A further unbalancing of regional security may entail an aggravation of current crises and an exacerbation of nascent tensions, pushing Russia and the U.S. towards big decisions as early as this year. As a matter of fact, both the Kremlin and the White House would have to make choices momentous for themselves and the region. The ability to move away from external attitudes should to a large degree serve as an indicator of the maturity of Russian and American strategies in the Middle East.
Adopted in late 2015 as a joint Russian-American initiative, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 was welcomed as a positive sign that the two countries can agree on the top priority issues of international security despite enduring bilateral tensions. It must have been quite a challenge for Washington to engage in cooperation with Moscow over Syria under the Vienna accords, i.e. with the participation of President Assad’s envoys. In the long run, the Obama administration has had to display political will and a high degree of flexibility in order to overcome opposition from Arabian monarchies on the one hand and prevent the perception of this act as being a recognition of Mr. Assad’s legitimacy and Moscow’s rightful place at the table, on the other.
The White House and the Kremlin Strategizing
Many in Washington believe that the current Middle Eastern security system is far from adequate to prevent crises, as well as unable to establish stability and even a dialogue, among other things due to its “representative elitism.” In many cases dominated by the Gulf States, the Arab-driven security structures ignore other key regional actors, primarily Iran. Hence, these schemes appear rather as “private clubs” rather than institutions able to handle urgent security problems. According to this school of thought, comprehensive engagement of Iran would facilitate relevant solutions, alleviate confrontation with the Gulf monarchies and also make Tehran more responsible for its actions. First of all, it relates to solutions that potentially threaten U.S. interests. Washington then would be able to see its relations with Tehran as an alternative to cooperation with the Gulf states. It is still hardly clear to what extent the Arab monarchies and Iran are ready to cooperate. But the new American policy on Iran seems of lasting significance and should be taken up by the next administration.
The Arabian monarchies allied to the U.S. see the approach as shortsighted, although frustration with President Obama’s course of action is hardly the primary factor that has pushed Saudi Arabia into confronting Iran. Nevertheless, against the backdrop of a major economic recession, a crisis of governance and domestic volatility, this sense has definitely exacerbated Riyadh’s feeling of uncertainty, as well a loss of regional clout and the respect of other monarchies.
Quite indicative of the prevailing mood among regional elites is the statement of a Qatari royal family member, who in a private discussion recently lamented that the Gulf monarchies increasingly feel sidelined in the handling of all key regional matters, as they had not been consulted either on the Russian operation in Syria or on the U.S. talks with Iran. Since regional elites have a clear understanding neither of the final aims of the Russian presence nor of U.S. policies, the atmosphere has become permeated with nervousness, unpredictability and high risks. All of this may drive them into steps fraught with long-term hazards.
New Regional Escalation as a Maturity Test for Russian and American Strategies
Broken diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have only legitimized the mutual rejection and antagonism, which for a long time had existed in the form of proxy wars. A further unbalancing of regional security may entail an aggravation of current crises and an exacerbation of nascent tensions, pushing Russia and the U.S. towards big decisions as early as this year. As a matter of fact, both the Kremlin and the White House would have to make choices momentous for themselves and the region.
To this end, Syria and Yemen appear most vulnerable. The Syrian settlement is dangerously moving off the rails of the Vienna process, as Iran and Saudi Arabia, its key regional members, are losing the incentives to fulfill their obligations. On the contrary, they tend to support their proxies in a more aggressive manner by providing them with arms in order to tip the balance. The Yemeni conflict also may seemingly become more destructive and even surpass Syria as a priority for Saudi Arabia. Those who were initially skeptical about the peaceful settlement of both conflicts now worry not so much about the worsening dynamics of regional crises due to the Saudi-Iranian showdown, as about the hurdles that will unquestionably plague the potential for negotiations as well as the development and implementation of policies for other regional players and outsiders including Russia and the United States.
The ability to move away from external attitudes should to a large degree serve as an indicator of the maturity of Russian and American strategies in the Middle East. Both Moscow and Washington will only gain if they prevent the Iran-KSA confrontation from acquiring the dimension of a “great-power” competition, especially as it is already seen by many as part of the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Such a scenario would quickly deplete Moscow’s foreign policy resources in the region and distract Russia from missions of practical significance for its national security. The strengthening of Saudi Arabia or Iran by aligning with their positions or the intentional weakening of American influence in the region do not belong to the missions of this kind.
Americans are likely to refrain from siding with either Iran or the KSA. Despite the alliance with Saudi Arabia and the perennial mantra about Iran being a factor of regional destabilization, many in the U.S. establishment believe that the spoiler label better suits Riyadh. Washington does not want to act as a mediator in someone else’s war. At least for now, the White House sees a much safer path in diplomatic neutrality, condemning the attacks on the KSA embassy in Tehran and expressing concern about the execution in Saudi Arabia.
