Since the outbreak of uprising in Syria, Russia has been providing arms as well as military and logistical support to its Arab allies. As al-Assad’s regime weakened, Russian military support to the regime increased dramatically. But, Russia is out to expand its role in Syria to include direct intervention against the regime’s enemies including the self-styled Islamic State (IS). This direct intervention constitutes a revolution in Russia’s role in the Middle East and portends a deeper shift in the region.
Russia asserts that its intervention in Syria was intended to destroy the IS as the US-led campaign has been an “abject failure”. One might argue that Russia is undertaking a pre-emptive war against the extremist groups that are increasingly posing a formidable threat to international security. But most Western analysts believe that it is the manifestation of Russia’s desire to gain an increased leverage in the Middle East.
Russia’s stated intentions behind this intervention have been met with scepticism from all quarters. 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 importance because water at these ports does not freeze in wintertime, thus making international trade possible all through the year. Such ports have been a crucial factor in Russian foreign policy since long. The Russian Empire fought a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire in order to establish a warm-water port. Although the Soviet Union enjoyed access to naval bases throughout the Mediterranean, yet the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the World War I brought an end to that, except for the base in Tartus in Syria. Since 1971, Russia has maintained its naval presence in Tartus and with Russia’s recent intervention, this port has gotten an unprecedented fame.
So, why this dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy?
The Russian intervention coincides with events of overriding importance to the region. First is the Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Deal, which provides Iran with a space for a more prominent regional role. Second is the US withdrawal from the region, which is symbolized in the withdrawal of 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. Abandoning its historical allies in Egypt and Tunisia, 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, Richard N. Haass, wrote that the era of the US domination in the Middle East was coming to an end and that the region’s future would be characterized by reduced US influence. Although, it is hard to believe that the US will voluntarily abandon its role in the region, the actions of other nations, like those by Russia in Syria, clearly point in this direction.
Under the slogan “fight against terrorism”, China has sent an aircraft carrier “Liaoning-CV-16” to Tartus. Moreover, 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 that it would send “Charles de Gaulle” aircraft carrier to participate in operations against ISIS in addition to six Rafale Jets in the UAE 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. President 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.
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 Russia’s earliest move in Syria, did not tackle Russia’s intervention plans, there were many clues which prove that the US had 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. 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.
In September 2015, reports emerged in US media 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 on-ground facts. In other words, fighting the IS does commensurate neither with the sophisticated air defences 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 experts found in Russia’s intervention a 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. US Secretary of State John Kerry must concede now that the Russia’s longtime ally Bashar al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has also 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 too indicated a similar shift in policy.
2. Russia now has a guaranteed bigger role in the formation of a new Syrian government, even if Assad is ousted and any nascent regime would seriously consider Russia’s role and presence in the country; including military, investment and commercial interests.
3. Russia is going 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. 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. Russia is making pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups from which it has long suffered. Russia can’t tolerate the return of Chechens or other fighters who joined IS and is concerned that the West may use those radicals against Russia in a similar scenario to the Afghani case.
6. The Russian intervention came amidst confirmed military reports 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. Russia’s mounting leverage in the region will give it a bigger seat at the Ukrainian negotiations table.
8. 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 Defence Ministry is working currently on major deals with Gulf Arab states in order to develop the Marine Corps, and air defence systems, techniques of unmanned aircrafts, armoured vehicles and signal systems. Moreover, Russia is now building two nuclear facilities in southern Iran and in February last year 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 recent Russian 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.