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Russia in the Middle East: a well-played hand disguises fading fortunes

There is no doubt that Russia’s diplomatic coups in the Middle East late last year caused its stock to rise. But is Moscow really the new boss in town or is this all just hyperbolic nonsense?

Greg Forbes
5 March 2014

In September of last year Russia scored a dramatic diplomatic victory by proposing the removal and destruction of Syria’s nonconventional arsenal, brokering the subsequent agreement between Syria and the United States and, in one fell swoop, forestalling the escalating probability of US airstrikes against the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, President Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were the doyens of the Syria Crisis, and not a few western and Russian observers and commentators hailed Russia’s triumphal return to the Middle East. 

Russia, ever the diplomat!

The most significant Russian foreign policy achievement of 2013 was the adoption of Moscow’s proposal for the sanctioned removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. First mooted in a 2012 Geneva communique, and repeatedly proposed by Putin and Russia’s diplomatic corps at various junctures over the course of last year, Russian efforts eventually culminated in a publically agreed framework between the US and Russia for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons on 14 September 2013. Bashar al-Assad duly acquiesced to this public defanging the same day. Has guile and adroit diplomacy really occasioned an opportunity for Russia to turn the clock back to 1973?  

The Russian intervention was well-timed and deftly handled.

The Russian intervention was well-timed and deftly handled. Those states nominally opposed to al-Assad’s regime were struggling to muster themselves for armed intervention. The Obama administration, constrained by previous declarations regarding the use of biological and/or chemical weapons, drifted hesitantly towards a Congressional vote on authorising military action against Syria, having hitherto made only halting efforts to build a credible case for war. With public opinion in the US focused on domestic issues, and a domestic population wary of becoming involved in an increasingly ugly and protracted civil war, going to Congress for authorisation was a substantial risk for Obama – and an embarrassing Congressional defeat beckoned. Given these stakes, it is unsurprising that the US leapt through the loophole that Russia had fashioned for it.

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For Iran, Moscow has historically been a problematic ally. Photo CC Presidential Press Office

It is unsurprising that the US leapt through the loophole that Russia had fashioned for it.

From a Russo-Syrian perspective, little of import was conceded and indeed both countries came away with significant gains: the Syrians, for their part, by giving up their chemical weapons stocks (weapons of modest military value), precluded American military action against them; the Russians in turn bound themselves and the Americans to a political process that would constrict US freedom of action in future policy definition with regard to Syria. More pointedly, al-Assad was now a semi-legitimised international partner in counter-proliferation. As one commentator put it ‘(in effect) Washington and Moscow were now lawfully wedded to Bashar al-Assad for the foreseeable future’. 

Furthermore, the forestalling of an American military strike had partly extracted the Russians from an increasingly precarious and uncomfortable diplomatic position. Russia’s material support for Syria and the diplomatic cover it provided al-Assad’s regime in the United Nations had attracted widespread condemnation internationally, and withering hostility regionally. More importantly, Russian intransigence notwithstanding, the limits of Russian power would have been laid wholly bare by any unilateral American military action. 

As a result of this diplomatic coup, Russia’s stock rose in accordance with shifting perceptions of Moscow’s relative power and influence in the region, and afforded Putin an opportunity to pursue multiple foreign policy initiatives. Since November 2013, Moscow has played host successively to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Turkish counterpart Prime Minister Erdogan, has participated in the final round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, has revived a controversial contract to sell first-rate air defence systems to Iran, and has signed an arms deal with Egypt’s newly-minted military junta (the result of a ‘2+2’ meeting of Russia and Egypt’s respective foreign and defence ministers). 

Back to 1973?

Russia’s turnaround in the Middle East, dramatic and impressive though it was, has been greeted reflexively with a series of analyses replete with hyperbole and thinly stretched logic. Tom Nichols and John Schlinder, writing a series of articles for The National Interest opined that ‘Moscow had not been this powerful in the Middle East in at least a century’ and that ‘no serious student of Russian affairs would deny that Moscow now has more power than at any time since at least 1973, if not longer.’ Their chief contention: that ‘Moscow is now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, (and) that the United States had effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian President Putin.’ Nichols and Schlinder’s assertions reflect the prevailing narrative in much of the commentary surrounding Russia’s championing of Syria and the apparent failure of the US to somehow ‘get to grips’ with a capricious and opportunistic Moscow. Leon Aran suggests that, in the wake of the Syrian chemical deal, ‘Russia is on equal footing now (with the US) as a power in the Middle East’ and that Moscow is directing significant energies to attaining regional parity with the US. As Jonathan Tobin had it: ‘the keynote of Russian foreign policy under Putin remains his dream of reconstituting the old Soviet empire and to frustrate the US at every turn.’ Most creative of all, David Kenner mused that Russia was actively developing ‘strategic’ ties with Lebanon’s community of Orthodox Christians, a Levantine Troy to counter Israel’s Mycenae.

As a result of this diplomatic coup, Russia’s stock rose.

