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Russian power | The World Weekly

In just over two years, Russia’s armed forces and the Syrian army have defeated the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists,” Vladimir Putin said on his first trip to Syria this week. During his surprise visit, Mr. Putin announced that as its mission was accomplished, a “significant part” of the Russian force based in Syria would now be withdrawn. “The Motherland awaits you.”

His Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed Mr. Putin at the Hmeimim airbase and thanked him for Moscow’s support. On the request of the government in Damascus, Russia officially intervened in Syria in September 2015 to defeat terrorists, with thousands of airstrikes subsequently turning the tide of the brutal war in Mr. Assad’s favour.

But Moscow’s biggest intervention in the Middle East in decades also proved useful beyond Syria’s borders, starting at a time when Russia was increasingly isolated in the international community due to its meddling in Ukraine. Having established itself as one of the most powerful external actors in Syria, Moscow won back international clout and amidst uncertainty over US foreign policy emerged as a crucial power broker in the Middle East.

As part of his whirlwind of diplomatic visits this week, Mr. Putin also met the presidents of Egypt and Turkey. In Cairo, officials from both countries signed a deal that will see Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom build four nuclear reactors in Egypt at a cost of $21 billion; work is expected to finish in 2028-29. President Putin and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also discussed increasing military cooperation and the resumption of civilian flights between the two countries which were interrupted after Islamic State (IS) militants claimed the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, killing 224 people on board. Russia’s transport minister said flights could resume in early February.

In Turkey, Moscow reportedly offered to partially finance Ankara’s purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Relations between Ankara and Moscow have recently thawed after a period of tensions in the wake of the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish air force near the border of Syria. Now Russia, Turkey and Iran are cooperating on Syria, being the main sponsors of peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana.

Many saw the Russian president’s tour as a way to cement his influence across the region. Mr. Putin went to Cairo to deepen ties months after the US, Egypt’s main international ally since the 1970s, suspended several hundred million dollars in aid. Relations between Ankara and Washington are tense due to witness testimony in a court case in New York which implicates President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an in a scheme to evade sanctions against Iran. Turkey continues to demand the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania who Ankara sees behind a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

“Moscow is keen to supplement the consolidated Middle East influence that Syria has given it,” says Seyed Ali Alavi, a Middle East scholar from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Its goal is “to cast itself as a reliable power” that can exert military force as well as diplomacy.

In Syria, Russia has used the intervention on behalf of the Assad government to turn its naval base in Tartus and the Hmeimim airbase “into the new centre for future Russian forward deployments in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East,” Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington DC, told The World Weekly.

Despite the announced troop withdrawal, skepticism remains to what extent Russia will ultimately scale down its military involvement. A previous announcement of a partial drawdown was followed by continuous military action, which many see as responsible for civilian deaths. A spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council voiced concern about Moscow’s statements: “We think the Russian declarations of ISIS’ defeat are premature.”

IS has lost its urban strongholds in Iraq and Syria this year, but many observers note that the militant group is not completely defeated and likely to revert back to an insurgency-based strategy, including bombings and hit-and-run attacks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made it clear that Russia would retain the ability to strike ‘terrorists’ in Syria: “As the president stressed, we do not rule out that terrorists may try to raise their head again, but in this case they will have to face strong and devastating blows like they have never seen.”

“The Russians will want to maintain their military presence in Syria for the next several decades,” says Mr. Heras, adding that this objective would be a priority for Russian negotiators in diplomatic talks to wind down the civil war.

Back to the Cold War

During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union were locked in a fierce competition to win over allies in the Middle East to expand their respective spheres of influence. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow lost its influence in the region, but Russia’s actions in recent years have significantly changed the Middle East’s power dynamics.

In Syria, Russia and Iran’s backing of Mr. Assad has removed virtually any possibility of ousting the Syrian president by force. Moscow maintains relations not only with Damascus, but also the Syrian Kurds, which control large parts of northern Syria, and parts of the opposition. Any significant progress in the peace talks without Moscow’s consent seems unlikely.

“Given the fact that Trump’s administration has no clear Middle East policies, Russia has managed to achieve a reputation as the power that remains besides its allies,” Dr. Alavi told TWW. Regional leaders watched with anguish as the US withdrew support from longtime partners such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.  

