Russia’s military intervention in Syria at the end of September 2015 undoubtedly strengthened and sustained the Bashar Al-Assad regime. For the first time since the height of the Cold War Russian military personnel were actively involved in the Middle East as a combatant force with significant political leverage to counterbalance the roles of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the Syrian conflict and thus the wider Middle East. This was made possible, in large part, by the near-invisible role of the United States in the region.
The Syrian uprising offered unexpected opportunities for realizing Russian objectives and interests in the Middle East. First and foremost was the perception that Russia was a global player on a par with the United States, which for Putin was an essential gain for his domestic audience. But there were also practical gains, including a military foothold in the Levant to circumvent the restrictions of the Turkish Straits, the ability to showcase Russian military hardware, and a say in the future political and economic reconstruction of Syria potentially worth billions of dollars.
It did not go unseen by observers that President Vladimir Putin’s decision to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict posed a dilemma with regard to Iran. Both the Iranian military and its powerful proxy group Hezbollah had been fighting in Syria since at least early 2013 in defense of the Syrian regime but despite all their efforts they had failed to make any significant breakthroughs and were themselves in retreat following some early gains.
Ostensibly, Russia’s participation was on the same side as Iran but the realities on the ground revealed otherwise. In November 2015 Putin met Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khaminei in a much publicized summit meeting to underscore the partnership between the two countries and also to present a united front against Western support for the Syrian opposition groups. Yet soon after the meeting the Iranian media and government leaks from Tehran noted the Iranian leadership’s distinct displeasure with Russia’s intervention in Syria. Prior to the Russian military intervention Iran held sway on the ground in Syria and led the military operations. The decision by the embattled Syrian president to invite the Russians was interpreted as a maneuver to counterbalance the increasingly dominant and, according to some sources in Syria, assertive Iranians.
The interpretation that Damascus had requested Moscow’s intervention to counter the Iranian presence appeared to have been justified by the docile Western and Israeli reactions, as indeed the latter directly cooperated and coordinated with Russia in a more than implicit endorsement of the Russian role. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Paris in late November 2015 to coordinate efforts after an initial meeting in September just before the start of the Russian operations.
Saudi Arabia had from the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011 taken a firm stance demanding the ouster of Assad as a precondition to a peaceful settlement of Syria’s problems. This position was directly opposed by both Iran and Russia and the military intervention by the latter should have sparked a fierce Saudi reaction. However, while the Saudi leadership long harbored deep suspicions regarding the intentions of the Iranian regime in Syria it continued to believe that Moscow could be convinced to accept a compromise solution.
For the Saudis the Iranian threat was and is more real and immediate. Iran had become dominant in Iraq and Lebanon through its proxies. Moreover, the Iranians had attempted to overthrow the monarchy in Bahrain, one of the Gulf Cooperation Council states of which Saudi Arabia was the recognized powerhouse and ‘big brother’ of the six-nation grouping. In addition, Iranian-backed groups were also attempting a takeover of Yemen on the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, thus completely surrounding Saudi Arabia. Last but not least, according to the Saudis there were several terrorist attempts within the Kingdom that could be traced to Iran, which was also surreptitiously supporting Shi’a groups in the oil-rich north of the kingdom.
The Saudi monarchy panicked further upon realizing that U.S. President Barack Obama was determined to reach a broad political settlement with Iran with an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program at its core. For Riyadh, an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities was welcome and desirable but there was suspicion that the settlement would involve a broader understanding on spheres of influence in the Middle East, which apparently would keep Iran dominant in Iraq, Lebanon and presumably Syria.
Saudi suspicions were understandable. Washington was, after Obama became president, readily flexible when it came to Iranian hegemony in Iraq and in Lebanon through Hezbollah. In Syria too, the United States had dragged its feet to demand the removal of Assad, as it had done with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and when it came round to doing so reversed that policy in late 2015 by accepting the Russian formula of a transitional phase.
As far as the Saudis were concerned the pro-Obama media and political advisers close to him had been launching scathing and sustained media attacks on Saudi Arabia. Influential Saudis and other commentators in the region had been taken aback by what they perceived to be biased and at times vicious reporting. One influential Lebanese commentator, Hussein Abdul Hussein, who is Washington correspondent for the Kuwaiti al-Rai newspaper, reflected this dismay at the way the pro-Obama US media regularly omitted to note Iranian transgressions, such as Tehran executing a far higher number of people than the kingdom each year while still emphasizing individual instances of executions in Saudi Arabia to portray it as being barbaric and backwards. Such attitudes are significant, regardless of how true they might be, as they highlight an underlying sense of conspiracy in the Middle East and the specific suspicion that plans were being hatched to divide up the kingdom.
The consequence of such attitudes and developments is that Moscow has been able to maintain its relevance to all parties concerned. Moreover, Moscow has since the late 1990s and due to the influence of the late Evgeniy Primakov managed to promote itself to the Israelis and Saudis as a country that could actually keep Iran in check. The challenge for Putin, as Saudi-Iranian relations deteriorate further (as we have seen in early 2016) is to continue to convince Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the vast majority of Muslim states that Russia is not bound to the Iranian-Syrian axis with sinister ambitions.
Talal Nizameddin, Dean of Student Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Lecturer in International Relations at Haigazian University, Beirut.