Russian Strategy in the Middle East in the Shadow of the Coronavirus
By Ksenia Svetlova | June 4, 2020
Even under the shadow of the Coronavirus, Russia is losing no time, and continues to implement its policies in the Middle East. In Egypt, Russian experts confirm that work on the building the first German-Egyptian-Russian nuclear power plant at El Dabaa continues on schedule; in Syria Russia continues the expansion of the port of Tartus and to conduct military exercises in the Mediterranean--in essence, building itself as a naval power with a prominent presence in the Med. Moscow also takes care to maintain the fragile cease fire in Idlib, and to curb Assad—the balance in relations with Ankara being much more important to Russia at this time than Assad's desires.
In the Palestinian arena, Russia is maintaining its traditional position vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, declaring publically its opposition to Israeli annexation of the West Bank, while refraining from any significant involvement in this matter (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not high on the Russian ladder of Russian priorities
It appears that the day is fast approaching when Russia will be forced to take the step it has succeeded in avoiding in recent years—to reach into its pockets and assist countries crying for financial assistance. Among the recipients of aid—Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Djibouti, Algeria, and a number of other countries that will be forced to suffice with symbolic aid. Russia's movements in the Middle East in the Coronavirus era are cautious but determined: Moscow strives with all its might to avoid mistakes that could be costly, maintaining a relationship with all the diverse players, despite the tensions that exist among them. And, as befits a power with global ambitions, it strives to disperse the meager humanitarian assistance at its disposal among its allies, and countries it is interested in bringing closer to Moscow.
Saudi Arabia: The oil price war with Saudi Arabia has cost Russia a pretty penny in dollars it needs in today's troubled times of the gravest economic recession experience in the world in recent decades. This war also exposed what is already common knowledge: Despite a degree of tightening in relations in recent years, Moscow and Riyadh have not become twin cities, and they do not see eye-to-eye -- not on the situation on the oil market, not on the Syrian question. In addition, on the other hand, this little tug-of-war didn't cause any retreat from closer ties that began in relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia ever since the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman became 'the power behind the throne' in the Kingdom. Russia views Saudi Arabia as a prestigious market for exporting Russia armaments and grain, while the Saudis utilize ties with Russia to apply pressure on the White House. This alliance serves both parties, despite the 'potholes' in the road they have encountered and will encounter in the future. From its own perspective, Russia is interested in continuing to develop its ties with Arab countries in the Gulf, due to their geopolitical importance in the region, as well as a part of Russian policy of maintaining good ties with all the sides—both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Syria: After Russia succeeded in bringing about a military victory for Assad over most of his opponents, and after embarking on modernization and reorganization of the Syrian army (that will be exclusively loyal to them), the Russians have arrived at an impasse that refuses to disappear or resolve itself. In order to stabilize Syria, they must rehabilitate the country, laid waste by the war. In order to rehabilitate Syria, they must get rid of Bashar Assad whose hands are blood-stained and who is perceived as a mass murder and illegitimate leader by most countries capable of contributing to reconstruction in Syria.
The Russians find it difficult to dispose of the Syrian president since Russia's current legitimacy for its presence in Syria at all, rests on the Assad regime's invitation to introduce Russian forces into Syria. All the contracts that anchor the Russian presence in the country—the naval base at Tartus, the airbase at Khmeimim, the helicopter base at Qamishli, franchises in the energy domain -- the Assad regime is the signatory on all these agreements. For Russia the presence in Syria is essential for beefing its presence in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean -a crucial strategic goal in which Syria is merely an instrument.
Assad is not the most easy client to say the least, but for the moment, that's all there is. How can the conflict be resolved between the need for reconstruction requiring establishment of a regime that will have some measure of international legitimacy, and the need for a loyal ally who will continue to grant Russia official authorization for its massive presence in Syria? So far, no recipe for a solution has been found, and it is questionable whether it can be found in the coming year that remains until presidential elections in Syria are scheduled to be held.
Any attempt to conclude from media reports and declaration being circulated by the Syrian opposition and in the Gulf more than in Russia, that the Kremlin is angry at Assad and therefore it intends to replace him with another figure—is baseless: Bashar Assad fulfills a extremely important function for Russia, and despite his drawbacks, at the moment there is no person, no party, no other entity that is capable of filling this function to the same degree of utility. A new regime will be far more beholding to international donors than to Russia, since Russia has already achieve the military victory and no longer has anything to offer Syria; Syria is now far more in need of cold cash than air defensive systems (which according to some elements in Syria, in any case don't fulfill their role).
Iran: Even if the Iranian presence in Syria makes things difficult for Russia, and even if Iranian economic activity irritates Russian companies competing with Iranian ones, Russia is unable to uproot Iran from Syria, and doesn't want to do so. From Moscow's perspective, Iran is the embarrassing uncle one wants to hide in family photographs, but whose presence is put up with because there is no other option. The situation in Syria is not calm—not in the center of the country, nor in the south of Syria. ISIS fighting units have resumed operations, as have other terrorist organization. Reconstruction in Syria does not really exist at this stage, and the economic situation in the country is deteriorating. Those who will be sent into battle in the hour of need will be Iranian, Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani volunteers that from Iran's perspective serve as 'cannon fodder'. Russia does not sacrifice its own soldiers in such missions (and continues to deny its ties with personnel in the security firm Wagner whose numbers are not known).
Iran continues to fuel and pour money into the demolished Syrian economy and provides Bashar Assad with essential military support in Idlib and in other hot spots across the country. Russia has no intention to intervene on Iran's behalf in the face of Israeli strikes; for the most part Moscow suffices with condemnations at various levels of amplification, and at times simply refrains from any response. On the other hand, the Kremlin has no intent, or capability for that matter, to get rid of Iran, as some observers and politicians in Israel dream.
Turkey: How can one have one's cake and eat it too? From Russia's perspective, Turkey is perhaps the toughest nut in the Middle Eastern 'bag of sweets'. Neither of the sides has illusions of a genuine friendship, but at the moment vested interests are stronger than points of disagreement. Russia and Turkey continue joint patrols in the Chasika region in northeast Syria despite mutual suspicion and conflicting interests in this region. Under cover of the Coronavirus, the clash in the area of Idlib can be put off for another couple of months, and in the meantime Turkey has begun to make operational the advance S-400 air defense systems it purchased in 2019 from Russia (much to the displeasure of the United States). Turkey announced (more to placate Washington than to aggravate Moscow) that Russian personnel will not have access to these systems, but it appears this odd 'song and dance' between Russia and Turkey will continue, both sides looking sideways, checking the pros and cons, while choosing not to undermine the alliance of interests that hold the relationship together.
Humanitarian Aid: The Coronavirus crisis and the oil price war that preceded it, placed Russia in an uncomfortable position: If until this point Moscow has refrained from granting broad humanitarian aid even to its client state Syria, Moscow has to open its coffers , as befits a superpower with global ambitions. Russia grants humanitarian assistance with a tight-fist but artfully so, to balance the need to grant foreign aid in order to build its position with the target polity, with the need not to evoke the wrath of its own citizenry and the sick and the ill at home crying 'charity begins at home'. Tens of countries have requested foreign aid from Russia while not many have received it. Among those approved—Syria, where the situation continues to deteriorate; Lebanon—a country where Russia is seeking to build its presence and influence; Djibouti—a small Africa country and member of the Arab League that has one outstanding asset from a Russian perspective: ports on the Red Sea; the Palestinian Authority—due to the symbolic importance of the Palestinian issue, and Algeria, as well—the largest buyer of Russian weaponry in Africa and the Arab world.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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