran and Hezbollah. Israel is viewed by many regional governments as an existential threat; Iran and Hezbollah are seen by Israel as mortal dangers.

Russia has benefited both from US indecisiveness and its stark and simplistic policy choices, which have alienated it from key countries in the region. Even as Putin portrays himself as a protector of Middle Eastern Christians, Russian foreign policy adroitly sidesteps direct alignment with Shias or Sunnis. Meanwhile, it supplies advanced weaponry such as the S-400 antiaircraft system on reasonable terms. The S-400 is earmarked for both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the latter a NATO ally, and Iraq and Qatar are considering a purchase.

With rising confidence, Russia has begun promoting itself as a mediator in other Middle East conflicts, including Yemen. It appears determined to supplant the United States as the principal negotiator in regional conflicts, as Washington is increasingly perceived as biased.

Putin’s adroit diplomacy in the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly leaden-footed initiatives of the Trump administration. Not only is the United States handicapped by the Trump administration’s pro-Israeli and anti-Iran policies, it is increasingly at odds with significant regional players and ostensible allies, including Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.

Proof of this diplomatic schizophrenia came December 19 when Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” This was followed by the announcement that US forces in Syria were being withdrawn and led US Secretary of Defence James Mattis to resign. US officials said the withdrawal from Syria, a place Trump has called “sand and death,” would occur over four months.

Further denial of reality sadly came January 16, when four Americans were killed in an ISIS suicide attack in Syria. That same day, US Vice-President Mike Pence told US diplomats at the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference at the State Department: “The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated.’’

Unless 2019 sees real change in US foreign policy, it seems Moscow will continue its successful run as a player that delivers consistent diplomacy.