Russian involvement in the Middle East

Gideon Remez is an Associate Fellow at the Truman Institute, a prominent writer and analyst on the foreign policy of post-Soviet Russia and the co-author (with Isabella Ginor) of The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973: The USSR’s Military Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict. BICOM hosted a phone briefing with him on current Russian policy towards the Middle East. Below is an edited transcript.

Russian Foreign policy – continuity with the Soviet era

In general, I have been more impressed with the continuity – rather than the change – between Imperial Russia, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russian policy in many areas, including the Middle East.

This is primarily down to two major factors, the continuity of Russia’s geopolitical regional interests, which more or less dictates its strategy; and the character of the Russian regime which, despite any changes in its underlying ideology, has remained mostly authoritarian and therefore permits a Russian actor – whether it’s Catherine the Great, Stalin, Brezhnev, or Putin – to do things which Western democracies sometimes find hard to do. I believe that to a large degree this explains the continuity in the modus operandi in the Soviet sphere to the post-Soviet one.

I don’t think there has been a radical change between Russia’s current foreign policy and that during the Soviet era. For example in Syria, even when most of the Russian navy was rusting away, they still kept a skeleton crew at their base in Tartus which was their only remaining facility outside the former Soviet Union. With the resurgence of Russian nationalism and assertiveness under Putin, preserving that facility and even expanding it into an airbase in Syria, is being followed according to the same principle, but with a lot more force. The modus operandi is very reminiscent of what the Soviet Union did in Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s by taking advantage of Egyptian weakness under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser after the Six-Day War in order to expand and fortify the Soviet’s military presence in the country with naval bases at Alexandria, Port Said and elsewhere as well as airbases. This is what has been done in Syria now.

The Russians always saw the Middle East as their legitimate sphere of influence, both for religious and strategic reasons. They always saw access to water through the Turkish straits as an essential part of their global strategy and they are continuing to pursue it now.

So long as they see a chance of maintaining a friendly regime in Syria which will act as their main base and springboard in the Middle East they’ll continue supporting it. It’s entirely possible that if they see that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad himself is either too inept or too tainted to continue supporting personally, they may dump him and anoint someone else in his place, following some kind of agreement with the Iranians.

But I don’t believe that they will be changing their overall alignment with the Shi’ite-Alawite-Hezbollah axis in Syria. The Russians have an advantage over the US and Israel (who faced a genuine choice between two very unpalatable alternatives – Assad or ISIS) in that they have a clear preference among the warring sides in the Syrian civil war.

There have been some changes in Russia’s alignment in the Middle East in the past; the quick reversal of its original support of Israel in 1946-48 offers a good example. But I’m less optimistic that Russia will move away from Iran because I think they have more in common than issues separating them.

Russia and Iran as allies in Syria

Russia has a lot of influence over Assad’s decisions. After all, it was the Russians who stepped in and rescued al-Assad when he seemed to be on the very brink in 2015.

While Iran has a presence on the battlefield in terms of infantry and guerrilla fighters they had failed to turn the tide before the Russians entered and it was the Russians’ big guns and the aerial bombardment that did a lot to help Assad retain control of the sliver of Syria he still does control. On the other hand, the Iranians are the ones who supplied the backing of Hezbollah and their own Revolutionary Guards as forces on the ground. The presence of the Russian general – which we probably would not have heard about had he not been killed – indicates that the Russians are still there with the ground forces but more by way of advice, expertise, and perhaps directing fire rather than in terms of actual battalions and regiments. But nevertheless, their participation has been vital.

I don’t think the Russians are particularly interested in the day-to-day administration of the areas which Russia controls; but I don’t see that they are going to come to any kind of head-on clash there over differences around the nature of the regime, which I don’t think is of much interest to the Russians.

A potential wedge between Iran and Russia is unlikely

It has always been said the Russians don’t want a nuclear-armed Iran on their southern frontier and, if all other considerations were equal, that would probably be true. But the short-term and regional considerations override any such long-term concern. The nuclear agreement with Iran opened the Iranian arms market to Russia, which is now going in a very fast rate. I don’t see the nuclear issues as a looming conflict of interest between the sides.

