Using Its Syrian Foothold, Russia Expands in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Syria on December 11 to make an important announcement: the war in Syria is essentially over, and Russia and Bashar al-Assad have won. Putin proclaimed the end of the fight against terrorism in that country and said the Kremlin will soon begin withdrawing most of its troops from Syria. But he vowed that “if the terrorists again raise their heads, we will deal such blows to them they have never seen.”

The declaration of victory means that the Syrian civil war may soon draw to a fitful, bloody close. This development represents more than just the survival of Assad, however. In fact, it marks the completion of Russia’s comeback as a major power in the Middle East. For a number of years now, Putin has played a very skillful hand not merely to prop up the Assad regime—although that has been the centerpiece of his policy—but, more broadly, to defend Russia’s strategic interests in the region, assert its prerogatives as a major regional player, and extend Russia’s economic, diplomatic, and political influence. In so doing, Moscow—helped along by the Obama Administration’s passivity and fecklessness, as well as the Trump White House’s neglect and compliance—has opportunistically filled a political vacuum and today finds itself in a new position of strength in the region.

What it will do with this influence is an important question, one that will become clearer as the Syrian war winds down and remaining Islamic State (IS) strongholds are stamped out. How the United States responds will be important in determining Russia’s ability to continue to accumulate more influence in regional politics at the expense of American interests.

A Long Way Back

Russia’s effort to reassert its regional role following the collapse of the Soviet Union is not new. Shortly after his assumption of power on New Year’s Eve in 1999 after the resignation of the ailing president, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin embarked on a determined effort to restore Russia’s status as a great power, which he believed had been stolen from Moscow during the period of post-Soviet decline. As Putin sees it, Russia is fighting back against nefarious western, and specifically US, efforts to impose an international order from which the West alone benefits. In this ideation, Putin’s strategy amounts to “zero-sum anti-westernism—for Russia to win, the United States ha[s] to lose.”

This world view explains Russia’s opposition to the “color revolutions” in eastern Europe, alarm at the Arab Spring, and the overthrow of its ally Viktor Yanyukovych in Ukraine: Moscow sees it all as part of a dark western conspiracy to encroach on Russia’s historic sphere of influence and to undermine its natural allies among authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. Such a conspiracy had to be thwarted.

While essential to restoring Russia’s international pride and sense of itself, Putin’s mission also has an important domestic aspect. The expansion of Russia’s power and influence abroad builds popular support for Putin and his Kremlin allies and distracts attention from economic troubles and growing political dissatisfaction, thus helping the Kremlin delegitimize and stifle dissent.

Playing a Winning Hand in Syria

Putin’s 2015 intervention in Syria at the request of the Assad government was the perfect expression of both the mind-set and the long-term strategy of the Kremlin to make Russia great again. Putin is “opportunistically using Syria to double down in a broader, self-driven competition with Western powers… [and aims] to create a new security system that ultimately places limits on Western institutions and US power in the 21st century, in particular, reducing the US role in key regional security arrangements and the global security system as a whole.”

The Obama Administration repeatedly condemned the brutality of the Syrian regime and called for Assad to step down, but when faced with hard choices, it failed to take any practical action to confront Assad—including, famously, refusing to enforce Obama’s vaunted “red line” against regime use of chemical weapons in 2013. Russia seized the opportunity this failure presented by stepping in to defend an old client state, wholeheartedly embracing the Assad regime and thereby demonstrating its resolve to protect its military interests in the region and erode US influence.

Russian military power—deployed in close operational coordination with Iranian forces and their Hezbollah allies—proved instrumental in pulling the Syrian government back from the brink of military defeat and helping it retake much of the country from the rebels. While Moscow paid lip service to fighting IS, in fact most of the Russian military effort was concentrated on anti-regime forces, striking IS and other Islamist militias only, by and large, when required to advance the objective of protecting Assad’s military interests. The Syrian government is once again in control of most of the country, which gives it a strong hand in any further negotiations.

Here, too, Russia proved an ardent defender of the Syrian regime. It slow-rolled the international community through numerous failed ceasefires, inconclusive initiatives, and negotiating rounds, including more than half a dozen organized by the United Nations, while the Syrian-Russian-Iranian military campaign made inexorable progress. Moscow has steadfastly supported Assad’s right to remain in power and denied the legitimacy of the “terrorists”—i.e., Syrian rebels—who oppose the regime. Along the way, Russia—with an occasional assist from China—vetoed nine UN Security Council resolutions regarding the situation in Syria which would have, inter alia, restrained arms transfers to the Syrian government, slowed government troop movements toward population centers, condemned human rights violations by the regime, extended the UN investigation on responsibility for the use of chemical weapons, and referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Unsurprisingly, UN efforts have yielded meager results; in the latest round of Geneva talks in late November, the question of Assad’s future was completely off the table, with discussions focusing instead on entirely meaningless formalities for elections and constitutional reforms.

