Russia’s growing muscle in the Middle East

November 1, 2015 9:11 PM (UTC+8)


By Manish Rai

After nearly a month of conducting daily air strikes, Russia is beginning to unveil its political calculations and strategic intent in Syria. A new round of talks in Vienna on a political solution for the Syrian conflict is underway in which Russia is about to play a major role. There is a growing sense in Moscow, and among diplomats and politicians in some countries in the Middle East and the West, that Russia has a better chance than others to combine its increased influence over Assad with its military muscle in Syria’s skies to broker a deal that ends the Syrian conflict.

The hard reality is that Russia currently has a greater opportunity than any other power to control the political process that leads to a Syrian solution. But it’s not just about Syria. Russia has big ambitions in the region and entering into the war on the side of Bashar al-Assad is just a small piece of Russia’s new grand strategy for Middle East. Until now, Russia has been frustrated by American strategic dominance in the region. To counter this and establish Kremlin as a potent force, President Putin has chosen the Syrian theater to flex his muscles.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Vienna

The Obama administration has been weak and passive in the face of Russian intervention. It’s basically allowed Russia to set the terms of a proposed solution. Russia, step by step, is increasing its influence by forging alliances with every key player in the regional arena. Let’s look at some of recent regional alliances that Russia has made:

Israel– Israel has discovered Russia and its growing sphere of regional influence in the region. That realization is what sent Netanyahu to Putin a month ago and brought about the visits of high ranking Russian army officers to Israel. It appears Israel doesn’t want to be left outside the equation now that Russia is increasingly involved in Syria. This is especially since Iran is solidly placed on the other side of the equation. This is the rationale behind the joint mechanism Israel has set up with Russia.

Iraq-Iraqi government apparently believes it hasn’t been receiving adequate assistance from the US and the European Union to ward off the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS). It’s turned to Moscow for support and is now receiving Russian aid under an intelligence and security cooperation agreement.

Egypt-The Arab world’s most populous country, is actually supporting Russia’s actions, notwithstanding the fact that Saudi Arabia is Egypt’s top paymaster. The reality is that, although most Arabs don’t like what Russia is doing in their region, they admire the way Mr Putin has been able to pinprick the Americans. Egypt has also sought Russian military assistance after being turned down by US.

Iran– The Syrian civil war has dramatically improved ties between Russia and Iran. It could lay the foundation for lasting Russian-Iranian ties in the region. Tehran also sees Moscow’s resurgence as a  chance to ensure its own lasting influence in the region. Iran has been at odds with Sunni Saudi Arabia, which along with other Arab countries, is concerned about Shite’s Iran outreach.

But by employing military force in the region, Russia’s earned some Middle Eastern enemies as well. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are furious with Mr Putin, largely because Russia’s intervention now complicates both these countries’ strategic objectives in the region.

But Turkey needs Russia more than Russia needs Turkey. Mr Erdogan is also very aware that all the Russians need to do is start supporting the Kurds in Syria to make Ankara’s strategic situation miserable. The Saudis have also been muted in their criticism. This is because they too hope for an accommodation with Russia. Russia has used these openings to neutralize its critics in the region. But one key thing the Russians have overlooked in this power play is that by entering the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts with troops and advisers, Moscow is adding to the allure of jihadism rather than tamping it down. Dozens of Saudi clerics have reportedly issued edicts for Sunnis to fulfill jihad, a pillar of Islam, by fighting not only Alawites and Shiites — but also Russians as infidels just as they successfully did in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Russia shouldn’t look to a repeat of the Afghan jihad that cost many Russian lives and caused it to leave Afghanistan in disgrace.

Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround (VA) can be reached at