By Fadi Elhusseini*
Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Russia has limited itself to its traditional role of providing arms as well as military and logistical experts to its Arab allies. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime weakened, the Russians intensified their military support dramatically. Recently, the Russian ‘Caesar’ opted to expand his role in Syria to include direct intervention against enemies of the regime. The move towards direct intervention constitutes a revolution in Russia’s role in the Middle East and portends a deeper shift in the region.
Russia has claimed that its intervention in Syria was intended to destroy IS after the US-led campaign proved to be an “abject failure”, according to an unnamed US military official speaking to CBS News. Well acquainted with terrorism, one might argue that Moscow is undertaking a pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups. But some have linked the intervention to the Ukrainian crisis as well as the desire for increased leverage in the Middle East and more power at the negotiating table.
Thus Russia’s stated intentions have been met with skepticism about the real motive behind the decision to intervene directly. One widespread opinion is that Russia wants to secure a military presence on warm- waters – the Mediterranean Sea. While this sounds plausible, Russia has been enjoying this presence for some time already. Warm-water ports are of great geopolitical and economic interest and they are the ports where the water does not freeze in wintertime. Those ports have long played an important role in Russian foreign policy. The Russian Empire fought a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire in a quest to establish a warm-water port. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I didn’t give Russia any further control. The Soviet Union enjoyed access to naval bases throughout the Mediterranean, yet its collapse brought an end to that access, except for the base in Tartus in Syria. Since 1971, Russian naval has had presence in Tartus and with Russia’s recent intervention, this port enjoyed unprecedented fame.
So what really lies behind the dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy?
In fact, Russia’s recent direct intervention in Syria gave a goodbye kiss to the conventional regional order that ruled the Middle East for ages. Traditionally and even at the peak of the Cold War, Russia’s (either the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation) role was limited to sending arms, military and logistical experts to its Arab allies. The current intervention constituted a revolution in Russia’s role and marked an extraordinary heavy military intervention.
The recent Russian intervention coincided with a number of important events. First is the Iranian nuclear deal which gives Iran a more prominent regional role, especially when considering the economic potentials this deal left Iran with. Second is the US gradual withdrawal from the region, which was symbolized in the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, handing over Iraq’s destiny to the Iranians, cooling off efforts in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict that led to the emergence of other initiatives (e.g. the French, the New Zealand), and finally its decision to withdraw the defensive shield from Turkey (for technical reasons according to the US announcement). Giving up its historical allies in Egypt (Mubarak) and Tunisia (Ben Ali), in addition to leaving the Saudis and the Gulf to fight Iran’s influence in Yemen alone are other signs of US declining role in the Middle East.
A few years ago, the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass, wrote that the era of the United States’ domination in the Middle East was coming to an end and that the region’s future would be characterized by reduced US influence. Many observers do not believe the US will voluntarily abandon its role in the region, but the actions of other nations, combined with the Russians’ plans in Syria, clearly point in this direction.
Under the slogan «fight against terrorism», China sent aircraft carrier “Liaoning-CV-16” to Tartus and sources revealed that Beijing is heading to reinforce its forces with “J-15 Flying Shark” jets and “Z-18F & Z-18J” helicopters equipped with anti-submarine, in coordination with Tehran and Baghdad. France and Britain followed suit; the latter announced that it would mobilize reinforcements and military capabilities to the Mediterranean and Paris said it would send “Charles de Gaulle” aircraft carrier to participate in operations against ISIS in addition to six Rafale Jets in the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage aircraft in Jordan.
For its part, the US, whose aircraft carriers have been absent from the region since 2007, ordered a mere 50 special operations troops to Syria in order to help coordinate ‘local’ ground forces in the north of the country. US President Barack Obama condemned Russia’s direct intervention strategy, saying it was “doomed to fail”. And yet in a press conference in August 2014, he acknowledged that the United States “does not have a strategy” in Syria.
Media talks aside, Washington cannot have been taken by surprise when the Russians commenced their operations in Syria. Assuming that the Obama- Putin summit, which came hours before the Russian earliest move in Syria, did not tackle Russia’s intervention plans, there were many clues that prove US prior knowledge of Moscow’s decision.
