Looking through the Lens of the Syrian Conflict: Russia Seeks Status through the Middle East
4th Apr 2023 by Simon Mabon
Guest post: Kasia A. Houghton. This is part of our series reflecting on external powers in the Middle East.
Russia’s changing policies and role in the Middle East are a product of a crucible of domestic political challenges, perceived global threats, and regional opportunities. While Russia’s role in the Middle East has changed significantly since the Cold War, Moscow’s more assertive foreign policy is deeply connected to Russia’s historical experience. Russia’s Middle East policy has become a major component within its global foreign policy approach. This global strategy seeks to secure Russian domestic and international interests, and promote a global system which is more stable, as Vladimir Putin believes the liberal internationalism espoused by the West to be a driver of global chaos (Lewis, 2020). By expanding its sphere of influence through pragmatic security, economic, and cultural partnerships with all manner of states, Moscow intends to counter Western hegemony, which includes shaping global norms, and prove to the Russian population that the Kremlin is an active, relevant, global player that secures Russian interests. The earliest example of Russia’s post-Cold war assertive foreign policy outside of the former Soviet Union is towards the Syrian conflict. Its insertion into this crisis represents Russia’s reintroduction into the Middle East, having lost much of its Soviet-era influence during the 1990s. While Russia has become somewhat of a staple in the Middle East since the start of the Arab uprisings, the focus here on the Syrian conflict is justified by its centrality to the facilitation of Russia’s broader Middle East and global foreign policy.
Why is Russia in Syria?
While Russia’s motive for intervening in Syria has, at times, been uni-dimensionally described as either securing al-Asad’s leadership, protecting Russia’s meagre economic and military interests and assets in Syria, protecting Russia and the region from the terrorist threat, or some historical obligation based on shared culture or Cold-War alliances (see Balanga 2020; Bekcan and Hançarlı, 2020; Vasiliev, 2018), it is much better understood as a web of interests with revisionism at its heart (see al-Asad’s interview with Rose 2015; Dannreuther, 2015). It is difficult to detach these Syria-specific interests from Moscow’s global foreign policy strategy. Russia’s intervention in Syria was a strategy to embed Moscow within a region that it had as good as abandoned since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While Russia’s military intervention to bolster al-Asad was potentially controversial with opposition-supporting regional powers, such as the Arab Gulf states, Russia utilised its low profile in the region and pragmatic partnerships with mutual benefits that extend beyond the Syrian conflict to attract and stave off opposition from regional actors.
Given the inseparability of Russia’s global and regional policies, it is important to understand how the Middle East fits into Putin’s global strategy. The collapse of the Soviet Union signified Russia’s shift away from traditional allies, such as Syria, towards the West and integration into the global political and economic systems (Kozhanov, 2016). Putin’s first premiership coincided with the Second Chechen War, during which the central Russian government defeated Chechen separatists, amongst whom were Islamist fighters. Putin legitimised Russia’s brutality by pinning it to the US-declared “war on terror”. However, the Kremlin failed to gain the recognition and stability it craved from this approach. Successive devastating terrorist attacks in Russia and destabilising democratic and anti-government rebellions in the former Soviet Union, touted the “colour revolutions”, culminating in the coincidence of such protests in Russia with the Arab uprisings, convinced Russian officials of the nefariousness and inadequacy of the new liberal order (Allison, 2013; Charap, Treyger, and Geist, 2019; Service, 2015). While the West portrayed these protests as democratic movements, the Kremlin countered by depicting the Arab uprisings as attempts by radicals to Islamise the modern Middle East and beyond (Dannreuther, 2015). To claw back domestic support, Moscow played to the population’s nostalgia for Russia’s Soviet-era international status by annexing Crimea and launching a war in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014. Western states ostracised and imposed sanctions on Russia, which exacerbated its pre-existing economic troubles. Foreign policy holds much sway over the Russian public’s estimations of their leader and government (Donaldson and Nadkarni, 2019). The Syrian conflict, while a regrettable tragedy for Syrians, has been a springboard for Moscow’s new foreign policy strategy. Its military intervention in Syria, starting in September 2015, marked a turning point in Russian foreign policy.
Against this backdrop, Putin sought three things from the Middle East: (1) to gain international influence not only to alleviate Russia’s international isolation, but also to ensure Russia’s indispensability to resolving international security issues, a position from which it could promote an alternative form of global governance that protects the interests of governments that do not subscribe to Western liberal-democratic values; (2) to boost Russia’s economy by forging new partnerships through trade and cooperation on energy production; and (3) to promote collective security by engaging with regional states to curb radical Islamist and opposition groups. The Kremlin fears that multiple centres of power in society precipitates state-failure (Lewis, 2020). Additionally, it is concerned that parts of its rapidly growing Muslim population may be susceptible to radicalisation by extremist leaders in the Middle East and the some 5,000 Russian-speaking fighters returning from regional conflicts (Antunez, 2016; Charap, Treyger, and Geist, 2019)
The Syrian conflict: a panacea or pitfall for Russia?