While helping to frustrate Security Council deliberations, UN discussions, and other diplomatic efforts to arrive at a solution, Russia has worked to set up what amounts to a parallel political process to determine the future of Syria. In December 2016, Russia, Iran, and Turkey convened the so-called Astana talks, which brought together those three countries, a Syrian government delegation, and carefully selected representatives of the armed opposition (excluding radical Islamic groups such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and the People’s Protection Units—the US-allied Kurdish militia, or YPG). In the last round in October, plans were formed to enforce “de-escalation zones” in various parts of the country intended to lessen military clashes and facilitate humanitarian operations, but which will also serve to freeze the regime’s military gains in place. The United States has played at best a peripheral role in these meetings, which now have the blessing of the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Perhaps Washington felt its active participation was unnecessary: the Trump Administration had signaled early on that whether Assad remained in power or not was a matter of indifference to the United States, and in July canceled a covert program to arm the Syria rebels. The United States’ own military involvement has focused exclusively on defeating IS, largely avoiding contact with Syrian government forces.

Instead, Washington has remained wedded to the UN process long after that process lost all touch with reality. In a joint statement issued by Trump and Putin on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Cooperation summit in November, the two leaders repeated the mantra that there “is no military solution,” despite the obvious success of the Russian-Syrian-Iranian campaign. They also touted the need for “constitutional reform and free and fair elections” in Syria, as if that were useful or possible amid the current violence and hatred, especially with Assad remaining in power (which the statement pointedly did not address).

Russia on a Roll

Russia’s successes in Syria, both military and political, have conferred significant benefits on the Kremlin. For one thing, Russia has strengthened its military presence in Syria, which serves broader Russian purposes vis-à-vis the United States and NATO. The government in Damascus has granted long-term leases to Russia for an air base at Latakia and a naval base at Tartous, which are slated for major expansions in the next few years. This will enable Moscow to project power in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean well into the future. The reinforced Russian military position puts the entire eastern Mediterranean littoral within range of Russian cruise and anti-ship missiles; it also provides the ability to place US and NATO freedom of action at risk in the area.

Moreover, Russia has used Syria to continue to exercise its military capabilities by engaging in operational training, including complex combined-arms operations, and using the conflict as a proving ground for advanced weapons systems such as Kalibr cruise missiles and Onyx P-800 anti-ship missiles. Moscow has deployed about 15 warships to its Mediterranean Task Force, including landing ships, frigates, destroyers, and submarines, which—as well as providing support for operations in Syria—have reportedly conducted operations off the Libyan and Syrian coasts.

In addition, Moscow has leveraged success in Syria to advance its regional relations. In 2015, it signed a $10 billion deal with Jordan to build a 2,000-megawatt nuclear power plant. It signed a major economic and energy agreement with Baghdad in October aimed at boosting Russian companies that compete for contracts to build power plants and develop oil and natural gas resources in Iraq. Moscow has developed relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) too, encouraging the energy giant Rosneft to invest $4 billion in the Kurdish energy sector. This has required the Kremlin to carefully deconflict its KRG ties with Moscow’s reset of relations with Baghdad, especially in the wake of the ill-starred Kurdish independence referendum in September. So far, the effort has proved successful.

Ties with Tehran have advanced as well, building on the foundation laid by the profitable military and diplomatic alliance between the two countries in the Syrian civil war. Tehran and Moscow announced a $10 billion arms deal in late 2016, and Moscow was permitted to use an Iranian air base at Hamadan to fly bombing missions into Syria. Nevertheless, the relationship is not altogether an easy one: the arms deal has not yet been implemented, and the Hamadan basing agreement was abruptly terminated by Tehran after Moscow revealed it publicly. Moreover, tensions remain over other issues, including Russian efforts to broaden its influence in Iraq, which Tehran suspects could come at its expense. Russia is attempting to navigate these sticking points with care, and the two nations continue to explore opportunities for strategic cooperation.