In July 2015 Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow to coordinate the Russian military intervention and thus forging the new Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria. According to a Reuters report, Soleimani’s visit was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contact and meetings to coordinate military strategies. Two months later, Iraq, Russia, Iran and Syria agreed to set up an intelligence-sharing committee in Baghdad in order to harmonize efforts in fighting ISIS.
A senior US official confirmed on 18 September that more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment, and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria, followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, along with 12 close support aircraft, four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships. Hence, it is clear that the US administration was at least aware of the Russian massive preparations and yet opted to keep its presence to the minimum. In this vein, it can be strategically said that this decision goes in line with the aforementioned US grand plan in the region and marks a calculated strategic gain when securing a small share in a Russian traditional sphere of influence: Syria.
The stated Russian motivation behind this involvement does not match for the facts on the ground. In other words, fighting ISIS, who does not have fighter jets or missile defense systems, does commensurate neither with the sophisticated air defenses that the Russians installed at the “Humaimam” base (such as SA15 and SA22 surface-to-air missiles) nor the Russian announcements that 40 naval “combat exercises” were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets. For that reason, some other experts found in Russia’s intervention as part of its new maritime strategy, that was published on 26 July 2015. The new maritime doctrine of the Russian Federation to 2020 is a comprehensive state policy for governing all of Russia’s maritime assets, military fleets, the civilian fleet, merchant marine, and naval infrastructure.
Russia therefore might be looking to kill as many birds as possible with one stone:
1- Moscow will first and foremost dictate its political will on any future solution in Syria and the inclusion of Iran and Russia in Vienna talks is just a case in point. Better, Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that the longtime Russia’s ally Bashar Al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel said that the West will have to engage with Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war and the British indicated a similar shift in policy.
2- Second, Russia has now guaranteed a bigger role in the formation of a new Syrian government, even if Assad is pushed out of power and any nascent regime would seriously consider Russia’s role and presence in the country; including military, investment and commercial interests (e.g. in 2011 Russia invested $19 billion in Syria).
3- Third, Russia is underway to expand its military presence; not only in Syria, but also in the region and the announced intelligence sharing agreement demonstrates this goal. For example, Russia offered a large array of military hardware to Iraq (such as military helicopters in 2013 and Su25s fighter aircraft) that the US has refused to sell.
4- Fourth, although it looks like Russia and Iran have a common goal in Syria, Russia’s blatant involvement ceased Iran’s monopoly over the Syrian file.
5- Fifth, Russia is making pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups from which Russia has long suffered. Russia can’t tolerate the return of Chechens or other fighters who joined ISIS and is concerned that the West may use those radicals against Russia in a similar scenario to the Afghani case.
6- Sixth, the Russian intervention came amidst confirmed military sources that the longtime Russian ally – the Syrian regime – is about to fall when it controlled only 18 percent of the country and its army exhausted 93 percent of the stock.
7- Seventh, the mounting leverage of Russia in the region will give Russia a bigger seat at the Ukrainian negotiations table.
8- Finally, Russia aims at the revival of its military industries market as it was able to promote itself as an international player that can be relied upon to contain Iran, to prevent the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, to contribute actively in the fight against terrorism, and to sell technologies for peaceful energy in the Middle East. For example, the Russian Defense Ministry is working currently on major deals with Gulf Arab states in order to develop the Marine Corps, and air defense systems, techniques of unmanned aircrafts, armored vehicles and signal systems. Russia is now building two nuclear facilities in southern Iran and in February Russia agreed to build nuclear reactors in Egypt. Moscow is negotiating as well with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Jordan for deals to develop nuclear power, the largest deal was on 19 June 2015 when Moscow agreed to establish 16 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia.
In short, Russia must now be taken seriously as a major player on the Middle East scene. The Russian recent intervention is Syria was not the first move in that direction and regional powers have reached the same conclusion even before. That said, it was not outlandish to see that Middle Eastern leaders visiting Moscow in no time.
*Fadi F. Elhusseini is a Palestinian diplomat and an associate research fellow (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sunderland in Britain. His articles have appeared in scores of newspapers, magazines and websites.
A previous version of this article appeared originally at: http://www.eastonline.eu/en/eastwest-63/world-outlook-a-new-regional-order-arises.