Russia in the Middle East, a Resurgent Empire?

Kremlin’s actions in the Middle East fit the broader narrative of support for state Sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs, as Russia offers itself as an alternative to the US-led world order. Russia seeks to support existing state structures against internal uprisings and external intervention. Syria is a case in point. It is manifest that Russia is fighting not only ISIS on the Syrian territory, but also other insurgent groups that seek to overthrow the Syrian government led by Bashar Al Assad. Furthermore, Moscow has repeatedly labelled the US bombing campaign in Syria as illegal according to international law. This is factually correct. International law allows external powers to intervene militarily only under two circumstances; when there is a UN Security Council resolution, which does not exist for Syria, or upon the invitation of the official government of a state, which is the case for Russia but not the US.

The Russian narrative, however, is partially undermined by its support for Iran, which is largely considered the ultimate anti-status quo nation in the region. Iran in fact intervenes across the region through its proxies, most notably Hezbollah. More recently Iran-sponsored Shia militias helped the Iraqi government in retaking the previously Kurdish-held province of Kirkuk. At the same time Russia’s alignment with Iran, a Shia majority state, should not be overstated. It would be unreasonable for Moscow to put all bets on Iran, when 90% of Russia’s own Muslims are Sunni.

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Due to Russia’s economic constraints at home, which primarily result out of the combination of Western sanctions and low oil prices, the Kremlin cannot implement an effective long-term strategy in the region. This is precisely why Russian diplomacy has over time followed a consistent realist short term approach. Every action is weighted against opportunity and resources available at a specific point in time; in Russia that would be called a pragmatic approach. Notably, Russia can adhere to such a flexible approach because it does not have the ideological constraints of the West. It is ready to talk, and collaborate, with all actors in the region, be it Saudi Arabia, Iran or Israel.

Currently, the preservation of the Syrian government is likely to be Russia’s only specific goal in the region. However, the Kremlin has three overarching objectives: gain prestige, maintain stability and foster trade. While the first is self-explanatory, the latter two deserve further explanation as they are intimately intertwined.