Russia's Plan for the Middle East

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

Therefore, contrary to the popular opinion that Russia will interfere on the side of Iran, Moscow will most probably take a neutral stance—despite its strong language condemning Saudi Arabia’s killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. But what worries Russia is that a crisis would push Moscow and Washington to make bold moves in the region—one area where coordination between the two capitals is unlikely and the consequences may therefore be dangerous. Besides, if focus moves to the Sunni-Shia nature of the regional conflict, there’s a real risk that ISIS could have a respite from the pain it has recently felt, if not a chance at rebirth as a quasi-state with a violent and populist ideology. With the news that Daesh has obtained surface-to-air missile technology capable of downing civil and military aircraft, fighting the Islamic State becomes even more of a challenge for both Russia and the United States.

On a bilateral level, Iran will remain an essential counterpart for Moscow in the war in Syria and the post-war settlement, even though the two states’ interests are not identical. Neither do they completely share interests elsewhere in the Middle East, so their cooperation will continue to be substantial but limited to issues of security. Moscow and Tehran continue to be compelled adversaries and pragmatic allies. Should Iran be relieved from the U.S. sanctions regime over the course of the year, and pursue a more robust policy on the energy market, their relations in 2016 will be marked by more adversity than friendship.

Russia’s relations with Turkey will most likely deteriorate further, and could indeed become a major spoiler to a U.S.-Russia settlement on Syria. The initial round public outrage after the downing of the Russian plane, another “thunderhead,” died down eventually.  But in the Kremlin, it continued to dominate Moscow’s policy vis-à-vis Ankara. In part, this has to do with the genuine feeling of personal betrayal that the Russian president experienced from the shoot-down, which grew—rightly or wrongly—into an understanding that the current Turkish government is inclined to provocative policies. Turkey, for its part, turned out to be the only player that voiced its disagreement with Russia’s actions through open hostilities of its own. The feeling of resentment, mixed with wounded vanity and a (quite legitimate) sense of insecurity, could drive Ankara toward more aggressive posturing and militarized unilateral actions in its own near abroad. Russia will act on this perception in dealing with Turkey from now on.

Moscow will most likely try to restore its ties with Egypt, a country for which it has had special intentions as a regional partner since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Relations with Egypt cooled off after the explosion of the Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula. Since Moscow and Cairo disagreed over the nature of the accident, with the Egyptians insisting it was not a terrorist attack, Moscow unilaterally suspended Russian tourism to the country and halted what had been a fast-developing economic and military partnership. Nevertheless, Egypt remains an important regional player on Russia’s radar screen, and Moscow hopes to win Egyptian support for its initiatives in the region. Above all, it fits into another major goal for Russia’s Middle East diplomacy in the upcoming year: restoring its image among the region’s Sunni states. Perception of Russia as pro-Shia has become rampant in the region since the start of its campaign in Syria. This has seriously limited many policy options for Moscow, and the Kremlin feels a need to reverse the trend. Soft power projection will consequently become an important facet of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East.

Israel may be another topic for Moscow to cautiously explore in 2016. The Israeli-Palestinian talks have become increasingly dysfunctional over the past year; should Moscow feel it has ideas for nudging them along, and senses support for such a nudge, it may become more active diplomatically. But Moscow views Israel in a broader context—as a country with serious military and intelligence capabilities. It will most likely work with the Israelis across a wide range of the regional security agenda, mainly over cooperation on Sunni radical groups and a Syrian peace settlement, while keeping its contacts relatively low-profile.

At the end of 2015, the Kremlin forecasted and feared that 2016 would bring further political crises in Yemen, Lebanon, Libya and Iraq. Now, with Saudi-Iranian tensions worsening across the Middle East, this scenario seems much more certain. For its part, Moscow will continue to promote its grand vision for the Middle East as a region with a coherent security structure, which would let it cope with its own internal challenges and keep threats from bubbling up from the region, including into Central Asia and the Caucasus. The contours of the current conflict patterns in the region make this vision much harder to promote, let alone implement.

The Russian operation in Syria clearly stretches far beyond its regional goals and has much to do with setting the boundaries of what the Kremlin considers a struggle to shape the world order. However, as 2015’s three months of intensive Russian action in the Middle East revealed, Moscow often misses the global forest for the trees.