As Putin flexes his muscles in Syria, debate centers on whether Russia can thereby successfully reassert itself on the global scene or if the country is biting off more than it can chew.
On March 9, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel all descended on Russia. Unthinkable just months earlier—with Moscow ostracized and isolated over its meddling in Ukraine—the Kremlin was now at the center of a diplomatic blitz, with leaders from two Middle Eastern powers, along with the top diplomat from Europe’s most dominant country, making a pilgrimage to President Vladimir Putin.
On its face, this suggested Russia’s resurrection as a player in the Middle East, with all roads to Damascus detouring henceforth through Moscow. Yet, it also raised questions about the viability of Putin’s foreign policy—was the Russian Bear overreaching to the point of being overstretched?
During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union wielded tremendous influence in the Middle East. Aligned with the socialist republics of Egypt and Syria—at the time the Arab world’s most important countries—the USSR was engaged in a fierce battle with the U.S. for regional dominance. To this end, the Soviets provided training and weapons to Arab armies and was instrumental in creating terrorist proxy groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization. At its peak, the USSR could sow chaos at will, thereby challenging U.S. interests in the oil-rich region by destabilizing local American allies; and, by finding common ground with a powerful anti-colonialist bloc of countries in forums such as the UN, advance Soviets policies and spread communist ideology across the globe.
This momentum would change by the late 1970s. After successive military defeats to Israel, Egypt was drawn out of the Russian orbit and into Washington’s. Cairo, under Anwar Sadat’s leadership, signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state and became the beneficiary of American military aid. It was the catalyst for a gradual reduction in the USSR’s footprint in the Middle East, a monumental geostrategic shift that, when coupled with the failed Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s and catastrophic economic problems in Mother Russia, led to the dissolution of the Iron Curtain in 1991.
The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a unipolar global order with the U.S. as sole superpower and, ever since, Washington has had its fingerprints on, and led the way in, nearly every major Middle Eastern development—from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; from the war on terror to the Iran nuclear deal.
That is, until Putin intervened in Syria.
According to Dr. Amichai Magen, the head of the Diplomacy and Conflict Studies Program at the Lauder School of Government, IDC Herzilya, Putin’s foreign policy in the Middle East is driven less by Cold War nostalgia than by a desire to reestablish what he views as Russia’s rightful historical position among nations. “Putin understands that the Soviet Union lost to the U.S.,” he explained to The Media Line, “but there is an appreciation of Russia’s past role, including its former domination of ‘Eurasia.’ Putin believes that a strong Russia can more easily return to this standing, which also applies to the Middle East.”
Dr. Magen likewise believes that Putin is motivated by domestic political interests, as it is easier for him to galvanize internal support if Russia is viewed as being influential abroad. “Focusing on international issues,” he contended, “also allows for Putin to better manage the opposition, which bolsters the stability of his regime, especially at a time when oil revenues have gone down.”
But there are also short-term tactical interests at play. “Putin also wants to reestablish a presence in the Mediterranean through its naval base in Tartus,” Dr. Magen concluded, “and in terms of competing with the west, Russia is aligning itself with the Iran-Syria [Shiite] axis to counter the U.S.-supported [Sunni] axis led by Saudi Arabia.”
Russian military operations began in Syria in September 2015, a few months after an official request for support by President Bashar al-Assad. At the outset, Putin’s stated goal was to combat “terrorist” groups such as the Islamic State; a target which would simultaneously enable Moscow to achieve its ancillary (albeit unstated) aim of securing long-term access to its lone military base in the region, located within Assad’s coastal Alawite heartland.
But these ambitions expanded quickly and not unexpectedly, with active Russian assistance to Syrian government forces to retake territory captured by various “moderate” rebel groups supported by the U.S., as well as the targeting of anti-Assad fighters armed by a coalition of Sunni Arab countries. In a televised interview one month after Russia’s intervention, Putin redefined the military objective as “stabilizing the legitimate power [of the Assad regime] in Syria.”
