Russia’s Involvement in Syria and the Middle East
A Review of Dmitri Trenin’s, What Is Russia Up to in the Middle East?
By: THO Contributor Baha Erbas
As Russia increased its involvement in Syria on the side of Assad, it changed the dynamics of the Syrian civil war and had effects on the Middle East as a whole. With intriguing detail, perhaps too cursory on internal Syrian politics, the scholar Dmitri Trenin, has written a new book chronicling the history which led to that involvement, What Is Russia Up to in the Middle East? He has an intimate knowledge of Russian policy being a former officer in the Russian Army now in charge of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Over the last twenty years since Putin came to power, Russia has tried to regain its prestige as a world power that it lost after the end of the Cold War. Like its neighbor Turkey, itself becoming a greater presence in the Middle East, Russia wished to overturn the assertive hegemony of the US in the region which had escalated since the Gulf Wars. The main impetus, Trenin tells us, resulted from the intervention of the US, flouting UN injunctions, in its client Libya 2011 that brought in regime change and it destructive aftermath.
It was a time of Arab Spring, of much concern to Russia with its own Muslim population and its memories of the bloody conflux in Chechnya, the resolution of which, after much carnage on both sides, Putin boasts as his supreme achievement.
As Russia became more influential in the Middle East, it was able as an equal to force the US into cooperation after 2013 to use its aid to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The US has had to deal with Russia in a different way from the past. Russia, according to Trenin, wants to use its ability to negotiate between rival factions in the Middle East and beyond, even between the Israelis and Palestinians, a conflict of prime interest t to the US there.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria from 2015 onwards Trenin believes is technically precise and limited, avoiding the disastrous effects of its failed operations in the Afghan War.
Russia has even managed to strike deals with the United States over engagements in the area when it is to its advantage, including the fight against ISIS and dealings with Iran and the Kurds. Trenin makes clear that Russia has gone from being a Communist rival to being a country proud of its “historical roots” and part of the international and indeed capitalist community, albeit still struggling to assert itself against more powerful interests in the West but willing to make “deals,” to cooperate diplomatically on specific issues such as terrorism with the US, Turkey and the EU.
In investigating Russia’s expansionist maneuvers in its past, he notes that its pressure on Turkey after the Second World War drove Turkey into the arms of the West during the Cold War. There was a long history of rivalry between the two neighbors going back to the Ottoman Empire. But after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015, Moscow’s pressure, primarily economic not military as might have been expected, brought Turkey to: change course and cooperate with Russia. Though much to Russia’s advantage, including the US-defying sale of military technology to Turkey, it also enabled Turkey to instigate its protective invasion of northern Syria without initial Russian interference.
In the whole Middle East, Russia not only relies upon its military strength and its arms sales but its economic and cultural soft power to spread its influence. Even geo-political concerns fade to the massive importance of trade to Russia, from oil and gas, nuclear power, pipelines and other help with infrastructure projects in the region. The revival of Orthodox Christianity in Russia has also brought a revived interest in the holy places in Israel. Russians visit the region on vacation with similar visitors from Middle Eastern citizens to Russia. The Muslims in Russia continue to be affected by happenings in the Middle East. All these works to increase Russia’s influence and presence.
After the end of Cold War reinserting Russia slowly increased its influence in geo-politics in a world where the US, its Cold-War rival set back, had asserted its hegemony in the Middle East and the world. According to Trenin, Russia’s main thrust is to unseat the hegemony of the US in the region and replace it with an international cooperative milieu in which Russia is a leading voice and force the US to recognize its “resorted global status.”: