Russia's stagnating influence in the Middle East
    Bitter end in Syria

    ANALYTICS  30 November 2022 - 14:41

    Fuad Shahbazov

    Since Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, Moscow has witnessed a steady decline of influence in its immediate neighbourhood, including in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Given Russia's historic role in these strategically important regions for many years, its waning influence in the Middle East should not come as a surprise. Russia's deep engagement with the region happened when its military contingent was deployed in Syria in 2015 to support Bashar Assad's regime amid a mass revolt against the government.

    Although Russia’s intervention somehow contributed to the strengthening of Assad’s regime, it did not fully cease the long-term civil war in the country. The partial success may also be attributed to the fact that other regional powers like Iran and Turkey also have had interests in taking part active role in the process to boost their influence.

    Nevertheless, Moscow managed to preserve a leading role in the process by establishing a physical footprint, though only for a short time. In the wake of military failures in Ukraine and economic sanctions, Russia gradually lost influence in many regions, including the Middle East. Russia’s inability to deliver a meaningful impact has been apparently contrasting its ambitions to fill the power vacuum in the Middle East and replace the United States (US) as the main power.

    In the Middle East, Syria still remains the main exhibit of Russia's power, but it is now heavily undersupplied due to the fact that Moscow has drawn down forces in Syria, including removing a sophisticated air defence system. The transfer of the S-300 anti-aircraft system out of Syria comes amid a larger Russian drawdown in the country as it seeks to bolster its faltering offensive against Ukraine. In August 2022, satellite images provided by Israeli intelligence appeared to show an S-300 battery being moved from Masyaf in northwest Syria to a port at Tartus and then on to Novorossiysk, a Russian port on the Black Sea near Crimea.

    Indeed, Russia denies the reports of sending additional troops to Ukraine, but sources had varying estimates about how many troops were withdrawn — two of them claimed two battalions, or between 1,200 and 1,600 soldiers, while the other claimed it was far more. But they all agreed that the number of combat troops had been reduced. Also, according to ACLED data, Russia’s air strikes in Syria returned to pre-Ukraine war levels shortly, but with the continuing withdrawal of troops, regional security issues became more complicated. Simultaneously, reducing Russian involvement in Syria gives more leverage to regional rivals like Iran and Türkiye.

    Iran has gradually turned Syria into a proxy battleground as Russia's war against Ukraine is waged to diminish Moscow's influence. Syria is a core pillar of Iran’s strategy in the Middle East, while some Iranian officials even view Syria as being part of Iran. For example, Mehdi Taeb, a confidant of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, once famously said that Syria is Iran’s “35th province… if we lose Syria, we won’t be able to hold Tehran.” Moreover, as of September 2022, Iran set up new recruitment centres in the countryside to the south of the city of Qamishli. Run by Hajj Mahdi, the local commander of Lebanese Hezbollah and the representative of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Hasakah, these recruitment centres aim to attract new members.

    However, Iran appears to be not the only country that benefits from Russia’s waning influence, as Ankara also recently obtained a greater role in controlling the conflict in Syria, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has made painstaking efforts to dissuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from launching yet another offensive operation. Although Moscow and Ankara held initial discussions before the Turkish troops launched a ground operation in Syria, Russia would likely fail in preventing the upcoming operation.

    The weakness of Russia is aggravated by the much-reduced flow of military-technical supplies to Syria that is supposed to ensure its superiority. Another important issue is that Russia's significant losses in Ukraine cannot be fulfilled due to the imposed international sanctions preventing the country from importing necessary equipment for manufacturing additional defence products. As Russia faces more economic sanctions, its ability to support the Syrian government financially and diplomatically will be hampered. The world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and moving away from Syria.

    The worsening global security cataclysms stemming from the Russo-Ukraine war stagnated Moscow's influence in the Middle East, making possible conflict resolution in Syria more complicated. The Syrian conflict is a regional and international disaster, but the Russian interlocutors are crucial in the process of a final political solution.


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