To this end, Russian forces have carried out more than 20,000 combat missions and delivered some 75,000 strikes on “terrorist infrastructure.” Moreover, Putin this week signed a law ratifying a deal with the Assad government allowing Russia to keep its Hmeymim air base in the province of Latakia—which it has used to carry out sorties—for almost half a century. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—the leading watchdog on the war—claims that these airstrikes have killed more than 3,500 I.S. fighters, 4,000 rebels and some 5,000 civilians.
Russia’s foray into Syria has reverberated throughout the Middle East, leading to a strategic realignment in which Moscow’s influenced has been broadened. Putin has used this enhanced regional presence and sway opportunistically to cement geopolitical shifts that were already underway as a result of the political turmoil brought about by the Arab Spring upheaval.
In this respect, Putin has stepped through the door opened by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who distanced his country from the U.S. following the Obama administration’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2011, Obama turned his back on long-time ally Hosni Mubarak (a military man of Sisi’s ilk) and instead backed Mohamed Morsi, who was subsequently elected Egypt’s leader. When popular protests erupted one year later—this time against the Islamists’ rule—Sisi assumed power; but Washington gave him the cold shoulder, going so far as to cut military aid to the newly-minted president. In the result, Cairo turned to Putin, who in 2014 signed an arms deal with Egypt, the first between the two countries since the Cold War. Putin and Sisi reportedly maintain constant contact, which no doubt influenced Cairo’s decision to back off from a demand that Assad step down in Syria.
Russia made similar inroads in Libya after the country fell apart in the wake of the west’s military intervention to depose former strongman Moammar Ghadafi. There, Putin has thrown his weight behind Khalifa Haftar, who commands a large force in the east and who initially opposed the UN-endorsed Government of National Accord. Last November, Haftar made his second trip to Russia, a month after which Moscow declared that he must play a role in Libya’s leadership. It is no coincidence that Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj this week agreed to a ceasefire deal with Haftar and for elections to take place as soon as possible.
Then there is Turkey, whose relations with the West have also deteriorated. A crackdown on civil society by President Tayyip Erdogan, coupled with a shift towards Islamism, has created friction, particularly with the EU; a void that Putin—himself not known for a commitment to upholding human rights—has gladly filled. While bilateral relations were challenged after Turkey downed a Russian warplane in Syria in November 2015, a détente was reached when Erdogan apologized for the incident—no small concession for the bombastic president—for which he received a partnership-role in the Syrian peace process. As Turkey is deeply invested in preventing the Kurds in Syria from carving out an autonomous territory, Erdogan feels little option to coordinating with Moscow to achieve this aim. Additionally, defense ties between the countries remain robust, with Erdogan recently revealing that Turkey was in the process of procuring the advanced S-400 anti-missile system from Russia. Reciprocally, Putin has an interest in coaxing Ankara away from Europe and, more broadly, NATO, as part of a strategy to weaken the western alliance.
As regards Israel, it still remains a steadfast U.S. ally despite the strains of the Obama era, which famously called for more “daylight” between the two countries and prompted Prime Minister Netanyahu to pivot to the east, prioritizing the strengthening of ties with China, India and, of course, Russia. In this respect, Israel has reportedly created a backchannel with Moscow to coordinate military activities in Syria, where the Israeli military has repeatedly targeted advanced weapons convoys destined for Hizbullah. As Putin holds the cards in Syria, Netanyahu needs him to prevent Iran from gaining a permanent military foothold there.
In fact, Russia’s ties to the Islamic Republic are perhaps the most significant of them all, with Moscow having provided materials and expertise to the Iranian regime for its nuclear program. Today, Putin is using Tehran’s proxies in Syria to deepen his grip on the country, while Iran uses Moscow as shield from the west. Accordingly, Russia’s relations with Iran have wider implications that could, potentially, put Putin on a further and more intense collision course with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Russia’s interests in the Middle East are deeply interconnected with its policies in other parts of the globe. According to Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Associate at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and former Israeli Ambassador to Russia, Putin’s over-arching strategy is complex and spans multiple conflict zones. “Russia is involved in crises across in the world,” he told The Media Line, “not only in the Middle East but also in eastern Europe [foremost in Ukraine], in former Soviet satellites, and in the far east with North Korea. Putin also has a stake in Afghanistan. He is competing with the West in all of the ‘hot spots.'” In this respect, Magen elaborated, “Putin’s aim is not only to destabilize multiple regions—with a view to weakening the West—but, more specifically, also to achieve successes and then to cut deals.”
