Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Russia at first limited itself to its traditional role of providing arms as well as military and logistical experts to its Arab allies. As President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime weakened in Damascus, the Russians intensified their military support dramatically. Recently, the Russian “tsar” opted to expand his role in Syria to include direct intervention against the enemies of the regime. The move towards direct intervention constitutes a revolution in Russia’s role in the Middle East and portends a deeper shift in the region.
Russia has claimed that its intervention in Syria is intended to destroy Daesh after the US-led campaign of air strikes proved to be an “abject failure”, according to an unnamed US military official speaking to CBS News. Well-acquainted with terrorism, one might argue that Moscow is undertaking a pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups, although some have linked the intervention to the Ukrainian crisis as well as the desire for increased leverage in the Middle East and more power at the negotiating table.
Thus, Russia’s stated intentions have been met with scepticism about the real motive behind the decision to intervene directly. One widespread opinion is that Russia wants to secure a military presence in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. While this sounds plausible, Russia has been enjoying this presence for some time already. Warm-water ports are of great geopolitical and economic interest, not least because they don’t freeze in winter; they have long played an important role in Russian foreign policy. Indeed, the Russian Empire fought a series of wars with the Ottomans in a quest to establish a warm-water port. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War One didn’t give Russia any further control. The Soviet Union then enjoyed access to naval bases throughout the Mediterranean, yet its collapse brought that to an end, except for the base in Tartus in Syria, where the Russian navy has had a presence since 1971; it has been highlighted during the recent intervention.
So what really lies behind the dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy? In fact, Russia’s direct intervention in Syria kissed goodbye to the conventional regional order that has ruled the Middle East for ages. Traditionally and even at the peak of the Cold War, Russia’s role (either as the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation) was limited to sending arms and military and logistical experts to its Arab allies. The current intervention is a revolution in this role and coincides with a number of important events, including the Iranian nuclear deal which gives Tehran a more prominent regional role, especially in terms of economic potential.
Then there has been the gradual US withdrawal from the region, which was symbolised in the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, handing Iraqi destiny to the Iranians; the cooling of efforts to solve the Palestine-Israel conflict, leading to the emergence of other initiatives (from France, for example, and New Zealand); and finally its decision to withdraw the defensive shield from Turkey (for “technical reasons” say the Americans). Giving up its historical allies in Egypt (Mubarak) and Tunisia (Ben Ali), in addition to leaving the Saudis and the Gulf to fight Iran’s influence in Yemen alone, are other signs of America’s declining role in the Middle East.
A few years ago, the head of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N Haass, wrote that the era of US domination in the Middle East was coming to an end and that the region’s future would be characterised by reduced American influence. Many observers do not believe that the US will abandon its role in the region voluntarily, but the actions of other nations, along with Russian plans in Syria, clearly point in this direction.
Under the slogan of the “fight against terrorism”, China sent its aircraft carrier Liaoning-CV-16 to Tartus and sources revealed that Beijing is looking to reinforce its forces with J-15 Flying Shark jets and Z-18F and Z-18J helicopters equipped with anti-submarine capabilities, in coordination with Tehran and Baghdad. France and Britain followed suit; the latter announced that it would mobilise reinforcements and military capabilities in the Mediterranean and Paris said that it would send its own aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, to participate in operations against Daesh, as well as send six Rafale jets to be based in the UAE and six Mirage aircraft in Jordan.
For its part, the US, whose aircraft carriers have been absent from bases in the region since 2007, ordered a mere 50 special operations troops to Syria in order to help coordinate “local” ground forces in the north of the country. US President Barack Obama condemned Russia’s direct intervention strategy, saying that it was “doomed to fail”, and yet in a press conference in August 2014, he acknowledged that the United States “does not have a strategy” in Syria.
Media talk aside, Washington cannot have been taken by surprise when the Russians commenced their operations in Syria. Assuming that the Obama-Putin summit, which came hours before the earliest Russian move in Syria, did not tackle Russia’s intervention plans, there were many clues to prove that Washington had prior knowledge of Moscow’s decision.
