By Dr Toby Greene
This article was first published in the Huffington Post.
As Isis wanes in Syria and Iraq, Russia is swiftly advancing a Middle East agenda that threatens British interests by enabling Iran to expand its reach.
With deft and ruthless tactical skill, Russia’s calculated intervention in Syria – deploying little more than 50 Russian planes – has given Putin considerable leverage over the outcome of the conflict.
UK discussion on this subject tends to focus on violations of humanitarian law involved in Russia’s bombing campaigns and the almost unfathomable scale of human suffering resulting from the fight to keep Assad in power.
This is extremely important. But the long-term consequences of Russia’s actions are not getting enough attention, as evidenced by a recent House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry on UK-Russian relations. Regarding Russia’s role in Syria, the inquiry made four recommendations relating to international humanitarian law and one on fighting Sunni Jihadist terrorism. There was barely a word on responding to Russia’s long-term strategic intentions.
The mistakes of the Iraq war tend to distort British discussion on Middle East policy, and make UK policy makers wary of commitments to shape the future of the region. Caution is understandable, but comes at a cost. When in 2013 the House of Commons – haunted by the memory of Iraq – failed to support military action against Assad’s chemical weapons, Britain added to Obama’s uncertainty. US reluctance to engage militarily in Syria, either against chemical weapons or to protect civilians with a no-fly zone, created a vacuum which Russia exploited. Obama warned Putin he would be stuck in a “quagmire”. He was wrong.
Now Putin is planning a lengthy stay. Russia has just leased a Syrian airbase for 49 years. They intend for Syria to remain a vassal dependent on Russian support, a base to project Russian air and naval power in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, a market for Russian arms and part of Russia’s plan to control energy routes and sources.
The primary regional beneficiary is Iran. Tehran and its Shia proxies, primarily Hezbollah, has provided the ground forces to help Assad benefit from Russia’s air power. The Iranians are planning to reap their reward, by establishing a land corridor through Iraq and Syria which links up to Hezbollah’s based in South Lebanon. This will allow Tehran to establish an expansive sphere of influence, including with its forces or proxies on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, extending the Hezbollah front against Israel in South Lebanon into Syrian territory.
Will Russia allow Iran to get its way? These two powers are allies in Syria, but also potential rivals to dominate the country.
The current signs are not good. Israel has developed close working ties with Moscow to avoid aerial clashes, but when Netanyahu requested from Putin (and Trump) to keep Iran out of Syria, or at least 60-80 Kilometres from its border, the Russians would only agree to five kilometres. And it remains to be seen how determined they will be in enforcing that. After all, Russia is primarily in the skies, whilst Iran and its proxies have more boots on the ground.
Israeli policy makers must now determine how far they can go to limit the threat posed by Iran and its proxies in Syria, whilst avoiding a confrontation with Russia. This unchartered strategic territory is highly combustible, increasing the risk of a miscalculation that could ignite a catastrophic war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Arab states, especially in the Gulf, are deeply concerned about Iran’s expanding regional footprint. Russia meanwhile will cash in: gaining a stake in Iran’s energy sector, and selling it nuclear power and advanced tanks and aircraft.
Not that Russia has special affection for the Iranians. They will sell to anyone. Manufacturing the widest array of hi-tech weaponry outside the US, and providing 25% of the world’s arms exports, keeps 3% of the Russian workforce employed and gives Moscow a mighty foreign policy lever.
In the Middle East they also sell arms to Iraq, Algeria and Egypt, are cultivating potential clients in Libya, and have even discussed potential deals with Saudi Arabia and NATO member Turkey. The Russians also don’t seem too strict on where the weapons end up. Some of its weapons have reportedly gone directly to Hezbollah armed forces – outlawed by the EU thanks to a UK initiative in 2013 – in contradiction of Russian commitments.
But whilst Russia doesn’t really discriminate between customers, it certainly sees a natural alliance with powers which share its agenda to counter global Western influence. Iran fits that bill.
The UK government understands the Iranian threat. Theresa May told Gulf leaders in December 2016: “we must … work together to push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria or in the Gulf itself.”
But are policy makers doing enough to join the dots, between Russia’s intervention, and the Iranian threat?
Confronting this challenge is not easy, especially given that US leadership is indispensable, but the Trump administration is chaotic and unpredictable. It begins by recognising that when the US leaves a vacuum it is filled by others, and Iran will remain a threat to regional stability long after ISIS is defeated. The UK should state clearly, along with its allies, that a long-term solution for Syria should be without foreign militias or an Iranian presence.
Consideration should be given as to whether Russian and Iranian agendas can be separated, and whether Russia can be persuaded that its interests in a stable Syria will be undermined by Iran using the territory as a base to extend its regional threat.
But the UK should also encourage the US to maintain a leadership role and consider how to use its military capacity in the region not only against ISIS but to balance or deter Russian and Iranian behaviour and gain greater leverage over the future of Syria.
You can read BICOM’s Strategic Assessment on Russia in the Middle East here.
Dr Toby Greene is Senior Research Associate at BICOM.