The Pilgrims Progress: Russia in the Middle-East


Canberra, 8 February 2016

For nearly four years of the Civil War, Russia was content with providing traditional support through the provision of arms and logistics to its client-state Syria, while the Assad regime battled for its very existence. Therefore, the direct military intervention in September 2015 can be considered a revolutionary act by the Russian leadership. Although the stated intention of the intervention is the destruction of the Islamic State (IS), Russia has also set other more nuanced objectives to achieve. First, the Russian military campaign is a pre-emptive strike to contain the possible spread of fundamentalist Islamic groups into Russian territory. This action was necessitated by the inability of the US-led coalition to contain and defeat the IS. Second, and a more subtle objective, is to deflect world attention from its proxy intervention in Ukraine. There is also the added advantage of gaining more bargaining power in future negotiations through the increased influence that the intervention will bring.

It is not surprising that national interests have been the paramount consideration in the Russian calculation. The quest for a warm-water port has a long history of influence on Russian foreign policy. The erstwhile Soviet Union had free access to a number of ports in the Mediterranean, while Russia is restricted to just one—the port of Tartus in Syria. With the possible fall of the Assad regime, Russia realised that even this port would become unavailable for their use. In these circumstances, intervention to stabilise the regime and thereby retain control of the port was almost a pre-gone conclusion. The Russian intervention also coincided with two events, one clearly seen and the other only perceived in a detailed analysis.

The US Policy Dilemma

The first event was the historic nuclear deal that the US-led P5+1 nations signed with Iran on 14 July 2015. The second is more subtle and not immediately noticeable as a single event—the gradual withdrawal of the US from the region—since it has many separate elements to it. The event becomes apparent only when the dots are joined on disparate US actions. Consider these actions by the US: the last US aircraft carrier left the region in 2007 and has not been replaced, even though France is operating its carrier and China has sailed its own carrier into the Mediterranean; the US is continuing the drawdown of troops from Iraq and also taking a back seat in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations; it has already taken a step back from Turkey and is allowing its critical regional partner Saudi Arabia to create an unholy mess of their own in Yemen. However, the US is unlikely to curtail its current influence in the region voluntarily on its own, but the erosion will come because other nations—Russia, Iran and Turkey—will continually snipe away at the core of US influence. The signs are already visible.

The US is not well-placed in the region at the moment. In August 2014, President Obama made a statement that the US ‘does not have a strategy in Syria’, a candid admission of the confusion that prevailed at the highest levels of decision-making, if ever there was one. The situation has not changed in the intervening 17 months till now. Even while the US has been searching for a practical strategy, there has been disparaging remarks from senior US officials regarding the Russian intervention, particularly emphasising that Russia does not have a long term strategy to support its actions. They have been particularly vitriolic in their assessment of President Putin, one official even stating ‘[he’s] kind of winging this day to day’. Not only are these pronouncement indicative of ignorance regarding Russia’s strategic objectives, they are also based on biased and incorrect assessments of Russia’s actions. At the very least, it is obvious that double-standards are at play here.

Russia’s Strategic Objectives

Russia published a new Maritime Strategy on 26 July 2015, which can be viewed as the blue print of a comprehensive state policy. Within the broad elements that the Maritime Strategy describes, the strategic objectives for Russia in the Middle-East could be listed as:

  • Have the ability to dictate the direction of the future solution that will be put in place, while ensuring that Basher al-Assad stays on as an interim solution to the issue. The future of Syria must be crafted in a manner that it suits Russian national interests as much as it does the West.
  • Have sufficient influence on the ‘new’ Syrian Government that will come into force at some future time to ensure that Russian military forces will continue to be based in the country. Russia will insist on having an equal say in the Syrian political transition as the US.
  • Increase and maintain an enhanced influence in the broader region, through arms sales and other trade deals with nations of interest.
  • Continue to focus the current military intervention to ensure that the possibility of jihadist insurgency infiltrating Russia is kept to the minimum, if it cannot be eliminated altogether.

Towards achieving these objectives, Russia has signed agreements with a majority of nations of the region, especially regarding the development of nuclear facilities for power generation. In combination with prospective arms sales, this has the added potential to bolster the Russian economy. In an indirect manner the arms sales promise could also be used to have an increased influence over Iran into the future. An offshoot of the possible increase in Russian influence and status in the Middle-East could be that it will translate to enhanced negotiating weightage as and when the Ukraine issue comes up for international debate.

Russian military assets deployed in-theatre indicate that it is fully committed to achieving the broader strategic objectives, rather than conducting a haphazard campaign as the US will have everyone believe. For example, the anti-aircraft defences that have been deployed cannot definitely be intended for use against the IS, which has no air power capabilities. Russia will continue to ensure that it has the ability to project power through the Eastern Mediterranean. It has also created a sort of Middle-East axis by cementing battlefield relations with the major Shiite powers—Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and what is left of the original Syrian Army. After more than three decades of problematic relations with regional nations, Russia is once again firmly ensconced in the Middle-East. Having forcefully established its presence, Russia is highly unlikely to withdraw of its own volition.

