Putin’s Middle East Strategy
The Russian military announced this week that, in conjunction with the Syrian army, it has liberated 85 percent of Syrian territory from militants. There is no doubt that Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria in September 2015 was a turning point in the conflict. Russian air support tipped the balance towards the regime in offensives to retake Aleppo and Palmyra, and has been crucial in the current campaign to liberate Deir ez-Zor. This has been Russia’s most ambitious and successful campaign since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and it reveals much about Russia’s broader strategy in the Middle East.
Although Europe is a cause of much concern for Putin, Russia has deep economic, security, and energy interests in the Middle East. Russia believes, as evident from its involvement in the Syrian conflict, that the best way to secure these interests is to increase its intervention in the Middle East. Putin has proven extremely adept at capitalizing on tactical opportunities for strategic gain. The Obama administration’s indecision in Syria provided the opening for Russia to take advantage. For Russia, the Middle East is a space in which it can project power. It is also a space in which it can cement its role as a guarantor of the status quo. Putin clearly blames the West for the instability in the region and strives to buttress the established order.
Indeed, Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria was intended to a large extent to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity while ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, a long-standing ally in the region. But it also granted Russia alternative benefits. By deploying sophisticated weapons systems to Syria, Russia has successfully constrained the United States’ freedom of operations. Meanwhile, Russia has used Syria to enhance its power projection capabilities in region. During the Syrian conflict, Russia has upgraded its naval base in Tartus and made its Hmeimim airbase permanent, which facilitates its reach to the Gulf, the Red Sea, and in the Mediterranean.
In part, the intervention was also tied to Russia’s domestic interests. Having fought bloody insurgencies in Chechnya and Dagestan, Russia is well aware of the threat of terrorism and returning foreign fighters. Connected to the Middle East by a contiguous land mass, Russia has no sea to act as a buffer for this threat. Although much of Russia’s military action in Syria has focused on eliminating more moderate opposition factions than the so-called Islamic State, it is clear that security concerns played a role in Putin’s calculations.
Russia’s intervention has also been about projecting a new image for itself on the world stage. Putin has used the intervention in Syria to reestablish Russia’s role as a major power in global politics. By sponsoring a new peace process at Astana, Russia has proven its ability to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs without the United States and even while excluding the United Nations. As such, Syria has enabled Russia to emerge as a major power broker in the Middle East.
Russia’s relations with external actors in the Syrian arena are also indicative of its broader strategy for the Middle East. Russia and Iran have cooperated closely in the war, with Russia even using Iran’s Hamadan airbase to conduct some of its operations. However, at the same time Russia has been nurturing better relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, to secure cuts in oil production to raise oil prices and also to increase investment.
For Russia, establishing close relations with opposing sides in regional conflicts is a way of gaining leverage and future flexibility. Moscow’s cooperation with Hezbollah in Syria, while remaining in constant contact with Israel, is another example of this strategy. Elsewhere in the region, Russia has remained neutral during the Gulf crisis, and has also developed relations with rivals Serraj and Heftar in Libya.
Yet, as successful as Russia’s intervention in Syria and broader interactions in the Middle East may appear, it is unclear how sustainable its strategy is. Syria remains its one true ally in the region, with most of its other relationships being much more transactional. Assuming Assad survives the Syrian conflict, it is unclear how long Russia’s interests will overlap with those of Iran or Turkey, for example. Russia also faces major economic constraints and would likely struggle to repeat an intervention on anywhere near the same scale as Syria elsewhere in the region. As such, Russia’s apparent success in Syria should not be taken to represent a new era in Russian dominance over the region. Although Putin may be a master tactician, his Middle East strategy is less coherent.
* / Will Todman is an associate fellow in the CSIS Middle East Program and a fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.