Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Russia has limited itself to its traditional role of providing arms, military, and logistical experts to its Arab allies. As Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime weakened, the Russians intensified their military support dramatically. Recently, the Russian “Caesar” opted to expand his role in Syria to include direct intervention against enemies of the regime.
Russia claimed its intervention in Syria was intended to destroy the Islamic State (IS) after US-led campaign proved to be an “abject failure”, according to an unnamed US military official speaking to CBS News. Well acquainted with terrorism, one might argue that Moscow is undertaking a pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups. But some have linked the intervention to the Ukrainian crisis as well as the desire for increased leverage in the Middle East and more power at the negotiating table.
Russia’s stated intentions have been met with scepticism regarding the real motive behind the decision to intervene directly. One widespread opinion is that Russia wants to secure a military presence at a warm-water port on the Mediterranean Sea.
So what really lies behind the dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy?
Russia’s recent direct intervention in Syria was a departure from the conventional regional order that governed the Middle East. Traditionally, and even at the peak of the Cold War, Russia’s role was limited to sending arms, military, and logistical experts to its Arab allies. The current intervention constitutes a new articulation in Russia’s role with the heavy military intervention that characterises Russia’s current efforts.
The recent Russian intervention coincided with a number of important events. First is the Iranian nuclear deal from which Iran has emerged with a more prominent regional role with renewed economic potential. Second is the US’s gradual retreat from the region’s affairs, symbolised by the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, the concession of Iraq’s destiny to the Iranians, the deprioritisation the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has led to the emergence of other initiatives, and finally the US’s decision to withdraw the defensive shield from Turkey.
A few years ago, president of US Council on Foreign Relations Richard N. Haass wrote that the era of the US’ domination in the Middle East was coming to an end and the region’s future would be characterised by reduced US influence.
For its part, the US, whose aircraft carriers have been absent from the region since 2007, ordered a mere 50 special operations troops to Syria to help coordinate local ground forces in the north of the country. US President Barack Obama condemned Russia’s direct intervention strategy. And yet in a press conference in August 2014, he acknowledged that the US “does not have a strategy” in Syria.
In July 2015 Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow to coordinate Russian military intervention, thus forging the new Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria. According to a Reuters report, Soleimani’s visit was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian discussions to coordinate military strategies.
A senior US official confirmed on 18 September that more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment, and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria, followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, along with 12 close support aircraft, four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships.
The stated Russian motivation behind this involvement does not match the facts on the ground. For that reason, experts have linked Russia’s intervention to its new maritime strategy that was published on 26 July 2015. The new maritime doctrine of the Russian Federation is a comprehensive state policy for governing all of Russia’s maritime assets, military fleets, civilian fleet, merchant vessels, and naval infrastructure.
Moscow will first and foremost dictate its political will on any future solution in Syria and the inclusion of Iran and Russia in Vienna talks is an exemplary point. Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that the long-time Russian ally Bashar Al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period; German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the West will have to engage with Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war and the British indicated a similar shift in policy. Second, Russia has now guaranteed a bigger role in the formation of a new Syrian government.
Third, Russia is currently expanding its military presence, not only in Syria, but in the region. Russia’s announced intelligence sharing agreement demonstrates this goal. Russia offered a large array of military hardware to Iraq that the US had refused to sell. Fourth, although it looks like Russia and Iran have a common goal in Syria, Russia’s blatant involvement ended Iran’s monopoly over the Syrian conflict. Fifth, Russia has taken pre-emptive measures against Islamic extremist groups from which Russia has long suffered.
Sixth, the Russian intervention came amid confirmed military sources auguring the imminent fall of the long-time Russian ally when the Assad regime controlled only 18 percent of the country and its army had exhausted 93% of its supplies. Seventh, the increasing leverage of Russia in the region will give Russia a bigger seat at the Ukrainian negotiations table.
Finally, Russia aims to revive its military industries market as it was able to promote itself as an international player that can be relied upon to contain Iran, to prevent the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, to contribute actively in the fight against terrorism, and to sell technologies for peaceful energy in the Middle East. Russia is now building two nuclear facilities in southern Iran and on 19 November, Russia and Egypt agreed to build nuclear reactors in Dabaa. Moscow is negotiating as well with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, and Jordan for deals to develop nuclear power.
In short, Russia must now be taken seriously as a major player on the Middle East. The recent Russian intervention in Syria was not the first move in that direction.