Spotlight West Asia

Russia: The New and Unexpected Power Broker in West Asia

16 Aug, 2016    ·   5102

Amb (Retd) Ranjit Gupta considers how Russia will now play the pivotal role in how the strategic landscape of West Asia will be determined

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow

In sharp contrast to the Soviet Union, post-Cold War Russia, completely preoccupied with rebuilding domestically both in the economic and political domains, was determined to establish a good relationship with the US and disinclined to challenge US policies and presence even in Europe, let alone in West Asia or other parts of the world, until well into the Putin era. In fact, in its first decade as the new Russian Federation, its role and relevance in West Asia reached a post-World War II low. But as a proud nation and one of two erstwhile global superpowers, Russia had no intentions of remaining a nonentity in global geopolitics. Its veto power in the UN Security Council ensured that it could not be entirely disregarded while it bided time patiently.

The manner of US' dismantling of the Taliban regime and later that of Saddam Hussein following the unilateral US invasion and occupation of these countries, exacerbated the radicalisation of increasing proportions of the populations of Islamic countries on the one hand and contributed to significantly exacerbating sectarian tensions within Islamic societies on the other. Ultimately, the consequences of these particular US policies, and those of Turkey and Saudi Arabia too,finally opened the door for the now hyper-nationalist Putin-governed Russia to make a dramatic re-entry and emerge as the new and unexpected power broker in West Asia. History is more often than not an account of unexpected and unintended consequences of events and policies, the significance of which emerges only in hindsight.

The Saudi-Iran standoff in West Asia has never been as bitter and hostile as today. The wars in Syria and Yemen are essentially proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional supremacy. Syria has been Iran’s foremost ally ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. An internal NATO draft report entitled ‘Regional and Global Implications of the Syrian Civil War: What Role for NATO? (August 2014) had characterised the war thus: “The struggle for the future of the Middle East is being played out in Syria. The Syrian conflict has transformed over the last four years from a local to a regional to a global conflict.”

Russia’s longest-standing relationship in West Asia is with Syria, having begun in the mid-1950s with arms supplies. President Hafez Assad elevated it to a strategic alliance by granting the Soviet Union a naval base at Tartous. His son and successor, President Bashar al-Assad, consciously maintained this alliance even as Russian power and standing was in precipitous decline. As the war in Syria got fully under way, Russia adopted a dual track approach: to help Assad meet the military challenge of a particularly formidable coalition, apart from continuing to supply modern weaponry in ever increasing quantities, Russia (along with China) vetoed punitive Resolutions on Syria in the UN Security Council four times; given what Western countries did in Libya these Russian actions provided an essential lifeline for the survival of the Assad regime. But from the beginning, Russia also consistently supported efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Syria and talks under the auspices of the UN. After the use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013 and Obama resiling from his previously publicly announced commitment to take punitive action against the regime in Syria if such an event occurred, a Russian diplomatic initiative resulted in the peaceful dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, sending out a clear message that supposedly intractable problems can be resolved peacefully.

Obama had voted against Bush's war in Iraq; despite increasing domestic criticism and from longstanding allies in West Asia, as President, Obama steadfastly refused to permit significant US involvement in new wars and conflicts in Arab and Muslim countries. Obama also abandoned long-standing US demonisation and marginalisation of Iran, reaching a historic nuclear deal with it in a negotiating process in which Russia was proactively involved. Iran is now poised to play a leading and significant role in West Asia and Russia’s strong relationship with Iran becomes another strengthening factor in enhancing Russia's future role in West Asia. Long-standing US regional Sunni allies regard Obama's policies as treacherous betrayal. However, rather perversely, the net effect of Obama’s well-intentioned policies has been that US ability to influence ground realities and its prestige and standing in West Asia are today at a historic low.
Taking the fullest advantage of these new ground realities in end September 2015, Russia took the world by surprise by robust military involvement in Syria, its first ever direct combat involvement in West Asia, to prevent any possibility of the Assad regime being defeated. The existing naval base at Tartous was strengthened and a new state-of-the-art airbase was established at Hmeymim near Latakia and the Turkish border. Russian military involvement has transformed the war decisively in favour of Assad and he cannot now be defeated militarily; at the same time, Assad cannot remain in power without continuing Russian (and Iranian) support. Meanwhile, given the many high profile, high casualty Islamic State (IS) terrorist attacks in Western countries, defeating the IS has acquired far higher priority for the West than Assad’s removal. Russia is now also conducting increasing and particularly effective airstrikes against the IS too. Earlier this month, Syria and Russia agreed to make the Hmeymim facility a permanent fully-operational, full-fledged military base equipped with vast advanced weaponry, clearly indicating Russia's intentions to remain substantively involved in West Asia in a major way for the long-term.
Russia will now be playing the pivotal role in how the future evolves in Syria; indeed in how the strategic landscape of West Asia will be determined.
Russia is being courted by the region’s most powerful and prominent countries: Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. President Sisi has has paid three visits to Russia since he became president. The two countries have signed a US$3.5 bn arms deal. Russia will construct Egypt’s first nuclear power plant; Sisi publicly expressed full support for Russian intervention in Syria when it began. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also commended Moscow's efforts in Syria while making his third visit to Russia since Russia began its military intervention in Syria. Despite being a NATO member and an aspirant for EU membership, Turkey's relationship with the US and the EU is in tatters, at least for the immediate future. It was no surprise that Erdogan’s first post-coup visit abroad was to Russia and a re-establishment of the past very robust economic relationship has been agreed upon. In a significant policy U-turn, Turkey is likely to also abandon its ‘regime change’ project and leave Assad’s fate to future internationally monitored elections and a new commitment to be a fully proactive participant in the war against the IS. However, none of these three countries intends to abandon their traditionally strong bilateral security relationships with the US while fully accepting strong Russian involvement in West Asia. US Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Moscow four times in the past year and met his counterpart Sergey Lavrov a dozen times at various multilateral fora to coordinate their common war against the IS and al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia’s role is now widely regarded as being constructive and helpful rather than destabilising. Despite serious differences particularly in relation to Syria, even Saudi dignitaries have been visiting Moscow: the powerful Deputy Crown Prince and Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman in June 2015 and Foreign Minister in August 2015 while King Salman and President Putin met on the margins of the G20 Summit in Antalya in February 2016. They are in a continuing dialogue over oil production levels and pricing issues. Russia has never enjoyed such standing and leverage in West Asia in the past.