Regardless of how things play out in Ukraine over the near-term, it appears all but certain that Russia and the West will find themselves locked in a protracted confrontation for years to come. The Syrian civil war and the Iran dossier provide good test cases for assessing how that confrontation could affect the Middle East. In Syria, Russia and the West have in recent years competed for influence, deconflicted to avoid clashes, while cooperating selectively on counterterrorism, humanitarian issues, and a political process under UN auspices. On Iran, they have managed to insulate cooperation on the nuclear dossier even amid growing tensions surrounding Ukraine, yet failed to join forces in tackling a broader regional arms-control agenda.
Russia will likely seek to avoid coming to blows with NATO forces in Syria while its military remains fully committed inside Ukraine. However, Russia’s previous nod to US counterterrorism strikes in Syria, or acquiescence to limited flows of international humanitarian aid into the country’s northwest, could change. Restoration of the Iran nuclear deal is still hanging in the balance, and any additional efforts on regional arms control could take a backseat amid Russian equivocation and US preoccupations elsewhere. Overall, the Syrian and Iranian dossiers suggest that heightened Russian-Western confrontation will likely manifest in the Middle East through a mix of aversion to direct military confrontation, yet intensified competition and shrinking opportunities for cooperation.
Now that Russia has the bulk of its active-duty military committed to Ukraine and faces a war of attrition, the risk of it picking a fight with US forces in Syria – where its 2015 intervention laid the foundation for a sustained presence – should be lowered. Though Russia technically maintains the capacity to “lash out” in Syria with existing aerial and naval assets, it is in a weaker position to do so since invading Ukraine. Reports of Russia recruiting Syrian fighters for the Ukrainian battlefield are indicative of the shortages faced by the Russian military. Against that backdrop, collision with US or Turkish forces in northern Syria would now come with far greater risks to Russia. The US military has thus far seen no signs of Russian intent to escalate tensions with US troops there since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russia, all-consumed by the Ukraine battlefield, might refrain from challenging US forces in Syria in the near-term — given resource constraints, risk aversion, and the fact that it is far from obvious how military action on its southern flank would help it turn the tide in Ukraine. Taking the longer view, however, it is not a given that Moscow’s acquiescence to US counterterrorism operations will stand the test of time. US-Russian counterterrorism cooperation was always hindered by stark disagreements over the anti-Assad armed opposition, but Russia usually refrained from challenging US air access for counterterrorism strikes. Deconfliction channels for air security and ground operations enabled the US military to safely operate within specific boundaries, though the Pentagon was adamant that such mechanisms did not constitute cooperation with Russia. Should terrorist cells remain in Syria, and even regain strength, however, America’s ability to maintain sustained pressure on them could become a victim of broader US-Russian confrontation.
That confrontation could also adversely affect the situation in Syria in other ways. Going forward, Western capitals will be eager to further complicate Russia’s efforts at normalizing Syria’s position in the region, since such normalization would enhance Russia’s own net gains by easing the burden of shouldering reconstruction costs for the war-ravaged country. The West will also be hard-pressed to ease pressure on the Syria dossier at the UN Security Council, notwithstanding rumors to the contrary.
It is also conceivable that Russia might stop cooperation on the humanitarian dossier. Last summer, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to extend the mandate for the transport of aid to Syria through a crossing on the border with Turkey, adopting Resolution 2585. In July, that resolution will be up for renewal and a Russian veto could precipitate a crippling humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrian civilians. Hopefully, Moscow will calculate that this would be the last thing it needs on its hands, especially if an endgame in Ukraine remains elusive. Still, some observers recommend an overhaul ofUS’ Syria policy toward a “freeze and build” strategy, one that pivots away from tactical emergency assistance toward strategic stabilization across northern Syria. Amid such an overhaul, Western “early recovery” projects in government-held Syria might appear less politically palatable. Such projects were endorsed as part of a package-deal compromise in Resolution 2585, following years of Western agonizing over the concern that such aid would effectively constitute “development” assistance to a pariah state. Going forward, any and all forms of humanitarian assistance to Syria could well be looked at again through the lens of competition with Russia.