In July last year, Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow to coordinate the Russian military intervention and forge the new Iran-Russia alliance in Syria. According to a Reuters report, Soleimani’s visit was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contact and meetings to coordinate military strategies. Two months later, Iraq, Russia, Iran and Syria agreed to set up an intelligence-sharing committee in Baghdad in order to harmonise efforts in fighting Daesh.
A senior US official confirmed on 18 September that more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria, followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, plus 12 close-support aircraft, four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships. Hence, it is clear that the US administration was at least aware of the massive Russian preparations and yet opted to keep its presence to the minimum. In this vein, it can be said strategically that this decision goes in line with the aforementioned US grand plan in the region and marks a calculated strategic gain when securing a small share in a traditional Russian sphere of influence, Syria.
The stated Russian motivation behind this involvement does not match the facts on the ground. In other words, fighting Daesh, which does not have fighter jets or missile defence systems, is not commensurate with the sophisticated air defences that the Russians installed at the Humaimam base (such as SA15 and SA22 surface-to-air missiles) or the Russian announcements that 40 naval “combat exercises” were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at naval and airborne targets. For that reason, some other experts found Russia’s intervention in part of its new maritime strategy that was published on 26 July 2015. The new maritime doctrine of the Russian Federation to 2020 is a comprehensive state policy for governing all of Russia’s maritime assets, naval fleets, the merchant fleet and naval infrastructure.
Russia might, therefore, be looking to kill as many birds as possible with one stone. Moscow will first and foremost dictate its political will on any future solution in Syria and the inclusion of Iran and Russia in the Vienna talks proves the point. US Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that the long-time Russian ally Bashar Al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period; Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the West will have to engage with Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war; and the British indicated a similar shift in policy. It is also clear that Russia has now guaranteed a bigger role in the formation of a new Syrian government, even if Assad is pushed out of power; any nascent regime would seriously consider Russia’s role and presence in the country, including its military, investment and commercial interests. In 2011 alone, Russia invested $19 billion in Syria.
The expansion of Russia’s military presence not only in Syria but also across the region is under way, as demonstrated by the intelligence-sharing agreement. Russia has also offered a large array of military hardware to Iraq (such as military helicopters in 2013 and Su25s fighter aircraft) of a kind that the US has refused to sell.
Although it looks like Russia and Iran have a common goal in Syria, Moscow’s blatant involvement ended Tehran’s monopoly. Russia is making pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups from which it has long suffered. It can’t tolerate Chechens or other fighters who joined Daesh returning to Russia, and is concerned that the West may use those radicals against Moscow in a scenario similar to what took place in Afghanistan.
The Russian intervention came amidst confirmed military reports that its ally in Damascus is about to fall, with the regime controlling just 18 per cent of the country and its army having exhausted 93 per cent of its supplies. On top of that, it is believed that the mounting leverage of Russia in the region will give it more leverage at the Ukraine negotiations table. Finally, Moscow aims to revive its military industrial market as it can promote itself as an international player to be relied upon to contain Iran, prevent the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, contribute actively in the fight against terrorism and sell technologies for peaceful energy in the Middle East.
The Russian defence ministry, for example, is working on major deals with the Gulf States in order to develop their Marine Corps and air defence systems, their use of unmanned aircraft and the supply of armoured vehicles and signal systems. Russia is now building two nuclear facilities in southern Iran and in February it agreed to build nuclear reactors in Egypt. Moscow is also negotiating with the Saudis, the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan for deals to develop nuclear power; the largest deal was agreed on 19 June last year when Moscow agreed to establish 16 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia.
In short, Russia must now be taken seriously as a major player on the Middle East scene. The recent Russian intervention in Syria was not the first move in that direction; regional powers reached the same conclusion even before it took place. That said, it was thus not entirely unexpected to see that Middle Eastern leaders have been visiting Moscow in numbers. With Russia now in the region officially, we are witnessing the beginning of a new order.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.