US reluctance to intervene in Syria lifted Iran, leaving opening for Russia to rebalance the Middle East.
By Chris Miller*
The image of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov steaming through the English Channel, leading a fleet from the Baltic Sea toward the Syrian coast, signaled the Kremlin’s wider ambitions. Though the world may focus attention on the war in Syria and negotiations over Aleppo, Russia’s strategic aims loom large.
Russia’s military intervention in the Syria civil war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s government has multiple motives. It is an attempt to shore up a fellow authoritarian regime against what the Kremlin sees as another illegitimate American effort at regime change. It is an attempt to shift the agenda after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned into a costly quagmire. It is also an attempt to fight terrorism, which threatens Russia as much as any Western state.
But focusing on factors specific to Syria risks missing Russia’s broader goals in the region. Syria is one part of a campaign to reshape the Middle East in a way that’s more to the Kremlin’s liking. Russia’s main goal is to shake the region loose from American hegemony. The Kremlin knows that it cannot replace the United States, the region’s dominant political and military power since the demise of the British Empire a half century ago. But Russia thinks that it can make the region more multipolar and enhance its own influence in the process.
Since the US-led victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, most resistance in the region to American dictates has come through insurgency and terrorism, whether from Al Qaeda’s branches in Iraq and Yemen or militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Even Iran, the one state that consistently sought to counter US dominance, did so primarily by backing non-state groups rather than projecting conventional military force.
Now, though, the Kremlin perceives an opening to shift the region’s balance of power. In place of the current model, which couples one militarily dominant hegemon, the United States, with several powerful regional military allies – including Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – Moscow is eyeing a new order. The main fracture dividing the Middle East will not be between US allies and insurgent groups, the Kremlin hopes, but between fluctuating coalitions of regional states, with outside powers such as Russia and the United States playing a balancing role. Specifically, this means strengthening Iran and loosening the relationship between the United States and regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
The Kremlin has two straightforward reasons to pursue such an outcome: to reduce US influence and increase Russia’s. But the Kremlin’s strategy is not the only factor pushing the Middle East in this direction. America’s desire to pull back from the region, especially after the Iraq War, led the current administration to avoid military entanglements in the region.
The best description of the Obama administration’s approach is what political scientists refer to as “offshore balancing,” meaning that the United States avoids involvement in the Middle East unless another power looks likely to dominate the region. If Iran had achieved a nuclear weapon, it would have drastically increased its power over its neighbors, so Washington employed sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear research. But the administration reasoned that Syria’s civil war was a regional issue that did not merit extensive US involvement.
One consequence of these policies is the rise of Iranian influence. In countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, Tehran’s military footprint has increased. Other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey look on nervously as Iranian power grows.
Russia has accurately identified Iran as its primary ally in its push for a multipolar Middle East. Tehran is the regional power most interested in overturning the status quo, and Tehran and Moscow are aligned on Syria and other issues. Tehran has already offered Russia access to their airbase for striking Syria; they cooperate extensively in support of Assad’s government in Syria.
The combination of Iran’s increasing power and US withdrawal has a counterintuitive effect: pushing Iran’s regional rivals toward Russia as they seek to moderate Russia’s support for Iran and draw on Russian resources. The Kremlin, in other words, assumes that it has found an ideal policy to create a multipolar region: Improving its ties with Iran also forces other regional powers to improve their ties with Russia. At low cost, the Kremlin has become a key diplomatic arbiter.
In response to Russia’s military action in Syria, ties between the Kremlin and Persian Gulf states have increased. Delegations of Saudi and Emirati princes visit Moscow regularly, discussing an agenda that includes Syria, arms sales and the price of oil. Yet unlike Iran, the Saudis have much less to offer the Russians. Riyadh wants to retain the status quo, not overturn it. They only speak to the Russians because they see the shifts underway: Washington is withdrawing, the Kremlin is taking up the role of a regional power broker.
It is difficult, for example, to envision the Saudis offering Russia anything nearly as attractive as what Iran has provided. A Russian base on Saudi territory or large-scale arms purchases seem highly unlikely given the effect of such a move on the Saudi alliance with the United States. Russia realizes this. They are happy to have many meetings with Saudis, giving the impression of diplomatic flexibility. But the Kremlin correctly views Saudi Arabia as a flailing country, simultaneously adjusting to the new Middle East and low oil prices. The Saudis need friends, and the Kremlin is content to test this relationship and see what Riyadh is willing to offer.
Saudi Arabia is not the only regional power that has concluded it must come to terms with rising Russian influence. Turkey, too, is showing greater deference to Russian interests and greater willingness to negotiate with the Kremlin. Last fall, after repeated Russian violations of Turkish airspace, Turkey shot down a Russian jet, driving relations between the two countries to their worst state since the early Cold War.
For months, Turkey refused to apologize, arguing that Russia was to blame for violating its air space. But as Russian influence in Syria and elsewhere expanded, Turkey reversed its policy this summer, issuing a humiliating apology for defending its own airspace and promising to work with Russia in Syria. Indeed, since Russia has placed advanced air defense systems in Syria, Turkey’s room for maneuver has plummeted.
Egypt, too, is developing its relationship with Moscow, particularly as the country’s ruling elite blames the United States for helping to topple the former government of Hosni Mubarak. Russia, by contrast, makes no demands for democratic change. Even Israel, long America’s closest ally in the Middle East, is tacking closer to Moscow. Israel declined to participate in Western sanctions against on Russia over Ukraine. It continues to sell advanced military equipment to Russia, including drones. And Russia’s increasing role in Syria – which borders Israel and which the Israeli government has long alleged backs anti-Israel terrorist groups – makes closer Russian-Israeli cooperation even more important.
Not since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ejected Russian military advisers from Egypt in 1972 has the Kremlin played such a large role in Middle Eastern politics. To Russia’s leaders, the aim of breaking American hegemony in the region and establishing a multipolar Middle East finally seems attainable. So long as the cost of Russia’s military action remains low, Moscow has little reason to reconsider its effort to remake the Middle East.
*Chris Miller is associate director of the Grand Strategy Program at Yale and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is currently finishing a book manuscript on Russian-Chinese relations.