In past years, Russian-Western engagement on the Iran nuclear dossier remained remarkably insulated from broader tensions, whether during President Barack Obama’s second term, or through 2021. Whether such insulation can continue was thrown into doubt when Moscow surprised Washington and irritated Iran by demanding written US guarantees that Russia's trade, investment, and military-technical cooperation with Tehran would not be hindered by the sanctions imposed against it over Ukraine. Russia appears to have walked back its pushy rhetoric since, yet restoration of the nuclear deal is still hanging in the balance.
Even if Russia and its counterparts can push that deal across the finish line (and that looks increasingly doubtful), tensions in Europe could affect all sides’ desire and bandwidth to prevent further nuclear or missile proliferation in the Middle East. In the past, US-Russian cooperation was instrumental for arms-control gains in the region. Though Moscow and Washington often disagreed on the right balance between carrots and sticks in dealing with nonproliferation-averse players, past initiatives — such as the Arms Control and Regional Security working group in the 1990s — benefited from U.S. leadership and Russian support.
Amid new confrontation in Europe, Russia might be less inclined to back Western-led initiatives for arms control in the Middle East. To be sure, its ambivalent stance on the Iranian missile and proxy threats is hardly new and has been rooted in the calculation that those pin down US attention while allowing Moscow to pose as chief regional intermediary. Iran or its proxies overstepping and inviting outright military escalation would not be in Russia’s interest now, while its own diplomatic and military resources are consumed by Putin’s Ukraine gambit. At the same time, Moscow will see preciously little incentive to work with the West toward even the most modest and incremental regional arms-control process anytime soon.
On the back of the Ukraine war, Russia’s lukewarm disposition toward supporting arms control in the Middle East could be compounded by reduced US bandwidth. Already in recent years, regional states’ efforts at balancing between the United States, Russia, and China were largely driven by perceptions of limited US attentiveness to the Middle East. Washington’s perceived handling of the Iran nuclear dossier and insufficient push-back against Iranian proxies unnerved the Arab Gulf states and Israel. US military drawdowns from Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Iraq further amplified the perception of an American pivot to the East. Having long sought opportunities for freeing up resources for the Indo-Pacific theatre, the United States might feel even greater compulsion to realize a low-cost posture in the Middle East, now that the war in Ukraine has ignited great-power competition in Europe.
Could the combination of Russian equivocation and US distraction compel regional adversaries to pursue arms control and trust-building more proactively? It was the perception of US disengagement from the region that partially motivated several Arab states to normalize relations with Israel over the past eighteen months. The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership last August and Iranian-Saudi talks were further indicators of a growing realization among regional states that they need to talk to their adversaries rather than just shore up deterrent capabilities. Developments since the Ukraine invasion — be it the recent Iranian strikes on Israeli targets in Erbil, or the suspension of Iranian-Saudi talks — raise doubts over the robustness of that realization though.
Don’t Be Optimistic
Assuming that Russia and the West have entered a new era of protracted confrontation, their appetite for taking that contest to the Middle East, insulating cooperation on urgent matters there, and freeing up resources to stay engaged in the region will impact stability for better or worse. In that context, Syria and Iran offer useful test cases for assessing what to expect. In Syria, Russian concerns with “overstretching” itself should lead its military to refrain from escalating tensions in the foreseeable future. Humanitarian aid flows and US counterterrorism efforts, however, could suffer as Syria turns into an arena of heightened Russian-Western competition. Regarding Iran, the soon-to-be-decided fate of the nuclear deal will be indicative of a joint Russian-Western ability to insulate regional arms control and nonproliferation in the future. Whether the Middle East can move forward on these issues will also depend on Moscow’s disposition and Washington’s bandwidth to pay attention.