What is Russia’s game plan in the Middle East? When we analyse Russian policy, we start from the obvious and then delve into the realm of speculation. We cannot accept all of Moscow’s pronouncements at face value. Instead, Russian aims have to be understood on several levels.
Obviously, the preservation of the Assad regime in what is left of Syria is a continuation of the longstanding client relationship, going back to Soviet times. Russia has critical physical assets to defend, especially its naval base. But, in addition, Putin’s Russia sees opportunity to regain what was lost during the preceding four decades, and to achieve what the old Soviet Union never accomplished — the total extinguishing of American and Western influence in the Middle East.
Putin practices a brutal realpolitik. Contrary to muddled thinking by all too many so-called experts in the West, realpolitik does not entail the cynical abandonment of allies. On the contrary, fidelity to allies is the cornerstone of any great power’s credibility. The Assad regime seemed to be on the point of collapse. The United States and its European allies nursed the naïve hope that Russia might be induced to abandon an old client. They failed to understand that Russian support for a vulnerable ally sends a powerful signal in a region where power, not goodwill, is the guiding principle. By contrast, what signal is Obama sending with his increasingly uncertain support for Israel? What signal did he send by his abandonment of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and de facto embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood?
On one level, Western suspicions about Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war are valid. Contrary to Putin’s claim that he is waging war against the Islamic State, it appears pretty clear from news reports that, so far, Russian operations are in the Western area of Syria against anti-Assad rebels, who have received support from the United States, not the Islamic State. In parenthesis, we might observe that any distinction between the Sunni fighters of the so-called Free Syrian Army and fighters for the Islamic State is blurry, to say the least. Anti-Assad rebels have the unfortunate habit of trading Western hostages with the Islamic State. Whatever, any claim by Vladimir Putin that he is dedicated to the destruction of the Islamic State may be seen mostly as reinforcement of a contrary lack of American and Western resolve.
I suggest that Russia’s aims in the Middle East are twofold.
She is seeking a Russian hegemon, not a region dominated by either Iran or the Sunni version of Islam. Divide and conquer makes more sense than the notion that Russia would facilitate the rise of a fanatical theocratic nuclear power over which it would lose control. Iran’s possession of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles would pose a challenge not only to Washington and Europe, but also to Moscow. Rather, Russia’s show of cooperation with Iran’s nuclear programme is a foil, designed to underscore American weakness vis a vis its Middle East allies. The lack of American action against Iran’s nuclear facilities and, moreover, American efforts to sabotage Israeli countermeasures, have been compounded by the nuclear deal with Iran. Perceived treachery to allies is not simply an abstract moral failing, but, above all, an abdication of power.
It should hardly surprise that Russia would welcome for all the wrong reasons the nuclear deal with Iran. If Obama is prepared to disregard America’s closest ally, Israel, which enjoys majority support in the United States, what strength can be placed on American commitment to other allies in, say, Eastern Europe? Not well understood is that American support for Israel is not simply optional but essential if the US is to retain any influence in the Middle East. Yes, the likes of Saudi Arabia may publicly aspire to the elimination of the Jewish state in the longer term. In the shorter term, any weakening of ties with Israel sends the message to Arab allies that the United States is weak and unreliable. The price for American pursuit of imaginary goodwill may be high indeed.