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Russia plans long-term Mideast presence via Syria

Analysts say Moscow’s move was about protecting its interests rather than spreading Cold War ideology

Image Credit: AFP
A May 5, 2016 file photo of Russian army soldiers patrol the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.
Gulf News

Dubai: Russia has been witnessing a resurgence of its influence in the Middle East, since the emergence of President Vladimir Putin as a political leader.

According to some analysts, Moscow is taking advantage of the “confusion” that prevails in some of the Western countries to flex its muscles and to build a “long-term and stronger presence in the Arab region with Syria as its pivot”. They compared the Kremlin’s approach to the Middle East with that of the Western perspective after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, a Rand research paper published recently revealed that Moscow’s strategy in the Arab region is a short-term strategy and that the Middle East only uses “Russia as an alternative to the West”, according to Rand, an American think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

However, some political experts said the Russian plans - as published by Rand — in the Middle East are not a reaction to Western policies, but rather to protect its own interests in the region and abroad.

“Syria was the only left foot for Russia (in the region)”, said Norhan Al Shaikh, a political scientist at Cairo University who speaks fluent Russian.

Moscow has military and economic interests in the region, and it looks at the “withdrawn American policy (in some issues in the region) as a great opportunity to seize and protect its interests,” she said.

“There is a great confusion in the American decision making process because of internal factors. In all crises (around the world), we do not know whom the Americans are with and whom they are against. The Europeans are even more confused than the US because of Brexit and other internal issues,” Al Shaikh, whose PhD dissertation was on Russia, told Gulf News.

Moreover, the increasing Russian economic and military presence in the Middle East, with Syria its centre, is not about competing with the West.

“The issue is not related to ideology and not aimed at spreading Communism. The Cold War mentality does not exist anymore,” Al Shaikh said.

Russia wants to be visibly present in the region purely to protect its interests, another political analyst emphasised.

What is seen as an American withdrawal from some issues related to the Middle East “is not the reason for the Russian involvement”, said Professor Nikolay Kozhanov, an Academy fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and an independent policy institute based in London.

“Yet, it (American withdrawal) definitely helps Russia to be among the major players in the Middle East. America left an empty space and Russia is now filling this empty space. … Russia does not match the capacity of the US, the economic and the political capacity. So what Moscow wants is just protecting its national interest”, added Kozhanov, who is also a senior lecturer at the European university in St. Petersburg in Russia, in an interview with Gulf News.

Russia’s interest in the Middle East began more than a decade earlier, when Putin visited Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Iran and the UAE between 2005 and 2007.

The Rand research paper states that “eight years after the United States toppled Saddam Hussain’s regime in Iraq, and with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad facing a countrywide rebellion, Russia decided that it would draw a line in Syria, where its interests were clear and outstanding”.

By September 2015, Moscow started its significant military intervention in Syria in support of the Al Assad regime.

“Even if Moscow is not wedded to the continued rule of [Al] Assad, as some Russians claim, it is committed to the Syrian government under the present regime or a continuity regime,” wrote the Rand researchers in their paper titled Russian Strategy in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, both Russia and Syria signed two important agreements. One of them included Hmeimim Airbase in southeast of Latakia, and it states in one of its articles that the “airbase and its infrastructure are provided for use by the Russian Federation without charge”.

The other military agreement provides an expansion of Russia’s Tartus naval base for 49 years that could automatically be renewed for another 25 years. Under the agreement, up to 11 warships can berth simultaneously. Some of the ships have the capacity of carrying nuclear weapons.

The strategy to have a strong and permanent presence in the Middle East is necessitated by several realities, the analysts said. High at the top of the list comes the need to have a “safe and guaranteed” access from the Black Sea, where Russia has a major military fleet, to the Mediterranean waters. This became more important after annexing Crimea. It is also considered a matter of a “national security”, according to Al Shaikh.

Moreover, Russia, which is one of the major oil and gas producers in the globe, seeks to have “friendship” or “partnership” with any venture that carries oil or gas from central Asia to other parts of the world, according to some analysts.

However, Kozhanov said the Kremlin is looking at the Middle East because the region “offers quiet a number of opportunities for Russia to counter balance and compensate its losses that Russia suffered from the conflict with the US and Europe over Ukraine. …. Russia is extremely interested in countering any attempts of the West to create anti-Russian camp in the Middle East, or isolate Russia”.

In the light of Western economic sanctions on Russia, the Middle East, including Turkey and Iran, offers Russia many advantages. Arab investments oil the Russian economy, while Middle Eastern fruits, vegetables and dairy products are filling the void left by European agricultural producers.

“Moscow also has problem with access to Western modern technologies. It cannot directly buy some of them from Europe and the US. As a result, it tries to make use of the loopholes in the sanctions regime and obtain them through the Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, for example,” Kozhanov said.

The close partnership between Russia and the Arab nations came about due to Putin’s vision to “create a multi-polar world, where Russia will be increasing its contacts with non-Western countries including those of the Middle East,” Kozhanov said.

To many Russian political scientists, Moscow also wants to deal with the security challenges imposed by the “rise of the radical jihadist movements in the Middle East”.

In its research paper, Rand estimates that around 3,200 Russian nationals have travelled either to Syria or Iraq since 2014. The foreign returnees and those radicalised Russians by Daesh do raise concerns in Moscow, the Rand paper says.

However, it is yet to be seen if Russian intervention in Syria will make Moscow more or less involved in other areas, such as Libya, the paper said.

Many of the Middle Eastern countries that are critical of Washington’s lack of action in troubling and lingering issues, such as the Syrian civil war, use “political and economic deals with Russia as a mean of signalling to the US that they have other options”, the paper adds.

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