Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
Moscow approaches the Middle East with a pragmatic mindset, maintaining complex relations with multiple factions that are often at odds with each other. In recent years, Russia has returned to the center stage, being instrumental in the prevention of general warfare against Syria and supporting the post-Morsi government in Cairo, all while managing to improve relations with Tel Aviv. Russia also played a key role in bringing Iran to the Geneva tables. The Russian Federation has undoubtedly achieved an influential status in the Middle East and understanding these changed regional dynamics will be invaluable as the United States moves forward.
In the not too distant past, Russia held a much weaker position. In 2011, Moscow abstained from voting in the UN Security Council, allowing for the 2011 military intervention against Libya. This inaction was met with widespread protest in Russia. Medvedev’s perceived weakness reportedly led to a rift between him and current President Vladimir Putin. The subsequent rise of radical Sunni groups and gradual slide into chaos, has led many to conclude that the secular government in Libya was preferable and even Putin speculated on what authority Gaddafi was killed in the face of such catastrophic results.
Many in Russia felt that their trust was violated during this campaign. Though they tacitly permitted (what they believed would be only humanitarian) intervention, they did not approve total regime change nor the brutal death of Gaddafi. This fact directly influenced Moscow’s position on Syria, fearing the continued downward spiral of Near Eastern stability.
During the concurrent unrest in Egypt, while much of the Western world was optimistic about potential democratic developments, Russia approached with a general view of skepticism. Concerned with the spread of instability, both Russia and China expressed caution in dealing with forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, though such council went unheeded.
After the 2013 military counter-coup, Moscow showed support to the new secular government and adopted a “told you so” attitude toward Western countries. Soon after, Cairo drafted major arms deals with Russia, potentially affecting the regional balance of power. This Russian-backed Egypt has since reached out to other regional powers to form an anti-extremist coalition in the face of a changed security environment.
More than anywhere else, Syria remains at the center of international attention. The ongoing Civil War resulted in nearly 200,000 civilian and military deaths. Western eagerness to topple the Assad government resulted in support for various militant groups, many of whom maintained dubious affiliations. As fighting continued, ‘moderate’ rebel groups lost ground and members to hardline Sunni Islamists, who were better organized and more military effective.
The situation escalated after the 2013 chemical attacks. While the sarin was practically still in the air, the US State Department had concluded that Assad was responsible, despite the fact that his opposition is perfectly capable of gruesome acts of terror and mass-executions and the lack of tactical motivation on the part of Assad (attacking a target of little-to-no military value after UN inspectors that he invited were on the ground nearby).
The lack of certainty behind who perpetrated the attacks led to a great hesitancy from America’s military partners in attacking Syria, with even Great Britain declining to participate. Secretary of State John Kerry offered to back down from Washington’s perhaps ill-conceived red line if Assad gave up his chemical weapons arsenal, providing an out to those trying to avoid war. A Moscow-brokered deal was soon reached, which has since continued with few interruptions.
Much less reported however have been Russia’s evolving relations with Turkey, a country which boasts the second largest military force in NATO and is widely regarded as an emergent regional power. Moscow and Ankara found their relations strained as a result of the Syrian and Crimean crises, but nevertheless have managed to develop new areas of economic cooperation with plans to increase economic ties to new heights.
Though overtly antagonistic during the Syrian crisis, Turkey has had a much quieter tone in response to Crimea. Ankara does have a strategic interest in developments on the Black Sea and ethnic ties to the Crimean Tatars, but aside from publically supporting the rights of this Turkic minority, little else has been done. Analysts argue that this is a result of a lack of any good moves for Turkey and the importance of their relationship with Russia, which likely outweighs other considerations.
After the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Moscow sent military personnel to help with reconstruction efforts and “to improve Moscow’s image in the Arab and Muslim world". These efforts were reinforced by the presence of Russian volunteers in Syria which helped reinforce the position of the Assad government, a key partner of Hezbollah. It has even been suggested that militant organization conducted recruitment efforts in Russia and other Eastern European countries such as Bosnia as a part of their expanding global operations capacity.
Israeli analysts have meanwhile voiced concerns about Russian ties to Shi’ite militants, despite an overall improvement of relations with Moscow. Russian-made weapons, likely supplied by Syria and Iran, are central to Hezbollah’s arsenal, including anti-tank missiles which proved capable of destroying Israel’s state-of-the-art Merkava tank. This Israeli headache is compounded by the fact that neither Hezbollah nor HAMAS are on Russia’s list of international terrorist groups. This is likely due to the fact that neither paramilitary is a threat to Russia or Russian interests.
HAMAS and the Palestinian Question
In 2011, then-President Dimitri Medvedev visited Palestinian territory in the face of cancelled talks with Israeli officials. Medvedev went as far as to meet with HAMAS officials in Damascus during the same Middle East tour, which also included visiting the site of Christ’s baptism and vowing to create an independent Palestinian state. The militant organization has looked to Russia as a means of countering regional isolation, expanding on Moscow’s good will as a consistent provider of humanitarian aid to Gaza and a long-standing voice supporting peace negotiations. Moscow likely maintains open communications with various Palestinian organizations as part of a pragmatic approach to the region.
Moves and Counter-Moves
Russia is highly likely to increase engagement with the Middle East, capitalizing on their increased status of influence. Support for the secular governments of Assad and al-Sisi is likewise likely to continue, especially as Sunni radicals such as ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia (in Libya) grow in power. Pragmatic relations with Iran and Turkey are likely to be maintained in conjunction with rapprochement with Israel. As America’s credibility and influence in the region continues to decline, Russia and other regional powers are likely to fill the void. It is unlikely that Moscow will take any radical positions in the area, preferring to work with all factions that may benefit Russian interests.