The economy of Russia, one of the largest sources for arms and technology, depends on the sale of arms and energy resources. Recent sanctions by the US and Europe have considerably weakened its economy.
When Russian President Putin directed the Russian fighter planes to cross into Syrian air space and begin attacking the “enemies” of President Assad, it was assumed he did so in defending the troubled Syrian leader and Syrian regime against the US-Saudi-Turkey led Syrian opposition, or in other words, the crucial goal in Syria of Russia, a major supplier of arms to Syria and Iran, therefore, is to guarantee the life of Assad.
But, Russia’s military intervention in Syria cannot be understood as a simple Syrian defense strategy.
Apparently, Russia has intervened in Syria, attacking Muslims not only to sell its weapon systems to Syria and showcase its new high precision arms other components of military equipment to other regional powers that seek them, but above all, it pursues it regional interests to reassert its perceived status as a global super power.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 ostensibly to defend Socialism there from its sworn capitalist enemies, and which led to an acute civil war, killing thousands. The Soviet–Afghan War lasted over nine years from 1979 to February 1989. The United States had been supporting anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahideen and foreign “Afghan Arab” fighters through Pakistan’s ISI as early as mid-1979.
The Soviet occupational war in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of over 1 million Afghans, mostly civilians, and the creation of about 6 million refugees who fled Afghanistan, mainly to Pakistan and Iran. Faced with mounting international pressure and numerous casualties, the Soviets withdrew in 1989. After that, the US planned to occupy Afghanistan and engineered a detailed plan and ultimately has killed millions more of Afghans than what Russia managed.
After its sudden exit from Afghanistan, Russia almost lost its link with the Islamic world – something it has been trying to somehow establish via economic and political ties with the Islamic world, especially in West Asia. Nevertheless, Moscow has not been quite at home with the Arab world and Turkey.
Saudi Arabia’s track record of encouraging the spread of hardline Salafist and Wahabbist ideologies, including among Russian Muslims and others in the former Soviet Union, remains a point of contention in Saudi-Russo ties. The central role played by Saudi Arabia in supporting the mujahedeen struggle against the Soviet Union after it had invaded Afghanistan continues to color Russian perceptions of the kingdom.
Russia’s entry now into Syria provides the Russian military the necessary infrastructure to stay in West Asia, expanding its military access. After the fall of Soviet system, the new ruler Vladimir Putin fought the Muslims in Chechnya to later ascended to the presidency in 2000 while all the central Asian states formed separate independent Muslim nations.
The incremental expansion of NATO into its former sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union represents an affront to Russia’s sovereignty and an existential threat to its existence.
Russia has maintained strong military links with Iran and its allies, particularly Syria. Russia has already maintained a modest naval refueling station in Syria’s port city of Tartus since the end of the Cold War. In a region dominated by pro-US regimes, Syria represents a critical ally.
Russia is keen to weaken Turkish presence in Syria. The recent victory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in November’s Grand National Assembly elections has likely provided his government with the mandate it needs to press ahead with its agenda in Syria. In this context, the growing convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over Syria raises another set of alarm bells in Moscow.
Moscow’s intervention in Syria must also be viewed through a wider geopolitical lens that is reflective of Russia’s attempt to reassert its perceived status as a global power. The potential fall of the Ba’athist regime may serve as a springboard for insurrection in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia is eager to stop that.
Saudi-Iran discord and Moscow’s approach towards both would explain the Russian policy with respect to Syria. Thanks to Russia, the Assad regime remains without question the most powerful actor in Syria’s civil war. Against the prowess of US and Turkish militaries and other Western nations and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime, in concert with ongoing support of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraq, has proved critical to its survival in the face of an ever expansive insurgency.
Syria, backed by Russia, is now able to fight the armed opposition factions in Syria represented by competing radical Islamist currents led by Daesh (“Islamic State”) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian-based franchise Jabhat al-Nusra and a host of other hardline Islamist militants that straddle the ideological divide between both camps, as well as the far less powerful, yet nevertheless notable, cohort of insurgents associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its multiple iterations.
