The Middle East has experienced firsthand Russia’s significantly growing influence on the global state of affairs, as a result of the rise of the Islamic State group and general instability in the region. The moral and symbolic victory in Syria’s “Stalingrad” — the battle over Aleppo — has elevated the image of an aggressive Russia in the region and around the world. Conversely, the steps the Russians are taking toward mediating peace make it clear they are the ones who call the shots in the country.
First, Russia worked with Turkey, which supports the Sunni opposition forces, to advance a cease-fire deal across Syria (with the exception of the war on Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front) that included a humanitarian passageway in eastern Aleppo to allow the exit of civilians and rebels. As of today, Russian military police are the ones preventing sectarian violence by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Shiite adjuncts toward Sunni citizens.
Moreover, Russia was the first to endorse the Astana peace conference between the Assad regime and representatives from the opposition in Kazakhstan earlier this month. If it were up to Assad and the Iranians, there would not be peace talks but a settling of scores, but the Russian interest in Syria is the deciding factor, and it is based on economic and strategic, not ethnic, interests.
As it works to implement peace initiatives, Moscow has increased the number of attack aircraft in the country. There is evidence of work to expand its aircraft and naval bases on the Syrian coast despite Russia’s promise to decrease its military presence there. In Baghdad, there is a permanent Russian presence in the joint intelligence center it shares with Iraq, Syria and Iran, which was established in 2015 on the Islamic State front. In addition, Russia has provided Iraq with fighter jets and military helicopters. For its part, Iraq has allowed Russia to use its airspace for attacks in Syria.
Egypt and Pakistan signed significant weapons deals with Russia and last year, the three countries held joint military exercises. According to Russian sources, Egypt is expected to authorize Russian use of its naval and air bases, including a base on the Mediterranean Sea that was used to monitor U.S. naval ships during the Cold War. Russia also signed a large weapons deal with Libya, Egypt’s neighbor to the west, despite the U.N. embargo in place since 2011. In another move indicative of the strengthening of ties, Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was the host of an impressive ceremony off the Libyan coast. Even Jordan signed a deal with Russia in 2015, set to take effect in 2017, to establish and operate two nuclear energy plants in Zarqa. Russia’s standing has also improved in the Philippines. In October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced an alliance with Russia and a “separation” from the United States.
What does the near future hold? Moscow’s aspirations could further increase in light of increasing revenue from its export of oil and gas. Since the beginning of January, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other oil exporting countries like Russia began to coordinate a reduction in exports. This led to a 15% increase in the price of oil, and there are those who predict prices will continue to skyrocket in the future. Likewise, Russia will benefit from an increase in both demand for and price of natural gas. This increase in revenue could make it easier for Russia to cope with the painful effects of economic sanctions, the result of its invasion of Ukraine. Incidentally, the coordination on the reduction of oil exports, the war on Islamic State and Russian efforts to reduce ethnic violence in Syria could bring it closer to Saudi Arabia, a country that has always been concerned by Russia’s influence in the region.
Another cause for Russian optimism comes from the direction of Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump has on several occasions alluded to his willingness to improve relations between the countries and promote cooperation with Russia as a means of solving world problems. At the same time, Trump has announced a re-evaluation of trade deals with China and of the relationship with China’s anticommunist rival, Taiwan.
In light of all this, Israel would be wise to strengthen economic and strategic ties with Russia, so as not to place all its eggs in one Western basket. This will prevent a recurrence of the relationship status that survived the Cold War, in which the USSR clearly supported the Arab states. Such a situation would lead to competition between the superpowers and a return to the “Cold War theater” in the region, from which neither the superpowers nor the regional players will benefit.
Dr. Netanel Avneri a lecturer in the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University.