By Yuval Weber*
(FPRI) — American fatigue in the Middle East from 15 years of conflict and a genuine lack of clarity regarding U.S. power and purpose have created an opportunity for Russia to play a more active role in the region—its most active since the 1970s.
The many drivers and uncertain outcomes of Russian involvement in the Middle East result from two primary factors: recognizing American shortcomings and the unique pressures faced by the United States’ clients unsure of the extent of support they might receive from U.S. President Donald Trump, a far less predictable patron than what they’ve known before. This opportunity has allowed Russia to utilize adroit diplomacy, few domestic constraints, and a greater tolerance for risk to apply enough coercive force in the war in Syria to become part of the political solution of the conflict.
It is still too soon to tell the ultimate impact of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but the consequences of that day continue to shape the political strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for local actors and great powers, especially Russia.
Then-President George W. Bush responded decisively against the perpetrators, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and their hosts, the Taliban government of Afghanistan, by ordering Special Forces and an air war to remove the latter and search for the former. Any U.S. president would have likely reacted in a roughly similar fashion, yet the decision by Bush to pursue a preventive war in Iraq a year and a half later proved highly contentious and contributed to a decline in American standing around the world and opposition at home regarding the human and financial costs of the war.
That opposition helped shape the candidacy of Barack Obama, both in the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, who had voted for the resolution authorizing force against Iraq but had later recanted that support, and in the general campaign against John McCain, who had also voted for the same resolution and generally supported a muscular foreign policy course.
When Obama won, his Middle East policy could be summarized as limiting further expansion of U.S. interests and commitments and seeking a nonproliferation deal with Iran to keep that state from obtaining a nuclear weapon and catalyzing a regional nuclear arms race. Reasoning that any nonproliferation deal would need not only international buy-in, but also support from Russia as the world’s other major nuclear power, Obama pursued the “Reset” policy not least to bring Russia into those negotiations.
Russia’s participation in the “P5+1” brought the country back into the Middle East, a region that has interested it since the 19th century when the Russian Empire expanded south towards the Persian and Ottoman Empires. Yet, quite frequently and for long periods of time during the Empire, the Soviet period, and in the current iteration of the Russian Federation, Russia has been a peripheral or inconsistent player in the region.
Might This Time be Different?
In September 2015, Vladimir Putin’s government responded to an official request for support by the Syrian government, an ally to the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation since 1971. Although the intervention into Syria appeared at the time to be a diversion from the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated considerable staying power there. The existential threats enveloping Assad’s rule emerged from several directions: rebels motivated by the anti-authoritarian Arab Spring movement and jihadists that had emerged from the anti-American insurgency in Iraq and had transformed themselves into a proto-state.
Russia’s foray into the fight grew in importance and effect from only airstrikes to the stationing of Russian forces in the country. Eventually, Russian forces defeated all the non-jihadist opposition to Assad through a division of labor where Russian air power and Spetsnaz (Special Forces) would lead the attacks and support the Syrian ground forces. The retaking of the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS represented a high point of the Russian campaign, and the destruction of the city of Aleppo by Russian air forces and its sacking by Syrian ground forces represented the last stands of non-jihadist opposition to Assad. Vladimir Putin’s support for Assad saved his client from military defeat and made Russia a key player in what appears to be the reshaping of the Middle East in a time of uncertain American interests and a burgeoning conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Seeking Great Power Status
There is no doubt that Russia has applied enough coercive force to shape the outcome of the war in Syria and the transnational fight against ISIS. This reality, unthinkable even two or three years ago, allows Russian policymakers to achieve their main goal: global recognition of their status as a great power. From the perspective of Russian policymakers, external recognition of their country’s status as a great power will come when the resolution of a major international crisis involving several other great and regional powers cannot come without Russian participation. That status then comes with a very tantalizing and important set of perquisites: the ability to set the rules of international political and economic interactions—or the ability to carve out exceptions for themselves.
The challenge for Russia is bridging the gap between tactics and strategy. Intervention into (and by extension participation in) one of the world’s most politically complicated regions can help Russia achieve a number of goals central to its larger goal of being recognized as a great power by its ostensible peer competitors. These include protecting the Assad government to avoid yet another state’s collapse under Western pressure, protecting a client state to draw a pointed comparison to the United States that let several of its longstanding allies go down during the Arab Spring, projecting power into a region not its own, displaying its weaponry “in the shop window,” gaining battlefield experience for its troops and officers, and becoming part of a political solution in the Middle East that could potentially lead to issue linkage elsewhere, such as Ukraine.
These advances and these goals represent the best case scenario. At the moment, this is the most propitious setting for Russian intervention. Under President Barack Obama, the United States was very committed to not expanding its Mideast presence and intervening into yet another regional conflict. Under President Donald Trump, American policy is unclear at best. Without concerted U.S. efforts to stop, shape, or limit Russian intervention, Russia could very well save Assad’s government from suffering battlefield defeat at the hands of ISIS and domestic rebels across various parts of its territory. And not to put too fine of a point on it, but fighting poorly equipped rebel armies is a lot different from fighting modern armies who can shoot back.
A Test of Russian Will
Most important, however, are the false promises that tactical intervention and general strategic aims provide in combination. What is left unsaid is what does medium- and long-term success for Russia look like in case all the best-case scenarios do not pan out? If, for instance, Saudi Arabia escalates its presence and intervenes openly into the Syrian war without tacit Israeli and American support to stymie ISIS but in effect to counter Iran, is Russia ready to match that escalation? If the death throes of ISIS in southwestern Syria lead to attacks on Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, will Russia protect its direct and indirect allies, meaning Syrian and Hezbollah forces? If a change in U.S. policy calls for taking a more active role in the region to challenge Russia directly and protect client governments in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Gulf States, and elsewhere, what are the off-ramps for Russia? So far, Russia has identified its end goals and the benefits of relatively low-cost tactics, but how will the country protect its position in case of changing external conditions?
The logical answer regarding the extension of a foreign policy push from tactics to strategy is to consider the strength and sustainability of the coalition being built to withstand short-term volatility. Do Russian policymakers have a long-term commitment to the coalition of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, or will they try to play the field and maintain potential coalitions of convenience with other states—namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey—who consider themselves leading lights of the region? Will Russian policymakers maintain their relatively modest financial and troop commitments—estimated to be about $1-2 billion dollars annually and 3000-6000 troops at any moment—or will they resist the temptation to increase those commitments if and when greater violence erupts?
Russian public opinion provides some clues regarding the latter question. Although the war has been fought with few announced casualties and presented on nightly news as a source of international strength and respect, the Levada Center polling agency has already found that 49% of respondents in September 2017 would like the operation to come to an end, with 30% in support of continuing the fight and 21% finding it difficult to express a strong opinion. The same survey found that 56% of respondents do not follow developments in Syria closely, 26% do not follow events there at all, and only 18% follow news and analysis from Syria closely.
At the moment the conditions for Russian expansion into the Middle East are as good as they get: fairly low public knowledge and interest in a foreign war, a political system that permits decisiveness unavailable in more democratic states, a relatively cheap war to intervene into, an existing great power that continues to be bedeviled by domestic troubles and unclear purpose in the region, and regional powers that are reevaluating their own foreign policies in light of all of the above.
Should any of those conditions change, Russia will find itself in a position many external powers have found themselves in: commit more resources to maintain position or prestige or struggle to leave with dignity.
About the author:
*Yuval Weber is a Visiting Assistant Professor on Government at Harvard University.
This article was published by FPRI.