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Beyond and After Syria: The Scope of Russia’s Middle Eastern Triumphs

The magnitude of Russia’s significant gains in the Middle East due to strategic incompetence demonstrated by the United States and Turkey has become increasingly clear. The Kremlin achieved this outcome not solely by the brilliance of its policies, though it has proceeded with considerable deftness. Rather, it has exploited or benefited from monumental U.S. and Turkish strategic errors, the latest one being Washington’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds and Ankara’s ill-advised forcible creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria. Few analysts have reckoned with the full scope of Moscow’s leverage in Syria and beyond, in the wider region.

Turkish and U.S. Missteps

Despite taking in millions of refugees and creating a regional crisis by trying to launch what many reports suggest is a version of ethnic cleansing in northern Syria, Turkey has only managed to increase Russia’s enormous leverage over its policies and over Syria. Moscow has successfully asserted itself alongside Ankara as the guarantor of northern Syria. Russia now guarantees that the Syrian Kurdish militia, YPG, will not enter the zone that it jointly patrols with Turkish forces. Thus Russia has neutralized Turkey’s efforts to unseat Bashar al-Assad, forced Ankara to accept its joint role in patrolling the Syrian territories that Turkey had coveted as a sphere of influence, and compelled the Turks to accept Russian suzerainty over al-Assad. 

The Syrian battlespace is not the only place where Moscow has pressured Ankara. Russia supplies about 60 percent of Turkey’s annual natural gas imports. This could increase when the Turkstream pipeline opens next year. Furthermore, Russia is offering to help Turkey market any hydrocarbons it finds in its allegedly illegal explorations in Cyprus’ Economic Exclusion Zone. Moscow’s robust anti-access and area defense zones include much of Turkey and the Black Sea, along with Syria and the Caucasus. This makes potential NATO aerial operations in support of Turkey quite hazardous. 

Additionally, Russia has gone beyond delivering the S-400 air defense system and discussing joint production with Turkey to offer it the new fifth-generation Su-57 (NATO designation Felon) fighter jet, potentially enhancing Russian influence over Turkish defense procurements and industry. There are unconfirmed reports that Moscow might sell Ankara the Su-35 fighter in the meantime. These moves, taken in their totality, indicate the erosion of Turkey’s ties to NATO and the West. They also demonstrate that Putin’s 20 year harvesting of Russo-Turkish ties and exploitation of the growing discord with the West is paying ever increasing and accelerating dividends.

Meanwhile, Washington’s abandonment of the Kurds – or betrayal, as the Kurds see it – benefits both Ankara and Moscow. Russia has already used this decision to gain a decisive influence in the Syrian Kurdish issue, but this influence likely will stretch beyond northern Syria. The Kurds no longer can rely on America and therefore have nowhere to turn for succor but to Moscow. But Moscow has also unobtrusively inserted itself as an interlocutor between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish community by making arms and energy deals with those parties. Russia’s influence over Iran is also considerable and could come into play in Iran’s Kurdish issue. 

Russia has exploited Turkey’s hostility toward its Armenian and Kurdish communities since 1980 and has been, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan charged in 2016, a prime supporter of Kurdish terrorism inside Turkey. Moscow can use the Kurds against Turkey as little or as much as it deems necessary. It did not have to be this way. Erdogan’s initial winning coalition in 2003 included Turkey’s Kurds, and early in his tenure as prime minister he seemed intent on finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish quandary inside Turkey. But Erdogan has become increasingly dependent on the support of Turkish nationalists who adamantly oppose any concessions to the Turkish Kurds and who view the YPG as a Syrian arm of the Turkish Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party. 

Their pressure, along with Turkey’s increasingly belligerent assertions as a great regional power, has helped generate an obsessive focus on weakening Kurdish institutions within Syria. Indeed, Dutch intelligence has reported that Turkish intelligence to some degree cooperated with ISIS, an even greater enemy of the Kurds in Syria, thus impelling them toward the alliance with America. Now that U.S. President Donald Trump has upended the Kurdish-U.S. relationship, the Kurds need another ally. Undoubtedly that will be Russia, despite its collaboration with Ankara. Even now, Turkey finds it difficult to pacify the zone it has carved out of Syria; when the time comes, the Kurds will give Moscow even more leverage against Ankara.

Consequences Beyond Syria

But Moscow’s triumphs transcend Syria and Turkey. Russia’s victory in Syria has forced Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to take it more seriously, giving Russia a position alongside Saudi Arabia as a key price setter for the global energy market. Moreover, Moscow will likely be asked to somehow mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and Gulf States like the United Arab Emirates are investing huge sums in Russia through their sovereign wealth funds and other economic instruments, helping Moscow circumvent sanctions. The UAE has become a key Russian enabler, talking Moscow up in Africa and encouraging African states to solicit Russian support. Israel’s higher-ups have dramatically awoken to America’s unreliability and believe that Russia alone has sufficient influence over Iran to restrain it from expanding its threat capabilities against Israel.

Turning toward Egypt, the Sahel, and North Africa, we find Moscow making all manner of economic and military deals. It conducts air defense exercises with Egypt. It sends “political technologists” and mercenaries, as well as money, to Libya to support Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s insurgency, and it solicits Sudanese support to obtain the offer of a base that former President Omar Bashir had offered before his overthrow. Meanwhile Russia has acquired facilities in Eritrea and Somaliland while clearly angling for bases in Egypt, Libya, and Algeria, along with energy deals. This extends Moscow’s comparable efforts to obtain energy leverage in the Eastern Mediterranean and through European pipelines in the Baltic and through Turkey.

In other words, American and Turkish strategic blunders have enabled Moscow to reap the harvest of its steadfast support of al-Assad and its unwillingness to take sides in the Middle East’s endless internecine struggles. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown his mastery of the logic of so called limited war. Syria could still become a quagmire, but the many predictions of this since 2014 have failed to materialize. Those who expect such an outcome should be cautious about proclaiming that this outcome is near.

In the meantime, we can expect Moscow to seek, however cautiously, to extend its winnings. The recent summit with African states would have been inconceivable without the successes of Syria and the resulting boost in Russian self-confidence and influence over Middle Eastern states, some of whom collaborate with it in Africa. While the UAE has become a Russian enabler here, Egypt co-chaired the summit in Sochi with African states. Similarly, we see the proliferating dispersal of private military forces not only in Libya and Syria but in Mozambique and the Central African Republic, as well as efforts to mediate inter-African disputes, e.g. between Egypt and Ethiopia. 

Because Washington has no discernibly coherent policy for any region in the world, thanks to the current administration’s visible strategic incompetence, erstwhile allies already wonder if they will be left in the lurch. Thus, they are beginning to consider improving their ties with Moscow. Trump and Erdogan have given Putin enormous, unreciprocated gifts for which many nations will be paying the price in the future. But it is not merely that Moscow has benefitted from others’ strategic errors. Putin can, like Bismarck, say that he does not want to learn from his mistakes but exploit those of other governments, as he continues doing in the Middle East. 

Dr. Stephen Blank is an independent consultant and former professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers, and monographs – specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia, and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.