The wild card in this whole scenario remains President Trump, who has been accused of capitulating to Russia, particularly in Syria. But Magen suggests that Washington’s apparent reticence to confront Putin forcefully may be due to the absence of a yet unformulated or uncrystallized global U.S. foreign policy; one which would incorporate Syria, Iran as well as the Ukraine and other issues. “So far,” he explained, “Trump’s main idea is to stop the competition with Moscow and to decrease tensions. There is a linkage between all of the issues; that is why the Hamburg agenda [at the recent G20 meeting, during which Trump and Putin met] grouped together all of the problems. The difficulty is to find a common language, a common ground.”
It is a veritable juggling act of multiple intricate and inter-woven issues, a give and take, so to speak, requiring that an overall grand bargain be agreed to by both Washington and Moscow. While Magen believes the outlines of such a deal are materializing, there appears to be many unresolved issues. “We still need information, as the only tangible effect so far is the ceasefire in southern Syria. But we cannot separate this from the nuclear deal with Iran, which has also become a major player in the Middle East. There is also the religious confrontation, with Iran the leader of the Shiite camp. Preparations for a huge war against the Sunnis are underway, and Trump has to stop this.”
Despite Putin’s apparent achievements in the Middle East, some believe they are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. “Syria is just a distraction,” according to Alexander Nekrassov, a former Kremlin and Russian government adviser in the 1990s and 2000s, “as Russia is not strong enough to be a key player so far away from its borders.” Moreover, he stressed to The Media Line, “Syria is of no importance to Putin compared to Ukraine, which is his number one priority. And Putin knows he may go down as the man who lost Ukraine, a disaster for most Russians who view the former soviet satellite as a brotherly nation.”
In terms of Russian military strategy, Nekrassov highlights the irrelevance of the Syrian arena. “People believe that Russia’s policy is driven by the need to maintain the military base in Tartus, for example. But this is not even a base, it’s a small port. To say that Russia intervened to protect this asset is rubbish. Russia does not need bases, as they are very costly. Russia’s doctrine is based on nuclear deterrence.”
For Nekrassov, Putin has bit off more than he can chew, and believes that Russia’s return to prominence on the international stage is “an illusion based on propaganda.” In this respect, he suggests the war in Syria is, in reality, not going to plan, “as Russian forces were supposed to leave quite quickly—hitting terrorist groups hard and inflicting enough damage for the Syrian army and Iranian militias to finish off the rebels. This did not happen, as regional Sunni countries continued to filter weapons to the opposition.”
As a result, he concluded, “the war in Syria is going to last and last, sucking the Russians into a quagmire. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.”
Dr. Amichai Magen likewise believes Putin’s strategy is fraught with dangers. “Number one is cost,” he told The Media Line, “as Russia’s economy is not in great shape. Second is the potential to become entangled in an unwanted conflict, including with the U.S., whereby a relatively minor incident could lead to a dramatic escalation.
“Third,” he continued,” “the involvement in shoring up the Assad regime could make Russia a target for global Jihad. And an additional danger is an alignment with Iranian interests, which could get Moscow into trouble with the west.”
Like the United States before it, Russia may indeed discover that getting into the Middle East is far easier than getting out. There is always the potential for overextension, a reality that itself contributed to the downfall of the USSR. Accordingly, Dr. Magen stressed, “Putin is walking a fine line.”
An even more skeptical conclusion might be that Putin is less on a tightrope walk than sinking progressively into the Middle East quicksand; a potentially more destructive predicament than that which the Bear recognized far too late in Afghanistan.