The upsetting images coming out of Syria in October showing the victims of fighting triggered by Turkey’s military action in the northeast of the country has created a new humanitarian crisis in the region.
The Turkish incursion to clear Kurdish forces from a 20-kilometre-wide corridor inside Syria along the Turkish border has killed and maimed scores of civilians as well as fighters, and is reported to have displaced between 160,000 and 300,000 people as they flee the fighting.
For political analysts however, the most significant aspect of the crisis is the geopolitical ramifications of the sudden withdrawal of US troops from northeast Syria ahead of Turkey’s planned action against the Kurdish forces, who it says are terrorists.
US President Donald Trump has made no secret of his intention to remove US forces from the area, announcing it as far back as December 2018. But keeping about 1,000 US soldiers in the area had been seen as one way of preventing action by the US’ Nato partner Turkey against the US’ on-the-ground partner in its war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis).
As well as being seen as a betrayal of an ally, the unexpected US withdrawal changes substantially the political dynamic of the region. In particular, it has provided an opportunity for Russia to increase its influence in the region. The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad is backed by Moscow. By forcing Syria’s Kurds to seek a security alliance with Damascus, Washington has effectively ceded responsibility for events in Syria to Moscow. This is an opportunity Moscow is willing to take.
“Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is an absolute gift to Russia, which the Russians will absolutely capitalise on,” says risk analyst at G4S Risk Consulting Eimear Hennessy.
“Putting Russia up there on the Turkish border will have sweeping ramifications for regional politics. It is going to have significant repercussions for Nato down the line. Turkey is going to start leaning towards Russia rather than Nato as it becomes increasingly squeezed.”
Russia’s close relationship with Damascus is likely also to pay a commercial dividend for Russian companies, which will be first to get any tenders for reconstruction projects.
“The thing I am watching most closely,” says Hennessy, “is how much of a foothold Russia will get in oil and gas exploration all around the Mediterranean Sea. It is going to depend on things calming down in Libya and what happens in Lebanon. This could potentially give Russia a foothold on Europe’s southern border, which is massive.”
Russia is building its position in Lebanon’s oil and gas sector. In May 2018, Beirut awarded an offshore oil and gas exploration licence to Russian gas producer Novatek in a consortium with Italy’s Eni and France’s Total.
In May this year, Novatek was joined in Lebanon’s second offshore licensing round by Russia’s state oil company Lukoil and gas company Gasprom in the bidding for additional exploration licences in a new round of Mediterranean blocks.
In Libya, Moscow has been quietly backing General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the main opposition group to the Turkey-backed government in Tripoli, through small actions such as blocking UN resolutions against Haftar. As well as putting additional pressure on Ankara, this could also offer future opportunities to Russian companies should Haftar, who is also supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, win power in the North African state.
“What Moscow is doing is expanding its presence all around the Mediterranean,” says Hennessey. “Starting in Syria and working its way down the coast.”
While there is no doubt that Russia’s presence in the region has been significantly strengthened by US confusion in Syria, some suggest that Moscow’s Middle East policy is just as confused as Washington’s.
“Russia certainly has some leverage in the region that it didn’t have before,” says Michael Stephens, research fellow for Middle East Studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (Rusi). “They are looking for a way to use their influence in Syria to springboard themselves into greater positions across the region. But I do not see a strategy.”
Despite signing a raft of commercial agreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE during President Putin’s state visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi from 14-16 October, analysts say that Moscow is unlikely to make the same political gains in the GCC as it has in Syria.
“In areas where the US [has a large presence], such as in Iraq and the Gulf, I do not see the Russians having a huge amount of leverage outside of business and commercial contact,” says Stephens. “And particularly in their relationships in the oil industry with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“These commercial oil deals are enormous and there is no doubt that the Gulf Arabs see an engagement with Russia as important. But does that necessarily translate into anything political? I am not so sure,” he continues. “If you look at the escalation of tensions between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Russians did not really do much, and nor could they.”
“I do not think that the Russians have an idea of what regional stability would look like. Their preference would be to have less Western influence there, absolutely.”
CEO of intelligence and investigation consultancy Istok Associates, Neil Barnett, says: “Broadly, Russia seeks a multi-polar world to offset its own relative weakness – weak economy, lack of serious allies, demographic decline, limited cultural power and vast corruption are a drag on Russia and make it difficult for Moscow to exert the influence that it would like to exert on the world.
“Russia’s strategic goal therefore is to weaken its adversaries, breaking up alliances and larger transnational groups. The elegant way of putting it is: divide and rule.
“This geo-strategic thinking only goes so far while the US is on point,” says Barnett. “But the US is not on point, so suddenly the degree of traction that the Russians have has increased. But when you have such negative objectives, the question arises of how you capitalise on success. It is questionable whether or not Russia has the resources and the will to exploit the opportunity, or even knows what to do now.”
So can Russia increase its influence in the Gulf? Speaking at the Rusi in London on 14 October, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK, Prince Khalid bin Bandar al-Saud, said that Riyadh is open to developing its relations with Moscow, but cautiously.
“We have issues,” he said. “The Russians are supporting Iranians, Syrians, some bad players in the region. Does that mean we cannot talk to them? Of course not. If you are not talking to people, you are not getting anywhere. It is not going to cost us anything to talk to the Russians and to try and bring them over to what we think is credible as a policy for the region.
“I think that Putin’s visit [to Riyadh] comes at an incredibly useful time considering what is happening now in northern Syria,” he adds. “Hopefully, we can work from whatever formula they may have.”
While many in the Gulf are opposed to the al-Assad regime in Damascus, the US treatment of Syria’s Kurds has not played well in the region, with some critics saying that the US is displaying a distressing track record of abandoning its allies in the region, citing how Washington did not support the Shah of Iran or President Mubarak of Egypt.
“Whether they really regard Putin as a substitute for America, though, is another matter,” says Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia, US.
“For the most part, the US has supported a specific set of Middle Eastern allies – Israel, Egypt, the Gulf Arabs – against their regional adversaries: Saddam Hussein, Iran, and so on,” says Katz. “Putin, by contrast, does not seem to favour one set of actors over another in most instances, Assad being something of an exception.
“What they like about Putin is that even though he supports their adversaries, he will also do business with the Gulf Arabs. What Putin will not do, though, is abandon those adversaries, especially Iran, in order to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs.
“What Putin seems to want is that Middle Eastern adversaries, no matter how opposed to each other, all have an incentive to court Russia. So far, he has managed this,” says Katz.
“But because Putin supports everyone’s adversary, no Middle Eastern actor can afford to rely only on Russia. As annoyed as they may be with the US, those that have ties to the US are likely to cling to them even as they increase their cooperation with Russia.”