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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Russia managed to take the lead in the dramatic events taking place these days in Syria and around Syria. Its positions cannot be ignored and no settlement is possible without a Russia’s participation. However, one should not overestimate the role of Russia – or the role of any other non-regional power – in mid-term and long-term evolution of the Middle East. The region has entered a historically unprecedented cycle of social, economic and political transformation that is likely to last until at least the middle of this century.

Contacts between Russians and Arabs go deep into history. It is interesting that some of the first credible references to the mere existence of ancient Russian settlements and princedoms come from medieval Arab travelers and geographers of the VIII – IX centuries AD. It means that Russians and Arabs know each other for more than twelve centuries – quite a long period by any standard.

Of course, these twelve centuries were diverse. There were long times when the Russian and the Arab civilizations did not interact with each other directly, separated by other nations and other civilizations; there were times when the Russian-Arab interaction was much more intense and dynamic. Arab coins and jewelry can be found in coffers of Russian czars, some Russian words can be traced to their Arab origins.  It is worth noting that Russians and Arabs never fought against each other. Unlike the cosmopolitan Ottoman Empire, the Arab world in itself never tried to extend its domination to Eastern Europe, and Russia never considered Arab states as potential colonies or objects for its imperial expansion.

At the same time, there has always been a lot of interest in Russia to the Arab civilization – including language, culture, religion and history. It is not accidental that Russia was one of the first European nations that introduced “Arab Studies” as an important research discipline in its Universities and academic institutions. The interest has been mutual – many Arab merchants, scholars, intellectuals and noblemen travelled to Moscow, Saint Petersburg, other places of the Russian Empire. One could also mention that unlike most of other major European powers, Russia for centuries was a state with significant indigenous Moslem population; this population helped to build additional bridges to the Arab world.

The Soviet period of the Russian history brought to life an entirely new level of interaction with the Arab Middle East. The Soviet Union from the very beginning was a strong champion and supporter of the Arab national liberation. It would not be an over exaggeration to say that after the Second World war many Arab nations relied on the Soviet Union as their main protector against neo-colonial aspirations of Western powers. The symbols of the Soviet economic assistance – from the Aswan Dam in Egypt to metallurgical plants and oil refineries in Algeria – remain living witnesses of the scale of this cooperation. Thousands and thousands of Arab students were coming to study in Soviet Universities every year. Soviet made military hardware can still be found in plenty in many armies of the Arab world.

Of course, the Soviet Union has not been the only major power assisting Arab nations. However, the Soviet style assistance was in some way unique. As a rule, Moscow did not try to shoulder its puppet, or a client, or its personal ally among Arab leaders. It seldom invested in personalities, no matter how bright and ambitious these personalities might have been. The Soviet Union supported Arab nations at large, invested in social development and in economic modernization, not in personal relations with select leaders or power clans. The underlying idea was in grooming and nourishing a new social stratum – the Arab Proletariat, – which should steer the Arab world in the direction of the socialist development models.

This is not to say that the Soviet – Arab cooperation was an ideal marriage. The ideological biases were generating multiple problems and obstacles. For instance, the Soviet Union never managed to develop a solid relationship with the monarchies of the Gulf. Being a demonstratively atheist society, the USSR could not win the hearts and minds of Arab Moslems. The war in Afghanistan became a major test for the Soviet – Arab friendship. The restoration of diplomatic ties between the USSR and Israel was also a blow for some political groups in the Arab word. Still, the overall balance of the relationships by the end of the Cold war was clearly positive.

After the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the future of Russian-Arab relation became a matter of intense discussions both in Moscow and in capitals of major Arab states. Some Russian experts and politicians argued that Russia did not have vital interests in the Arab world or resources needed to maintain a high visibility presence there and should therefore withdraw from the region. Many Arab leaders felt disappointed that they could no longer rely on the Kremlin as a natural balance to the White House and that the flow of economic and military assistance from Moscow was drying up.

However, though for twenty years Russia did not challenge directly the US hegemony in the Arab world, it was able to maintain at least some of the Soviet positions there. For instance, Russia became a member of the Middle East Quartet and remained an active mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Moreover, the Russian private sector started its own expansion to the Arab world including the previously unattainable kingdoms of the Gulf. In many Arab countries – from Egypt to UAE – one could see rapidly growing and vibrant Russian Diasporas engaged in business, cultural exchanges, education and tourism.

The Arab Spring of 2011 – 2012 changed many fundamentals in the region. Many of authoritarian Arab regimes were shattered having failed to cope with challenges of a much overdue political and social transition. Non-state actors of radical and fundamentalist nature started successfully competing with regional nation states for power and legitimacy. The previously dominant ideology of Arab nationalism was challenged by political Islam. In addition to the Arab Spring, the region confronted in 2014-2016 a sharp decrease of oil prices, which put into question most of the economic and social development plans of energy producing Arab nations.

