The Russian Middle East

Moscow Takes Over From Washington

Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is back. Not as an economic power. Western sanctions have seen to that. But as a military power.

Syrians protest against the Russian campaign in Aleppo. Neukölln, December 2016.

Perhaps even an imperial power, albeit one not quite as strong as its primary adversary, the United States.

Don’t look to Russian-occupied East Ukraine, or Georgia, for examples. Those were just rehearsals.

The Middle East is where you’ll find it.

Since 2015, when its forces first began arriving in Syria, Moscow’s foothold in the Levant has been increasing steadily and shows no signs of slowing down.

Attempting to fill the void created by Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia, Russian forces have quadrupled their presence under the America First presidency of Donald Trump.

Mimicking the American defence of regional client regimes during the Arab Spring, Moscow chose longtime ally Syria as its springboard.

The Kremlin’s decision wasn’t just motivated by revanchism. The rise of Islamic State (ISIS) and surging Sunni radicalism in Russia was an equal motivator.

The more control Russia can exert over the region, the more it can guarantee its security at home.

An estimated 4,000 Russian nationals and 5,000 from ex-Soviet republics are reported to have joined ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq over the years.

Moscow fears many of these fighters could return home and fuel nascent conflicts in the North Caucasus and radicalise Central Asian Muslims who work as migrant labourers across Russia.

Western policymakers often forget that Russia was plagued first by Islamist radicalism, well before 9/11 and the War on Terror.

This experience has had a disproportionate influence on post-Communist cultural and foreign policy under Vladimir Putin.

In the eyes of the Kremlin, Islamists constitute the biggest threat to the Russian state after the Americans. What’s worse is that they’re an indigenous problem, too.

Muslims constitute nearly 15 per cent of Russia’s population and the government fought two devastating wars against jihadist nationalists in Chechnya, fuelled by al-Qaeda style Wahabbism.

Islamist-instigated terrorist attacks, such as the 2002 Moscow theatre crisis and the 2004 Beslan school siege, in which hundreds of persons were taken hostage, rattled Russia.

The Putin government and its security forces had shown that they were incapable of fully containing the blowback from Chechnya.

Though it eventually won the Second Chechen War and installed a puppet regime, the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport attack, in which a suicide bomber killed 37 people and injured hundreds more, indicated that the conflict was far from settled.

The drawdown of US forces in Iraq and Washington’s changing regional strategies provided the first real opportunity to cosy up to regional governments used to greater American support.

Moscow’s growing closeness to Ankara is one such example. US use of Kurdish leftist groups in Syria to fight ISIS has alienated Turkey, leading it to invade and purchase weaponry meant to counter the US, placing unprecedented strains on NATO.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s growing closeness to Russia has caused a huge rift with the United States and NATO allies.

In June, Washington announced it would stop accepting Turkish pilots into its training program for the F-35 Joint Strike fighter, which Turkey had partnered with the US in manufacturing, with 100 aircraft pending delivery.

“The United States has consistently and clearly stated that Turkey will face very real and negative consequences if it proceeds with its S-400 acquisition,” a State Department spokesperson told Al-Jazeera on 3 July.

Like any authoritarian leader, Erdoğan prioritises his own interests and allies himself with similar leaders. But Ankara’s heavy investment in Syria and its reliance on Moscow has left it vulnerable to Russian demands.

While it may be that Erdoğan currently sees Moscow as a more reliable ally than Washington, especially in Syria, it could destroy Turkey’s historic alignment with the West.

Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War turned the tide in favour of embattled President Bashar al-Assad and has since emboldened it to expand its role and influence in the country.

While Russian intervention in Syria saved the Assad regime, it has come with various downsides.

Always secretive about the number of soldiers officially deployed overseas due to high sensitivity in Russia about military casualties, the Kremlin has kept mum on how many of its soldiers are in the war-torn country.

Thousands of Russian troops and mercenaries are said to have been fighting alongside Assad’s forces, with hundreds having been killed since the start of Russia’s deployment.

Last February a reported 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in US airstrikes after they crossed an informal demarcation line along the Euphrates River, threatening a Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces base.

In September, a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane was shot down by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile fired by Syrian forces during Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets, leading to the deaths of 15 Russian servicemen.

It was a major embarrassment for Moscow and led to one of the lowest points in the relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow in years, which has grown stronger over the last decade.

For example, while the US sees itself as Israel’s greatest ally Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke 11 times on the phone with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and visited Moscow four times in 2018.

In comparison, Netanyahu spoke with Trump only four times by phone and visited Washington twice since Trump entered the White House in January 2017.

Netanyahu’s intimacy with Putin, however, only extends so far.

For Moscow, Israel remains an adversary, most recently jamming GPS signals across the country from its bases in Syria, hampering everything from military to commercial aviation.

There are also reports that Russia has notified the Iranian forces in the country ahead of several Israeli airstrikes, allowing their bases to be vacated to prevent any casualties.

Hence the persistence of stronger ties between Washington and Jerusalem.

The United States continues to maintain a close military alliance with Israel, plying it with billions of dollars in military aid each year, and stages joint exercises with the Israel Defence Forces.

Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria.

Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.

In April Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami met with his Russian counterpart General Sergey Shoygu on the sidelines of the 8th Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) in the Russian capital.

Fars News reported that during the meeting the new general “renewed the two countries’ determination to bolster military and defence cooperation” and discussed bilateral relations in both regional and international areas.

This intimacy will likely deepen as the US places more military and economic pressure on Tehran, having abandoned its Obama-era nuclear treaty with the country.

Another strategic Middle Eastern country which has increasingly turned to Moscow for support is Egypt, which has been a strong US ally since the mid-1970s.

But Cairo turned to its former ally following the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi after the United States cut a significant amount of economic and military aid to Egypt.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Cairo expanded military ties with Moscow, signing deals to buy 50 MiG-29 fighter jets, 46 Ka-52 Alligator assault helicopters and other arms.

In 2017 a five-year-long deal between the two countries was signed to allow warplanes from both countries to use each other’s airspace and airfields if needed. Both sides would need to give five days advance notice.

Russia’s presence in Egypt, which is its largest since the early 1970s, also gives it a launching pad for operations in neighbouring Libya, which has been racked by instability but sits on a wealth of oil.

With Russia looking to expand its role in North Africa, Moscow has sought partnerships with various militias in Libya and has established close ties with Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, sending hundreds of mercenaries to fight with his forces, while signing oil deals with the UN-backed Libyan government.

Moscow’s increasing support for Haftar has contributed heavily to recent violence in the country, which has increased the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe this summer.

Earlier this week, two Russian nationals were arrested by Libyan security forces and were accused of trying to influence the elections scheduled for later this year.

According to Bloomberg, citing a letter from state prosecutors for the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, the two had been involved in “securing a meeting” with Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the fugitive son of the ousted Libyan dictator and a potential candidate in elections who has the backing of Moscow.

The effort makes sense. Russia helped back his late father, Muammar Qadaffi, who was ousted by pro-Western forces in 2011.

Elevating Saif al-Islam would be like backing Bashar al-Assad, whose father, Hafez al-Assad, ran Syria with the support of the USSR for several decades.

The historic ties underline the seriousness of Moscow’s efforts. Russia is clearly here to stay in the new Middle East.

How far its influence will eventually extend remains to be seen, especially if the United States decides to once again reassert itself in the region.

At the very least, it seeks to be the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From Istanbul to Tripoli, the territorial claim is clear.

It may have started as a response to terrorism, but the Cold War nostalgia of its regional aspirations is hard to ignore.