Since the start of the Russian military operation in Syria in 2015, the configuration of political forces in the Middle East began to undergo major changes. The dominance of the United States as a key security provider in the region, which was the issue since 1990s and accelerated with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, began to fade into the background. Two parallel processes have occurred in the region – the return of Russia as one of the key elements of the regional security architecture and the growing role of regional players. The latter became a backup of Russian policies in the Middle East, but at the same time also its limiter. Moscow should proceed from the fact that the further development of the situation in the Middle East will be accompanied by the need to coordinate positions with regional players.
The main issue for Moscow in the Middle East in the years ahead will be the implementation of a shift from a military-political approach to an economic one or in other words from risk based approach to opportunity-oriented. However, several factors will limit the implementation of Moscow’s policies: 1) the desire of the states of the region to diversify their ties does not mean a lack of desire to cooperate with the EU and the USA. Regional elites can use their contacts with Moscow to get greater benefits from the West by showing that they have alternative pole; 2) the state of Russia’s own economy and limited resources to support its new role in the region; 3) strengthening of the role of regional players and their opposition to the actions of Moscow where its interests do not coincide with the interests of regional states.
Russian operation in Syria and strengthening Moscow’s position in the region
The establishment of a terrorist group “the Islamic State” (IS) and its occupation and control over the territories in Syria and Iraq led to a serious outflow from Russia and post-Soviet states of groups of people at risk of recruitment and indoctrination by radical ideologies. Hundreds of people, mainly from Muslim background, went to war zones or provided material and other support to terrorists. Assessing the risks, as well as the situation on the ground, the Russian leadership decided to actively intervene in regional affairs. At the time of the start of the Russian military operation, the Syrian armed forces were exhausted and demoralized. The Jaish al-Fatah coalition, which included terrorists from Jabhat an-Nusra, had already invaded the northeast of Latakia province, which is populated mainly by the Alawites, and threatened another round of massacre and humanitarian crisis. At the same time IS terrorists controlled more than half of the country’s territory and threatened central most-populated parts of Syria, including Damascus itself.
Russian support for Syrian state institutions, as was the case from the very beginning declared by the speech of President Putin before the UN General Assembly in 2015, and military actions on the ground radically changed the situation in favor of the official Syrian government, on the side of which Russia acted. This approach led regional players to the need for coordination with Moscow, which retained the possibility of working relations with all regional players – be it Saudi Arabia or Iran, Israel or Iran, Egypt or Turkey, Shiites or Sunnis. A successful Syrian military campaign allowed Moscow to gain a foothold in the region and became a catalyst for the advancement of Russian interests in Syria and beyond – throughout the Middle East/West Asia.
Before turning to the Russian interests, it is worth evaluating the fundamental changes that Moscow has made to the regional order. Russian actions in the Middle East aimed at showing the need to maintain a multilateral approach to resolving issues in the region and beyond or how Head of Peace & Conflict Studies Unit at the National Research Institute of World Economy & International Relations (IMEMO) Ekaterina Stepanova notes, “flexing its muscles in Syria was intended to make manifest to the United States and its allies that multilateral negotiations can not take place in the region – or elsewhere – with the exclusion of Russia”.  Moscow did not strive to become the sole hegemon in the Middle East, but only take its place among those determining the regional order. It is worth noting that this does not imply opposition to the US concerning the all set of issues on the regional agenda, but only the intention to force Washington to conclude that it is necessary to interact with Moscow where Russian interests in the Middle East are affected, as Russian decision makers see it. One can also be indicative of the fact that, unlike other issues, in Syria, Moscow and Washington really maintained constant contact and sought to avoid clashes. So, joint Russian-American actions can be called successful: 1) the withdrawal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013; 2) the creation of a deconfliction mechanism in the sky over Syria; 3) resolving the issue of reconciliation and the transition of the South-West of Syria under the control of government forces.
However, the attempt to establish a permanent and successful diplomatic channel between Russia and the United States — the Lavrov-Kerry format — failed. In these conditions, Russia has taken the path of establishing multilateral platforms with the involvement of influential regional players. The key element and indicator of the transformation of the regional order was the formation of the Astana format of inter-Syrian negotiations, which did not contradict the Geneva process and was called upon to solve technical issues and problems on the ground. The Guarantors of the Astana process – Russia, Turkey, Iran – have shown that in the conditions of a deadlocked political process in Geneva, the resolution of real issues in Syria is possible without the previously traditionally dominant player in the region – the United States. Another multilateral tool, which helped Russia in the region, was the intelligence-sharing Baghdad Information Center, which included representatives of the special services from Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In 2019, there were four key policy areas for Russia in Syria:
- the involvement of regional and European states in the discussions of refugee return and reconstruction (for example, Russia welcomed the establishing of a Istanbul format with the participation of Germany and France (but no party sees this tool seriously); and Lebanon and Iraq became observer-states to the Astana process)
- the expansion and the activation of the Astana political process (the formation of a constitutional committee)
- the creation of conditions for the return of Syria to the League of Arab States (LAS). At the moment, the only barrier to this path is the position of Saudi Arabia (its smaller partners Bahrain and the UAE have already restored their contacts with official Damascus)
- consolidation of Russian economic interests in Syria and beyond (investments in the port of Tartus, oil and gas projects in Syria , phosphates, etc.)
