A turbulent decade sees Moscow’s star shine brightly in the Middle East
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A turbulent decade sees Moscow’s star shine brightly in the Middle East

Russia is increasingly asserting its place as the dominant superpower in the region; the proverbial Russian bear hug could prove dangerous

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad light candles while visiting an orthodox cathedral for Christmas, in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad light candles while visiting an orthodox cathedral for Christmas, in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

When the news spread about the targeted killing of Iranian “dark knight” Qassem Soleimani by the Trump administration, Russia was quick to denounce the United States’ “risky and dangerous” policy in the region. Just a few days later, President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Syria. Casually strolling the streets of Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad, he was making a clear statement: Russia’s grip on Syria remains strong, and the dramatic events taking place in Iraq will not weaken Russia’s influence in the region.

The Kremlin may indeed be concerned about long-term fallout from the killing, as it has nothing to gain from a war between the US and Iran. However, the current situation does present its own set of benefits. As Russia and Iran jostle in Syria over the country’s future, Putin will probably try to take advantage of the vacuum left by the Iranian mastermind’s death to promote his own policies.

Just last month, a convoy of Russian tanks passed through the main street of the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa. Once an Islamic State (IS) stronghold and the terrorist group’s would-be “capital” in the war-torn country, Raqqa was liberated by the international coalition fighting IS two years ago. But the flags flying in the city and the soldiers marching in its streets are now Russian, reflecting a decade of Moscow’s growing activity in the Middle East.

The flags in Raqqah join Russian weapons deliveries to Turkey and Iran, and the civilian nuclear reactor the Kremlin is helping Egypt build in El Dabaa, northwest of Cairo. The past decade has seen Russia regain the prominence it once enjoyed in the Middle East, further allowing it to both change and set new rules of play in the region.

But this wasn’t always the case.

In the early 2000s, Russia was perceived as a weak nation, one that seriously lacked the international clout to influence the Middle East, let alone influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The prolonged, brutal war between Russia and Chechnya — a predominantly Muslim republic — in the 1990s meant Moscow’s image in the Muslim world was problematic, to put it mildly. Russia spared no effort to crush the Muslim Chechen rebels with an iron fist, and the 1994 Battle of Grozny almost obliterated the Chechen capital off the face of the earth, so there is little wonder the Kremlin was seen as the “enemy of all Muslims.”

The early 2000s found Russia still reeling from the shockwaves the previous decade had sent through it, which saw the rise of organized crime against the backdrop of domestic upheaval and starving citizens.

A Russian special forces soldier stands guard on a street next to the FSB security service’s office in Moscow on December 19, 2019. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

From a diplomatic standpoint, Russia seemed to concentrate only on its neighbors — Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. The Kremlin focused on economic growth and stabilizing its position in its own backyard, exerting covert and overt pressure on the former Soviet republics to avoid joining the NATO alliance, which to this day it considers a pivotal threat to the integrity of the Russian Federation.

But the dramatic events sweeping through the Middle East — the rise of radical Islam and the “crusade” waged against it by the United States, the endless war in Iraq, the change in the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, as well as waning American influence and growing animosity toward Washington — created a new reality.

The implications of these events were significant and many in the Middle East expressed an intense longing for the bipolar world order in which Russia once played a prominent role. This sentimental feeling was fueled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong leader able to push back against the pressure exerted by the US in the international arena.

By 2002, Russia joined the United States, European Union, and the United Nations to form the Quartet — a diplomatic mission aspiring to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In 2005, Moscow announced plans to convene an international summit dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but those plans never materialized.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with the members of the Middle East Diplomatic Quartet (from left): Catherine Ashton, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; US Secretary of State John Kerry Sergey Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; and Tony Blair, Special Envoy of the Quartet, September 27, 2013. (UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe)

In 2006, after the Hamas terror organization won the Palestinian elections — and just before it seized control of the Gaza Strip from rival Fatah in a military coup the following year — Russia invited Hamas leaders to a visit in Moscow. The Kremlin does consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization — but Hamas, which splintered from it, is seen as a legitimate actor in the diplomatic theater.

This policy of maintaining close ties with all parties in the region, regardless of their designation, has characterized Russian operations in the region throughout the decade.

