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Russia's short-termism in the Middle East

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Is the Ukraine conflict shifting Russia's Middle Eastern policy from real strategy to scoring cheap points?

 

Pavel K. Baev
24 April 2015

There have been many new twists in the chain of Middle Eastern upheavals in the last year — from the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the escalation of civil war in Yemen — but Russia has been only marginally involved in most high-intensity political manoeuvring in the region, only making a splash with the recent ‘unfreezing’ of the sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

This is hardly surprising given the current preoccupations of the Russian leadership: the Ukraine conflict and its expanding confrontation with the West. Yet the Middle East is the only region in the world where Russia has continued to play a key role, validating its claim as a global power despite Western efforts to isolate it. Opportunities for re-asserting this role have been few and far between, and the attempt to stage talks between Bashar al-Assad’s government and some Syrian opposition groups in Moscow in February-March 2015 failed to yield a breakthrough. The question remains, however, whether the conflict in Ukraine will encourage Russian policymaking in the Middle East (particularly regarding the civil war in Syria) to shift emphasis from opportunity-seeking to scoring cheap points as a spoiler. 

Wandering in the Syrian desert

The civil war in Syria, deadlocked yet still mutating, remains the focal point of Russia’s policy in the Middle East. For Vladimir Putin, the stakes in this debacle are higher than the mere survival of Russia’s last client-regime. In the Kremlin’s analysis, the tide of revolutions (allegedly sponsored and manipulated by the United States) constitutes a major threat to the world order; and Putin fancies himself a champion of the counter-revolutionary cause.

Since the emergence of the Euromaidan in Kiev in November 2013, Ukraine has become the main theatre of this epic struggle, but Syria, where authoritarian stability holds firm against the chaotic forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, continues to be a crucial battlefield.

The deadlocked but mutating civil war in Syria remains the key focal point of Russia’s policy in the Middle East.

The astounding success of Putin’s September 2013 initiative on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles boosted his confidence in (mis)managing the Ukraine crisis, which erupted a few months later. It appears likely that Putin took this smart tactical manoeuvre, which prevented a limited US missile strike on some of Assad’s military assets, for a major strategic achievement that established Russia’s role as an indispensable global power. Emboldened with this effective check on US interventionism and encouraged by the lack of unity in NATO and the European Union regarding Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, the Russian leadership moved boldly ahead with derailing the EU Eastern Partnership project, and with the annexation of Crimea, a major breach of international law. 

The assumption that the Assad regime will be able to withstand the pressure of rebel attacks is as reasonable now as it was in late 2011, when Moscow opted for the risky course of giving the regime its full support. However, the interplay of overlapping conflicts in Syria has reached a level of complexity far beyond the ‘black-and-white’ version which remains prevalent in the Kremlin. The rise of ISIS and its swift advance from Raqqah in northern Syria to the suburbs of Baghdad took the Russian leadership by surprise, even more perhaps than it did US strategic planners. In a sense, ISIS confirmed the ideological thesis that revolutions generate chaos, in which violent extremism thrives, but it also confused patterns of political intrigue.

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Moscow may condemn the violence in Syria and Iraq, but shies away from direct intervention. (c) Alexandro Auler / Demotix.

Russia was quick to condemn ISIS atrocities (and provide military aid to Baghdad), but it had no intention of joining the US-led coalition. Blaming Washington for fostering anti-Assad extremists, Moscow even tried to oppose US air strikes against ISIS forces in northern Syria, which has repeatedly left it in an awkward diplomatic position: even the Assad government finds it opportune to welcome the strikes.

The Russian leadership has few doubts about the reality of the threat posed by Islamic extremism and has a real stake in the fight against ISIS. Hundreds of volunteers from the North Caucasus have joined its ranks. There is already a trickle of hardened fighters returning home, and a shocking rebel attack in Grozny last December proved that terrorist threats in Russia are far from contained. However, the Russian top brass assumes that no counter-terrorist cooperation with the West is necessary to deal with this threat, while the Kremlin’s prime motivation is to prove Russia’s ability to check US interventionism and to derail Western efforts even where interests are broadly compatible. At the same time, the gravity of the ISIS threat (which as the attack on the Yarmouk refugee camp in the outskirts of Damascus has proven, remains undiminished despite sustained air strikes) gives Moscow greater leverage to pursue its ‘hybrid war’ in Ukraine.

Russia is interested in increasing its impact on developments in the Middle East. However, Putin cannot find a good way to score a low-cost, high profile political coup in the Syrian war zone, especially with the increasingly limited material resources available, for instance, for keeping the Tarsus naval facility operational. The main asset for Kremlin intrigues, then, is its ability to engage in conversation with the three main external parties increasingly attached to the internationalised Syrian conflict.

Israel

Russian diplomacy has cultivated useful communication channels with Israel, Iran, and Turkey, three states with both great stakes in the Syrian war and the capacity to impact its course. The problem with building a substantial agenda for these communications is that their respective interests in the conflict are profoundly incompatible with one another, and a poor fit with the Kremlin’s counter-revolutionary and anti-American objectives.

