Among the many diplomatic challenges that post-election Russia is going to face, perhaps its relations in the Middle East and the Syrian war are the greatest. Moscow will have to reap the rewards of a Middle Eastern foreign policy, which, despite having brought Russia back to the stage of global politics, risks seriously overstretching the Kremlin.
Since the 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy towards the Middle East has been characterized by increased assertiveness, a stark contrast to its policy of disengagement from the region in the period following the end of the Cold War. The strengthening of relations with Iran, the establishment of an axis with Ankara and Cairo, and, most recently (in September 2015), the military intervention in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, are all events that have gradually brought Moscow back to the center of the Middle Eastern theatre. But what “diplomatic legacy” will the next administration inherit?
The Russian military intervention in Syria has largely improved the image of President Putin on the domestic level. The President’s declaration of “mission accomplished” (in December 2017) was aimed at depicting Russia as a winning country, a country that had set itself the clear objective of fighting Islamist extremism while also saving the Syrian regime, “accomplishing” its goals within two years and with a relatively limited number of losses. Significantly, Putin himself was the first one to announce the end of the war against the Islamic State in Syria, as if to underline the fact that he is the one calling the shots in the Syrian war. At the same time, however, he has stressed the urgency of moving to the political level and working to bring to the negotiating table all those who aim at a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, it is precisely on the political level that Moscow’s ambitions are most threatened.
At the international political level, the Russian intervention in Syria has proved determinant for at least two reasons. First of all, by keeping Assad at the helm of the regime, it shifted the internal balance of power in favour of Damascus; secondly, it altered the equilibrium at the negotiating table. In fact, after consolidating its position in the Arab country, Russia has gradually assumed the role of key negotiator in the Syrian peace talks, replacing – but not annulling – the process led by the United Nations (which had begun in Geneva in 2014). Although the issues under discussion remained closely linked to those of the UN-led peace process, the Astana talks attempted to overcome the deadlock by proposing Russia, Turkey and Iran as the new guarantors of the Syrian peace. Despite being cautious, Moscow was optimistic about the potential of these talks, which were expected to be a pivotal moment leading towards a political solution of the Syrian conflict.
However, while the ongoing negotiations have managed to bring together the parties in conflict, they have failed to bring concrete results. Not only have the de-escalation zones (agreed on in May 2017) not experienced a significant reduction in violence, but in recent months they have even experienced a resurgence in conflict. Moreover, the Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement has proved to be incapable of bringing the opposition to the negotiating table, as confirmed at the last summit in Sochi (29 and 30 January 2018).
Above all, if it is true that the Astana process has brought the Kremlin back to the center of global politics, it does not guarantee Russia a spot at the winners’ table. The complex relationships that Moscow has been establishing with the different regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and North African countries as well) risks overstretching the Kremlin’s reach, threatening the sustainability of the “Pax Russica”. In particular, Iran’s growing influence on the ground makes it difficult to manage a political transition that can satisfy the Syrian opposition, firm on the refusal of any Iranian involvement in defining the future structure of the country. On the other hand, Tehran’s projection in Syria worries the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, most notably Saudi Arabia and Israel. If the Kremlin’s “strategy” – if any – at this stage appears to be aimed at maintaining a neutral position between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it remains to be seen how long the marriage of convenience between the Russians and the Islamic Republic will last. Russia will be put to the test if it is to collaborate with the other partner-nations of the Astana process (mainly Turkey), whose vision for the future of Syria is not perfectly aligned with that of the Kremlin. Although Erdoğan has changed his positions on Assad, he seems to be determined to increase his military presence in the north of the country, advocating for an expansion of the Turkish zone of influence in northwestern Syria.
Against this background, Russia emerges as a winner, but a weak one. On the one hand, Moscow has undoubtedly changed the fate of the Syrian conflict and largely replaced the United States as the main actor able to change the course of events in the Middle East. On the other, however, Russia is weak because it is still not able to singlehandedly affect the outcome of the crisis in Syria, the country in which it has invested the most. The “new” administration will have to face this deep contradiction. While it is undeniable that military intervention in Syria has upgraded the role and status of Russia in the Middle East, Moscow’s dream of becoming the true powerbroker of the Syrian peace talks might risk remaining a dream.