Russia in the Middle East: From the Arab Uprisings to the Syrian Conundrum

The Russian perception of the Arab Spring is one of a geopolitical power play, which explains Russia’s limited interest in Tunisia and Egypt compared to its heavy involvement in Syria. Russia is unlikely to concede to leaving Syria as Syria is the place for Russia to balance the Western powers in the region while simultaneously carving out an influence zone for its own foreign policy. Thus, understanding Russia’s approach to the Arab Uprisings is a key factor in analysing Russian presence in Syria and its regional foreign policy.

Abstract

The Russian perception of the Arab Spring is one of a geopolitical power play, which explains Russia’s limited interest in Tunisia and Egypt compared to its heavy involvement in Syria. Russia is unlikely to concede to leaving Syria as Syria is the place for Russia to balance the Western powers in the region while simultaneously carving out an influence zone for its own foreign policy. Thus, understanding Russia’s approach to the Arab Uprisings is a key factor in analysing Russian presence in Syria and its regional foreign policy.

At the outset of the Arab Spring in early 2011, only few expected Russia to play a major role.  Five years down the line, it has become one of the critical players in the region.  President Vladimir Putin’s unwavering support for Bashar al-Assad has changed the course of the civil war in Syria and dealt a heavy blow to the notion that old-school authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are a thing of the past.  Intervention has its limits: Russia cannot be a hegemonic power, let alone provide a model for the region, nor does it have such ambitions. Yet, it has provided ample evidence of its ability to exert influence, shape events, and further its interests in the process.

Russia’s attitude to the Arab Spring

There are two main reasons why Russia has emerged as one of the most vocal detractors of the political changes in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring.
The first one reflects deep-seated beliefs. Putin, the political elite, pro-Kremlin media and experts all argue that the toppling of legitimate governments through street demonstrations can only breed chaos.  According to them, the end result of “regime change” is the proliferation of failed states, the advance of radical groups wreaking havoc across national borders and giving rise to instability, terrorism, and mass migration.1

In his most recent state-of-the-nation address, Putin levelled accusations at the U.S. and its allies of turning Iraq, Libya and Syria into “a zone of chaos and anarchy threatening the whole world”.2 The aversion to street revolutions is also a projection of Russia’s own experience. After all, it was “people power”, both in the constituent republics and in the Russian core, that brought down the Soviet Union, an event that Putin has famously called “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”.

Through its turbulent history Russia has seen its fair share of revolts, revolutions and civil wars. The persistent fear of discord and disintegration strengthens the belief amongst considerable parts of the governing elite (especially the so-called siloviki coming from the ranks of the army and the security services) in order imposed from above – if needed, imposed with an iron fist.

Russia claims to be standing for stability, legality and order.  Rather than simply supporting autocrats, some of whom it might find disagreeable too, Moscow’s main concern is the prevention of disorder. In that sense, the sclerotic authoritarian regimes that used to hold power across the Middle East since the 1950s, many of them aligned with the Soviets, are preferable to the fragmentation and extremism following in their wake.  Moscow has never been starry-eyed about Arab dictators, often using close links with Russia to clinch a better deal from the West, but at least they have been a known entity.  Their reign, in Russian view, was not producing problems threatening to spill over outside the Middle East.

The democracy promotion agenda is frowned upon as an instrument for U.S. domination deployed against Russia, whether in the “near abroad” or more distant regions such as the Middle East and North Africa.

The second argument is strategic and stems from self-interest, as defined by the Kremlin. Russia has seen one after another of its allies and friends, from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003 to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya eight years later, swept from power as a result of U.S.-led interventions.  When protesters crowd the streets of a capital city to demand a leader to step down, as happened in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004-5; 2013-4), Tunisia and Egypt (2011), Moscow suspects foul play by the West.  The democracy promotion agenda is frowned upon as an instrument for U.S. domination deployed against Russia, whether in the “near abroad” or more distant regions such as the Middle East and North Africa.  Obama’s policy of indirect support is no different, according to this view, from the more muscular approach to the spread of democracy pursued by the George W. Bush administration in its own day.

