Analysts largely agree that Russia's entry into the Syrian civil war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not yet turned the tide of the war in Assad's favor. But in the nearly ten months since Russia launched its air campaign there to bolster pro-Assad forces, Russia has slowly but surely changed the slope of certain battlefields in favor of the Assad government. Russia’s agenda in Syria at the moment is a tightrope act. It wants to keep enough forces engaged in Syria to ensure it can influence any political transition, so that Damascus remains a client. Yet, it does not want to become visibly mired in a messy, prolonged war, as American officials predicted it would. We asked Alexey Khlebnikov, senior editor of Russia Direct and the Middle East expert, the Russia’s plan for the Middle East and how Moscow wants to work with Iran and West on the future of Syria and the region. The following is an edited version of the interview.
What have been the prime motives behind Russia’s engagement in the Middle East in recent years?
“Russia’s involvement in the Middle East is determined by several major factors. Firstly, it is to maintain the status quo in the region. Preserving existing regimes and their institutions is a prime goal. In other words, Russia wants to maintain stability in the region which it perceives as advocating for evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes. Moscow sees direct connection between external military involvement into the region aiming at regime changes and spread of instability and rising terrorist threat. Examples of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya serve as the key evidence for that. That said a terrorist threat constitutes a big part in the Russia’s rational behind acting in the region. Having experience with insurgency in the North Caucasus which was directly sponsored and supported by the extremists from around the Middle East, Russia understands how dangerous is to underestimate the terrorist threat and to wait until it hits you. Therefore, one of the central focuses in Russia’s Middle East policy is to oppose processes which it thinks might lead to further destabilization of the region.”
“Secondly, Russia focuses on fighting terrorism and on prevention of its spillover into Russia. That is one of the major rationales behind Russia’s involvement into Syria. Militants that receive combat experience in Syria and Iraq can relatively easy come back to Russia through Caucasus and Central Asia and hit the homeland from inside. And finally, it should be noticed that Russia aims at taking its share of influence in the Middle East where the U.S. started to reduce its physical presence and involvement. It is a chance for Russia to reiterate itself as an actor which can project its power beyond its borders when it threatens its security. This is again confines with Russia’s major aim to maintain the status quo in the region by being a counter-balance to the pro-U.S. regimes of the Persian Gulf and their policy.”
What would Russia’s new practical approach and strategy to the ‘new security order’ in the Middle East?
I would not talk about the brand new Russia’s strategy in the Middle East. Certainly, Moscow has become more active in the region and there are quite objective reasons for that. Firstly, over the last decade Russia has managed to recover economically which allowed it to partially upgrade and restore its military capacities. This greatly backed Russia’s confidence on the international arena and led to activation of the economic and business ties with the countries of the region. Secondly, Russia’s Middle East policy has become more versatile. Moscow is trying to build its relations with the regional actors based on pragmatic approach. It allows Russia to develop quite inclusive dialog with all actors in the region, therefore making Russia a valuable partner. Developing ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE, Iraq and Syria, Israel and Palestine, Moscow has become an actor which can play a mediator role in the region. Thus, prioritizing pragmatism in building its relations with the regional actors Russia minimizes chances to destroy them.”
“However, we should keep in mind that the Middle East was never a top priority for modern Russia. In the country’s latest Concept of the Foreign Policy, the Middle East is placed closer to the bottom of the ‘regional priorities’ section while Russia’s immediate neighborhood and relations with Euro-Atlantic states are naturally prioritized. Given that, Russia’s main goal in the Middle East is to preserve the status quo. Moscow seeks to preserve the balance between ‘pro-American’ regimes and ‘axis of resistance,’ not to allow any regional alliance to win over its rival. In addition to that, U.S. diminishing presence in the region made its long-time allies in the region to become nervous and to try to diversify their relations seeking new partners. Naturally, Russia seeks to turn to its advantage, although majorly in economic terms (military contracts, energy sector, hi-tech, etc.).”
One plausible reason for the U.S. reluctance to enter the Middle East crises is said that great powers’ influence over the Middle East is increasingly costly today. Considering this assumption, how Russia, financially restricted by the West and severely hit by oil price slump, could be a strong player in the turbulent Middle East?
“It is quite obvious that Russia's economy is currently going through the crisis which was caused by the lack the long-needed structural economic reforms, low oil prices, and economic sanctions imposed by the Western countries. However, if we are talking about Russia’s Middle Eastern policy it does not require much of Moscow’s economic resources. Again we should remember that the Middle East is not a top priority among Russia’s regional policies.”