In the first of these three channels, discussions on Syria are remarkably frank. From the very start of this debacle, Moscow has assumed that Jerusalem was not at all keen to see the downfall of the Assad regime. Unable to rely on ties with the large Russian community in Israel (which remains wary of Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and is highly ambivalent about the Ukraine conflict), Putin has built up a rapport with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected joining the Western sanctions against Russia and even tried to take advantage of them to expand trade. For its part, Moscow expressed only pro forma disapproval of Israeli air strikes on Syria, including one last December that allegedly targeted Russian-delivered surface-to-air missiles and one in January that targeted Hezbollah commanders and killed an Iranian general. Russian attempts at expanding ties with Egypt, including a ‘working’ visit by Putin to Cairo in February (where not much work in progress was, in fact, registered), are also fully in tune with Israel’s preferences.

Putin has built up a rapport with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 

However, while Putin may be fully aware of Netanyahu’s disappointment in Obama’s policy-making in the Middle East, he ultimately cannot find a way to exploit it. The discord between leaders does not diminish Israel’s fundamental interest in greater US involvement in the region, which runs at cross-purposes to Russian intentions. Likewise, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is far from an ace in Middle Eastern affairs and often at a loss when trying to sort out the region’s puzzle of interwoven quarrels.

The Kremlin is also fully aware that closer ties with Israel increase suspicions in other quarters. Netanyahu was so upset with Putin’s decision to rush the deliveries of the S-300 missiles to Iran (his call to the Kremlin failed to make a difference) that he cancelled his visit to Moscow for attending the Victory Day celebrations.

Iran

With Iran, exchanges on Syria are obscure, at best. The central issue in Moscow’s ambivalent but prioritised relations with Tehran is the progress of the P5+1 talks in Switzerland on Iran’s nuclear programme. Russia hailed the provisional deal reached in early April (despite contributing nothing to its making), and insists on lifting sanctions as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the sharp decline in oil prices has severely impacted the hidden Syrian agenda. Falling oil prices have brought about such a contraction of petro-revenues in Russian and Iranian state budgets that neither state can provide the 2011-2014 levels of support for the Assad regime, which previously sustained the latter’s operations against various rebel groups.

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P5+1 talks include the permanent members of the UN Security Council, US, Russia, France, United Kingdom and China plus Germany.

The Russian leadership is worried that Tehran is losing interest in its traditional trans-Caspian connections with Russia. Advancement in the P5+1 talks is essentially based on bilateral and non-transparent US-Iranian bargaining, which Moscow can do little to influence. Putin and Lavrov suspect that the current fighting in Iraq and Syria and the future of these states constitute elements of this bargaining, and resent being kept in the dark.

Moscow’s main hope is that Iran will overplay its hand by assuming that the Ukraine crisis works to its advantage and, instead of hammering out the final compromise, will threaten to break the sanctions regime against it with Russia’s help and China’s consent – and then will have to really go for it when the bluff is called. The rushed decision on lifting the self-enforced ban on delivering the S-300 missiles was probably aimed at encouraging this sort of behaviour. A failure of the final stage of talks would leave Iran’s nuclear programme in limbo and signify a high-profile fiasco for US efforts. Russia’s new nuclear deal with Iran (announced just two weeks prior to the November deadline in the Geneva talks, which was duly broken) cannot alter the fact that bilateral economic ties are rather weak, while their political dialogue oscillates along a rather low degree of mutual trust.

Moscow’s main hope is that Iran will overplay its hand 

Turkey

The only power in the Middle East with which Russia has developed trust-based relations is Turkey. The personal chemistry between Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan constitutes the core of this special partnership. While Putin was vague and defensive describing cooperation with Iran at a lengthy press conference in mid-December (and far from convincing when justifying the decision on the S-300 missiles at the traditional Q&A in April), he was unreservedly positive about Turkey, referring to Erdoğan as a ‘strong man’ (‘krepky muzhik’). The term was officially translated as a ‘strong character,’ which did not fully convey its inherent machismo.

Putin’s state visit to Ankara in December was useful in expanding energy links, but his assertion at the later press conference that ‘Russia and Turkey have very many—I’d like to stress this—coinciding regional interests’ was a statement too far. In Syria in particular, Russia’s sustained support for the Assad regime clashes directly with Turkey’s stance on the imperative of its removal (Turkey deems the Syrian government to be a sponsor of ‘state terror.’) In most high-level talks, this sharp disagreement is diplomatically bracketed, which means that the potentially most significant channel of communications on managing the Syrian conflict remains dysfunctional.

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Eurasia's 'strong men' meet in Ankara, December 2014. (c) Kremlin.ru.

