Russia’s successful intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has brought about a remarkable recovery in Moscow’s standing in the Middle East. But the price of that recovery has been Moscow’s newfound obligation to become more deeply involved in the endless crosscurrents of Middle Eastern diplomacy. Two cases exemplify this new dynamic: the clash between Israel and Iran and Moscow’s efforts to maneuver with Turkey amid signs of a U.S.-Turkey rapprochement. These processes have led Russia to interact with more Middle Eastern states to secure its interests and take advantage of the gains it has made by virtue of bolstering the Syrian regime.
The Iranian-Israeli Conflict
Russia’s success in Syria has obliged Moscow to adopt the remarkable position of choosing Israel over Iran even as it works with Iran to build a new political order in Syria under Assad. For Iran, it is a vital interest that Assad rule over all of Syria and that Syria serve as a land bridge between Tehran and Hezbollah. Moscow has very different objectives. Russia has no desire to become enmeshed in a new Middle Eastern war to suit Iran. It also probably knows that Iran would lose such a conflict and that an Iranian-Israeli conflict, even if confined to Lebanon, would bring in the United States and its armed forces in a major way.
Russia wants to re-establish order in Syria to preserve its gains, such as military bases and contracts with Syria as well as its larger status, presence, and influence throughout the region — not for Iran’s sake. Furthermore, Moscow has no quarrel with Israel and sees no benefit in starting one. As Israeli leaders have reiterated to Russia, they see Assad as the least objectionable leader of Syria. Israel has refrained from intervening in the civil war there and from imposing sanctions on Russian operations.
In addition, Israel has made it abundantly clear that it will intervene against Iran if Tehran jeopardizes its vital interests by trying to establish permanent bases in Syria, a weapons land link to Hezbollah or a presence within 50 kilometers of Israeli forces in the Golan — Israel’s de facto border with Syria. Thus, Moscow is unlikely to throw good money after bad to satisfy Iranian dreams of extirpating Israel from the map. And to show that it will not allow Iran into the southwestern Syrian cauldron, Russia has conducted air raids against insurgents there.
Moscow has also undoubtedly calculated that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran means that Tehran needs Moscow’s support against Washington more than ever. Therefore, Moscow has no need to cater to Iran’s grander ambitions and can work to limit Iranian policies that jeopardize Russian goals. Accordingly, Russia has called upon Iran to withdraw its troops from a reconstituted Syria, not just to observe the 50-kilometer line of demarcation in southern Syria that would separate it from Israeli troops.
Moreover, Russia has actively worked with Iran’s other great enemy, Saudi Arabia, to strike at Iranian economic interests. It would benefit Tehran for OPEC to limit energy production in order to raise prices. Instead, Moscow and Riyadh have cooperated to increase production to maintain their market shares and revenues. These actions have duly aroused angry Iranian commentaries. But Iran has no alternative but to work with Russia, which has been the decisive factor in Assad’s military victory, to restore a satisfactory Syrian regime.
The Turkish Dimension
Russia is also endeavoring to win Turkey over to its side — not only in Syria, but also more generally, in Europe and on defense and security issues. Since Turkey essentially yielded to Russian pressure in 2016-2017 and started to work with Moscow in Syria, Russia has sought to broaden its cooperation with Ankara and Tehran in restoring an order in Syria that both those states could live with and that safeguards Moscow’s interests. A Turkish-Russian alignment offers Putin immense opportunities beyond Syria and the Middle East regarding security in and around the Black Sea, so he is playing for very large stakes in his dealings with Turkey.
And Moscow possesses considerable influence over Ankara. Turkey receives slightly over half of its gas from Russia, and it is vulnerable to economic pressure from Russia. Moscow has had influence over Kurdish militant movements going back to the 1890s. In fact, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past accused Moscow of arming PKK militants. Furthermore, Putin’s hold on power has inspired Erdogan, who is building what appears to be a similar state in Turkey. Moreover, the two rulers share numerous resentments against the United States and the European Union. These factors can foster Russian-Turkish cooperation beyond Syria.
Moscow has handled the issue of the Syrian Kurds’ role in any post-war Syrian government very gingerly. Although Moscow’s representatives have reiterated that the Kurds will participate in the talks to restore a Syrian government and in the future Syrian state, this has not dissuaded Ankara from working with Moscow and Tehran to stabilize Syria.
Nevertheless, Erdogan is receptive to overtures from Washington. Despite its purchase of the S-400 defense system and interest in other Russian arms, Turkey is still acquiring U.S. equipment, such as the F-35 fighter. Thus, Turkey is by no means a Russian ally even though it works with Moscow on several key issues.
Indeed, the Trump administration is selling this system to Turkey despite Congressional anger at Turkey’s policies. Moreover, Washington has just reached an agreement with Ankara on combat operations in the area of Syrian Kurdish habitation around Manbij, removing a sore point in Turco-American relations. The agreement also signifies that the Trump administration will not simply consign Turkey to the Russian sphere despite the bilateral problems. Therefore, Moscow must maneuver carefully with Turkey.
The effort to establish a functioning rapprochement with Turkey has been a hallmark of Putin’s tenure in office, and he is not likely to risk that process now. A clear Russian response to Ankara’s deals with Washington will probably take some time to become discernible — and it will have to be calibrated to reckon with Turkey’s election outcome.
Moscow’s Continuing Interests
The Middle Eastern geopolitical game goes on without any discernible end. Moscow clearly is trying to increase its influence without becoming tied down or committed to alignments that reduce its freedom of action or involve the deployment of Russian power in ways that are beyond Moscow’s capabilities and interests. The Kremlin will certainly be working to ensure that any U.S-Turkish understanding in northern Syria and/or any Israeli-Iranian clash in the south of the country does not upset its regional calculus.
Russian policy in the Middle East is strategic, even as it exploits tactical opportunities. American policymakers should be concerned that Russia inserted itself into a position of great power status as an interlocutor that is credible to all players in the Middle East regarding all major issues of Middle Eastern security, diminishing the U.S.-led alliance system there. While Russian relations with Saudi Arabia or the Emirates may not approach the level of its ties to Syria, Moscow can work constructively with these states to advance its and their interests. Moreover, Moscow and Israel have remained in constant contact, acted in coordination to maintain each one’s red lines and upheld credible commitments to each other regarding their vital interests.
Russia will continue to expand its presence and influence across the Middle East and exploit the region’s existing cleavages. While it will not deliberately encourage Iran’s expansive Shiite dream, Moscow will not do much, if anything, to prevent conflict between Iran and Israel or among other belligerents. Its interests lie in maintaining a privileged seat at the table while the endless game continues. While Moscow thrives on conflict, the region needs a durable peace, security, and a respite from the internecine wars of the last generation.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.