14 March 2019

Russia’s increasing intervention in Middle East and North Africa

Claudiu Nebunu

Image source: Mediafax

Beyond the military intervention in Syria and the alliance with Iran and Turkey in this conflict, Moscow now the referee role in maintaining a balance between Israel and Iran, as well as between Syria and Jordan. Moreover, Russia has signed agreements in oil resources exploitation with Saudi Arabia, and it has developed a solid partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that transcends the Middle East to North Africa, even towards South-Saharan Africa. Moscow is doing everything possible to increase/consolidate its influence in a region which is dominated, since URSS’s fall, by the US. This "offensive" is being done through economic and armament trade agreements with Egypt, Algeria, Qatar, UAE, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, gases exploitation projects in the Mediterranean Sea with Lebanon, nuclear projects with Egypt and Iraq, university scholarships for the young people from the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon.

Engraving Russian presence in the region

Russia is committed, at the moment, on many levels, in the whole Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), aiming at the same goal: re-asserting the big power status involved in managing international policy files on equal footing with the great rival, the US, by projecting and enhancing presence across borders, even in areas traditionally influenced by Washington. 

Russia has deployed military police forces into the Golan Plateau, organizing several observation posts and accompanying UN troops in patrol missions to the demarcation area after more than six years of interruption due to the Syrian conflict. At the same time, Moscow wants the mediator status in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, being even requested by the Palestinian National Authority and the Arab League to assume such a role. Furthermore, Moscow tries to be part of the mediation conflict from Yemen, although no one has asked for it.

Also behind the motivation of a pacifist speech, Russia is engaged in a declarative manner in the management of the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia The Russians offered their support for the Qatari state, subjected to a foreign embargo, although the bilateral relationship between the two countries has been rather cold in the past decade and a half.  

On the other hand, in North Africa, Russia has committed in mediating the civil conflict in Libya, being also invited to take a decisive step in supporting the eastern camp (the Libyan National Army, led by General Haftar). Moreover, Kremlin is trying to get involved in diplomatic disputes in the Western Sahara's file, while delivering weapons to Algeria, which could use it against Morocco in a confrontation caused especially by this file.

And last but not least, Russia is trying to exploit Ankara's deteriorating relations with Washington. Turkish authorities have defied the US, threatening to evacuate US troops from the Incirlik base, and even withdrawing from NATO – a perspective that would exponentially increase Russia's already consistent influence in and on Turkey.

All of these are happening concurrently with the processes to open some naval or air military bases in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Sudan and Yemen, with armament sells to Algeria, Egypt, UAE, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and playing around, in parallel, for the negotiation of new contracts with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Step by step to… “conquering” MENA?

Kremlin’s military intervention, started back in 2015, to help Bashar al-Assad, has been the turning-point for a Russian comeback in the area. In addition to helping with domestic opponents, Moscow also acted to protect the regime from external attacks by delivering the pro-government forces S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to defend itself against Israeli air strikes.

Lebanon has become a country of strategic interest for Moscow, being used as a laboratory by Russian diplomacy for equal positioning of various regional actors.  Kremlin is relying on the strategic and frontier conflict between Lebanon and Israel to consolidate its referee role in region’s geo-economic issues The Russian participation at a consortium for the gases exploitation in a maritime area claimed by the Israeli authorities is not purely accidental, as Moscow wants to impose itself as a stability guarantor in these bustling waters, but also to pull the strings better regarding the two enemies. Following warnings by Lebanese Hezbollah, Teheran's ally, against the usurpation of Israel's Lebanese maritime resources Russia already has committed to have the intermediary role between Iran and Israel also, which pushed it to the bald player spotlight against all countries involved in the internationalized conflict from Syria.

At the same time, in the Lebanon region close to Syria and traditionally close to the West, have emerged cultural centers and television channels promoting the Russian language, ballet and art courses with Russian teachers, and the number of university scholarships given to young Lebanese willing to study in Moscow or in other cities from the former Soviet space has increased a lot. Also, Moscow is offering more and more university scholarships in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories.  

It is worth mentioning that one of the stakes of this cultural openness is also winning the support of the Christian people in the region, seriously affected by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, which are feeling betrayed by the West. This could be a promotion vector of Russia’s image as Christians protector in the region.  

Economic growth is another method Kremlin is using to consolidate its influence: Russia has signed an agreement with Egypt to found a new industrial area in Port Said, at the Suez Canal, aiming to become the “biggest center of production and export of Russian goods to Middle East and Africa markets”, according to president Vladimir Putin, who also mentioned investments worth of $7 billion.  

They did not forget the nuclear energy either, a more and more important alternative for the countries in the region to decrease their oil dependency and not only (the illusion of the nuclear military power still exists and it is raising dreams about the possibility to actually get it). With the Russian Rosatom consortium there were signed (2017-2018) contracts to produce nuclear reactors for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Concurrently with the economy, Russia’s armament contracts with the countries in the region are growing, being an influence leverage for the consolidation of Moscow’s geopolitical status in the region.