Moscow’s Middle East policy has been most successful in meeting its first aim, less so its second, and has gone some way in mitigating the perceived Islamist threat. Putin’s investment in Syria, while significant, has been low-cost for its comparably valuable returns, indicating the importance and utility of the region for Putin’s Russia. Moscow’s approach has been to use the limited resources it has to boost its global power without overstretching. Lacking economic strength and heeding lessons from mistakes in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Georgia, Russia has militarily embroiled itself in Middle East conflicts, where rival powers are not yet dominating, to buy political influence and economic opportunity (Adamsky, 2019; Galeotti, 2015). However, capitalising on these benefits has not been without challenge, especially since Moscow’s 2022 escalation in Ukraine.
To shape the normative debate over democratisation and intervention, Moscow threw its weight behind the Syrian state to prevent so-called Western expansionism and democratic experimentation, as occurred in Libya. Importantly, Russia is not supportive of al-Asad per se, but, rather, due to the neopatrimonial nature of Syria’s political economy, al-Asad is synonymous with the state (Hinnebusch, 2001; Saouli, 2018). Moscow forged ties with the most powerful actors within the conflict, making itself indispensable to its management and its resolution. Indeed, it has been the only external power with working relations with all parties, including traditional US partners, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the West’s adversaries, like Iran and Hezbollah. Russia has been able to bring Turkey and Iran, who support opposing sides in the conflict, to the negotiating table in Astana, a peace process that has overtaken the UN-led Geneva process (Phillips, 2020). This has made Russia highly influential in a region in which US influence and involvement has steadily declined. In so doing, it ended its international isolation, as Western states were particularly averse to intervening in Syria, after debacles in Iraq and Libya, and therefore, relied on Russia’s management of the crisis in Syria. This was particularly noticeable with Russia’s oversight over the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013, which also helped Obama save face. The Syrian conflict also provided a rare opportunity for the US and Russia to communicate and cooperate over deconfliction measures (Phillips, 2020). Furthermore, Biden’s emphasis on engaging with states that improve their human rights record and on dialling down the US’s military presence in the Middle East has enabled Russia and China to diversify and deepen relations with traditionally pro-US Middle Eastern actors. Russia’s performance in Syria alongside its offer of trade and aid without conditions attracted prospective customers of Russian weapons, including Turkey and the Arab Gulf. However, the 2020 US ratification of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and Russia’s relatively poor performance in Ukraine, which is eating up its weapons supply, continues to disincentivise weapons procurement from Russia’s ideal customers in the region (Mathews, 2022).
Furthermore, Russia’s economy has suffered due to a perfect storm of pre-existing economic woes, the COVID-19 pandemic, and increased sanctions, such as the US Caesar Act of 2019 and 2022 sanctions, costing Russia over $50 billion yearly (Åslund and Snegovaya, 2021; European Council, 2023). This and simmering political opposition were exacerbated by the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Putin’s approval rating dropped to an all-time low since 1999 in April 2020 (King, 2020; Levada, 2023; Sherwin 2020). Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was Putin’s way to bolster domestic support. Similarly, the Syrian conflict was key in demonstrating to the Russian population and international community that the Kremlin can project influence and protect Russian interests in difficult times. Despite expectations to the contrary, Russia did not significantly dial down its operations in Syria during the COVID-19 pandemic nor after its 2022 escalation in Ukraine (Kennan Institute and IPS, 2023). The opposite occurred in 2020. After the US withdrew its troops, Moscow filled the vacuum, expanding its anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities from Ukraine to the Middle East and into Africa (Kennan Institute and IPS, 2023; Stent 2020). Russia’s presence in Syria is low-cost enough to maintain and provides an on-the-ground training arena for Russian troops destined for Ukraine and a recruitment pool for Russian private military companies (PMCs) (BBC, 2022). However, redeployments from Syria to Ukraine have required a greater reliance on Turkey and Iran to maintain the current mutually beneficial order. While Moscow seeks Turkey’s normalisation with al-Asad in return for a security zone into Syrian Kurdish regions, Iran and Hezbollah have taken over some Russian bases (Azizi, 2023; The Soufan Center, 2022).
Syria has also proven lucrative for a sanctioned Russia. Sanctions have pulled Syria, Russia, and Iran closer together. The ratification of secondary sanctions with the 2019 Caesar Act has deterred non-sanctioned businesses from engaging with the Syrian economy This has left it open for Russian businesses headed by Putin’s allies sanctioned due to their involvement in the Ukrainian or Syrian conflicts to exploit Syria’s reconstruction needs. Companies such as Evro Polis, owned by Putin’s chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, financier of Wagner Group and companies involved in influencing US elections, and Stroytransgaz, owned by Putin’s ally, Gennady Timchenko, have acquired hydrocarbons contracts across Syria with little competition or risk, since Asad promised Russia a monopoly over the sector in 2018 (Daher, 2022; Hatahet, 2019; Malkova, Stogney, and Yakoreva, 2018). While there has been competition over lucrative contracts in Syria between Russia and Iran, the former receiving preference in the phosphate, hydrocarbons, and telecommunications industries, a sanctioned Iran also benefits from sanctions-busting schemes with Russia and Syria (Grajewski, 2021).
The Middle East, and specifically the Syrian conflict, is not only instrumental to Russia’s global foreign policy, but also shapes and is shaped by trends affecting Russia outside of the region. Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict has been a rare asset for the Kremlin in dealing with multiple security and power matters simultaneously. However, as is clear, no policy is conceived nor implemented in a vacuum. The Ukraine crisis and related sanctions on Russia have cast even greater importance on the Middle East for Moscow. However, they have also made the benefits of greater engagement with the region ever more elusive.
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