Moscow is keen to exploit the deepening conflict between Turkey and the United States, but Ankara’s insistence on placing greater priority on ‘regime change’ in Syria than on the struggle against ISIS narrows the space for such anti-American collaboration. Nonetheless, the Russian leadership recognises that Turkey has suffered a number of setbacks in its effort to play a greater role in the Middle East and deems it the perfect partner for launching a joint initiative that would serve Russia’s ambitions.

To spoil or not to spoil?

Russian diplomacy has been looking in vain for a low-cost opportunity to score another victory on a par with its September 2013 initiative in the wider Middle East and, in particular, the interconnected Lebanon-Syria-Iraq conflicts. In its opportunistic regional engagement, Moscow is exploring possibilities to act as a spoiler, in line with its consistent policy course on the Syrian civil war, which to all intents and purposes has succeeded in blocking the international effort to depose Assad. Beside a pronounced desire to demonstrate the capacity to derail US policy at the focal point of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Moscow has two more incentives for playing a cost-effective spoiler role. 

The first is the dramatic (and, for Russia, devastating) decline in oil prices, which has been caused by profound shifts in global energy markets. This trend might only be reversed rapidly by a further spike of instability in the Middle East, which would disrupt supplies coming from the Persian Gulf. The 30-40% price drop that occurred in the second half of 2014 happened while three major suppliers—Iraq, Iran, and Libya—were already performing far below capacity. It is reasonable to assume that a normalisation of production in any of them would push the benchmark price even lower. Russia may thus find it necessary to prevent progress in conflict resolution (and, hence, stabilisation in one or more of these three major producers). It could mean the difference between severe economic crisis and implosion.

Russia may thus find it necessary to prevent progress in conflict resolution

The second incentive comes from the highly uncertain transformation of the Ukraine crisis, where the spring pause has been highly unstable and generally unfavourable for Russia, which has to supply and protect the rebel-controlled territory around Donetsk and Luhansk while suffering from Western sanctions. The probable failure of the Minsk ceasefire could prompt a decision to execute an offensive operation aimed at securing a land corridor to Crimea, and then the Kremlin may very well be interested in fostering an escalation of one or several crises in the Middle East in order to divert US attention. An analogous moment is the 1956 Suez crisis, which demanded so much US involvement (not to mention interventions by France and Britain) that the Soviet military invasion that crushed the uprising in Hungary did not receive any meaningful response. 

Despite Russian inclinations to experiment with its spoiler role, at least one major restraining factor is China, which is increasingly dependent on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf (and greatly benefits from the fall in oil prices). The Ukraine crisis has effectively transformed the Russia-China strategic partnership into a patronage system, in which Moscow needs to prove its value as a junior partner not only by committing itself to supplying raw materials and hydrocarbons but also by performing certain functions on the global arena. Stirring up trouble in the Middle East would definitely meet with Beijing’s disapproval.

The Ukraine crisis has effectively transformed the Russia-China strategic partnership into a patronage system

That said, one area in which China might be interested to have Russia go rogue is the sanctions regime against Iran. Beijing is unhappy with its marginal role in the P5+1 format and with the procrastinations, which delays its plans for investing in Iran’s oil industry. Neither Russia nor China is remotely interested in Iran becoming a nuclear-armed state, but they do not trust the United States to reach a satisfactory resolution on this issue through the current back-channel negotiations. 

Another turn in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict dynamics that could enable Russia to make a difference by upsetting US policy designs is the possible breakup of Iraq, starting with the secession of Kurdistan. Agreement between Iran and Turkey would be crucial for such a development, but Moscow could grant the deal some international legitimacy, particularly if Washington were cut out of the bargaining. Russian companies (Lukoil and Gazprom-Neft) have major stakes in oil projects in southern and eastern Iraq, which provides Moscow useful entry points into local politics and gives it a slight political advantage over Beijing. While such proactive engagement would go beyond a mere spoiler role, Russia sees every setback for US policy aimed at preserving stability in the region, as a net win.

While Russia can hardly increase support for the Assad regime’s offensive operations against the moderate Syrian opposition, it can perhaps talk China into doing this, so that ISIS remains the only (and entirely unacceptable) alternative. One trigger for such a turn of events in Syria could be a failure of Saudi intervention in Yemen, which the US has hesitantly supported – and Russia has opposed. Within this stratagem might also be an option shaped by a possible Turkish decision to take on greater responsibility for containing the Syrian civil war, perhaps by establishing military control over Kurdish-populated areas in the northeast or by enforcing order around Aleppo. Russia could be a useful partner in such a risky endeavour, granting it a modicum of international legitimacy without US participation.

The remaining months of 2015 are set to be hard and extremely uncertain for Russia’s economic and political development. Putin’s leadership could face unexpected challenges, and cannot afford any decline in his unsustainably high public support. This vulnerability increases Russia’s propensity for toying with power projection, with Syria being a key focus for Kremlin experiments in the Middle East.

Image two: P5+1 talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 2015. (c) DemotixLiveNews.

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