Russia and intensified regional competition in the post-IS period
Over time, the fight against IS has faded into the background, which has revealed new contradictions and intensified regional competition. The D. Trump administration coming to power and active pro-Israel and at the same time anti-Iranian policies exacerbated the situation. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA diplomatically brought the positions of Russia and the EU closer, but de-facto submission of the latter to the American will only contributed to undermining of the JCPOA. Russia will strive to maintain the conditions of the Iran nuclear deal, but in many respects it will take an equidistant position, as well as on other issues on the regional agenda. This decision is fair if we take into account the multilevel nature of regional conflicts.
The Qatar crisis of 2017 demonstrated the absence of regional risk mitigation mechanisms and a high degree of conflict even among the member states of the back then considered successful regional integration organization. Regional competition between Doha and Ankara on the one hand, and Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, on the other hand, resulted in a deterioration of the situation in regional crisis zones, such as in Libya, where regional powers support different sides of the intra-Libyan conflict. The escalation along the Iran-Israel line was superimposed on the ideological and political confrontation and the struggle for leadership in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This regional level was superimposed on the meso-world level, if we take into account the escalation between Iran and such an extra-regional actor as the United States. In this regard, the key Russian interest is to reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf, which would lead to a decrease in tension on other regional issues.
To this end, On July 23, 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry introduced the concept of collective security in the Persian Gulf . This step of Moscow can be viewed in a broader context – the desire to take the role of a security provider in the Middle East. However, Moscow immediately notes that Russia is striving to use not a “traditional” model of a security provider, but a specific one. Vitaly Naumkin, President of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, during his speech in Kazan at the International expert forum held by the Russian International Affairs Council and the Primakov Center on a Russia’s role as a security provider noted that Russian model includes the reliance on regional powers and converging the interests of different states, which is the key element of the Russian approach. Thus, Moscow recognizes not only its own, but also the increased role of regional forces. This certainly imposes restrictions on the policy of Moscow itself. Russian success in the Middle East was associated with the initially marginal role that Moscow occupied – it was not closely allied and it had not a bloc relations and therefore it could act as an “honest broker”. Moscow will lose this advantage, and the further, the more difficult it will be for Moscow to cope with the converging of regional interests.
Russia in the Middle East: Strategic elements of a new approach
Strategically, the key factor in the development of Russia’s policy in the Middle East are systemic interests in the energy sector. It is for that, among the others, reason Moscow seeks to ensure regional security and stability in the future. Russia became the first country to build nuclear power plant (NPP) for civilian purposes in the Middle East (in the Iranian Bushehr). In addition, Russia has two more projects in the Eastern Mediterranean – in the north of Egypt, the Ad-Dabaa NPP and in the south of Turkey, the Akkuyu NPP. A platform to strengthen Russia’s role in the oil and gas sector of the Middle East has already been created: close contacts and working relations with all the states of the region, the presence of a military base on the Mediterranean coast, the transfer of the ports of Tripoli (Lebanon) and Tartus (Syria) to the management of Russian companies Rosneft and Stroytransgaz (respectively), additional Russian investments in the Iraqi oil and gas industry (according to Russian officials, by 2025 it is expected to reach $ 40 billion), entry into gas projects in the Levantine basin. Russia will maintain special relations with Saudi Arabia. The visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected by the end of 2019. The two states this year have already agreed to extend the deal to reduce oil production under OPEC +. Pragmatism and the need for coordination of efforts to regulate oil prices will bring Moscow and Riyadh closer.
The Russian approach is based on ensuring peace and stability in the region by conducting peaceful diplomatic and political activities, using economic and humanitarian levers, and not exerting military pressure or interfering in the internal affairs of the states of the region. Russia considers the possibility of a military presence only with the sanction of the UN Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate government of a country. On the whole, Russia will seek to bring the positions of regional and non-regional players closer together in order to stabilize the region, which may limit its political weight in the Middle East, but allow it to focus on extracting economic dividends.