The Russia’s new role in Middle East

Adam Taylor is a journalist who writes for the Washington Post. He has published an interesting article in which he tells us The last time Russia went to fight in Middle East, with the exception of the military who remained in Egypt during the the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition.

The Russia’s new role in Middle East - GEOPOLITICA.info (cr: Pravda.ru)

In this article Taylor wrote that in the 1960s, what was then North Yemen was stuck in a lengthy civil war which pitted military leaders who had staged a republican coup in 1962 against the royalist forces who wanted the country’s Imam to return to the throne.

While this direct involvement in the conflict was not emphazised by Moscow at the time, the U.S. State Department did confirm that they believed a Soviet pilot had been shot down. Soviet soldiers, again wearing Egyptian uniforms, were also reported to have been killed while manning artillery for the republicans.

The strategy did not work for a long time: a Russian pilot was shot down and workstations artillery were destroyed. As I said, this was the last time Russia went to fight in Middle East. Then the Russians decided to withdraw their army.

Taylor has also interviewed Mark Katz, who has found common strategies between the Yemen War and the Russian intervention in Syria.

“It strikes me that Moscow may be aiming at something similar,” he has explained. Like the Soviets before him, Putin may hope to “prevent the downfall of its client and hope that its opponents and their external supporters fall out with one another to the point where they are no longer focusing effectively on toppling the regime” Katz has said.

We should remember that Russian egagement in the Middle East was almost absent in the early 2000s.

When U.S. attacked Iraq, Russia did not take part in the conflict. The intervention of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan was a disaster, especially since there was not a plan for post-war reconstruction and because U.S. did not support the construction of a stable democracy. In my opinion, it was not sufficient exporting the ideas of a democracy (liberal elections, protection of the fundamental rights of citizens…) but it was also necessary exporting the substantive conditions of a democracy (the presence of a middle class, low rate of illiteracy…). This did not happen.

Russia understood the need to find a place in the sun in the Middle East when Iraq, geopolitically strategic for Russia, was in crisis and became a center of terrorist recruitment and when the United States threatened Iran for Ahmadinejad’s nuclear program. Russia sided with Iran in defense of the nuclear project.

Russia sold weapons to Iran, which they in part transferred to Hezbollah, and began to support Assad in Syria.

The stability in those areas were and are relevant for Russia.

Putin and Lavrov created in Baghdad a war room, a war cabinet where they coordinate the military operations with the allies.

The migration crisis in Europe and the continuing expansion of the terrorist Islamic State (IS) have forced the United States and the West to take a closer look at Russia’s growing role in the Middle East and to consider in earnest Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal for creating an international coalition to fight against the IS.

On 10 November 2015, the Emir of Kuwait has travelled to Russia to discuss with President Putin the oil price crisis. Both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are having a budget deficit, Russia represents an important oil supplier. Of course, during the meeting they discussed about the Syrian issue. By now, it is clear that Russia is a major player, if not the main, in the Syrian context and in much of the Middle East area. Kuwait is aware of it.

The Russian strategy in Syria

The relationship between Syria and Russia extends back to the end of the Cold War – when Russia made a number of sales of arms to the country. Since then the two nations have had a stable political relationship.

The Russian Military Forum is a series of meetings that discuss Russia’s military foreign policy objectives and strategies. The second panel of the series, held on September 25, 2015, focused on Russia’s increasing role in the Middle East.

Russia’s strategy in the Middle East: experts’ opinions

During the Russian Military Forum, Stephen Blank said that the primary aim of Russia is to fill the power-vacuum left by the dismantling of the Soviet Union. From this perspective, the conflict in Syria can be understood as a border issue for Russia. And so, Russia has a vital interest in stabilizing the region by intervening actively in the conflict.

Blank added that Russia seeks to prevent the U.S. from obtaining a superior position in the region, since Russia generally sees the U.S. as a threat. Russia also perceives the U.S.’s incompetent actions and strategy as a cause of protracted wars. Thus, Russia has a vital interest in intervening in Syria more proactively than the U.S.

