Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Russia’s Influence in the Middle East (2020)

official welcoming
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) is received by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, during an official welcoming in the Emirati capital’s Al-Watan presidential palace on October 15, 2019. Photo: KARIM SAHIB / AFP

Russia demonstrated its increasing influence in the Middle East when President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Saudi Arabia on 14 October 2019, his first in more than ten years, before making his way to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At the same time, Moscow has deployed troops in northern Syria, filling a role left empty by the withdrawing United States (US).

Russia has previously enjoyed strong ties with Iran, which is allied with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad who has been engaged in a civil war against his opponents since 2011. Russia sent troops to the region in 2015, whereas Saudi Arabia has backed Syrian rebels.

Now Russian ties with the Gulf kingdom are being strengthened with the two nations signing a number of agreements on energy cooperation, seeing a new alliance emerge.

As US troops pulled out of Syria, green lighting a Turkish cross-border offensive and abandoning its Kurdish allies, Russian-backed forces moved into Kurdish territory. Russia’s motivations, according to officials, is to keep Turkish and Syrian government troops apart.

The approximately 1,000 US troops withdrawn from Syria will be redeployed in Iraq, Kuwait and possibly Jordan. According to a US official, operations against the Islamic State group could be carried out across the border from Iraq.

Despite its foreseeable ramifications, Washington condemned the Turkish incursion, and the security vacuum left by US troop withdrawal allowed Syrian government forces to fill the void and seize a number of towns held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The SDF had been collaborating with the US in locations including Tel Tamer, where a large Assyrian Christian community is based, Tabqa, which hosts a large hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River, and Ein Issa, where US forces were recently based.

Battles took place at a number of Syrian border towns, and both Turkish and Syrian government troops were heading to Manbij where US troops have had outposts since 2017.

Claiming its offensive was to secure its border and establish a ‘safe zone’ inside Syria – although some see it as an attempt to destroy Kurdish autonomy in the region – Turkey agreed to a 120-hour ceasefire so that the SDF could retreat from the safe zone in return for the US removing sanctions it imposed on Ankara.

Already, 154 SDF fighters have been killed, as have 128 fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian factions. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians have been displaced.

Russia's influence in Middle East
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP

In another unexpected shift in alliances, Syria struck a deal with Kurdish forces to take the northern border as the Kurds remain vulnerable and unable to stave off the Turkish onslaught.

While Russian-backed troops were allegedly deployed to keep Syrian and Turkish forces away from each other, Putin met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Putin says he has friendly relations. Both rulers claimed bilateral relations were important for regional security and stability and agreed that energy cooperation would achieve this.

Russia’s oil market has traditionally rivalled the Organization of the Petroleum Exportin Countries (OPEC), but its alliance with the Gulf petrostate has formed OPEC+, which has pledged to support crude prices by restraining output.

In addition, Putin volunteered Russian defence systems to Saudi Arabia following an attack on a major oil facility there in September and a role in mediating with Iran. This is likely to displease Washington, which arranged for 3,000 of its own troops to aid security as well as additional air defence systems.

Yet according to Saudi senior foreign ministry official Adel al-Jubeir, there is no contradiction in having close ties with Russia and they would not have “any negative impact on our relationship with the United States”.

As well as over a dozen memoranda of understanding signed between the two states, further cooperation on natural gas may also be on the cards. The Russian Direct Investment Fund announced a deal to acquire 30 per cent of state oil company Saudi Aramco, with the Saudis acquiring a 30 per cent share in Russian oil equipment supplier Novomet and a $600 million deal to invest in a Russian aircraft leasing business.

Some progress was already been made for Russia to access Saudi and Middle East markets after the kingdom agreed in August to relax rules on wheat imports. Putin also visited the UAE to reportedly table over $1.3 billion of deals covering energy, advanced technology and health.

It is unclear if Washington is worried about these new Russia-Gulf alliances, but in response to Russia’s move to bolster its position as a power broker in Syria, Kelly Craft, US ambassador to the United Nations, said that Washington was “deeply concerned”.

Moscow’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said that “no one is interested” in fighting between Syrian government troops and Turkish forces and that Russia “is not going to allow it”.

Russia’s increasing reach sees it not just allied with al-Assad and the Iranians on one side of the geopolitical divide but also with Saudi Arabia on the other. Iran and Saudi Arabia have a strained history and have been engaged in a number of proxy wars in recent times. Tensions reached an all-time high after Saudi Arabia blamed the September drone and missile attack on its oil facility on Iran.

“Russia sees a strategic interest to be deeply involved in [arenas of danger] in the Middle East,” said Hady Amr, a former Obama diplomat and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It is more than happy to step in and influence because it’s a useful thing to have, not only in the immediate term but in the long term as well.”

Regarding whether Russia could potentially play a mediating role between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Amr said, “There’s always been a sort of hegemon that [has tried to prevent] conflict in the Gulf…. Since World War Two, it’s been the Americans.”

He added, “The region is desperate for a major global power to keep the peace in some way. Russia may very well be that candidate. And why not have it be useful for Russia to have both Iran and Saudi beholden to it to some extent?”

For Russia, extending its hand to the region might indeed be useful; for Saudi Arabia, the decision appears more pragmatic as its once go-to allies for economic cooperation have been the US and Europe. However, the Saudis have several reasons to no longer trust the West and to seek support elsewhere.

In 2011, Western countries turned their back on long-time ally President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and in 2015, signed the Iran nuclear deal, not to mention widely condemning Saudi policies amid allegations surrounding the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the ongoing war in Yemen.

As far as the current administration goes, “President Trump has demonstrated that the United States under him is not an ally,” according to Amr.

“We reneged on the nuclear deal with Iran. We pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement at the drop of a hat and [announced withdrawal from northern Syria]. What do people do when [local actors] realize their partners are entirely unreliable? They look for other partners,” he said.

As traditional alliances are rejigged in the Middle East, there may be growing influence from Moscow. But this does not preclude other actors pursuing business interests, and Chinese delegates may soon be seen in Riyadh as well. For now, the US is still part of Saudi Arabia’s inner circle.