Why America Has Misdiagnosed Russia’s Role in Syria

May 27, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: SyriaRussiaPoliticsMiddle EastVladimir Putin

Why America Has Misdiagnosed Russia’s Role in Syria

Washingtons reading of the political map of the Middle East is fraught with erroneous assumptions similar to those that predicted the collapse of the Syrian regime during the initial months of the Syrian rebellion.

A recent flurry of reports and statements involving Russian foreign policy in Syria and fallout among the pillars of the Syrian regime reflected a Russian “malignant engagement” in the region, an American desire to make Syria a “quagmire for the Russians,” and a Russian inclination to “dispose of its infamous client [Bashar al-Assad].” This reading of the political map of the Middle East and Russian policy in Syria is fraught with erroneous assumptions similar to those that predicted the collapse of the Syrian regime during the initial months of the Syrian rebellion. In much the same vein as I wrote on these pages in 2011 (“Damascus for Dummies” and “Why Assad Isn’t Worried about Obama,” these erroneous assumptions are the product of an abridged knowledge of the politics, history and culture of Syria coupled with a naïve understanding of Russian Middle East politics, which are making American foreign policy rests more on sophistry than on informed strategy.

In a revised article in the Washington Post, David Ignatius wrote that “Russia has been making steady progress in what State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus described as its “malign engagement” in the Middle East.” Ignatius, reaffirming the State Department’s view of the Kremlin using military power, proxies and disinformation to expand its influence across the Mediterranean, metaphorically emphasized Russian diplomacy as scavenger diplomacy feeding off the carcasses of broken Middle East states. James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria, in a video call with the Hudson Institute stated: “This isn't Afghanistan, this isn't Vietnam,” and added: “This isn't a quagmire. My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians.” Jeffrey is also known for his assertion that U.S. forces are to remain in Syria to ensure Iranian departure.  

Coterminous with these views, Jeremy Hodge, penned an article in the Daily Beast in which he argued that Russia is now inclined to dispose of its infamous client Assad, given his brutality and corruption that militates against establishing even the semblance of a functioning state. He supported his argument by citing several Russian media reports harshly criticizing Assad, published by Russia’s Federal News Agency, which is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhim, a businessman with close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Hodge highlighted key contentions gleaned from the three published articles, including an opinion poll claiming only 32 percent of Syrians would vote for Assad in the country’s upcoming 2021 presidential elections, and that Assad was chastised for personally failing to combat corruption at all levels of the state. Significantly, Hodge pointed out that the article on corruption suggests that the Assads are not the only powerful family in Syria and that there are also the Makhloufs.

Hodge makes the connection that Syria’s infamous businessman Rami Makhlouf’s fallout with his cousin Asad constitutes further evidence that Russia is considering options other than Assad to rule Syria, and by extension, pursuing policies against Iran. Asad has been slowly but steadily clamping down on Makhlouf’s business empire, which had been sanctioned by the regime but vilified by ordinary Syrians as the House of Mafia. Hodge claims that Makhlouf, considered until recently the wealthiest man in Syria, has strong ties to Russia and seemingly Russia’s man. He also claims that whereas the Makhlouf clan has thrown its lot with Russia, members of Assad’s family and other militia leaders in the Alawi stronghold of Qardaha are Iranian-backed. He adds that these militia leaders have regularly engaged in armed clashes against Russian backed units, let alone carrying out attacks on Russia’s Hmeimim military base, Moscow’s Military Headquarters in Syria. Of particular interest to Hodge and other reporters and analysts is Makhlouf’s release on the heel of Russian media reports on Assad of back to back videos on his personal Facebook page criticizing the Assad regime. This unprecedented public display of both disdain and criticism of the regime amounted to no less than a direct challenge to Assad’s rule.  

All of this led Hodge to conclude that Russia is turning against Assad and Iran to pave the way for the creation of a stable Syria, politically and safely suitable for investment, foreign aid and reconstruction projects.