It was evident that Russia wanted to regain its influence in the Middle East, but in the late 2000s, Moscow’s international clout was still quite limited. The Sunni states clearly favored aligning themselves with Washington, and the global community would be hard-pressed to believe that a mere decade later, no major political process would be possible without Russia’s active involvement.

The Middle East tsunami

But then, in December 2010, the self-immolation of a desperate Tunisian street vendor sparked a firestorm that swept through the entire Middle East, rattling it to its core in a series of revolutions now known as the Arab Spring.

The ouster of longtime Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali led to similar uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. The United States backed the protesters demanding reforms and democracy in their countries, while Russia called for the preservation of the “legitimate” governments in these countries.

Russian experts had often warned of the danger of Islamization in the region and the negative consequences such a process would have on the Caucasian Muslim republics.

They called this wave of protests the “color revolutions” — a term used to describe various related movements that rose in several former USSR countries, China, and the Balkans during the early 2000s and later lent to a number of revolutions elsewhere, including in the Middle East — hinting at Western involvement in them.

Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. (AP/Ben Curtis, File)

These Russian experts further compared then-US president Barack Obama’s conduct at the time of the Arab Spring to the actions taken by president Jimmy Carter against Iran in 1979. Carter and Obama both, the experts argued, believed in the democratic myth, which is irrelevant to the Middle East, rather than cling to the solid foundations provided by the “soft” authoritarian regimes in Egypt and the other countries in the region.

Not surprisingly, Russia has always found common ground with Arab autocrats. The United States has also maintained very close ties with them, but in Russia’s case, these rulers could be sure that, wary of the implications of the Arab Spring and the changes it heralded, Moscow had no interest in supporting the democratic aspirations of the protesters in these countries.

The regional reality proved Russia was right to be concerned.

It was at this critical juncture for Russia that the Kremlin decided to back the West’s decision to bomb the strongholds of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi — a longtime Moscow ally.

The Arab Spring hit Libya in February 2011, and in many ways, the fact that Russia had turned its back on him signaled the beginning of the end of Gaddafi’s regime. On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was captured by insurgents and brutally executed.

Russia blamed the West and NATO for the chaos that ensued. Later on, when it came to dealing with the uprising in Syria — another longtime ally of Russia — Moscow took a far more adamant stance.

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with the Greek Kathimerini newspaper, in Damascus, Syria, in this photo released May 10, 2018. (SANA via AP)

Russia, which enjoys veto power at the UN Security Council, used it to block any resolution condemning Assad’s ruthless tactics against the rebels trying to unseat him. The Kremlin continued to arm Syrian forces, and in September 2015, Russia deployed troops on Syrian soil, effectively joining Iran’s efforts to ensure the survival of Assad’s regime.

Friends like these

The fact that Russia decided to lend Assad such massive support came as little surprise to Israeli military intelligence, which was monitoring Russia’s growing involvement in Syria closely in the year prior to the deployment of Russian troops in the war-torn country.

Russia feared the collapse of Assad’s regime, which would have undoubtedly shifted the balance of power in the region, and all the signs indicated that it planned to intervene militarily in Assad’s favor. The most obvious tell was the large groups of Russian military advisers who traveled to Damascus in 2014 and early 2015.

In addition, Russia wrote off Syria’s substantial accrued debts, some dating back to the days of the Soviet Union. Moscow was determined to ensure Assad would emerge from the Arab Spring unscathed so that what it considered to be the Libyan trauma — the loss of the considerable interests it had there — wouldn’t occur in yet another country.

Putin had three main motives for stepping into the Syrian quagmire: Preventing chaos and Islamic terrorism from reaching Russia’s borders; maintaining access to the Port of Tartus, the only Russian naval facility in the entire Mediterranean; and, of course, increasing its geopolitical influence in Middle East with the hopes that it would be able to convert its achievements in Syria to other places, such as Ukraine.

Belying the bleak forecasts, Russia has proven that under its control Syria will not become another Afghanistan, where it fought a nine-year war between 1979 and 1989. Russian forces in Syria operate strategically and brutally, without actually putting boots on the ground, and all with one ultimate goal — stabilizing Assad’s regime and ensuring Syria’s territorial integrity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) looks over toward US President Donald Trump, as Trump speaks during their joint news conference in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As circumstances would have it, the United States indirectly helped Russia establish itself in Syria. First, Washington invited Moscow to be part of the efforts to make Syria relinquish its arsenal of chemical weapons. Later, it avoided taking an active position with respect to the civil war in Syria.