The impact of Russia’s direct intervention in the form of air strikes and other kinetic military operations in support of the Ba’athist regime is profound. Russia at this juncture remains committed to the Ba’athist regime, in one form or another, a prospect that likely includes the continuation of al-Assad at the helm for the foreseeable future. This reality leaves it irreconcilable with the objectives pursued by Saudi Arabia. Russia has attempted to outmaneuver the efforts of Saudi Arabia and other opponents of the Assad’s Ba’athist regime by hosting its own diplomatic initiatives.
Despite its strategic alliance with the US and assurances from Washington over its commitment to the preservation of close relations with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia worries that the emerging détente between Washington and Tehran portends an eventual rapprochement that will reshape the regional and international landscape at the kingdom’s expense.
Iran has already elicited strong interest from major international energy companies eager to reap the rewards of Iran’s vast wealth of untapped potential in the oil and natural gas sectors. Even as it continues to tout its longtime position as a major swing producer and exporter of crude oil, the prospect that Iran, an energy powerhouse in its own right, will realize its full potential as a producer and exporter of both crude oil and natural gas represents another cause of deep concern in Riyadh, which fears having to contend with greater Iranian supply and the residual negative impacts on energy prices that would result.
Iran’s isolation had also helped foster close diplomatic and economic ties between Moscow and Tehran that had come to resemble a special relationship. Russia found common cause with Iran in their shared opposition to the US and numerous other Western-led institutions and policies and mutual advocacy for the creation of alternative structures and approaches.
The Saudi government is unhappy with US for not doing enough with respect to Iran and Syria; Riyadh is eager to use Russia as its new ally in Mideast to coerce the US to come closer to Saudi Arabia and also resolve the Palestine issue. Consequently, the logic that underlined Saudi Arabia’s apparent openness toward Russia was couched as an attempt on the part of Riyadh to diversify its portfolio of diplomatic relations to lessen its dependence on Washington.
Russia is satisfied with US-Iran and US-Saudi tensions. Hostilities between the US and Iran have served a useful purpose in the form of distracting and otherwise preoccupying Washington, forcing it to devote significant attention and resources that could have otherwise been concentrated toward Moscow. Russia has leveraged its diplomatic and economic influence over Iran as both a lever of influence over Washington and the international community.
Iran’s foreign policy as such has worked well. As a major producer of oil and natural gas, the economic sanctions levied against Iran have helped to protect Russia’s market share and favorable energy pricing schemes even given the prospects for Russian investment in the Iranian energy sector. The Iranian energy sector is poised to compete with Russian exporters in the vital European market.
The statement by the Russian Orthodox Church describing Russia’s actions in Syria as a “holy war” has also inflamed tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Saudi Arabia has initiated a retaliatory policy against Russia. The kingdom, alongside other benefactors of the armed opposition, has strongly condemned Moscow’s decision to launch air strikes in Syria. Saudi Arabia is also reported to have increased its material support for the armed opposition, specifically in the forms of facilitating the transfer of US-made BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missiles provided by US intelligence, to various armed factions.
Saudi Arabia is leveraging its economic influence to confront the Kremlin over Syria in future if the war does not end. There is speculation that Saudi Arabia is intent on keeping oil prices low by way of boosting its overall production and incorporating price discounting in order to undermine rivals such as Russia that depend heavily on oil and other energy-generated revenues. In doing so, the kingdom is able to gain leverage in critical markets such as Europe and Asia at the expense of competitors such as Russia. Saudi Arabia resorted to similar measures during the Cold War to undermine the Soviet Union.
Saudi Arabia is one of the principal sources of political, military, and economic support for a number of armed opposition factions, including various radical Islamist currents, which have taken up arms against the Ba’athist regime. The degree of mutual enmity shared between Saudi Arabia and Russia regarding the conflict in Syria and a host of other matters would suggest that any potential breakthrough in relations would be illusory.
Similarly, having found a golden opportunity to militarily intervene in Syrian crisis with the US approval, Russia would not be in a hurry to quit Syria or Middle East. Rather the Kremlin would certainly try to expand its regional influence.