What truly matters to Moscow, when the chips are down, are the consequences, not motives.  More often than not, regime change means setback and loss.  That argument has been voiced time and again, including by Putin himself:  “in the countries that have gone through . . . [the Arab Spring,] Russian companies are losing the positions they built up over the decades on local markets. . . Economic actors from the same countries that lent a hand to changing the ruling regimes are now stepping in to fill the niches that have been freed up.”3 According to Moscow, it is a zero-sum world and the notion that everyone benefits in the same way — Middle Eastern societies, the West, and Russia — is viewed as little more than a window-dressing to justify U.S. expansionist agenda. What is at stake, therefore, is Moscow’s prestige with allies and adversaries alike – “we are not giving up our own” (svoikh ne sdavaem), as the saying goes.

At the very bottom, Russia’s hostility is driven by the fear that it, too, can wind up as a target of regime change. From Kyiv’s Maidan to Tahrir Square, the Kremlin sees a common scenario at play implemented by U.S. and European NGOs and governments which could well hit home.
Addressing a session of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee in Vladikavkaz (capital of the autonomous republic of North Ossetia) in February 2011, President Dmitry Medvedev warned about the disintegration of “densely populated states in the Middle East” and the rise of “fanatics” to power to remark “Earlier, they were preparing such a scenario for us, but now they will try to carry it out. In any case, the scenario will not pass.”4   According to that view, the spread of “extremism” could compromise Russia’s domestic stability and greatly diminish its standing in global affairs. The opposition protests in the winter of 2011-12 against electoral fraud in the Duma elections seemed to vindicate such fears on the Kremlin’s part.  Despite its high popularity ratings and firm grip over the media the Putin regime continues to feel vulnerable. This perception is only strengthened by economic recession, low oil prices, budget cutbacks, and Western sanctions.

Responses to change in the Middle East and North Africa

Russia’s policies are informed by the belief that the Arab Uprisings are bad news yet they also show a degree of flexibility. The fact that the people who run the state views changes in the Middle East with a mixture of scepticism and apprehension, does not mean that they are in the business of underwriting the status quo or rolling back pro-democracy movements no matter what. In actual fact, Moscow’s policy is often pragmatic, adaptive and even opportunistic. Conscious of its limited resources and leverage, the Kremlin is picking its battles carefully. It is only in Syria that Russia has intervened to roll back the Arab Spring – at the UN, by arming Bashar al-Assad, and most recently by “boots on the ground”.  In all other cases, Russia has watched from the sidelines, sat on the fence, and engaged the new governments coming to power after the popular uprisings.

Conscious of its limited resources and leverage, the Kremlin is picking its battles carefully.

To understand Russia’s response to the Arab Spring one has to go back further in time.  More than five years before that, Lebanon became the scene of mass protests known as “the Cedar Revolution”.  Triggered by the assassination of former prime minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri, the popular rallies demanded, amongst other things, the resignation of the pro-Damascus government of Omar Karami, the withdrawal of Syrian forces and an international investigation into the death of the former prime minister. One would expect Moscow to fully side with Syria and its Shi’a proxies in Lebanon. However, Moscow sought to strike a balance.  On the one hand, it joined France, U.S. and Germany at the UN Security Council for full implementation of Resolution 1559 — even though it had abstained during its adoption back in September 2004. It did not block Resolutions 1636 (31 October 2005) and 1757 (30 May 2007) setting up an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s murder, having spared no criticism of the notion that an external body could probe into Syria’s domestic affairs.

Moscow offered to sell arms the Lebanese military and thus contribute to the state’s fragile sovereignty — even though it would have been a drop in the ocean compared to the support rendered to Syria and, less directly, Hezbollah.   On the other hand, Russia did its best to dilute the UN’s response, drive a wedge in the anti-Syria “March 14” coalition in Lebanon by reaching out to old friends such as the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and position itself as an intermediary between the West and Assad (and his Iranian patrons).  In other words, Russia saw the Cedar Revolution primarily through the lens of balance of power, rather than in purely ideological terms.  It hedged its bets and tried to profit from a crisis without overcommitting.