Within the broad Russian strategy, the military campaign in Syria is only one part. The campaign is not aimed at retaking the entire geographical territory of Syria; its objective is pragmatically limited to establishing a secure Alawite enclave and then finding a local ally—in this case the Syrian Kurds—to secure northern Syria along the border with Turkey. The establishment of a Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria is the fundamental bone of contention with Turkey, since the Turkmen, who are Turkey’s proxies in the Turkey-Syria border are being successfully targeted by Russian air strikes to achieve this objective. Towards achieving this limited aim, Russian military operations are being conducted without cognisance being given to traditional national borders or to the sovereignty of the nations where the campaign is being conducted. Russia is aware that in conflicts involving fundamentalist Islamists, such factors as demarcating sovereign borders etc., are niceties that can, and perhaps should, be ignored.

Visible Results of Russian Intervention

At the operational level, the Russian intervention has started to show results in the past few weeks, although the achievements cannot yet be classified as game-changers. However, Bashar al Assad has not only been kept in power, but his position has also been entrenched to the extent possible while Russia continues to attack anti-Assad rebel forces of all hue. The impact of the Russian intervention is more visible at the strategic political level. First, the US has reluctantly changed its earlier stand and accepted that Assad will have an immediate and useful role to play in the transition government. There is a change in the Western perception regarding Assad and a somewhat broad consensus regarding the need for him to stay for a bit longer if stability of transition is to be ensured. At the same time, the IS is being targeted as never before, especially by the Russian military in concert with a rejuvenated Syrian Army.  Russia has emerged as a leader of the anti-IS campaign.

More importantly, it has brought Russia out of the frozen zone and ended the diplomatic isolation that it had endured since the annexation of Crimea. Its concerted military action has forced all nations in the fray to deal with Russia as a reality, however reluctantly. Some of the Middle-East nations, while paying lip service to anti-Russian rhetoric, have established back-channel contact with Russia. The US is actively cooperating with the Russian military in technical and flight safety matters as well as in categorising the fighting groups on the ground as ‘bad’ or ‘good’.

It is certain that Russia will increase its diplomatic push in 2016 to create a statesman-like image for its leadership and for the nation to inch forward on its ultimate goal of regaining global super power status.

Russia’s Bilateral Relations in the Region

Iran. Although Russia’s relationship with Iran is on a somewhat even keel it is based purely on both the nations deriving what each perceive as support for their own interests. A status quo can be expected in the bilateral relationship in the near-term future since both national interests in Syria are, for the moment at least, identical. The recent escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia will also have the temporary effect of bringing Iran closer to Russia. However, Russia’s relationship with the other nations of the region are in different stages of building up or unravelling. It will be interesting to watch to future progress bilateral relations that Russia cultivates, for it will provide an insight into the long term objectives of the nation in the region.

Egypt. After having been ousted by then President Anwar Sadat in 1973, Russia had gradually inched back to a position of cordiality with Egypt. However, in the wake of the Russian civilian aircraft being downed by an in-flight explosion over the Sinai Peninsula on 31 October 2015 and the Egyptian refusal to term it a ‘terrorist’ act, Russia disengaged from Egypt. However, this stand-of is unlikely to last for long since Russia will need Egyptian support to show case its achievements to regional nations. In a clearly understandable manner, Egypt remains important to Russia within the larger scheme and long-term imperatives of its foreign policy initiatives.

The Complexity of Saudi Arabia

From a Russian perspective, Saudi Arabia is different to all other regional nations. The Russian strategic leadership has not forgotten the role that Saudi Arabia played in the defeat of the Soviet Union in its invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89). Further, it is also aware of the support that Saudi Arabia provided to the groups trying to entrench the Salafist Wahabi ideologies in Russia. Therefore there is a certain wariness in dealing with Saudi Arabia. In the current situation, Saudi Arabia and its allies are focused on removing Assad from power, which is diametrically opposite to Russia’s short- to medium-term objectives. The current US-Saudi tension, because of the nuclear agreement with Iran, plays into the Russian strategy of building bilateral relations with US allies in the region. It is possible that Saudi Arabia will try to use its ‘apparent’ friendship with Russia to force the US to patch up existing tensions, but such an attempt is unlikely to bring forth the expected results. The US is re-evaluating its long-term options in the Middle-East and therefore will not make any lasting decisions at the current juncture.

Even though Russia remains wary of Saudi Arabian intentions, it will not take any sides in the Saudi-Iranian stand-off. This neutral stand is primarily because it has plans for a long-term presence in the region and therefore will avoid getting involved in any regional political rivalry. Russia would like to maintain its position as a ‘super power’ that sits above the regional rivalries of ‘smaller powers’.