Finally, Blank argues that a minor aim of Russia is to prevent terrorists from returning to Russia’s borders. To achieve these aims, Russia needs to have good relations with the Middle East and accordingly will step in where the U.S. loses ground.

According to Randa Slim, leaders in the rest of the region are starting to pay attention to Russia as a major player in the Middle East following its arming of Assad’s forces. “Syria will be the first test case of that and every leader will now be saying ‘maybe it is time to reassess our relations with Russia’.

“Russia is not deploying for a few days or even a few years, Russia is basically saying ‘I am here to stay’,” she added. Finally, Slim said, the arming of Syria is part of Russia’s projection of power.

“It is Russia stating to the world, to the U.S., to the Middle East, we are back as a super power and you have to contend with us,” she said.

In arming Syria, Russia said it was helping the Assad forces in the fight against IS. Russia is hoping in part to remind the U.S. and Europe that it is important to them and, on the other hand, to distract them from the conflict in Ukraine.

Alternatively, Michael Kofman illustrated that Russia has not a greater strategy and that it is in fact merely acting upon an opportunity. He argued that Russia’s rising influence is related to the fact that since the Arab Spring, Russia is easier to align with than the West, and that the countries of the Middle East are now in a position to neglect an alliance with the U.S. and NATO. Similarly, Russia pursues military and economic deals from which the Middle Eastern countries profit. Benefiting as well from the shift of alliances, Russia expands its military presence in the region. Consequently, Russia and the Middle Eastern countries are developing a transactional relationship. Kofman concluded that these factors do not originate from a unified strategy. Despite deviating from Blank in his basic assumptions, Kofman came to a similar conclusion: That Russia is reluctant to wage a war in Syria and that it instead will seek to install a greater presence on the ground.

Daniel Dredzner suggests two important points distinguishing between the U.S. strategy and the new Russian strategy

  1. There is none, zero, nadaevidence that a more robust U.S. military posture in Syria would lead to a more favorable policy outcome. As the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib notes, “Certainly more than a decade’s worth of involvement on the ground next door in Iraq hasn’t produced a happy outcome, and at the cost of thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.”
  2. The reason Russia can do what it’s doing is because its local ally in Syria — Assad’s government — actually exists. U.S. efforts to develop a moderate Syrian resistance group have abjectly failed.

Implications for U.S.

The panelists discussed the implications of Russia’s policies for the U.S.

Blank argued that the U.S. needed to take Russia’s firepower seriously. The experts called for the U.S. to develop a strategy in order to hold its own against Russia. Solving the conflict in the Middle East and stabilizing the region were not mentioned in this respect.

There are those who dispute the very idea of a Pax Americana in view of Washington’s failure to install democracy, economic prosperity and human rights in the Arab world over the years since the first wave of “revolutions” in the 1950s. Washington’s policies only served – until 2011 – to keep dictators locked in place in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, to name a few.

Russia’s decision to step into the war in Syria – in defence of Bashar al-Assad – has been called everything from “a game changer” to “unconscionable”. But talk of an imminent Pax Russica may be premature.

Mark Katz, a specialist on Russian foreign policy and the author of several books, including Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan, has said that “Russian actions, of course, do challenge U.S. influence in the region. But this does not mean that Russia has won the ‘long game’ there. Moscow’s support for the unpopular Alawite minority regime in Syria, and its allying with Shia governments in Tehran and increasingly Baghdad, is hardly going to win hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs.”

According to Alexei Pankin, Russia’s intentions have never been to compete with the US. He believes Russia is merely compelled to clean up after Washington’s myopic policies, which he defines as “interventionism, unilateralism and cultural blindness”.

In fact, Vladmir Putin, the President of Russia, has reminded many times that U.S. have clear responsabilities of the mess in Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Israel-Palestine conflict…), because of their failed intervention (direct or indirect) in those place and their mismanagement of post-war recostruction. For Pankin this is link to the concept of “equal partnership”, which U.S. do not have built.

