The Russian government justified its September 2015 military intervention in Syria as a necessary measure to restore stability to the country and to deter Washington from using force to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia views its Syria campaign as an integral step toward achieving its broader goal of establishing itself as an indispensable guarantor of collective security in the Middle East (thediplomat.com/).
Starting as far back as 2003, the U.S made a series of radical changes in its military strategy. These changes included the Prompt Global Strike Doctrine (PGS); a doctrine that shifted emphasis from nuclear weapons to technological efforts such as unmanned airborne vehicles. This action was interpreted by Moscow as a serious threat to Russian security. Under this new policy, Russia sees the U.S. building the capabilities to launch a massive salvo of missiles from naval platforms that would be capable within an hour of hitting all of Russia’s military and strategic locations including all its missile bases. These platforms are being located in the North Sea, the Baltics, and the Mediterranean with the remaining platforms being launched from NATO bases located in Romania and Poland.
Russia’s strategic response to this has been its own military buildup and expanding its influence to a more global level. Currently, Russia is planning the creation of a naval force that by 2020 will project a serious military force in all the prime strategic locations throughout the globe. This has not only made the Middle-East a geographically significant location for Russia, but it is also a resource essential location. Russian estimates worldwide? oil consumption rising by 56% by 2040. This will position the Middle-East to be the world’s chief supplier.
At present Russia has signed a 49-year lease with the Syrian government for use of the Port of Tartus after it has been built. This port will allow Russia to maintain up to 11 sizeable naval vessels including nuclear submarines. Additionally, Russia has made an agreement with the Egyptian government for the use of the port of Alexandria to serve as a base for resupply and refueling. Negotiations are ongoing with Sudan to establish a Russian naval base in one of the ports along the Red Sea (Kedmi, 2018). Russia has not stopped simply with military pursuits. It has also tried to further its political position in the region while marginalizing U.S. influence through diplomatic channels.
On January 10 of this year, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow to discuss the resolution of the Syrian civil war, and President Donald Trump’s threats to suspend the Iran nuclear deal. After their meeting, Zarif praised Russia’s resolute support for the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and reiterated both countries’ shared willingness to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria (thediplomat.com/). They have also been an instrumental force in the rebuilding and organization of the new Syrian army.
As early as 2015, Russia became a primary force in the Syrian conflict. First, they forced the Assad military forces to reorganize from several militia forces operating independently to merging them into the greater Syrian army. From this army, they built Assault Corps units (AC). Through the use of Russian advisors, these new AC units were trained extensively in warfare in built-up areas and anti-guerrilla tactics. In addition, these units were fitted with high quality weapons. Some intelligence sources assert that these units were reinforced with Russian military elements to include mechanized infantry, marines, commando special forces elements and artillery units. These AC units were organized and brought under a joint Syrian/Russian command.
As the war progressed, the Russian military mission on the ground became more extensive. Eventually, this led to the creation of new assault corps units that were placed under the direct control of the Russian military. Russian advisors became responsible for more comprehensive training for the Syrian officers in their charge (Malovany & Burgin, 2018). Far from just military intervention, Russia has also capitalized economically by offering itself up as a viable alternative to countries who are currently dealing with economic pressure brought by the U.S.
After President Donald Trump pulled out of the international nuclear agreement with Tehran, Iran signed a provisional free trade zone agreement with the Russia-led economic union.
Iran, which sought to save the nuclear deal with European signatories including Russia, was due to finalize a free trade deal with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) by the end of 2017. The free trade zone agreement between the EEU and Iran lowers or abolishes customs duties starting a three-year process for a permanent trade agreement, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported on Thursday. The deal seeks to expand on the $2.7 billion trade turnover between Iran and the EEU, which includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (themoscowtimes.com/.
In April 2018, Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak, stated that Russia is considering an option to make oil payments in other national currencies, particularly with Turkey and Iran. According to Novak, both countries are interested, but there is also a matter of conversion of currencies and their further use. “There is a common understanding that we need to move toward the use of national currencies in our settlements. Thereby eliminating the dollar as the trading currency (financialtribune.com/).
It is too early to assess the relationship between Russia and Iran. Though there have been signs that a strong alliance is brewing and it could prove dangerous in the long run, there is also much to indicate this relationship will be short-lived or limited in scope.
Iranian policymakers frequently tout Tehran’s role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, but collective security promotion is only a peripheral goal in Iran’s strategic vision. Iranian policymakers are primarily focused on expanding Tehran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East and containing Saudi Arabia’s projected power capacity across the Arab world. These expansionist objectives have caused Iran to cooperate more extensively with belligerent nonstate actors other than Russia and engage in military activities that undercut the effectiveness of Moscow-backed political settlement initiatives.
Iran’s unwillingness to suspend military operations in Syria until Assad has completely vanquished opposition forces also deviates from Russia’s more limited objective of ensuring that Assad controls enough territory to negotiate with Syrian opposition factions from a position of strength. Iran’s belief in the feasibility of a military solution in Syria has made it less willing than Russia to diplomatically engage with Syrian opposition or Kurdish factions during diplomatic negotiations, limiting the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership. Prospects for constructive cooperation between Russia and Iran on resolving other regional conflicts, like Yemen and Afghanistan, also appear dim. In Yemen, the already-strained relations between Russia and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have deteriorated further since the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 5. These tensions have prompted Moscow to establish stronger lines of communication with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on resolving the crisis.
A similar divergence in objectives restricts the potential for Russia-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan. Russia is seeking to implement an Afghan political settlement, which includes the Taliban, as swiftly as possible. While Iran wants a peace settlement in Afghanistan to be achieved in the long term, it is unwilling to suspend military action until anti-U.S. forces have gained a position of primacy in western Afghanistan. As Iran continues to provide military assistance to Taliban forces near its borders, Russian policymakers are concerned that Tehran will obstruct the Afghan peace process to advance its own objectives.
These divergent objectives threaten to unravel Russia-Iran cooperation in Syria, as the conflict transitions from the military to diplomatic phase. Even though Russian military officials have praised the effectiveness of Hezbollah troops during pro-Assad military operations, Iran’s use of Syrian territory to create a permanent transit point for weaponry to Hezbollah has alarmed Russian policymakers who seek to preserve strong relations with Israel (thediplomat.com/).
The direction Russia is taking in the Middle-East presumes two considerations. 1) That it is strengthening its military position in response to the perceived threat created by the U.S. military buildup close to its borders. 2) That it is looking to capitalize on its own economic stability by presenting itself as an alternative trading partner for countries that are hit with U.S. sanctions.
Russia’s actions in the Middle-East are only going to create complications for U.S. power in the region. As the U.S. imposes sanctions on nation-states like Iran, Russia emerges as a viable alternative economic partner. It has asserted itself in key locations such as Syria that will give it commanding influence in the region.
In the long term, if trends continue as they are, Russia will continue to present itself as a viable option to U.S. and Western European influences. While Russia and its allies can’t offer the degree of economic benefits the U.S. and Western Europe can, they do offer a viable alternative and definitely an alternative when it comes to military support. This will gradually erode the effectiveness of economic sanctions and other methods used against states deemed belligerent. It may also work to create a situation where the U.S. begins to alienate itself in the region and thereby see its influence diminish.
Malovany, Pesach, Col, & Burgin Nehemiah, Mother Russia holds the reigns, Israeli Defense Magazine, Issue No. 40, Winter 2018.
Kedmi, Yaakov, Moscow on the Euphrates, Israeli Defense Magazine, Issue No. 40, Winter 2018.