No doubt, the painting of Russian policy in Syria and Syrian palace politics with the brushes of the U.S. State department and reporters like Hodge is alluring to the gullible eye; but it is catastrophic to the discerning eye. This does not mean that the State Department and Hodge are completely wrong in their description of Russian policy and the Syrian regime. They are, however, wrong in shaping an incomplete and inadequate picture of Russian and Syrian dynamics, potentially inviting another serious American foreign policy blunder.

The State Department is right in stating that Russia uses military power, proxies and disinformation to expand its influence. Yet it is quite wrong in confining Russian policy to the afore-mentioned dubious tools of foreign policy. The astute Ignatius is probably right in observing that America’s power is a waning force. Yet he is quite wrong to think that Russia is filling the void left by U.S. retreat in the Middle East through a scavenger policy.

Russia’s expansion of influence in the Middle East is the product of a policy combining multiple approaches. Broadly speaking, Russian involvement in the Middle East can be traced to Peter the Great. It took a geopolitical dimension when Tsarist Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean war. The 1774 Ottoman-Russian Kuchuk Kaynarja treaty foregrounded Moscow’s composite role in the Middle East as a great power player aspiring for geopolitical influence, ideological congruity under the pretext of opposing Western colonialism and hegemony, and religious indifference and/or tolerance in the name of respecting religious pluralism and supporting religious minorities, especially the Christian orthodox community.  This role that disappeared following the collapse of the Soviet Union resurfaced with a vindictive tone under Putin combining elements of geopolitics, great power ideological opposition to an American unipolar international system, and religious pluralism grounded in fighting radical Islamism and supporting religious minorities.

Essentially, Putin has pursued a policy strengthening Russia’s credibility without being beholden to exclusive regional alliances. Russia’s ability to expand its influence in many Middle East countries and simultaneously supporting conflicted parties lies in its readiness to speak to all parties and to try to serve as an intermediary at the right moment. As such, Russia’s partnerships or alliances in the Middle East are not part of a grand strategy or shaped by binary strategies. They are not Sunni vs Shi’a, Christian vs anti-Muslim, pro-Arab vs anti-Israel or pro-Iran vs anti-Iran. Similarly, Russia has been careful to project itself as a protector of religious minorities, while at the same time taking a definitive anti-jihadist stance. It also lubricates its policies by being in tune with the whims of Middle East authoritarianism and speaking the region’s languages.

Despite political and/or ideological differences with Middle East countries, Russia has negotiated economic, military and/or political agreements with Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, among others, while supporting the Assad regime and establishing military bases in Syria. It has negotiated the “Astana Process” with Turkey and Iran that established de-conflicting zones in Syria and concluded an agreement with Israel under which Moscow will prevent Hezbollah and Iran from establishing a military presence in southern Syria along Israel’s border in exchange for facilitating the return of Assad troops to southern Syria. Although political and military tensions have erupted within and next to the de-escalating conflict zones, especially in the provinces of Idlib along Turkey’s border and Dera’a along Israel border, Russia has tried to keep those tensions from escalating into wider armed conflicts. Similarly, even though it coordinates with Hezbollah and Iran to expand the power of the Assad regime, Russia has acted as a reliable intermediary between the Assad regime and Syria’s Kurds, Druzes, and Arab Sunnis. At the time of this writing, as tensions flares in the province of Dera’a where the Syrian rebellion began, Russia has acted as a reliable mediator between Arab Sunnis and the Assad regime

At the same time, Russia has made it clear to Hezbollah and Iran that their political and military cooperation in support of the Syrian regime does not translate turning Syria into an Iranian military satellite threatening regional peace. In fact, Russia has sanctioned Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah military positions deemed threatening to Israel’s national security. Conversely, Russia has made it clear to all actors that the regime’s stability is a red line. In this respect, one could safely argue that Russia’s policy in Syria is more in sync with that of Israel than with that of Iran in Syria. Both Russia and Israel are at one in seeing Syria becoming stable and posing no threat to regional peace.

It is against this background that the parochial views of the State Department and others crash on the rock of Russia’s unorthodox yet pragmatist policy in the Middle East. And to postulate that Russia is turning against Asad and, by extension, Iran is an illusory exercise.