Russia is in a tight spot. Gone from its state media TASS are stories of its great military and diplomatic victories, replaced with the difficulties of the COVID-19 crisis.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN ,JPOST MAY 24, 2020
TURKEY-BACKED Syrian rebel fighters walk through a field of flowers in Idlib’s southern countryside, in Syria in April
Russia had a run of success in the Middle East between 2015 and 2020. It had intervened in Syria, browbeaten the Americans and was selling its air-defense systems all over the world, including to NATO member Turkey. Every country in the Middle East seemed to rely on Vladimir Putin for something.
But now Russia is in a tight spot. Gone from its state media TASS are stories of its great military and diplomatic victories, replaced with the difficulties of the COVID-19 crisis. On Sunday, Moscow said it would send $1.4 billion to 56 regions where declining revenues are hurting local governments.
Not so long ago, Russia seemed to be all things to everyone. It has interfered in a US election, defeated Georgia, annexed Ukraine, it was in Syria to stay, its military police were running around near the Golan border, and it was brokering deals as the US withdrew in the face of a Turkish invasion.
Russia was in Baghdad pitching air defense, it was hanging out with the Iranians and Turks in Sochi, Putin was sharing ice cream with Ankara, and it was sending air-defense systems to Eastern Europe, plucking up one country after another.
Putin was holding court with China, India, Iran and countries in Central Asia as well, talking about a new world order where the US was no longer the global hegemony and it would be a “multipolar” world. Meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA) appeared to show Russia in the driver’s seat last June.
What happened since then? Russia has been hard-pressed to deal with Turkey over Syria. Moscow enabled Turkey’s invasions of Syria, opening the skies for Turkey to eviscerate Afrin, and then smiling as Turkey pushed the Americans out of eastern Syria.
US partner forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces, were humiliated as they had trusted the US and destroyed their own defenses, only to watch Turkish tanks and Syrian rebel extremists attack and hunt them down.
Russia stepped in as the grand negotiator to save the day, supposedly, and help heal eastern Syria. Kurds would not have to flee their cities, and Russian military patrols with Turkey would keep the peace. Russia was the sheriff from the Euphrates to the Golan to Idlib.
But it seems the sheriff couldn’t do everything. After having worked with Turkey on eastern Syria, the Russian-backed Syrian regime launched an offensive in Idlib. Turkish units poured in, and Turks were killed. Turkey launched a massive drone attack on Syrian regime forces.
Russia and Turkey signed a deal for joint patrols. That appeared to stop the crisis. But Russia’s air-defense systems, supplied to the Syrians, appeared to be failing. They weren’t stopping air strikes that Syria blamed on Israel or the Turkish drones.
Moscow then watched its role in Libya appear to be challenged by Turkey. Turkey poured munitions into Libya and in mid-May helped the Tripoli-based government begin to push the Russian-backed Khalifa Haftar back.
The Russian Pantsir air-defense system was humiliated. Once again, the great Russian chess game to control the Middle East appeared to have met a Bobby Fischer. Where was the Russian deal to sort out Libya and bubbling conflict in Syria. Instead, media reports were filled with rumors that Russia might ditch Bashar Assad and Haftar.
US officials were chuffed, with James Jeffrey, the Syria envoy, continually talking about making Syria a “quagmire” for Russia and giving Russia an out in Syria. He has mentioned that Russia could distance itself from Iran and the Assad regime.
Russia may have bitten off too much and tried to be too many things to too many people in the Middle East. For a few years it appeared that Jerusalem, Riyadh, Cairo, Ankara, Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad and basically everyone was looking to Russia for discussions about the region.
The haphazard US policy of zigzags had left most US allies and partners worried. Russia appears to be serious when it backs an ally. After all, Russia is consistent and doesn’t seem to let its friends get defeated. But its friends – in places like Abkhazia, an autonomous republic of Georgia; Transnistria, a breakaway state of Moldova; or Donetsk, a Russian-backed proto-state in the eastern Ukrainian Oblast of Donetsk – don’t exactly seem to prosper. The Assad regime has been hollowed out, and its apparent victories in 2018 and 2019 are now less clear.
There is no doubt that Moscow’s clout in the region is still strong and that the Russian brand is seen as reliable. The US has abandoned partners like the Kurds in eastern Syria and appeared to have a policy that lacks clarity in places like Iraq and Lebanon. While the US worked with te Iranian-backed government in Baghdad in 2017 to punish the Kurdish region for a referendum, it now wants strategic dialogue.
The US condemns Hezbollah but seems to let funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces bolster Hezbollah’s grip. The US is trying to leave Afghanistan, where Russia will surely rush in, while working with Qatar, which backed the Taliban, while also working with the UAE and leaving behind a lot of questions about Washington’s commitment.
US officials seems to spread mixed messages, with some US diplomats being so pro-Turkey that they privately call US partners in Syria “terrorists,” while other US diplomats work with those partners and call Turkish-backed Syrian rebels “jihadists.” It’s difficult to have a policy when one part of the government in Washington is actually at war with another part that is using proxies in the Middle East.
But Russia’s supposedly reliable policy that Middle Eastern countries, which are increasingly authoritarian, looked to also lacks clarity. Russia sells S-400s to Turkey and invites Turkey’s leader for ice cream, while Russia backs Assad. Russia opens Syrian air space for Turkey sometimes but then may coordinate with the regime to target Turkish forces another day.
Russia sort of supports Haftar in Libya, but it doesn’t bother to provide the right training for air-defense systems against Turkish drones. Russia sacrifices its people in Syria, sending contractors on an ill-fated attack near Kasham in February 2018 – and then pretending nothing happened. Russian contractors spread out across Africa have a similar lack of clarity about who backs them.
Russia also sends mixed messages regarding things like keeping Iran away from the Golan. Rumors in media outlets then portray Moscow as enabling air strikes on Iran in Syria but not giving proper guidance for Syrian S-300s.
Syrian air defenders are so incompetent they downed a Russian jet and fired an S-200 that hit Cyprus once. Russia, supposedly the master of misinformation, has proved incredibly ham-handed in Syria when it comes to dealing with misinformation that seems to target Moscow’s policies.
Maybe the problem is Moscow still suffers from the Boris Spassky problem, using a team of heavies to look over his chess games and plan ahead.
No system works forever. Russia performed well for years in the Middle East, and its track record of consistent policies made it a country that many could talk to. It balanced US hegemony, which some welcomed.
But trying to do a little in Libya, when Turkey does a lot, and trying to talk with all sides in Syria sometimes comes to naught. Moscow doesn’t mind because it has time on its hands. But the current COVID-19 crisis means it is focused at home, and countries such as Turkey are moving forward in places like Libya. Russia’s “all things to all people” brand may be harmed this year.