There hasn’t been so much nervousness over Russian moves in the Middle East for decades. European and American journalists keep reminding us that Moscow’s activities are the proof of Russia’s aggressive policies, similar to those in Crimea. Russia has clearly filled in the void created by the vacuum in US policy to maintain its geopolitical influences while maintaining its “selective and opportunistic” policies. It has, however, neither the resources nor the desire to assume responsibility, other than the limited one in Syria and none at all in Libya.
Western eagerness to promote democracy in the region “led to suspicions in and around the Kremlin that Western-funded Russian NGOs might try to bring about a ‘Russian spring’”, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, explained in his book “What is Russia up to in the Middle East”. From the very beginning, Russian analysts were “skeptical that upheavals in Arab countries would actually lead to democratic transformation as hoped for in the West”, Mr. Trenin further writes. They were wary of the possibility of an “Islamist winter” and felt that many American and European experts were “no more than hapless sorcerer’s apprentices”.
Most observers forgot that the first attempt at “Arab Spring”, which took Algeria by storm between 1988 and 1992, ended in a bloody civil war, which claimed 150,000 lives, thousands of ‘disappeared’ and made 600,000 people flee the country, mostly to Europe. Russia was also surprised by how little the US did to support Hosni Mubarak in Egypt as well as by the subsequent developments in Libya. NATO’s use of force toppled the regime and led to the fragmentation of the Libyan state. This also led to the justified fears of the risk that the looted weapons from Gaddafi’s vast arsenals would flood over the Sahel belt of Africa. The warnings went unheeded and the fears were materialized as Mali almost collapsed in January 2012.
These developments made Russians draw the conclusion that both Americans and Europeans lacked strategic vision and failed to account for foreseeable consequences of their actions and impact on Syria. Mr. Trenin explains in his book that with US President Barack Obama winning a second term, and Syrian President Assad still in power in Damascus, Moscow was ready for another attempt at a political settlement. However, the Russian suggestion of “a Dayton a deux” did not persuade the White House who was instead seeking Russia’s cooperation in dislodging Assad “for a fee, such as US consent to Russia keeping its facility in Tartus and continuing to supply arms to the new Syrian regime”.
Therefore, there was no agreement and the subsequent moves in Syria were preventive. Russia aimed at preventing a fall of Assad’s rule and at killing as many as possible of the estimated 7,000 jihadist fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics to prevent them from returning to their countries of origin. Fighting in Syria also allowed Russia to test and develop its tactical and operational strategies, give large numbers of its officers the high-end war experience, and combat-test more than 150 new weapons systems. Another reason for Russians to be active in Syria was Assad’s readiness to block the Qatari efforts to build a natural gas pipeline through the country to supply Europe. This would have undermined Russia’s market power in Europe and thus lessened its leverage over Europe in defending its actions in Ukraine.
Russia has used the Middle East to make a comeback as an important geopolitical player and a capable military actor. The US absence in the region is bringing old enemies together and posing new dangers. As Brussels and Washington watch their influence in the region decline, they will have to pay more attention to Russian actions. Both Western players will have to awake to the new morning and make sense of the developments that are quite different from what was going on in the region at the turn of the century.
‘The Middle East Helps Russia’s Comeback as a Global Power’ – Opinion by Francis Ghilès – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.
(The Opinion can be downloaded here)