U.S. are probably a divided country and this has recently deteriorated their influence in Middle East and their choises: “America is a nation divided, not only upon the means we should use to attain our ends in the world, but upon the ends themselves.”

There is another important theory I would like exposing. This argument could be labeled as a conspirancy theory, by the way I would consider it in brief.

Thierry Meyssan thinks that this new role of Russia in Middle East is already been agreed in 2013 with the United States. Why? United States would support the return of Russia on the international stage in order to avoid the consolidation of its special relationship with China, considered actually the most significant threat to U.S.’s world hegemony. By doing so, U.S. would limit, thanks to the Russian military, Israel’s role, which is perceives as too cumbersome, most recently manifested on the occasion of the International Agreement with Iran in terms of nuclear development.

According to Gaetano Colonna it could be another implication: Russia will be engaged in a heavy military commitment that could persists for months, the same Russia that the international sanctions and the pressure along its western borders still put in a state of permanent attrition.

What we do know is that in recent years the U.S.’s policy have been a failure: the politicians have tested a number of patterns. Among them was the construction of a new world order with George Bush senior, Clinton’s liberal internationalism in the Balkans, the fight against the “axis of evil” by Bush and his crusade for democracy, which turned into a fiasco. Now the United States do not want to be involved in wars (we could say the Obama’s idea of power is different: according to him the way to maintain U.S. power – and hegemony – is to preserve it) but they don’t want to leave everything in the hands of the Russians and they don’t want to lose their credibility.

Remembering the words of Rostilav Ischenko, “The point of no return will pass once and for all sometime in 2016, and America’s elite will no longer be able to choose between the provisions of compromise and collapse. The only thing that they will then be able to do is to slam the door loudly, trying to drag the rest of the world after them into the abyss.”

Conclusions

If Russia’s priority is to clean up American’s myopis policies in Middle East, we should ask if Russia will have succeed. Is it possible replace Pax Americana (which has been a dismail failure) with Pax Russica? Does Pax Russica (also known as Russkiy mir) can be better?

Maybe we should answer: no. Let’s analyze it step by step.

First of all, we have to consider Russia’s economy, which is not good. Russia’s inability to finance a sustained and meaningful presence in the Middle East is a handicap equally stressed upon by former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov.

Secondly, U.S. intelligence is so much sharper; U.S. knowledge of Middle East is so much better, because American engagement in the Middle East has been prevalent in recent years.

Thirdly, U.S. have built a solid alliance that supported them in military missions. But we should consider that this alliance is fallen in crisis in the last years. After the failure of the military operation in Iraq, which was expensive in terms of money and human life, wanted by Bush’s administration to face weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. allies took away from american foreign policy and american public opinion became hostile to other military operations.

By the way, Russia is a new actor for the region and, unlike U.S., does not show hostile towards governments and people of the Middle East.

For example, Russia does not want to remove Bashar Al-Assad, not yet (unlike US strategy) and supports Syrian army against IS. Then, the Kremlin sells weapons, including missiles but also aircraft, to Iran, which send weapons to Hezbollah, to Syrian army, to Baghdad. Russia’s military export (in all over the world) is 27%, against 31% of U.S and 5% of China. Some of these russian weapons are likely to be useful to contrast IS.

Whether it’s difficult to affirm Russia’s egemony in Middle East, it’s easier to see her great commitment and activism, to face terrorism and to extend her influence in that area.

Does she will succeed? Hard to say, the Middle East is still a powder keg.

The clash is open, on one hand there are the financiers of terrorism, on the other hand the speculators. Economic reasons enliven the conflict, but we also have religious conflicts and a war for the domination of power (we can’t forget the aspirations of Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia…). The thirst of power is present in too many states of that area, and probably the absence of a state guide emphasizes the conflicts.