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Keep Calm. Tales of Russian ascendancy in the Middle East are overblown

The Syrian ceasefire that began on December 29 is the latest diplomatic coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It remains to be seen whether this initiative, which builds on the momentum of earlier talks between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, will be more successful than its predecessors, which collapsed soon after being announced.

But whether or not this diplomatic gambit provides a desperately needed reprieve for the Syrian people, the agreement’s most noteworthy aspect may be who has not been involved—namely, the United States and its traditional Arab partners: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.  Some pundits are heralding Moscow’s recent diplomatic and military maneuvering in the Middle East as the beginning of a new era of Russian supremacy, and Donald Trump argued in the third presidential debate that Russia has “taken over the Middle East.”

Not so fast. 

Russia’s military campaign in Syria has consistently defied expectations. Moscow’s intervention has not been costly in lives or treasure and it has not (yet) led to a quagmire. On the contrary, the Kremlin sees it as a great success and is no doubt relishing the fact that the latest ceasefire diplomacy excluded the United States. After spending the post-Cold War period on the sidelines—watching America fight two wars in Iraq, overthrow Libyan leader Moammar al-Qaddafi, lead a global coalition against the Islamic State, and spearhead efforts (with mixed success) to deal with regional challenges such as the Iranian nuclear program, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the Arab uprisings—Moscow is suddenly enjoying in Syria what it has craved: validation of Russia’s great-power status, both militarily and diplomatically.


The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which sixteen months ago appeared to be teetering on the edge of collapse, now has ambitions to consolidate control over all of western Syria’s population centers. Putin has accomplished the neat trick of simultaneously improving relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran while plunging a dagger into the heart of liberal interventionist notions of “regime change” and “responsibility to protect.” Making the United States look like a pitiful and helpless giant has been the icing on the cake.

It is certainly true that Putin has played a limited hand remarkably well. But a bit of perspective is in order: the threat of Russia supplanting the United States as the dominant outside power in the Middle East has been overblown.

First, Russia’s cruel successes in Syria stem in part from the limited scope of its ambitions in the region and recognition of the limits on Russian influence outside Syria. Moscow is eager to sell weapons and it will act opportunistically to expand its influence, but it does not want to take ownership of the region’s problems, make new security commitments, or assume American regional security responsibilities. In the Russian hierarchy of regional priorities, the Middle East ranks below its western and southern “near abroad” and the Asia-Pacific region.

Second, even if its ambitions were to expand with time, Russia’s capacity to achieve them is limited. Moscow’s long-term economic prospects are grim given corruption, overdependence on much-reduced energy export revenues, demographic decline, sanctions, and a business environment that discourages foreign investment. Russia lacks the blue water navy to displace the U.S. Fifth Fleet from supremacy in the Persian Gulf. Its longstanding naval station at Tartous (little more than a few piers, though it is apparently being upgraded) and new air base in Latakia are its only military installations beyond the countries of the former Soviet Union. These facilities give the Russian military an important perch in the strategic eastern Mediterranean region, and significantly expanding this presence might allow Russia to harass U.S. naval vessels.  But while the Russian navy might become more of a nuisance, it would not be able to challenge the United States’ dominance in the area, certainly so long as Turkey remains a NATO member and the Sixth Fleet continues to operate out of ports in the region.

Third, Syria is a unique case. Russia has shown a willingness to wield a hammer in Syria, but laying waste to urban centers is hardly an example that even the most authoritarian regimes would be excited to emulate. It has not yet demonstrated the ability to use a scalpel, such as the targeted American special operations missions used to kill Osama bin Laden or capture terrorists elsewhere. Russia’s deep ties to Syria go back decades, but its transactional approach to relations elsewhere limits its ability to establish enduring partnerships and influence. Indeed, Putin’s openness to entering into limited tactical relationships with a wide-array of seemingly contradictory partners explains how Russia can simultaneously consult with Israel regarding its Syria operations while coordinating with Iran and Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners will continue to flirt with Moscow and may buy Russian arms, but Russia’s influence with the Gulf Arabs will be constrained by its support for the Assad regime, its relationship with Iran, and most importantly the longstanding ties between the Gulf states and the United States. Russia will seek to exploit Iran’s adversarial relationships with Sunni Gulf states and the United States, but Russia and Iran are unlikely to reach a serious rapprochement given the centuries of mutual animosity, divergent agendas in Syria and Central Asia, and energy competition.

Russia also lacks access, allies, and influence to secure a strong position in Iraq. Moscow will continue to sell arms to Egypt, but its ability to rebuild a robust relationship with the Egyptian armed forces will be limited by Egypt’s security cooperation with the United States and the fact that Russia has few tools to address Egypt’s underlying economic weaknesses. Russia enjoys a good relationship with Israel, but it also remains transactional and will be constrained by divergent goals, especially while Russia fights on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. The Israeli security establishment seems keen to deepen ties with its Russian counterpart, but has no interest in having the United States replaced as a primary partner.

Russia’s relations with Turkey have improved, at least for now. The two countries are cooperating more closely over Syria to align their strategies, as evidenced by the December 29 ceasefire agreement. Ankara has toned down its commitment to removing Assad and reduced its support for some rebel groups, while Russia has helped Turkish efforts to prevent territorial gains by Kurdish groups in Syria. Nonetheless, Turkish and Russian interests in Syria are not identical, and Ankara will continue to balance its Russian ties with its equities in NATO and strong relations with the United States.  


Fourth, Putin’s successes in Syria may well appear less resounding over time. Russia’s exit strategy seems to require some degree of political settlement. But a quick end to the conflict seems unlikely, even if the ceasefire proves more durable than its predecessors. Meanwhile, the recent Islamic State forays into Palmyra highlight the Syrian army’s chronic manpower shortages. Even if Assad can eventually win something approaching a military victory, it will be a pyrrhic one—without a diplomatic settlement bearing the United Nations’ imprimatur it is hard to imagine NATO or its members, the GCC, or international financial institutions contributing to the nearly unfathomable reconstruction costs which would follow. Nor would Russia’s beleaguered citizens be particularly keen to spend tens of billions of rubles reconstructing Syria.

Lastly, there is a real risk of blowback. Aleppo was a military victory for Putin, but it is a permanent reputational cost and moral stain on him as well. Through a quarter century of near continuous military operations in the region the United States has been the preeminent jihadist “far enemy.” With the appalling images of human suffering emerging from Aleppo that may change. Muslims make up between 12 and 14 percent of Russia’s population and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last summer that roughly 2,000 Russian citizens were fighting with the Islamic State in Syria. In October 2015, the Islamic State brought down a Russian Metrojet flight over the Sinai Peninsula. The recent assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara by a Turkish police officer in revenge for the battle of Aleppo may be a precursor of what is to come.

Russia is back in the Middle East, having shown the capacity to leverage its military muscle to achieve diplomatic outcomes.  The new Trump administration will need to take greater account of Moscow’s moves in the region as it formulates its policies.  But to paraphrase the American humorist Mark Twain, fears of Russia’s ascendancy in the Middle East have been greatly exaggerated. 

Perry Cammack, Richard Sokolsky