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5 December, 2017 00:00 00 AM

Russian foreign policy in Middle East

Yuval Weber
Russian foreign policy in Middle East

American fatigue in the Middle East from 15 years of conflict and a genuine lack of clarity regarding U.S. power and purpose have created an opportunity for Russia to play a more active role in the region—its most active since the 1970s. The many drivers and uncertain outcomes of Russian involvement in the Middle East result from two primary factors: recognizing American shortcomings and the unique pressures faced by the United States’ clients unsure of the extent of support they might receive from U.S. President Donald Trump, a far less predictable patron than what they’ve known before. This opportunity has allowed Russia to utilize adroit diplomacy, few domestic constraints, and a greater tolerance for risk to apply enough coercive force in the war in Syria to become part of the political solution of the conflict.

It is still too soon to tell the ultimate impact of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but the consequences of that day continue to shape the political strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for local actors and great powers, especially Russia.

Then-President George W. Bush responded decisively against the perpetrators, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and their hosts, the Taliban government of Afghanistan, by ordering Special Forces and an air war to remove the latter and search for the former. Any U.S. president would have likely reacted in a roughly similar fashion, yet the decision by Bush to pursue a preventive war in Iraq a year and a half later proved highly contentious and contributed to a decline in American standing around the world and opposition at home regarding the human and financial costs of the war.

That opposition helped shape the candidacy of Barack Obama, both in the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, who had voted for the resolution authorizing force against Iraq but had later recanted that support, and in the general campaign against John McCain, who had also voted for the same resolution and generally supported a muscular foreign policy course.

When Obama won, his Middle East policy could be summarized as limiting further expansion of U.S. interests and commitments and seeking a nonproliferation deal with Iran to keep that state from obtaining a nuclear weapon and catalyzing a regional nuclear arms race. Reasoning that any nonproliferation deal would need not only international buy-in, but also support from Russia as the world’s other major nuclear power, Obama pursued the “Reset” policy not least to bring Russia into those negotiations.

Russia’s participation in the “P5+1” brought the country back into the Middle East, a region that has interested it since the 19th century when the Russian Empire expanded south towards the Persian and Ottoman Empires. Yet, quite frequently and for long periods of time during the Empire, the Soviet period, and in the current iteration of the Russian Federation, Russia has been a peripheral or inconsistent player in the region.

In September 2015, Vladimir Putin’s government responded to an official request for support by the Syrian government, an ally to the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation since 1971. Although the intervention into Syria appeared at the time to be a diversion from the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated considerable staying power there. The existential threats enveloping Assad’s rule emerged from several directions: rebels motivated by the anti-authoritarian Arab Spring movement and jihadists that had emerged from the anti-American insurgency in Iraq and had transformed themselves into a proto-state.

Russia’s foray into the fight grew in importance and effect from only airstrikes to the stationing of Russian forces in the country. Eventually, Russian forces defeated all the non-jihadist opposition to Assad through a division of labor where Russian air power and Spetsnaz (Special Forces) would lead the attacks and support the Syrian ground forces. The retaking of the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS represented a high point of the Russian campaign, and the destruction of the city of Aleppo by Russian air forces and its sacking by Syrian ground forces represented the last stands of non-jihadist opposition to Assad. Vladimir Putin’s support for Assad saved his client from military defeat and made Russia a key player in what appears to be the reshaping of the Middle East in a time of uncertain American interests and a burgeoning conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

There is no doubt that Russia has applied enough coercive force to shape the outcome of the war in Syria and the transnational fight against ISIS. This reality, unthinkable even two or three years ago, allows Russian policymakers to achieve their main goal: global recognition of their status as a great power.

The writer is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at

Harvard University


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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