The American hesitations in elaborating a clear policy in the region have actually strengthened Moscow’s pathways and revealed other projecting leverages of its influence. Russia is starting to pay marked attentions even to US’s strategic ally in the region, Saudi Arabia (by developing the economic and commercial relations), an action eased by the scandal provoked by the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, which has forced Washington to have a firm attitude against the Riyadh regime. Moscow is obviously taking advantage of this situation to strengthen its influence, after almost three decades since the US has hijacked the region.

What did/ does Syria mean for Moscow?

For Russia, maintaining a Syrian leadership conducive to Kremlin's policy is a foreign policy priority. Syria's closeness to the Socialist bloc led by the USSR began in 1966-1970, once Ba’ath’s party took over the power. The party faction led by the Assad family has insisted on improving the relations with URSS to ensure the stability of the new regime, which had no support from the Syrian people. The visit of the Syrian prime-minister, Zu’ayyin, to Moscow, April 1966, has ushered a new phase for the Soviet-Syrian relations: Syria abandons its neutrality position and decides to support the Soviets foreign policy. After URSS’s disintegration from 1991, Russia gets major armament supply contracts for the Syrian government and a naval military base in Tartus port, franchised by URSS in 1988.

The initial Russian policy of approaching Western, after the end of the Cold War, placed the Syrian regime of Hafiz al-Assad in a difficult situation since Syria was dependent on the military support from Moscow. NATO’s enlargement towards Russia’s borders and Moscow’s inequality feeling in the relations with Washington have determined the Russian leadership to abandon the pro-western attitude they initially displayed. Assigning Evgheni Primakov (1996) as Foreign Minister has led to the improvement of the Russian-Syrian relations. The novelty he brought in the relations with the Middle East was their division in enemies and friends (equal diplomacy), this way upkeeping the freedom of actions in the foreign policy.

The start of the civil Syrian war has determined Moscow to be more active in the region, given that there it was the only naval base the Russians had in the Mediterranean Sea. Hence, Russia has blocked any resolution project of UN’s CS against the Syrian regime, and the military support offered in a decisive moment allowed the continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The different perspectives regarding Syria’s future has provoked the deterioration of the Russian-American bilateral relations, however Putin has taken advantage of the fact that the Obama Administration did not shape a coherent strategy regarding the Syrian issue.

Moscow is less interested if the Assad regime respects human rights when it comes to defending Russia's security interests in the Mediterranean region. Putin seeks to keep Russian positions in Syria that allow Moscow to have a permanent presence in the Mediterranean. This is an essential element in Russia’s reaffirmation process, given that projecting influence outside the borders (in different ways, including the military one) is part of the legitimization panoply of big power’s status.

There would be another explanation for the great interest the Russians have in the Syrian file comparing to the interest for the West: the different perspective over the extremism/terrorism threat. Russia is mostly neighboring Muslim states, and at the Caucasus and Central Asia periphery are living around 10 million Muslims. It is better for the Islamists to be defeated outside the national borders, than inside.  

Despite other arguments/counter-arguments regarding the interests Moscow has by being present in Syria, there is one sure thing: Syria is the hub that gives Kremlin the possibility to project its influence throughout MENA region and beyond, as well as to assume the great power status and referee in the area files.  

US’s reaction

"The US will not allow Russia to be the main player in the Middle East as long as President Donald Trump is in power" said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked whether he was worried about the collaboration increasingly intense Russia in the Middle East with the US partners, especially regarding the relation with Saudi Arabia in the field of oil.

"The partnership ties we have built in the Middle East are strong and solid; sometimes we have even been criticized for this. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, countries we have worked with, are all important bases for ensuring Americans’ protection against dangers coming from Middle East”, has underlined Pompeo.

Clear, unequivocally statements, formulated by the US official, but are they a turning point in the US foreign policy in the region? And, if so, after President Obama's hesitations and President Trump 's diplomatic mistakes, after the pullout announcement of the US troops from Syria and the inconclusive results of the US security adviser John Bolton's and Pompeo State Secretary tours in countries in the region, how credible would these be and what would be the chances for the already induced uncertainty situation to be taken down?

Isn’t it too late?

It is somehow premature to talk about a direct military confrontation between Russia and the US in this matter; we can mostly talk about confrontations through third states. On the other hand, Russia’s positioning as auspicious actor in the region is offering it an important advantage in the dialogue with the West. This position is strengthened also by the tactical alliance it has with Iran, Turkey’s neutralization, the multiplication of partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and even Israel, including the involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian file. Certainly, Barack Obama will be remembered as the president which made US lose the initiative in the Middle East.

Whether Russia's actions in OMNA are opportunistic, short-term, or part of an articulated strategy of expansion and consolidation of influence in the region and what would be the consequences of such an evolution… it remains to be seen!