There were, and remain, a few potential clashes: Iranian Islamist incitement within the former Soviet Union and even the Russian Federation itself; Iranian interests in the Caspian Sea; an armed Iranian clash with the Gulf States or even the US within the Gulf, which would get the Russians deeper in than they really would like to be. But these have all been overridden by common interests, or at least papered over. I don’t think the Iranians are headed toward disrupting this, and I don’t think the Russians are frightened of that right now.

Both countries remain very dependent on high energy prices, as well as their partners in the Middle East. Over twenty years ago, when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was still president of Iran (and less “reformist” than he became in later years), there was much talk of possible Iranian subversion of the Muslim underbelly of what was then the Soviet Union and later became the Russian Federation. All this later disappeared, as did the two countries’ differences over the Caspian Sea; Iran did not support Chechnya when it rebelled against the Russian Federation; and Iran is still supporting Christian Armenia over Shi’ite Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh. So I do not see those potential risks as endangering the very close Russian-Iranian cooperation, and I don’t think that their Modus Vivendi will change or that either side will give up their unloving partnership because there doesn’t seem to be much motivation to do it.

Russian influence in other areas of the Middle East – a sense of déjà vu

The Russian presence in Syria has really deflected attention away from the renewed Russian presence in Egypt. There is a sense of déjà vu when compared to the Soviet interventions in the Egyptian-Israeli conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the past year, the Russians have re-activated two old Soviet bases in El Alamein and Sidi Barrani near the Libyan border from where they now have Special Forces operating to bolster their man in the Libyan melee, Khalifa Haftar. There is not much doubt that the Russians are intervening in Libya, although its scope is still rather minor in terms of Russia’s global power (but for the Libyans it’s really quite significant). Yet it’s not only the direct support of Haftar against the interests of the US and EU that is an indicator of the direction Russia is going in the Middle East but also its renewed presence in Egypt.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appears to be using the Russians as a foil in order to remind the Americans “well if you don’t like us because of our military coup taking power, then I have always someone else to go to”. Egypt has just concluded the MiG 29 deal and there is a deal with Mistral ships denied to Russia by France (because of the sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea) which were sold to Egypt but that are now being equipped by Russia with electronics and armaments and therefore, presumably, are in effect being operating out of Egypt by Russia.

The American presence in Egypt as a multi-national force in the Sinai has hardly influenced Egypt’s present conflict with Daesh. Yet the Russians have sent their troops into Egypt with quite a deal of fanfare as an anti-terrorist mission, and it looks like al-Sisi is slowly and quietly rebuilding the old Russian/Soviet connection that has been dormant since the 1970s. This merits attention no less than the overt reassertion of Russian power in Syria.

While Obama’s opposition to the installation of a new authoritarian military regime in Egypt and the potentially explosive repression of the Muslim Brotherhood may have been the correct attitude in the long run, in the short run it has given the Russians a re-entry point.

Russia in Libya – sowing trouble for the West

On the face of it, the Russian strategy in Libya is, at the very least, just the old zero-sum game of “anything we can do to obstruct what the Americans are trying to do is a point in our favour”. So the point of the strong man there is that “if he’s the guy the Europeans and the Americans don’t want then he’s our guy”. Historically, the Russians or Soviets would often just act out of the practically routine grasp of trying to weaken a perceived enemy without going into the fine points of strategy and long-term effect. (In 1945 Stalin actually tried to get the Italian mandate over Libya transferred to the Soviet Union. He failed, but the Russians always had an eye on the territory.)

To what extent the Russians are going to be able to control Libya now I don’t know. But I think their strategy is similar to that of investing in trying to influence the US and French elections: “The more trouble we can make and the more dissension we can sow in places where we have an adversary, so much the better”.

The Russian-Israeli relationship – business-like but little more

There have been some hints and allusions from Israeli leaders that Israel has an alternative Russian option if objections to Israeli policy on such matters as settlements cause too much trouble in its traditional pro-US alliance. But I don’t think this option really exists or that – if compelled to choose – the Russians would prefer Israel over their present allies in the Middle East. Israel is rightly interested in maintaining the “business-like” relationship that consists of tourism, trade, mutual travel, and a lot of business, even in the military sphere, which I think is an error (among other reasons, because the technology is likely to reach undesirable hands), but it may be a financial necessity.

I don’t think there is much risk of Israel falling into the Russian sphere right now. But I do take a dim view of Israeli thinking that it can “tantalise” the Americans by flying off to Russia in the private plane of some oligarch and saying nice things to Putin.

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