Russia walks a fine line in the Middle East

Published in MEED, 18 February 2016

Moscow is trying to combine military support for Damascus and boosting commercial ties with the Gulf states. How long can it maintain the balancing act?

With government forces gradually pushing back against rebel groups around Aleppo in early February, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad looks set for a morale-boosting success in at least one part of Syria’s civil war.

The gains are coming at a high price for civilians, but they also highlight the impact Russian involvement is having on the conflict.

Since September 2015, Moscow has been providing wide-ranging military assistance to Damascus, most notably in terms of air support. In the last week of January 2016, for example, Russian warplanes attacked more than 1,350 targets, according to Russian news agency TASS.

“Since their intervention they’ve committed a considerable degree of support to the Al-Assad regime,” says Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a UK think-tank. “At the moment their strategy seems to be succeeding.”

Fine line

However, the longer-term consequences for Moscow are harder to assess. While Russia has reinforced its position as a key regional power, its actions in Syria also complicate its relationship with other Middle East states, particularly in the Gulf. Almost every other government in the region would like to see Al-Assad go, so the trick for Moscow is to try and ensure diplomatic differences do not get in the way of economic and other ties.

For now, Russia insists its involvement in Syria is simply a matter of self-interest, following the unsettling events of the Arab unrest.

“A wave of extremism, terrorism, illegal migration and organised crime unleashed by these events has transcended the boundaries of the Middle East. It now poses a direct threat to the EU, to Russia and the entire world,” said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, at an event at the European Policy Centre in Brussels on 27 January.

Certainly, the issue of ‘blowback’ is a serious one for Russia. Soufan Group, a US-headquartered security consultancy, estimates that 2,400 Russians have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, and the threat of them coming home and causing trouble is obvious. Russia has already suffered the loss of a Metrojet plane in Egypt in October. The incident, which killed 224 people, was claimed by the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis).

However, Russia’s claim that it is simply protecting itself against militant extremists is undermined by its actions in Syria. While some of its bombing raids are directed at Isis, most are aimed at other rebel groups, according to IISS. The reality is that Russia’s motivations are rather more complex.

“Russia’s intervention has bolstered the Al-Assad regime,” says John Chipman, director-general of IISS. “It has also served Moscow in portraying Russia as a reliable and committed partner of its allies.”

Fraser Cameron, director of the EU-Russia Centre, a non-profit organisation based in Brussels, points to a few other factors, including a desire to demonstrate that Russia is still an important international player.

“Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this has been a factor in Russian foreign policy,” says Cameron, adding that other policy motivations include trying to divert attention away from Ukraine and to test Russia’s military capabilities.

For Moscow, there is a growing financial burden, with its operations thought to cost about $1m a day, according to Cameron. That is unwelcome at a time when its economy is being hurt by low oil revenues and international sanctions. “How long can Russia maintain this? Crude missiles don’t come very cheap,” says Cameron.

That in turn prompts the question of how long the Kremlin is prepared to maintain its support for the Syrian regime. On occasion, Moscow has indicated it would be prepared to drop Al-Assad in certain circumstances.

“Russia does not stick to supporting a single personality or regime,” said Chizhov, before adding: “It is… naive to believe that if one day President Al-Assad is out of office or disappears into thin air, any of the Syrian problems would automatically be solved.”

Some observers accept that Russia might be prepared to abandon Syria’s leader as part of a wider settlement. However, it is clear that its current actions are only strengthening him.

“When the Russians say they don’t have a fealty, a loyalty to Assad per se, I think it’s true,” said David Miliband, president of the International Crisis Group and a former UK foreign minister, speaking at the Chatham House think-tank in London in early February.

However, he adds: “The scale of the fighting, certainly since September [2015], when the Russians opened their air offensive, has got worse inside Syria. If you’re in a non-Isis part of the opposition, you’re in a much tougher situation than you were pre-September.”

Careful diplomacy

Supporting Al-Assad puts Russia on the opposite side of the war to almost every country in the Middle East, with the exception of Iran. It also means Moscow is having to tread carefully in its dealings with those other countries, not least those in the GCC that support Syrian opposition groups.

Relations with the Gulf countries are also coloured by Moscow’s close association with Iran. Russia has been a long-term ally of Tehran; it played an important role in the negotiations to end sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and it is working closely with Iranian forces in Syria.

This is an important dynamic in the region, but there are other issues that could yet draw the GCC and Moscow closer together. Chief among them is the concern within the Gulf monarchies that the US is losing interest in the Middle East. That offers an opportunity for Russia to expand its interests in the region.

Worries about low oil prices are another shared concern. Indeed, just this week Russia joined forces with Opec members Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Qatar in agreeing to freeze oil production output at January levels. It is the first time Moscow and Riyadh have worked together on an oil output agreement during the ongoing oil price slump.

Regular talks

Despite their differences over Syria and Iran, the two sides regularly meet for high-level talks.

Putin held discussions with several GCC leaders in late 2015 and early 2016, including those of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. These talks tend to combine discussions about Syria and bilateral trade ties.

The ability of the governments to successfully compartmentalise their relationship is evident from several new commercial deals that have emerged. For example, in late January Dubai-based DP World and the Russian Direct Investment Fund unveiled a joint venture to develop Russia’s transport infrastructure, following talks between DP World chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem and Putin last year.

Russia has even said it is willing to play a role in trying to heal the sectarian-fuelled divisions between Riyadh and Tehran. “The [Gulf] region is living thorough a complicated time,” said Chizhov in January. “If anyone is interested in any moderation efforts, Russia is always willing to help.”

In the longer term, Russia’s close alliance with Tehran could put relations between Moscow and the GCC states under greater strain. With many of the international sanctions on Iran now lifted, Tehran can look forward to rebuilding its economy and its armed forces. Restrictions on international arms sales are due to last for five more years in the case of conventional weapons but, once they are lifted, Russia is likely to be in front as a supplier.

“The lifting of sanctions gives Tehran an opportunity to revisit its defence policy and, although prohibitions on the sale of defence equipment remain, might eventually allow it to address weaknesses in conventional forces,” says Chipman. “If Iran rearms, it will spur others to consider procuring additional military equipment.”

The ability for Moscow to maintain its balancing act around the region is only likely to get harder in the years to come.