“Even considering Russia’s ‘accelerated’ pivot to the East after the events in Ukraine and Western sanctions, Asian countries are more attractive to Russia from economic perspective than the Middle East. Just to look at the Russian arms exports: Geographically, the main exports in 2014 went to Asia with 75 percent, Latin America with 9 percent, and only 7 percent went to the Middle East, according to Russia’s state-run Rostec company report. That said, we should not ignore Russia’s growing economic ties with key countries of the region, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Iran, etc.”
“In terms of military involvement Russia has quite strong presence only in Syria which is not a big burden for the Russian economy, considering that all expenses were covered by the Defense Ministry budget. According to the official data, Russia’s military campaign in Syria (from September 30 to mid-March) has cost Moscow about $500 million. However, I would not say that Russia’s role in the Middle East should be measured by its economic capacity to back its military presence or its ability to project its power in the region, although it is quite important. What is more essential, in my view, is Russia’s ability to negotiate with all major regional players which gives it an opportunity to have enough room for maneuver.”
“Basically, Russia’s biggest expenses in the Middle East come with its direct involvement into the Syrian conflict. Other than that, Moscow does not have neither economic, nor military capacity to play a role comparable to one the U.S. has played and continues to play in the region. I think, Russian leadership understands it quite clearly and tries to increase its influence in region through the diplomatic and economic means which are less costly and more effective.”
Do you believe Putin and Obama will set a framework for the future of Syria? If unlikely, what would Russia’s long-term strategy on Syria’s fate? Given Russia’s financial and economic difficulties, how long will Russia spend its resources, energy and time in Syria?
“Russia and the U.S. are the two major global powers involved in the Syrian conflict which naturally makes them an essential part in settling the crisis. They have already demonstrated an ability to negotiate and cooperate on Syria. The Russia-U.S. plan for the Syrian ceasefire and their roadmap for the political transition have created the basis for the further discussions. So, I would say the framework already exists.”
The start of Russia-Iranian military cooperation in Syria, with the aim of remaining Assad in power and defeating Daesh, had created a sense of joy among two states. However, it seems some concerns has been arisen by the Iranian side in recent months, including a de facto framework between the U.S. and Russia on Syria, which is against Iran’s interests in The Eastern Mediterranean. How could Russia simultaneously work with the U.S. and alleviate Iran’s concerns?
“Certainly, Russia and Iran have close cooperation on Syria. After all, Iranian forces on the ground are immensely helping Syrian Army and keep Russia from sending its own ground troops to Syria. Such division of labor between Russia and Iran (Russia provides air support while Iran provides military assistance on the ground) keeps Russia from deeper involvement into the Syrian quagmire. However, there are certain differences in Russia’s and Iran’s approaches to Syria.”
“Firstly, Russia does not have a goal to preserve Assad in power per se. It is rather interested in preserving existing Syrian institutions without which effective fight against terrorists and any transformation of the country is impossible. So, Moscow is not chained to the figure of Bashar al-Assad which makes it more flexible in negotiations with the West.”
“Secondly, Moscow understands that it is impossible to reach any feasible settlement in Syria without compromising with the West. Additionally, Russia’s relations with the West are still in the lowest and Moscow seeks the ways how to reconcile with the West in a manner which won’t make it to give up much in Ukraine. That said, Russia wants to create global anti-terrorist coalition which will reunite it with the West and demonstrate Moscow’s indispensability as a partner in the Middle East.”
“In the meantime, Iran is afraid to be left out of equation once Russia strikes the Syria deal with the West. Tehran naturally wants its interests to be considered as Iran is involved in the Syrian war directly. However, there is not much to be afraid of. Russia has already proven to be a reliable partner for Iran during the nuclear negotiations, through its ongoing military cooperation with Tehran and constant consultations on Syria. Of course there were some negative examples like the case of Russia’s S-300 deliveries, but they were mostly tactical and in the end Moscow is still an Iran’s most important partner in the region.”
“Despite that most certainly, Iran should be aware that in order to pursue its more important interests in Europe or in the relations with the West, Russia will mostly likely to compromise in the Middle East, even at the expense of its allies. But until Russia has achieved an advantageous offer from the West, it is unlikely Moscow is going to let Iran down.”