In late 2019, US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw his troops from northeast Syria. Russia was quick to step in to fill the vacuum left by its rival superpower, and in doing so, was able to help Assad take back large parts of Syria without firing so much as a single bullet.

Recognizing opportunities

Russia wasn’t satisfied with its control over Syria and began seeking ways to improve its position vis-à-vis other Arab countries, as well.

When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, the ever-pragmatic Russia was quick to recognize his rule and forge close ties with his regime, mostly through arms deals.

Cairo still enjoys generous American military aid, so a continued cooperation with Russia could cost it dearly. Nevertheless, it has inked deals with Moscow to procure advanced SU-35 fighter jets.

The Kremlin is also growing closer to the Persian Gulf states. Moscow’s relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are excellent, and it has signed major defense deals with both during Putin’s October visit to the Gulf.

It is also clear that the Gulf’s emirs of the region are weighing whether to hitch their wagons to Russia’s rising star in the Middle East in light of the American decision to minimize its involvement in the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)

Russia is active in Libya again, where it is assisting Libyan National Army Chief Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar with navigating the domestic chaos. Together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Russia has become the largest weapons supplier in Algeria, and it is also trying to establish its influence in Sudan.

To top it off, Russia has good — albeit complicated — ties with Turkey, and has even sold Ankara its advanced S-400 anti-missile defense systems, much to Washington’s chagrin. It boasts close ties with Tehran, as well, despite their disagreements over Syria’s future and other issues over which they don’t see eye to eye, such as the Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

And then, of course, there’s Israel. Jerusalem and Moscow have been on something of a diplomatic honeymoon in recent years. This includes increased commerce and trade, regular visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow and Sochi, and close cooperation regarding continued Israeli military activity in Syrian skies.

The conflict-prevention headquarters Israel and Russia established four years ago have proven highly effective. However, the September 17, 2018 downing of a Russian cargo plane by Syrian air defenses countering an Israeli strike sparked a serious diplomatic crisis. The Russian Defense Ministry publicly and blatantly blamed Israel for using the Russian plane as a shield, a charge that Israel denies. The incident left 21 Russian crewmen dead.

The Kremlin’s response was swift and decisive: It deployed its advanced S-300 air defense systems in Syria after having refrained from doing so for years at Israel’s request.

Israel and Russia also remain divided on the issue of Iran. Israel has vowed to combat any Iranian military presence in Syria, and while Jerusalem had hoped Moscow would help keep the Islamic republic’s forces out of Syria, that has not happened.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of their meeting in Sochi on August 23, 2017. (AFP/Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky)

Russia has the power to completely prevent Israel from targeting Iranian assets in Syria. Putin has turned a blind eye to Israel’s activities, for the most part, but the question remains — what will happen when he decides, for whatever reason, that the Israeli attacks in Syria are no longer convenient, most likely because they irk Iran and cast aspersions on Russia’s technological capabilities. This is only a theoretical question at the moment, but it hangs in the air nonetheless, and it is plain to see that Israel has reduced its military activity in Syria.

Here to stay

As the decade draws to a close, Russia is successfully pushing its Middle East agenda, and is currently the only global power to maintain good relations with all the actors in the region.

Russia has also increased the scope of its arms exports to major regional players, such as Turkey and Egypt, but the main obstacle impeding its regional activities remains economic.

The Kremlin can sponsor a popular Arabic-language news channel — Russia Today, which also operates in English and Spanish — but it cannot replace the White House as the one providing unparalleled military aid to Egypt. And while it sells Russian wheat to Saudi Arabia, Russia cannot become a major player in the Middle Eastern energy market.

Russia is expected to continue increasing its presence — and influence — in the Middle East over the next decade. The US may keep contributing to this trend, although it is hard to chalk Russian activity in the region solely up to the change in the US’s Middle East policy.

Russia has always considered the Middle East a part of its own backyard. It knows the region well and is accustomed to operating across it.

Under these circumstances, Israel will have to navigate the turbulent waters of the region in a reality in which Russia is becoming stronger and more influential, while the US — Israel’s only strategic ally — minimizes its presence, gradually abandoning the Middle East, which has become less essential to its foreign policy.

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

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