The Bear in the East

Jerusalem Post, 26/3

What is the Significance of the Recent Flurry of Russian Mid-East related Diplomatic Activity?

In an event covered in a variety of regional media outlets  but largely ignored further afield, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met on March 15 in Moscow with a delegation from the Lebanese Hizballah organization. The delegation was led by Mohammed Raad, who heads he Hizballah bloc in the Lebanese parliament.  This was the first official Hizballah delegation to visit Moscow since October, 2011, and the second in total.  Also on the trip was Amar al-Moussawi, who heads the movement’s foreign relations desk. A report by Russian analyst Anton Mardasov at al-Monitor noted that the visit immediately preceded Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s trip to Moscow on March 17,  possibly leading to some logistical challenges for the Russian airport and other authorities. 

The arrival of these two delegations immediately followed a trip by Foreign Minister Lavrov to the Gulf, in which he met with officials in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Lavrov’s trip to the Gulf coincided with the televised opening in Turkey of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, built by Russia.  The opening was attended by Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In the last week, Russian military operations in the Mid-East also intensified, with the launch of an air campaign against Islamic State targets in the desert of southern Syria.  In late January, meanwhile, a senior delegation from the south Yemeni separatists of the Southern Transitional Council flew to Moscow, at the invitation of the Russian government.  The STC is backed by the United Arab Emirates, and controls large parts of southern Yemen, including the temporary capital, Aden and the Socotra province. 

This flurry of Mid-East related Russian diplomatic activity is noteworthy because it reflects Moscow’s multi-faceted approach to the region.  Much analysis of the Middle East notes the existence of three large blocs competing for primacy.  These are defined as 1. the bloc of countries and movements led by Iran and including the Assad regime and Hizballah, 2. the Sunni Islamist bloc of Turkey, Qatar and associated movements, and 3. the ‘status quo’ or pro US bloc including Israel Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  The list of meetings and events above shows that Russia maintains open channels and cordiality with the main players in all these blocs, without being entirely identified with any of them.  Only the Salafi jihadis of Islamic State remain beyond the pale. 

This approach contains a measure of sophistication, and has resulted in Moscow emerging as the go-to mediator on a variety of regional files, from which the United States has chosen through weariness or other priorities to keep absent.  When mediation is needed between Israel and Assad’s Syria, Russia is the only relevant candidate, as has been demonstrated on two significant occasions recently.  When Turkey needed to formalize its area of control in north east Syria following its incursion in October 2019, Erdogan negotiated directly with Putin, casually brushing aside the notional sovereignty of Bashar Assad.  Indeed, the Astana process, bringing together Turkey and Iran under Russian auspices, has turned into the most significant diplomatic track regarding Syria. It has bypassed the moribund, UN-supported Geneva process. 

In all these areas, Russian tactical pragmatism has proved an asset.  In a manner quite unfamiliar to western practices, but well in accordance with Mid-Eastern realities, the Russians care little about final resolution of conflicts, and hardly at all about the mode of governance and the ideology of the elements they deal with. They proceed on the basis of current shared interest, rather than longer term partnership. They are comfortable in the environment of frozen conflicts, and  divided countries, and have no sense of urgency in the need to rectify either of these situations.

In the fragmented spaces that characterise large parts of the post-2010 Arab world, this tactical flexibility can bring advantage.  It enabled the Russians, for example, to ostensibly support the re-conquest by their ‘ally’ Bashar Assad of the entirety of Syria, while subsequently negotiating the current de facto partition of the country in order to draw Turkey further from NATO and closer to the Russian orbit.  It has enabled Moscow also, notably, to acquiesce to the near weekly bombing raids by Israeli aircraft against targets of Moscow’s supposed partner in Syria – Iran.  This despite the presence of an S-400 battery at the Khmeimim air base in Latakia province. 

Russia’s regional approach has paid dividends largely because of the vacuum left by the partial US disengagement from the Middle East.  In so far as Moscow has sought to directly challenge Washington in an area from which the US did not wish to be dislodged, the Russians have been speedily apprised of the true balance of power (see the Battle of Khasham, 2018, when Russian-supported militias attempted an incursion across the Euphrates and were slaughtered by US air and artillery strikes). Still, the US under President Joe Biden shows no signs of wanting to come roaring back to major commitments in the region. 

A more important Achilles heel for Moscow’s regional approach is currently becoming apparent, however.  Namely, a notable lack of financial resources.  In this regard, ‘victory’ in Syria is becoming something of a burden.  The European Union is remaining currently firm that there will be no money for reconstruction unless a process of political transition from dictatorship begins.  Iran, Russia’s partner in Syria, has no money.  Moscow, also, doesn’t have resources to spare.  The result is that Russia is currently presiding over a broken, fragmented country, in which the main fighting fronts may no longer be moving, but nothing has been settled. The Iranian project, and the Israeli retribution it triggers, are a further disruptive element.  This lack of resources is also impacting on stability inside the regime controlled parts of Syria.  In restive Dera’a province, where the uprising that led to the civil war began in 2011, there were large demonstrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the outbreak.  Last week, 21 members of the regime’s 4th Armored Division were killed by unidentified militants outside the town of Mzayrib in the province.  It is all very far from the ‘victory’ proclamations of 2018 and 2019. 

In this regard, Lavrov’s visit to the UAE is worthy of particular attention.  The Russians and the Emiratis share the desire to rehabilitate the Assad regime and normalize Syria’s situation.  The Russians may well be looking for ways to introduce Emirati resources into the ruin of Assad’s domain, though Abu Dhabi will need to be wary of violating US sanctions in too obvious a way. 

But the broader picture – of the stark gap between meager resources and self-perception as a major power – is the essential reality of Moscow’s position in the Middle East.  It means that ultimately Russia must of necessity be reactive and tactical, but that its shrewd tactical moves will then be cloaked in the appearance of great power strategy.  The material results of such an approach, when observed closely, are likely to be considerably more modest than they initially appear.  Moscow understands the Middle East, and plays its games deftly and well. But that is because in many ways it resembles some of its regional partners rather more than it would perhaps readily admit.  

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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