John E. Herbst is director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Ambassador Herbst served for 31 years as a Foreign Service officer in the U.S. Department of State; his posts, among others, included Jerusalem, Moscow, Tel Aviv, and Saudi Arabia. This article has been published in collaboration with the Atlantic Council. All views expressed are solely those of the author.
Last year’s military intervention in Syria appears to have paid off for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has bolstered the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, demonstrated his importance to Iran, and enhanced Russian prestige and relations with the other major powers of the region. In the process, Putin has made the United States seem ineffective, if not irrelevant. Yet Russia’s new role as a power broker in the Middle East is far from assured.
Since the Soviet Union emerged as a major player in the Middle East in the 1950s, Moscow’s policy has been based on close relations with major Arab regimes -- first Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, then Syria and Iraq. Moscow lost influence over Egypt when President Anwar Sadat pivoted his country toward the United States following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and later Iraq when dictator Saddam Hussein isolated himself and his country by invading Kuwait in 1990, provoking the Persian Gulf War. That left Moscow with the Assad regime in Syria -- that regime remained a faithful client of the Kremlin even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
The Syrian crisis set the stage for Moscow’s return as a major power in the Middle East. Moscow’s stance is that the Assad regime is the legitimate government of Syria, and that any efforts to replace it would only lead to chaos or to a victory for Islamic extremists. More importantly, the Kremlin has provided increasing military and diplomatic assistance to help Assad keep his opponents at bay. Moscow’s key interest was to maintain a faithful ally, in addition to the naval base at Tartus that has been under its control for decades.
By working to keep Assad in power, Moscow also wanted to demonstrate that it could stop the spread of the so-called color revolutions. The Kremlin views the overthrow of friendly authoritarian leaders in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine as coups directed by the West against rulers who are friendly to Russia. When the 2011 Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East, Moscow believed that once again Western governments were seeking regime change. In particular, Russia bitterly criticized the 2011 NATO operation in Libya, which it permitted by abstaining from rather than vetoing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing a no-fly zone in the country. This military action ultimately led to the ousting and execution of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The Kremlin is determined that there be no repeat in Syria.
Moscow’s staunch but agile support for Assad has earned Russia two large opportunities to burnish its prestige. The first came in 2013 when Assad crossed President Barack Obama’s redline and used chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition. As it became clear that Obama would not take action, the Kremlin deftly offered him an out by brokering a deal in which Assad would give up his chemical weapons in exchange for Washington not striking the Syrian regime.
The second instance came as Assad’s position visibly weakened in 2015. Despite significant Russian and Iranian military supplies, and the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Assad regime was giving up more and more territory to its opponents through the summer of 2015. This prompted the Kremlin to double down on its intervention with a massive air campaign that September.
Here too Moscow played skillfully off of U.S. policy, which was running an increasingly effective military campaign -- a combination of air with some special forces -- against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While the United States was preventing ISIS from making additional gains against the Assad government, Moscow directed its military efforts against the weaker, more moderate Syrian opposition groups backed by the West. In late December 2015 Russia began to employ saturation bombing -- as it did successfully to end the Second Chechen War -- in support of Assad’s ground forces and their efforts to take back the southern city of al-Shaykh Maskin. They used the same tactics the following February to take Rabiya in the center of the country, and since the spring to take back the approaches to Aleppo in the northwest. All of this fed the perception that Moscow’s role was a decisive one, again making Putin’s Russia appear like the pre-eminent outside power in the region.
The Kremlin’s support for Assad also enhanced its relationship with Iran -- a relationship that had been strained due to Moscow’s decision to join the West in pressuring Tehran to curb its nuclear program. But Russia also made a tactical error when it publicized that it was conducting some Syrian air operations from an air base in Iran, which led Tehran to announce that Russian forces would no longer have access to its bases.
Moscow’s decisive action in Syria has also grown its reputation with the major Arab governments. This is natural in the case of Baghdad and even Cairo, which do not want to see Assad fall to Islamic extremists, but in Saudi Arabia the reasoning is more complicated. Russia’s strong support for Assad directly contradicts Saudi efforts to bring down the regime in Damascus, and Riyadh is also deeply suspicious of Moscow’s close relations with its rival Iran. But Saudi rulers are even more frustrated with their traditional ally in Washington. While Riyadh and Washington back some of the same opposition groups in Syria, Riyadh supports some extreme Salafist groups that the United States cannot countenance, and Washington has been focused more on reducing ISIS’s presence in Syria than on removing Assad from power. So Saudi officials and commentators readily discuss Moscow’s effective support for its ally in Syria in order to goad the United States into stronger action against Assad.
Putin has also been a beneficiary of the difficult personal relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resulting principally from differences over the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Like King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu is happy to reach out to Putin -- despite Moscow’s close relations with Tehran.
Russia’s newfound prestige depends on keeping a still fragile Assad regime in power. This may prove a weak reed over time, however, to keep Russia’s success and influence in the region steady.