If in the West the Arab Spring was initially met by many with hopes and even with enthusiasm, in Russia the political mainstream from the very beginning was expressing deep skepticism and concerns about the likely outcomes of the ongoing regional transformation. Furthermore, the whole Arab Spring was often presented by Moscow as a long planned Western (predominantly US) conspiracy aimed at acquiring more control of the West over the Arab world though pursuing the strategy of ‘controlled chaos”. Tin Moscow they saw the most graphic manifestation of this strategy in the Western involvement in Libya in 2011, which was regarded as a clear and self-serving deviation from the UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

The failed transition in Libya was an important learning experience for Moscow. It consolidated the conservative faction in the Russian political establishment and nearly silenced the liberal opposition. After Libya Russian officials coined their new approach to the Middle East, that can be summarized the following way:

First. Authoritarian states in the Middle East are in any case better than failed states that come to replace the former after public uprisings (which are often planned, funded and instigated from abroad).

Second. The intentions and commitments of the West should be trusted; the West can easily ‘sell out’ its longtime allies and friends in the region (e.g. Mubarak in Egypt); even a UN Security Council resolution can be violated or interpreted in a very liberal way.

Third. If Russia remains an idle bystander watching the Arab Spring from the sideline, the chaos, instability and terrorism generated in the Arab world will ultimately spill over Russia’s borders, not to mention the evident demise of the Russian influence in the region.

The practical application of this new approach was, of course, the Moscow engagement into the civil war in Syria. In this bloody and protracted conflict, Moscow demonstrated much more than its readiness to oppose what was perceived as the consolidated position of the West. For the first time since the invasion to Afghanistan back in 1979 the Kremlin used military force outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. For the first time a Russian military aircraft was grounded by a NATO member country. For the first time Russia became a central player in a large-scale war right in the heart of the Arab world.

When Western experts and Kremlin watchers analyze the Russian strategy in Syria, they usually single out three goals that Moscow allegedly pursues in this conflict. First, to rescue the Russian client in the region - Bashar Assad and his regime. Second, to diminish the US influence in the Middle East to the extent possible. Third, to support Shias against Sunnis in the interconfessional clash that tears apart the Islamic world. In my view, all the three alleged Russia’s goals can be questioned.

First, Bashar Assad has never been a client of Moscow. He is not a personal friend of Vladimir Putin like former national leaders of Italy or Germany. Bashar Assad does not have powerful lobbyists in Moscow as Saddam Hussein once had. Economically Syria is much less important for Russia than, for instance, neighboring Turkey or even Iraq. When Russian officials argue that their prime concern is the future of the Syrian statehood, not the future of Bashar Assad personally, they are not necessarily trying to deceive the West. To get another Libya in Syria, much closer to the South Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia proper is not an attractive option for decision makers in the Kremlin. Bashar Assad and his regime, in this sense, are nothing but instruments to avoid chaos and anarchy in Syria. Are these instruments indispensable? Probably, not. But so far all the efforts of US and its partners to present a consolidated Syrian opposition as a credible alternative to the regime in Damascus do not look very convincing from the Moscow’s viewpoint.

Second, the idea that Moscow is desperately trying to push the United States out of the Middle East fits nicely into the standard Cold War logic, but does not convincingly explain the recent Russia’s moves in the region. If Washington is the main competitor, why offer US to work together on chemical weapons in Syria? Or to collaborate with Americans on the Iranian nuclear dossier? Decision makers in the Kremlin might be generally anti-Western and anti-US, but they are definitely not crazy. They should understand that Russia has no resources and no interest in replacing the United States in the Middle East as the next hegemonic power. And if Washington does withdraw from the Arab world, it is likely to leave behind itself a vacuum to be filled with radical fundamentalist forces equally hostile to the West and to Russia. Russia needs US in the region, tough it insists that the current American policies in the Middle East starting with the Iraqi war of 2003 are ill conceived, poorly implemented and, in the end of the day, mostly counterproductive.

Third, the Sunni – Shia explanation of the Russian strategy looks linear and schematic at best. To start with, the Damascus army does not include only Shias, there are many Sunnis fighting on the Assad’s side as well.  In the Arab world, one of the closest Russia’s partners and friends is Egypt that happens to be the largest Arab Sunni country. The majority of twenty million plus Russian Moslems is Sunni and it would be politically suicidal for any regime in Moscow to align with Shias against Sunnis abroad. However, since Moscow is committed to fighting against ISIS, the pure military logic pushes it to building alliances with whoever has most fighting capacities on the ground. For a variety of reasons, Sunni states of the Gulf or most of other Arab Sunnis are not in a position to commit substantial ground forces to a joint anti-ISIS campaign.

Russia managed to take the lead in the dramatic events taking place these days in Syria and around Syria. Its positions cannot be ignored and no settlement is possible without a Russia’s participation. However, one should not overestimate the role of Russia – or the role of any other non-regional power – in mid-term and long-term evolution of the Middle East. The region has entered a historically unprecedented cycle of social, economic and political transformation that is likely to last until at least the middle of this century. The future of the Arab world will depend mostly on successes or failures of its own regional centers of gravity – like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. As for external factors affecting the Arab world, the influence of overseas’ players is likely to get less significant, while the influence of neighboring non-Arab states (Iran, Turkey, Israel) is likely to grow further. Whether this change of gravity from global to the regional actors if beneficial for the Arab world, remains to be seen.

First published in Aspenia

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