Luigi Narbone Director, Middle East Directions Programme, RSCAS
Nowadays, it is widely perceived that Russia can succeed where the West has failed and that it can stabilise the Middle East and North Africa through some kind of pax russica. In less than two years, a mix of decisive actions, unwavering and often ruthless use of military power, as well as bold political-diplomatic manoeuvring have given Moscow new prominence. Russia has managed to regain, at least in part, its role as a powerful interlocutor, which it lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the process, it has fostered relationships with key countries in the region and closed lucrative arms sales deals.
In Syria, Russia’s air support to Al Assad’s forces has rescued the regime from a likely collapse. It has dramatically changed the balance of power between forces on the ground, permitting a series of military advances that have been epitomised by the regime’s re-conquest of Aleppo in December 2016. The moderate opposition has been destroyed in the process.
Russia’s direct military intervention, which has entailed joining forces with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah providing determining support to Al-Assad’s forces on the ground, has accelerated an ongoing re-alignment of the regional powers involved in the conflict. The Gulf countries have disengaged and Turkey has dropped its demand that Assad should go, to align with the new Russian-Iranian axis. While the three countries certainly pursue diverging strategic objectives, this alliance of convenience has rendered them determinant for the future of the conflict.
After the fall of Aleppo, Russia, alongside Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran, has intensified its diplomatic efforts to broker a cessation of hostilities between warring parties. Together with Turkey, Russia sponsored the Astana Conference in January. Invitations to this meeting reflected the new balance of forces after the Aleppo battle, as shown by the choice of non-jihadist military actors called to the talks with the regime’s representatives. While no face-to-face negotiation took place, the warring sides have pledged to consolidate the ceasefire and to resume a political process in Geneva, which is due to start on 23 February. This will necessarily be based on Russia’s views on Syria’s future. The US, already passive on the Syrian file and paralysed by the electoral process, and the EU, incapable of playing a military role, have been mere bystanders.
Russia may indeed want to end the conflict and contribute to stabilising Syria, as this would help it to solidify strategic gains in the country and beyond. Yet, many uncertainties stand in the way. The Astana conference has deepened the divisions between rebel armed groups in Syria, which may well lead to some of them being radicalised further. Russia is facing difficulties in keeping the forces of Al-Assad and Hezbollah in check, as the continuing ceasefire violations show. Besides, the long-term durability of the troika, formed with Turkey and Iran, may soon be put to the test, especially now that Trump’s wild card will play its hand. Ankara is obviously nervous about Russia’s plans regarding Kurdish autonomy in day after-Syria, and has reacted lukewarmly to Trump’s proposal to establish safe zones. Russia and Iran continue to have strategic and tactical differences. Tensions between Iran and the new US administration are already on the rise. Should the announced US-Russia rapprochement materialise, for how long can the Russia-Iran entente last?
Russia’s activism has also begun to pay dividends in Libya. Russia chose to put its weight behind General Haftar and Al-Bayda government’s camp, providing much advertised economic and military support. Moscow’s backing has allowed Haftar to consolidate his image as an indispensable party into any workable political agreement. But it has also been a way for Moscow to increase its profile as a power-broker in the Libyan stalemate. Such investment may have important returns in terms of political influence, geo-strategic and economic gains if Libya stabilises.
But Moscow’s efforts have not been limited to countries at war. The relationship with Egypt has been strengthened by Putin’s unconditional support towards President Sisi and arms deals. With Israel, Russia has tried to underline common interests and reinforce the existing partnership. Despite the major tensions that occurred in 2011-2015, especially over Syria, Moscow is now privileging pragmatic exchanges even with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This has yielded some results, as shown by the agreement on oil production cuts.
Moscow had set objectives and, so far, seems to have achieved them. In the face of poor economic performance and perceived Western aggressiveness in Ukraine and ‘the near abroad’, President Putin needed to counter political discontent at home.. His come-back in the MENA region has helped him to galvanise popular support for the die-hard image of a strong, nationalist Russia that is capable of projecting its power in a key strategic region.
Russia has managed to take advantage of the post-2011 chaos and transform it into opportunities. While the US was almost absent and the EU was incapable of assuming a more effective political and diplomatic role, Russia has revamped its historical presence in Syria, and expanded its naval base in Tartus, which is its only one in the Mediterranean Sea. It has expanded its influence in the broader Middle East, and set the bases of what could become a new security order in the region. This has largely been inspired by the objective to fight radicalisation and jihadism at Russia’s borders, as well as among its large Muslim populations in southern regions.
So far, Moscow’s policy has mostly been based on supporting strongmen, making deals with authoritarian countries, defending existing state structures and borders and striving to recreate stability and a (favourable) regional order. However, despite the apparent successes that it has produced in the short-run it is unlikely to truly stabilise the MENA region in the long term. Russia lacks the economic means and the political will that are required by sustainable conflict resolution and durable stabilisation. If it does not tackle the root-causes of violence and instability – like the weakening of states and their incapacity to ensure political inclusion, services, security and development to their citizens or the sectarianisation of political conflicts – any attempt to stabilise the region is doomed to fail in the long-run. Unaddressed issues will inevitably cause new crises, making the idea of a Pax Russica illusory.
An edited version of Luigi Narbone’s editorial can be read on The Conversation Website.