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Russia’s grave mistake of getting bogged down in sectarian mess

Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East in recent decades was based on a harmonious approach that helped maintain good ties with all the players in the region without getting involved in political and sectarian wrangles.

Russia’s involvement in Syria made this balance very difficult to maintain, since the Syrian conflict showed the sectarian and geopolitical fault lines of the regional powers.

A main reason for the skewed balance now is Iran’s interference in Iraq and its multidimensional support for the Damascus regime, also given through groupings such as Hezbollah or other Shiite militias originating from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Iranian involvement becomes more alarming as the conflict progresses. Tehran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq is clearly not limited to the “noble” causes of fighting terrorists, helping Syrian minorities or supporting and defending the “democratically elected president” against “terrorists.”

Iran has always had far-reaching plans, primarily to counter major Sunni countries in the Gulf, chiefly Saudi Arabia, and change the regional balance of power.

Iran is also pursuing its goal of exporting the revolution, which means, according to Hamid Reza Moghaddam Far, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deputy commander of cultural affairs, “not sending advocates and preachers to other countries, but rather exporting the ideology.”

This dubious export will go well beyond the Mediterranean.

This ideology is brought in Iraq and Syria by gangs like Afghan Fatemiyoun Division, a Shiite militia fighting in Syria on the side of Assad regime.

According to Tasnim News Agency, this division will stay involved in Syria for as long as Islam, read, in this case, Iran’s geopolitical ambitions, does not know borders; it “will always stand by Khomeini’s divine goals.”

Iran is using Shiite Muslims as an instrument in its dirty game of expanding its influence and destabilizing Sunni neighbors.

Saudi Arabia and its regional allies do not have any illusions about the troubles the Iranian expansion will bring them.

Thus, by tragic coincidence, Syria has become a battlefield of rising sectarian regional tensions.

The attempts to ease this sectarian conflict and careful messages of peace and detente coming from the western side of the Gulf are unheard, muffled by a roar of accusations coming from the Gulf’s eastern side.

It is not that Russia cannot cope with having Iran as a rival, particularly taking into account the latter’s difficulties on the global stage. By aligning with Tehran, Moscow seems to be on the wrong side of history.

Maria Dubovikova

Despite declarations of a balanced policy that keeps it friendly with everyone and does not allow it to build alliances, Russia is actually failing to maintain this policy in Syria, even despite its will, because it is being squeezed between the players there.

The success of the Astana talks and the relative success of the new Geneva round only strengthened the Iranian position, especially after Iran was recently recognized as a guarantor of the cease-fire in Syria, leaving out GCC countries.

True, the GCC countries were invited to take part in talks, but Saudi Arabia cannot accept the role of spectator and the other GCC countries will not get involved without this key Gulf power.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has been urging all foreign players in Syria to not turn the Syrian sides into pawns of their own game.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington signals the re-emergence of Saudi-US partnership. Moreover, it seems that in Syria, the two major players will try to overplay the until now successful trio. But is this a reasonable step?

Due to certain circumstances, Russia appears to be on the same side with Iran in the Syrian game, even though it tries to stay relatively “impartial.”

There is significant cooperation between Russia and Iran in many areas, boosted after Russia’s spat with Europe.

Then, after all, Iran is a neighbor. It is also a dangerous rival and an absolutely unreliable friend. And between the two, Russia is choosing “an unreliable friend.”

Yet it is not that Russia could not cope with having Iran as a rival, particularly taking into account the latter’s difficulties on the global stage.

Russia seems to be on the wrong side of history in this case, but it has few choices under the current shaky circumstances.

The success of Astana and Geneva talks is greatly dependent on the relative friendship between Moscow and Tehran.

And for Russia, it is a matter of honor to have the Syrian conflict solved through a political process.

What should be clearly understood about the Russia-Iran cooperation is that there is no illusions about Iran in Moscow.

Iran wishes to cooperate with the West more than with anybody else. Cooperation with Russia is not based on common values and long-term interests. There is a full pack of difficult to resolve issues between them.

Iran poses an imminent threat to Russia’s interests. In Iran, there is a high level of discontent with Russia, especially its policy in Syria (that seems insufficient in Tehran’s eyes) and in all its policy toward Iran (which seems to Tehran not friendly enough: The nuclear plant is not build as fast as it was promised, the delivery of the notorious S-300s had been postponed for a long time, etc.)

Currently, Russia’s answer to the question asked by Saudi Arabia — “Are you with us or with Iran?” — seems to be “with Iran.”

And expecting such an answer, the GCC is reinforcing the US presence and alliance in the region to counter Iran’s and its allies’ imminent threat.

For Russia, as always, cooperation with Iran does not exclude an in-depth partnership with GCC, but Russia is interested in cooperating with the Gulf.

With some GCC countries, like Qatar and Bahrain, relations are progressing well, while with other, they seem stuck or hostile, adding to the climate of mistrust.

Russia is clearly making a grave mistake by getting bogged down deep in the sectarian mess and losing its impartial status, but it can hardly avoid it.

But certain countries are making an even bigger mistake by expecting to overplay the existing trio, as deepening the geopolitical misunderstanding over Syria will plunge the region in an endless mess that costs dearly the civil population and the global stability.

A great role Saudi Arabia could play, as a leading and powerful GCC state, would be to not urge the US to oppose the Russia-Turkey tandem, with an adjunct Iran, but to make Russia, Turkey and the US work together on resolving serious issues in Syria and Iraq, as well as to fight terrorism and minimize Iranian influence and role by actively taking part in all activities itself.

That would be a worthy gambit, hardly expected, but benefiting the whole world.

• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.