By Pieter-jan Dockx*
Since its resurgence in West Asia through its intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia has attempted to position itself as a conflict mediator for the region. Having established cordial ties with most of the region’s actors, Russia is perfectly placed to mediate—or so the narrative goes. At the core of this narrative lies the notion that Russia is perfectly placed to advance peace given its excellent bilateral relations in the region. However, proponents of the narrative have failed to consider that it was regional conflict that engendered these various cordial relationships in the first place, and have benefited Russia both politically and militarily.
Consequently, while Russia is indeed well-positioned to play mediator, it is not in Moscow’s interest to establish durable peace in West Asia. Four factors showcase how and why Moscow would not find it in its best interest to alter these ‘favourable conditions’, i.e. regional turmoil, and why the Russia-as-a-mediator narrative remains a mere discursive construct disconnected from reality.
Improved Bilateral Relations
The Syrian situation has not only improved Russia’s relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime but has also stimulated Moscow’s ties with others involved in the conflict, like Israel and Turkey. In the three years prior to Russia’s intervention, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met only twice. Post intervention, they have met thrice a year and have had exchanged weekly phone calls. The Syrian civil war has also strengthened the Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey views as an existential threat. With Turkey’s traditional NATO allies like the US supporting the Kurdish forces, Ankara has shifted closer to Moscow. The planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system will solidify Turkey’s pivot eastward.
Under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State (IS), Kremlin has set up a counter-terrorism coordination centre in Baghdad, bringing together Russian, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian military officials. Almost a year after Iraq formally declared victory over the IS, the meetings continue. In fact, Russian officials have alluded to the longevity of the organisation. Additionally, the centre’s presence in Iraq points to Moscow’s intentions to use the fight against the IS to pull Baghdad into its orbit.
New Diplomatic Breakthroughs
Regional diplomatic disputes have allowed Russia to break new ground politically. The ongoing Saudi-led blockade of Qatar and US President Donald Trump’s initial support for the move have led Doha to further diversify its security partnerships by looking towards Turkey and Russia. Russia-Qatar relations have been on the mend since a similar diplomatic rift in 2014, ultimately leading to a planned purchase of S-400s. While these disputes are often perceived as being zero-sum games, they are not so to Moscow. Improved ties with Doha have not affected Moscow’s partnerships with Riyadh.
Benefits for Russia’s Defence Industry
Regional conflict benefits Russia’s defence industry, with West Asia being an important export market. Data analysis demonstrates how the value of Russian arms exports to the region has more than tripled since 2000. The region also represents just under a third of all Russian arms exports, up from 15 per cent in 2000. Excluding Russia’s two largest costumers, China and India, the region’s share has increased to almost 60 per cent of the remainder of Russia’s arms sales.
Iraq, in particular, having witnessed continuous conflict since 2003, has vastly increased its defence purchases from Russia. For example, after reports surfaced showing Iran-linked militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah using US M1 Abram tanks in the fight against the IS, Washington applied pressure on Baghdad to rein in the tanks. Instead, Iraq turned towards Russia and began replacing its M1 Abrams with Russia’s T-90S and SK tanks.
Moscow’s intervention in Syria has also allowed it to battle-test, optimise and advertise the effectiveness of its weapon systems, leading to a further increase in arms sales Over the course of three years, Moscow has tested over 200 new weapon systems of which some were not tactically opportune. Russian officials expect the ‘marketing effect’ of the Syrian war to be around US$ 7 billion.
Probability of Iran-Saudi Confrontation
One conflict Russia has a genuine interest in preventing is a direct military confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Open conflict between the two would trigger panic in the oil market, pushing prices upwards. An oil exporter like Russia has no interest in such an increase, preferring a stable market with prices around US$ 70 per barrel. That said, direct confrontation between the regional powers is unlikely to take place in the near future. Iran’s behaviour in Syria with regard to Israeli airstrikes indicates that Tehran has no interest in opening up a new front with US-backed actors. With Saudi Arabia’s recent assertive foreign policy being largely unsuccessful, it is improbable that Riyadh will confront Tehran.
A critical analysis of Moscow’s re-entry into West Asia and its interests in the region challenges the emerging narrative of Russia’s suitability as a broker for peace. Turmoil in the Arab world has allowed Moscow to bolster its ties with various players and also benefited its defence industry. While global oil market dynamics give Russia an incentive to avoid war between Tehran and Riyadh, there is no appetite for such confrontation in either capital. Consequently, Moscow’s own interests, and the foundations of cordial relations Russia currently enjoys with West Asian countries, together render it unsuitable to play the role of a mediator for peace in the region.
Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)