Could Russia replace the US as the main external power in the region?

Mr. Heras cautions. “Russia will not replace the US in the Middle East,” he says, “but what it will do is move the Middle East back to the great power dynamics that existed in the region during the height of the Cold War.”

Aleksandr Konovalov, director of the Middle East Research Centre at the University of Economics in St. Petersburg, concurred. “If we take a closer look, we will find that the US has retained its role as an arbiter in the region and that the Arab states would prefer Washington over Moscow.”

Whereas Mr. Trump has vowed to keep America out of long-winded wars, the US retains tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East and will send more soldiers to Afghanistan. According to recent revelations, around 2,000 US troops are still stationed in Syria; there is no sign of an immediate withdrawal. In the Gulf Arab countries alone, Washington has a force of around 30,000 troops, Mr. Heras adds.

“From their base in Syria, the Russians can continue to seek to project influence into the wider Middle East,” says Mr. Heras, but they are also “pragmatic”, being aware that the the continued US military presence in the region “is not an obstacle that can be overcome in a short amount of time”.

The home front

The intervention in Syria has been given extensive coverage in the Russian media and served to increase Moscow’s influence on the global stage, but many Russians are increasingly apathetic when it comes to domestic politics and the war in Syria. A poll by the Levada Centre in September indicated that 49% of Russians wanted their country’s military campaign in Syria to end; 30% said it should complete the operation.

According to official numbers, 41 Russian troops have died in Syria. But a flurry of reports says Moscow has extensively relied on private security contractors, something the Russian defence ministry has denied. Many of those fighting in a private capacity are said to have done so as contractors for a shadowy firm called Wagner, whose alleged owner has links to the Kremlin. Using private contractors allows the Kremlin to keep military casualty numbers low, increasingly important before the 2018 presidential election, which Mr. Putin is expected to win.

A reporter for Fontanka, a Russian-based website investigating the issue, told AP he estimated that 73 contractors had been killed in Syria; another Russian outlet, the Conflict Intelligence Team, put the number at 101, with both stressing that those were conservative estimates.

A firm seen as a front for Wagner reportedly has signed a deal with General Petroleum Corporation, a Syrian state-state owned company. The contract, according to AP, states that the Russian company “would receive 25% of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure from Islamic State militants”.

As the war in Syria winds down in large parts of the country, companies from Iran and Russia, but also from China and elsewhere are hoping to benefit from reconstruction and other business deals.

Securing influence

Despite its airpower, Russian influence in Damascus has its limits. Moscow and Tehran, Mr. Assad’s key backers, are in agreement that Syria’s stability is in their shared interest, but the potential for conflict remains. Disagreement could, for example, arise over the “future role of Shia militias in Syria”, says Dr. Alavi. Iran has coordinated military campaigns of tens of thousands of militiamen fighting on the ground on behalf of President Assad.

The president’s future could be another sticking point. Mr. Assad has vowed to retake all of Syria. This could hamper Moscow’s efforts to push for a political solution, wrote Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, as Russia “has sought to build common ground between all of the country’s contending factions, paving the way for some form of a coalition government.” The emboldened Syrian president, Dr. Trenin said, “may be thinking that he does not need the Russians as much as he used to” after a string of military victories.

Russia, observers agree, is set to keep a presence in Syria for a long time to come, but has little interest in prolonging a costly war for which there is little enthusiasm at home.

“Russia's best case scenario is that the Trump team continues to view Russia as a vital big power partner to wind down the civil war and build stability in Syria,” says Mr. Heras. Building on that, Moscow could then “use its newfound importance... to try to engage diplomatically in other regional conflicts such as in Yemen and Libya, in order to over time expand Russia's desirability to Middle Eastern countries as a partner of similar standing to the United States.” 

Despite its powerful position in the region, Moscow still relies on others to achieve its goals. “Russia won’t be able to fulfill all its plans without support from other regional and global players such as the US, EU, China, Turkey and Iran,” says Dr. Konovalov.

Next year “will see an even more turbulent Middle East,” he predicts. Russia won’t be the only nation calling the shots, but will play a key role in shaping the region’s future.

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