In general, Moscow’s successes have once more placed Russia at the center of regional diplomacy. The Astana process has led to some warming of relations between Turkey and the Kremlin, after a period of tension capped by Turkey’s downing of a Russian military aircraft near Turkish airspace in 2015. Turkey recently agreed to purchase Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted Putin’s visit to Ankara in October. King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to travel to Moscow, also in October, primarily to discuss reducing Iran’s role in Syria, and the kingdom has signed a deal to buy $3 billion worth of Russian missiles. The visit caps a long effort by the Russians and Saudis to build a new strategic relationship.

Egypt has also increased cooperation with Moscow. In November, the Russian government approved a draft agreement signed by Egypt and the Russian defense ministry to permit Russian warplanes to use Egyptian air bases; when formally signed, the agreement would extend Russia’s military reach in the Mediterranean and would theoretically enable Moscow and Cairo to cooperate more directly in support of General Khalifa Haftar, their favored strongman in Libya. (Russia has already deployed a small number of troops to Egypt’s western desert for this purpose.) But what the agreement really does, in combination with recently concluded arms deals and joint exercises, is signal Russia’s return as a key player in Egypt, which has been a close American ally since it ejected the Soviets in the 1970s.

Israel, too, has beaten a path to Putin’s door. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Moscow four times in the last year and a half to press the Kremlin to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from threatening Israel from Syrian territory. While Putin has proved hard to deal with on this (as on other) issues, Moscow has agreed to look the other way in the event of Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and some Syrian military targets in Syria.

In short, Russia is now seen as a vital diplomatic stop by all the major regional actors, and Putin has managed to keep lines of communication open to all parties, even though their interests often conflict—which is quite an achievement in itself.

Where to Next?

Russia is now back, in a big way, in the Middle East. It has aggressively extended its reach and underscored its value as an ally and its credibility as a regional power broker, drawing a contrast with the United States and, so far, paying no price in terms of diplomatic pushback or increased incidents of anti-Russian terrorism. The Russians have compelled regional powers to come to Moscow if they wish to advance their own interests, and many are only too happy to do so. Unlike the United States’ positions historically, Russia embraces authoritarian stability and holds no brief for human rights and democracy. Washington, which by and large has acquiesced in Russia’s power play, is increasingly seen as untrustworthy and somewhat marginal.

Nevertheless, Russia faces significant obstacles in its efforts to extend its influence in the Middle East. For one thing, its economy is about one-tenth the size of that of the United States, as is its military spending, thus constraining Moscow’s ability to sustain power projection abroad. Another challenge is that its efforts to balance relations between all regional parties, while paying short-term dividends, have led to mistrust and suspicion concerning Russian intentions, calling into question whether Moscow’s essentially contradictory relationships and motives can serve its long-term interests. Russia’s relationship with Tehran, for example, may hamper efforts to improve relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; likewise, its de facto alliance with Hezbollah in Syria complicates ties with Israel. In addition, Russia lacks the vast network of economic assistance programs, trade relations, arms sales, military alliances, and diplomatic partnerships that have bolstered American relationships throughout the region for decades, and Moscow is unlikely to be able to replicate these anytime soon, if ever.

But Russia certainly has momentum just now, and if the United States wants to slow or reverse it, there are several options. First, Washington must develop a comprehensive regional strategy that fits national resources to well-defined, clear, and achievable goals. It must abandon the ad-hoc approach that has substituted for, and in some cases actually undermined, policy, such as the recent decision by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which can only subvert the administration’s attempts to revive peace negotiations while putting key Arab allies in a difficult position. Second, the United States should shore up its long-term military presence in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria, as Russia moves to become more active in the eastern Mediterranean and build ties with the Gulf. Russia cannot be allowed to expand its presence unchecked. The United States would also do well to press hard for an end to the Saudi-Qatari standoff, the persistence of which could have a long-term negative impact on US military operations and coordination among allies.

Finally, the United States should not meekly acquiesce to Russian plans for Syria’s political future, with Assad at the country’s helm. Washington has the power to make Moscow’s Syria diplomacy every bit as difficult as Russia has made that of the United States and the United Nations. Washington should wield this influence—and make it clear that Russia will enjoy the primary burden of organizing and financing Syria’s reconstruction.

Whether the administration, distracted by the growing Russia scandal, is willing or able to push back effectively on Moscow’s designs is unclear. But the United States must make the effort if it wants to defend its long-standing regional ties and interests, and avoid further instability.