Russia's Plan for the Middle East

After an explosive 2015, Moscow looks to the year ahead.

In 2015, Moscow set an important precedent for its foreign policy when it decided to launch a large-scale operation outside of what it considers Russia’s “backyard.”

Moscow’s activity in the Middle East has been on the rise in recent years, but its decision in late September and early October to strike in Syria came as a shock to many. The Kremlin used its air and missile operations—carried out with sophisticated weaponry and in an impressive manner—to demonstrate that Russia is a modern military superpower with a global reach.

Whether Russian covert operations for Assad’s army or the 5,240-plus mission flights it has launched—including 145 flyouts of strategic missile-carrying and long-range bomber aviation—were game changers on the ground is still an issue that is debated even within the Russian expert community. Nevertheless, Moscow’s coordinated efforts with regional governments, as well as targeted strikes on key assets of terrorist and rebel groups, accomplished two politically important objectives for Moscow.

First, they pushed all the interested players to deal with the Kremlin, which can no longer be treated as “isolated.” Some, such as the Gulf states and Syrian opposition groups, criticize Moscow sharply in public but continue to work behind the scenes through multiple channels. This trend will likely continue to develop as Saudi Arabia becomes one of Moscow’s major Gulf negotiating partners. Others, like the Obama administration, while continuing to disagree on President Bashar al-Assad’s role in the Syrian conflict, have cooperated with the Kremlin on technical issues and matters of mutual security. For instance, even though a confrontational spirit still dominates the relationship, Moscow and Washington are now actively involved in sorting out the groups that should be blacklisted as terrorist from those that can become a part of a future political process in Syria.

Second, Moscow’s actions have managed to shift some Western elites’ perception of Assad, especially when contrasted with the rapidly growing threat of the Islamic State. While the Paris atrocities and the shootings in California helped make ISIS the primary concern, Moscow’s military operations in Syria firmly positioned the Kremlin as a leader in the anti-ISIS campaign. It has become clear that including Russia is far more profitable, both politically and operationally, than marginalizing it.

All of those developments, however, must be sustained. Given that there are about 150 groups currently on the ground in the Syrian crisis—and the different amounts of leverage that Moscow, Washington, Riyadh, Doha and Tehran have with their respective proxies—practical implementation of a political transition may be impossible. Nonetheless, Moscow’s intent to bring the conflict into the political realm as soon as possible seems real and understandable; carrying it out militarily is a politically costly and demanding enterprise, especially when acting alone.

Rhetoric aside, Tehran and Baghdad are tactical partners; few seriously believe they would be willing to help shoulder whatever burden the Russians bring to Syria. Moreover, in his annual question-and-answer session, President Vladimir Putin expressed doubts that Russia needs a full-fledged military base in Syria. Reading between the lines, this means that Moscow is not willing to make long-term security commitments in Syria—at least without clear gains of its own. Nor does it want to get bogged down in regional spats, although the situation Russia now finds itself in suggests quite the opposite.

Moscow is not looking for a face-saving exit strategy at this point, but rather one that would allow it to emerge victorious. The Kremlin is likeliest to pursue a Syrian political transition in which Moscow has an equal say with Washington, and its ideas are well-heard and implemented. If the current level of limited cooperation continues between Moscow and Washington, and if the Kremlin doesn’t see any factors threatening to unbalance its accomplishments—such as foreign ground troops—Russia will likely become more cooperative, including on issues regarding Assad’s departure.

The turbulent nature of the conflict and the region in general, however, leaves plenty of room for “thunderheads”—uncalculated risks and unexpected developments in the region or elsewhere that can complicate Russia’s strategy. The spiraling confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia is an example. Most of those who advise the Kremlin on the Middle East believe that the ongoing spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fundamentally a bitter regional political rivalry which is reinforced by the ideological divide between Sunnis and Shia, not the other way around. The rupture of diplomatic ties merely institutionalized the mutual non-admittance and antagonism that has long found expression in proxy wars across the region.