Cost-benefit analysis explains why Russia’s reaction to the street revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt was overall muted.  For one, Moscow was not heavily invested with either Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak.  The aging autocrats had their main allies found in the West where governments were concerned about issues such as cross-Mediterranean migration and the spread of radical Islam. French Foreign Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie went down in history with the offer to help Tunisian authorities quell the wave of protests. Once a Soviet client, Egypt had made a U-turn in the 1970s to build strong security ties with the U.S.  Thanks to its sheer size and its massive tourist sector, the Arab republic was one of the main trading partners of Russia in the region, but still lagging far behind to Number 34 in the overall list. In a nutshell, the stakes for Moscow were not as significant as, for instance, the U.S.

The Muslim Brotherhood had been included in Moscow’s list of terrorist organizations with a Supreme Court decision from 2003.

To be sure, Russia’s reaction was predictably sceptical. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of a threat of instability spreading from North Africa to Afghanistan and thence to Central Asia.5 The Muslim Brotherhood had been included in Moscow’s list of terrorist organizations with a Supreme Court decision from 2003, on account of its alleged links with radicals in the Northern Caucasus such as the Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev. Yet, Russia was open to work with the new rulers in Cairo and Tunis.  At the end of March 2011, Lavrov visited Egypt to discuss with Marshall Tantawi and Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi the restart of economic cooperation (Russian tourist visits shot up by 35% the following year). It was prepared to work with the Muslim Brotherhood too, once Mohammed Morsi was elected president in June 2012.  Morsi visited Vladimir Putin in Sochi in April 2013, soliciting a USD 2 billion loan with a promise to establish “a real union with the Russian Federation”, a supplier of 40% of Egypt’s wheat.6 However, Putin would not oblige as he saw no reason to support a government backing anti-Assad opposition in Syria.

Lastly, Russia threw its weight fully behind the regime installed after the coup in July 2013. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi had his first foreign trip as president to Moscow in August 2014, having already been there twice as minister of defence. Overall, Russia acted flexibly.  Maintaining good relations with Egypt trumped other concerns about popular revolutions and their consequences.  The likes of Tantawi and al-Sissi have certainly been a better option, but Moscow could well live with an Ikhwan leadership.

Putin would not oblige as he saw no reason to support a government backing anti-Assad opposition in Syria.

Tunisia and its democratization process have been a marginal issue in Moscow.  However, in that case too, Russia has shown willingness to boost ties with Ben Ali’s successors in government.  The main concern is keeping hundreds of thousands of Russian holiday makers out of harm’s way.  Recurrent terrorist attacks against tourists in the North African republic have added to an increase of such fears, just like in Egypt where an alleged bomb planted at a Russian airliner crash led to the death of 224 people in November 2015. As ever, security tops Russia’s list of priorities.

Russia’s response to the Arab Spring has culminated with Libya and Syria. In Libya, Moscow stuck to its habitual approach of avoiding confrontation with the West. It abstained at the UN Security Council vote on a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi from drowning in blood the rebellion against his rule. In all likelihood, the Russian leadership, Putin included, had accepted that the strongman’s days were numbered and was not willing to risk coming to his rescue.

Syria turned out to be an entirely different story. Moscow’s position underwent a turnaround. The Kremlin blamed the West for deceiving Russia over Libya, with Medvedev taking the blame for the decision to give green light to the UK and France’s air campaign. The unbending support for the Syrian regime was justified with the lessons learned. Assad could not be allowed to follow Gaddafi’s unenviable fate. Russia was not to accept yet another setback just to be on the West’s good books. Аs early as October 2011, Russia (together with China) blocked a UN Security Council Resolution calling on Assad to stop the suppression of the opposition. At a press conference with President François Hollande in June 2012, Putin, now president, summed up his views in his very own straight-talking way: “So we all know what sort of a tyrant Gaddafi was, perhaps we do. Bud do you know what happened in Libya afterwards? Why are you not writing about it? What came over here, some sort of a humanitarian heaven? No!”7

In truth, the Russian decision to back Assad against has reflected realities of power. The Syrian president has turned out to be well prepared to fend off the challenge to his rule. He has had no qualms using violence to stay in power and could muster domestic and international support. The U.S. and its allies show limited appetite to enter the fray, as demonstrated by the 2013 failure to intervene following the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, a “red line” set by President Barack Obama. Putin seized a series of opportunities, having calculated that payoff outweighs the cost.  As in 2005, Moscow does some hedging – talking to parts of the opposition and the Gulf countries – but ultimately casts its lot with Assad and his friends in Tehran.  The current military intervention has upped the ante but simultaneously increased Putin’s leverage against a broad array of players: Assad, Iran, the rest of the Middle East, the U.S. and Europe.