These analyses demonstrate that Russian intentions bear close resemblance to how 20th century US analysts would have expected the USSR to act in similar circumstances. Moreover, they conflate historical experiences with contemporary conditions. In so doing, they misread Russia’s regional policy objectives while at the same time overstating the means and resources which Russia has to pursue these goals. By emphasising Russia’s role in shaping events, these analyses fail to give proper credit to other regional actors, like the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran, for their part in shifting the geopolitical landscape. 

One track mind

It is not only Moscow’s resources that are limited but indeed also its interests in the region. The Kremlin’s reactions to the Arab Uprisings made this clear. Moscow greeted the uprisings with characteristically pragmatic caution, uncertain of the course events would take, and notionally uncomfortable with mass citizen movements violently challenging their governments. At the very least, Moscow surmised that functional western-style democracies were unlikely to supplant those fallen secular authoritarian regimes. Instead, it braced itself for the possibility of a region-wide conflagration with Islamist and sectarian overtones.  

Thus, Russia’s regional goals are narrowly focused on containing Islamist non-state actors and countering the rise of possible Islamist states that might imitate Saudi Arabia in their logistical support and cultural nourishment of Islamist radicals, with one baleful eye on Russia’s unsteady and simmering North Caucasus. More broadly, the Russians are dogmatically opposed to western military interventionism and regime change militarily imposed from without, save for those explicitly mandated and approved by the UN Security Council (and thus Russia). This is essentially the position of China as well, though its continued passivity on the issue has drawn comparatively little of the ire that has been directed at Moscow. 

A marriage of convenience

Russia’s role was not that of patron or even of a sympathetic anti-Western fellow-traveller but more of an arms dealer.

Post-1991, Russia’s close dealings in the Middle East have been limited to political and economic relationships with the regimes of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. Excepting Iran, these relationships were inheritances from the USSR and their decidedly limited nature reflected the paucity of the USSR’s influence in the region post-1973. Importantly, Russia’s role was not that of patron or even, post-1991, of a sympathetic anti-western fellow-traveller but, primarily, that of an  arms dealer. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 removed one regional partner, while the Arab Uprisings eventually overcame another in Libya. Syria, though still standing, was and remains a relatively weak state and the regime in Damascus is likely to be perennially isolated and influence-poor – if it survives at all. 

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US response to local Middle East issues has stalled since Obama's Cairo speech. Photo CC Official Whitehouse photo stream

Iran, on the other hand, is a regional fixture and a rising power with widespread influence. While Iran’s clerical regime had deemed Islam incompatible with the communist and atheistic ideals of the USSR, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Iran’s prolonged status as an international pariah drove Tehran to seek an unconventional opening and develop ties with Moscow in the 1990s. Historically, Moscow has been an uncomfortable and problematic ally for Iran. Ultimately, the US is a distant power whose fundamental strategic interests in Iran’s home region are fleeting and inherently transitory, and while Washington’s gaze will eventually shift from the Middle East, Russia is close to hand and there to stay. Russia is one of Iran’s neighbours (both have Caspian shorelines) and Russia’s spheres of influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asia abut Iran’s borders.  As long as Tehran and Moscow’s alignment with each other allows for them to extract better concessions from the US it will soldier on – but fundamentally their relationship is a mercurial and impermanent one.

Reality check

US efforts to be on ‘both sides of history’, its resultant failure to set out a clear regional policy response to the Arab Uprisings and the prevarications of a lumpen US State Department on a host of local issues from Iran’s nuclear programme to the course of relations with Egypt’s new military government, have encouraged a regional sense of impasse that indirectly magnified the strategic importance of Moscow’s recent overtures. The $2 billion Egyptian arms deal signed in November was more about Cairo sending a message to the US, and simple arms procurement, than an evolving relationship with Russia (and even if this were the case, why fail to mention Egypt’s growing dependency on imports of Russian winter grain?). 

The Egyptian arms deal was more about sending a message to the US than an evolving relationship with Russia.

To conclude that by dint of a singular foreign policy success and ‘a few days’ worth of surprise diplomacy’ Russia had assumed a level of parity vis-a-vis the US in the Middle East is a conspicuously narrow reading of recent events which manifestly fails to contextualise them in the face of demonstrable realities of contemporaneous geopolitics. In other words, this is hyperbolic nonsense. 

Outdated Cold War notions of parity between the US and the USSR often misinform notions of the US’s relationship with contemporary Russia. Present-day Russia has not the population, the economy nor, for the most part, the inclination to mount a meaningful geopolitical challenge to the US in the Middle East. The binary logic of the Cold War offers up deeply unsatisfactory answers to the complex aggregation of international relations reflected in the modern Middle East. The notion that Russia is moving to fill a void left by a US in imperial retreat cannot be argued convincingly – bluntly put, Russia could not do this but more importantly Russia, ever pragmatic and mindful of the limits of her power, would baulk at the very prospect.  

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