Qatar. For more than 25 years there has been no love lost between Russia and Qatar. However, an open-ended Russian occupation of the Syrian province of Latakia could lead to a detrimental situation for the export of Qatari gas to Europe. Qatar has been forced to carry out a re-evaluation of bilateral relations with Russia. Similarly, Russia is also interested in ramping down the animosity with Qatar, since the two nations are the largest gas producers in the world and an understanding would be mutually beneficial. Qatar is also nervous about the Saudi-Iranian tensions and wants to avoid having to take sides if it comes to a breaking point. Russia has carried out talks with Qatar at the highest level and wants to demonstrate to the region that it is being amenable and open to compromise, while also bolstering its image of being an authoritative but benign power. Russia wants to project an image of a helpful friend.

Russia and Turkey: Teetering at the Brink

The most complex relationship in the region is that between Russia and Turkey, which has the potential to destabilise the entire region, much more than its current chaotic state. There is belligerence between the two at the moment and more turbulence in the relationship is indicated in the coming weeks and months. Any escalation in the stand-off will have a detrimental effect on the joint US-Russian approach to the Syrian negotiations currently underway. Russia and Turkey had shared a ‘great’ bilateral relationship, in trade, energy and education, till Turkey shot down a Russian fighter aircraft that had violated its airspace for a mere 17 seconds. The fallout between Turkey and Russia was immediate and needs detailed analysis, since this standoff will have far reaching repercussions for the region as a whole.

The bilateral ‘friendship’ that existed between Russia and Turkey would have seemed almost comical if the ramifications of the fallout were not so acute. In an attempt to cater for the marginalisation that was felt by both the governments, this friendship was forged in hypocrisy that saw both the nations trying to sweep years of disagreement under the carpet, rather than addressing them. Obviously this was only papering over visible cracks and was not going to withstand any tensions—and that is what happened. Turkey never imagined that Russia would intervene militarily to stabilise the Assad regime, and therefore from their perspective, join the opposition.

The shooting down of the Russian fighter aircraft was certainly a pre-meditated action, primarily meant to further Turkey’s two-fold aims of protecting their proxy Turkmen rebels in northern Syria and creating a no-fly zone in Syrian territory that Turkey would control. Unfortunately the action backfired. The Turkmen are under intense attack by Russian air power and they have started to trickle into Turkey as refugees, with their territories being overrun by the Syrian Army and the no fly zone is now under Russian control.

The single incident resulted in a complete loss of trust between the political leadership and therefore any strategic reconciliation is impossible. In fact, in the past week or so the mutual animosity and political rhetoric have sharply increased. Underlying the tension is the fundamental bone of contention—the future of Syria. This should not be confused as the future of Assad, he is only an expendable pawn, who will be removed after he fulfils his role. Russia is keen to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and therefore wants to bring in and support a government that will be able to retain Syria as a viable state. Turkey on the other hand wants Syria to become a vassal state and to protect the rebels aligned to its own interests. The two objectives are incompatible.

At least for the time being the breakup of relations have affected Turkey more than it has Russia. At the tactical level of the conflict, Russia is looking for an opportunity to shoot down at least one Turkish fighter aircraft to avenge its own loss and has moved Su-35E Flankers to the region. Since the shooting down of the Su-24, Turkish fighter aircraft have not entered Syrian airspace, a clear indication of the possibility of a direct clash. Turkey’s resentment stems from a genuine sense of insecurity and has resulted in aggressive posturing that it is incapable of supporting with credible military action. Such a situation could bring about precipitate decisions that could very rapidly spiral the situation out of control. However, any action that Turkey initiates will be a double edged sword and bring more harm than good to itself.

Even though it may not want to accept it, Turkey is also aware that in case of a confrontation with Russia, NATO is unlikely to rush to its help. Decision-making within NATO is one of unanimity and therefore Turkey can expect only token assistance from its security allies, probably in terms of deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems and Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft. To aggravate the situation, Russia is now actively supporting the Syrian Kurds in establishing control over the area that borders Turkey. This is the soft centre of gravity for Turkey and is already raising tensions much higher than ever before.


After months of slow but focused and steady progress, the Russian-led coalition is now advancing on all fronts. Further, in a span of three months Russia achieved its first objective—that of stabilising the Assad regime. An important factor in this successful campaign is that the current military effort is not an economic burden on the Russian economy and is being funded from within the military budget. At the same rate of effort, it is calculated that Russia will be able to carry on the campaign for years.

It cannot be claimed that Russia has achieved ‘victory’, however it is defined in this context. However, the lack of press coverage in the US media regarding the progress that has been made by the Russian military campaign tends to make one believe that the US suffers from a sense of disbelief that deployed military forces can indeed achieve the desired objectives. This scepticism may be because their own military force, proclaimed as the ‘best force the world has ever seen’, has been bogged down for 15 years, battling a bunch of rag-tag fundamentalists in Afghanistan without achieving anything much. The question that immediately springs to mind is, ‘Is the US now conditioned to expect military and diplomatic failure in all its international endeavours?’

In the broader context, the Russian intervention is not aimed at achieving an objective as simple as saving and old ally, and neither is it a demonstration of its military prowess and new weapon systems. Those are only a minor parts in the overall picture. Russia’s steadfast strategic intent is, and always has been, to reassert its power and be recognised as a global super power. The Pilgrim’s Progress bears watching!

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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