At that, the international community is very likely to refocus from the Islamic State to the brewing conflict between the Sunni and the Shiites, or at least to its presentation as such. Under this scenario, the IS would not only obtain a respite to recuperate from the damage inflicted on it but also a chance for resurrection as an ideological nucleus and the strike force in the fight against regional Shiites. Of course, this role would hardly reflect the organization’s genuine essence but it may as well be unquestionably perceived in this function by the populations and elites of the Gulf, which should bolster its stance in the Middle East and beyond. Even before the KSA-Iran conflict escalated, IS ideas had been welcomed by almost 63 million people in 11 Muslim countries. If reborn, IS may expand its army of sympathizers everywhere, including the most faith-sensitive territories in Russia and along its perimeter. The scenario is fraught with more pressure on national security with relevant consequences for the economy, as well as domestic and foreign policies. The development will also harm the United States, although some of U.S. establishment would be lured to exploit such a situation to see its geopolitical rival trapped in the turbulent region even deeper. In the short term, the national security risks for the U.S. appear less obvious, but the prospect of being dragged into a lengthy military campaign on the ground in the Middle East hardly seems absolutely improbable.
The fight against the IS and the Iranian-Saudi confrontation give rise to a regional context that may complicate Russia’s further operations in Syria in at least two areas. The first area relates to the transitional government and the future of Mr. Assad, while the second one deals with the relations of Russia with the Syrian leaders who may replace the incumbent president. Both aspects are tightly linked to a key job that Moscow and Washington will have to do this year, i.e. listing the supposedly extremist groups. The issue seems crucial because the array of clean groups would to a great extent determine the composition of the transitional government and its approach to Russia. Hence, processes are underway that will give Moscow some long-term headaches.
Syria in 2016: Navigating in Rough Waters
The primary challenge comes from the fact that after the West increased support to the Syrian Free Army and promised aid to moderate groups as a potential core for a future transitional government, most anti-Assad formations have noticeably alleviated their Islamist rhetoric. At the backdrop of greater tolerance of Western governments to the theoretical prospect of keeping Mr. Assad in power in 2016, many leaders of major groups (Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham) seem to have found a chance for physical and political survival through a switch from an armed struggle against the government forces to political participation in making a new Syria. Dozens of smaller entities choose to merge bearing in mind a similar transformation.
The above tactics are hardly a revelation, and this trend should remain. More worrisome appears the fact that the lobbyists of Arabian monarchies are gradually impregnating the Western political discourse with the idea of a bare necessity for minor entities to spread religious fundamentalism. Within this narrative, radical groups emerge as such not due to their nature or beliefs but due to an inevitability in the absence of other ways to attract attention and obtain funds from foreign donors. Moreover, following this logic, had the West rendered them more assistance before, they would not have been compelled to pose as radicals to survive under the threats emanating from their elder Salafi brethren like al-Nusra and other branches of al-Qaeda. Hence, Western governments being offered a chance to atone for their guilt for the Syrian war by engaging these groups in the formation of the transitional government. Such kind of argumentation, although definitely devious, may as well be employed by Western parties. Liberals see a chance to restore the democratization opportunities lost during the 2011 uprising, while conservatives seek an opening to use these groups in order to confront other geopolitical adversaries. Even if this scenario proves wrong, one would anyway have to politically interact with these actors. And despite the numerous moral bottlenecks of this approach, the latter are likely to have the upper hand. A future transitional government will incorporate many of those who fight against Mr. Assad both through political and military methods. They are highly critical if not adverse as far as Moscow’s Syrian policy is concerned. To this end, Russia should watch closely the dynamics of their transformation, mergers and public rhetoric, remaining intransigent in labeling radicals. At the same time, one should be politically and morally ready to face such a counterpart at the intergovernmental level, no matter how unacceptable it may sound today.
One more matter of principle is the restoration of Syria, which is given only scarce attention in public. However, the readiness and methods to do this also reflect the maturity of Middle East policies of the interested parties. Enormous funds are needed to rebuild the country which has been inflicted with damage worth USD 103.1 billion and whose employable population has been escaping the country at lightning speed. One year ago, the Arabian kingdoms of the Gulf proclaimed a readiness to invest in rebuilding Syria, of course on their terms. But the oil price drop has hit even the wealthiest Gulf states, who are offended by being excluded from the regional decision-making and are now gloating about the difficulties in store for Russia and the United States, the aspiring winners of the Syrian campaign. As such, the Gulf states see the two likeliest ways in attracting funds from IMF loans or in engaging China, a major holder of money with heightened interest to the region. They hardly expect Russia to take up the first path since this would actually mean a Marshall Plan for Syria, while option number two would hardly suit the United States which is unwilling to aggravate the rivalry with China. If Moscow has its own plan, elaborating the details appears to be exactly the thing to do now.
By all means, the full-fledged cooperation of Russia and the U.S. on Syria is still a pie in the sky because each side is operating within its own coalition, although with coordination in place to prevent collisions and limited political interaction. The divergence of interests, points of cooperation and differing priorities are well-known and widely discussed. However, what we see is the launch of the contest for the post-Assad arrangement, with lots of variables and unknowns. Modern Middle East politics will definitely alter the strategic and tactical calculi of all actors, while what Russia needs now is to define the limits of its participation in the region where it may stay for long, either intentionally or reluctantly.