Syria lays bare the limits of Russia’s great-power responsibility
Russia then submitted its own draft resolution to renew the expiring UN arms embargo targeting the pro-Iran militia. The new text was approved, but it made no mention of Iranian weapons and support to the Houthis, who continue to fire ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia.
A few days earlier, Russian diplomats in New York blocked a UN resolution seeking to establish a one-month cease-fire in the Syrian capital’s suburb of Eastern Ghouta, place of the latest massacre of hundreds of civilians by pro-Damascus forces. Russia labelled the reports of mass civilian casualties a product of “mass psychosis.”
The resolution on Syria eventually passed, following days of Russian objections and attempts to derail it. President Vladimir Putin himself ended up calling for a daily five-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting, after reports of further use of chlorine gas by the Syrian regime.
These developments at the UN, coupled with the imminent collapse of the Russian-led plan of “de-escalation zones” in Syria and the Astana process, have shattered expectations that Russia could be an effective and willing guarantor of peace and stability in the Middle East.
Such a role has been cautiously welcomed in some American and European quarters, where there is a tendency to see Russia’s influence as a lesser evil in a region filled with crises they would rather avoid. Even the Arab Gulf states have banked on Moscow, recognizing its inescapable role in Syria and elsewhere, while some of them see in Russia a far more palatable alternative to Iranian regional expansion.
Since the Iraq debacle, Washington has tried to avoid getting involved in endless wars in the Middle East. The exception has been the fight against Daesh and other terrorist groups, pursued via special forces, aerial and drone strikes and local allies.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, this position was justified with an overhyped pivot to Asia and an overemphasis on the nuclear deal with Iran, which was treated as the absolute priority over any other regional issue, to the point of obsession. Despite its very different take on Iran’s regional policies and the nuclear deal, the Trump administration largely represents continuity as far as avoiding entanglement in regional crises.
Russia has taken advantage of the vacuum left behind by American unwillingness and strategic disarray — despite the many US military bases in the region — to carve out an apparently significant role for itself in the region, from Libya, Syria and Yemen to Iran’s nuclear file.
Making use of ties built during the days of the Soviet Union, Russia has gradually grown its presence, particularly since 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency. But the Syrian war, the main stage of Russia’s rebirth as a significant power in the region, is now laying bare all the limitations of its enhanced role.
The developments at the UN, coupled with the imminent collapse of the Russian-led plan of ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria and the Astana process, have shattered expectations that Russia could be an effective guarantor of peace in the Middle East.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
In August 2013, Syrian regime forces attacked opposition-controlled suburbs of Damascus, killing more than 1,500 civilians and wounding hundreds. With Obama reluctantly threatening to follow up on the crossed “red line” he had set a year earlier, a last-minute Russian diplomatic initiative changed everything.
In exchange for Damascus giving up 1,300 tons of chemical weapons — the world’s third-largest chemical weapons arsenal, by some estimates — the US would halt its planned military punishment of the regime. In what could have been a turning point in the conflict, the regime walked away paying a small price, and the massacres — including the use of chemical weapons — continue to this day.
In 2015, with regime forces and pro-Iran militias understaffed, under-resourced and overstretched, Tehran issued a desperate call for Moscow’s help. The ruthless Russian air campaign that followed changed the course of the war, removed necessary pressure on the regime to pursue a negotiated solution to the conflict, and perpetuated Bashar Assad’s grip on power. A year later came the final obliteration of Aleppo, Syria’s historical commercial capital, in large part due to Russian air power.
All diplomatic initiatives, whether UN- or Russian-led, have been used to the regime’s advantage and to further military gains. There are also less visible but not less damaging dimensions of Russian policy, such as facilitating the transit of extremists from the former Soviet republics into Syria, in the hope that they die in combat before having the chance to return home.
This, together with the longstanding instrumentalization of extremist groups by the Assad regime and the presence of Iran’s militant foreign legions, has played a crucial role in enforcing the narrative that there is nothing but terrorists in opposition to the Assad regime.
The result of leaving the Syrian nightmare for Russia to fix has been a death toll that has likely surpassed half a million and counting, the biggest refugee crisis the world has seen in two decades, growing prospects of a war by proxy becoming a truly regional war, and the expansion of Iran’s harmful influence in the Levant.
Russia can be a pragmatic power, and the fact that it occasionally cooperates with Western powers and the pro-US camp in the region often seems to generate confusion about its long-term goals. An obvious example is Moscow’s role in the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal.
For years, Russian diplomats refused to acknowledge the threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs. When the strategic, and especially the economic, benefits of the lifting of international sanctions became clear to Moscow, it jumped on board with the US, Britain, France and Germany to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Inherited from the Cold War, the DNA of Russian foreign policy is to counterbalance the US, NATO and the West. Russia’s presence in the Middle East is dominated by that vision, and close ties with Iran — even paying lip service to Tehran’s agenda — is a key part of it. Moscow’s power and influence in the region is a fact of life, but its capacity and willingness to play a constructive role should not be overestimated.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science