Just as Russia accuses the West of using democracy promotion as a pretext to intervene it uses extremism to extend its influence by helping Assad deal with all opposition, regardless of their ideological and political leanings.

What links Russia’s attitude to Syria and to other cases is the primacy of power politics over ideology. The war is not a principled struggle of ideas but a classic exercise in geopolitics. It is true that Russian policymakers talk a lot about the fight against (Islamist) extremism, an evil threatening the whole of humanity.  That is a rhetorical device. It has helped Russia and Assad marginalize and suppress the Arab Spring core narrative about societies’ rising against corrupt authoritarian rulers.  The Daesh threat provides the perfect cover too.  Just as Russia accuses the West of using democracy promotion as a pretext to intervene it uses extremism to extend its influence by helping Assad deal with all opposition, regardless of their ideological and political leanings. The Russian military operation is also an insurance policy that Moscow will have a say in the unlikely event a power-sharing formula is agreed in the multilateral diplomatic talks in Geneva.

Prospects

For Russia, the Arab Spring is effectively over. What remains of it is the struggle for supremacy in a fragmenting and volatile Middle East.  Thanks to Putin’s Syrian gambit, Russia’s influence is on the rise.  At the same time, its impact on domestic politics anywhere in the region is very modest, at best. What Russia could do is intervene selectively, tip the balance one way or another, or trade its leverage against concessions from the West.  The Kremlin is not in a position to pick winners and losers in any country, with the possible exception of Syria. Russia has shown an ability to adapt to change and exploit opportunities. While the stakes in Syria are too high and a putative collapse of Assad will be a terrible setback to Putin, a political transition elsewhere in the Middle East or North Africa, along the lines of the Arab Spring, will not necessarily cause only consternation. Conservative rhetoric aside, Russia will adjust and recalibrate its policy and look for fresh opportunities to secure its political and commercial interests.

What does that mean for Russia’s approach to Syria? Moscow’s preference is clearly to keep Assad in power, even if that means carving out a mini-state in the western parts. It could accept a power-sharing agreement, with or without Assad, only if there are sufficient guarantees its interests would remain intact. That includes the continuation of the security alliance with Damascus and a change of tack by the West leading to a relaxation of the sanctions, full normalization of ties with Moscow and possibly concessions over Ukraine.  Only in such circumstances, Putin could make a U-turn on Syria and even scale down support to the regime without losing face.8   Yet, this is a Plan B for the Kremlin. The current strategy is to use the Geneva talks as a cover for the effort to push opposition forces from the Syrian north-west, help Assad take over Aleppo, and present his opponents and the West with a fait accompli.

Endnotes

1. See Roy Alison, Russia, the West and Military Intervention, Oxford UP, 2013.

2. CBS News, 3 December 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/vladimir-putin-us-western-powers-zone-of-chaos-syria-iraq-libya/

3. Andrey Malashenko, Russia and the Arab Spring, Carnegie Moscow, October 2013, p. 9.

4. Medvedev’s speech available at http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/10408

5.  Russia Today, 2 March 2011; https://www.rt.com/politics/russia-arab-unrest-caucasus/

6.  Moscow Times, 22 April 2013, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/morsi-seeks-union-with-kremlin-fails-to-get-loan/478974.html

7.  Gazeta.RU, 2 June 2012.

8.  There have been media reports suggesting that the recently deceased head of the Russian military intelligence (GRU), General Igor Sergun, had visited Damascus with a mission to convince Bashar al-Assad to resign. The Russian offer was allegedly turned down. Putin has denied such reports. Vladimir Putin has asked Bashar al-Assad to step down, Financial Times, 22 January 2016.

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