Russia in the Middle East: Part Six

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Jon Alterman: Natasha Hall is now my colleague at CSIS, but in 2015 she was interviewing Syrian refugees in the field, first for the U.S. government and then for a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. She said that when Russia started intervening in Syria, it was like a shock and awe campaign.

Natasha Hall: Civilians on the ground had developed locally organized early warning systems to track the relatively slow-moving Syrian helicopters dropping barrel bombs straight overhead. They were destructive and devastating but people started adapting, using shelters where they could, moving for cover.

But then the Russians brought in fighter jets that seemingly came out of nowhere, destroying schools, hospitals, and whole towns. One of the first victims of this aerial campaign told me that he could tell the Russian air strikes were more powerful. With the barrel bombs, civilians had more time usually to move inside or to the first floor. He said that he lives on the first floor, but the Russians destroy the whole building.

A sense of dread started setting in that the Russians had changed the game at the expense of civilians again. Every time civilians adapted, it seemed like they found new methods to circumvent those self-protection strategies. The Russians began using more powerful bombs and even thermobaric weapons which are more destructive in underground and enclosed structures, which is where a lot of Syrians had moved their hospitals.

When the hospitals were destroyed, more people suffered from general lack of medical care. Women scheduled c-sections in greater numbers because they wanted to avoid the unpredictability of going into labor during aerial bombardments. People who had already survived so much became hopeless, which was clearly the desired effect.

Jon Alterman: Hall says that the Russian entry into the Syria war could be seen as a metaphor for Russia’s overall involvement in the Middle East.

Natasha Hall: It was sudden and destructive. They were putting on a show. In Syria, the world may question US resolve but they won’t question the Russians. It seems like that was the intent.

Jon Alterman: Russia’s greatest interests in Syria were in preventing things from happening and enhancing its reputation. It wasn’t trying to create something new in the region. It was trying to preserve what it had. It was trying to regain what the Soviet Union had lost. And it was trying to check the spread of U.S. influence.

In this series, we will uncover the motivations and implications behind Russia’s political, economic, and security policies in the Middle East. We will look at Russian-U.S. relations in the region, Russian soft power, and how the Middle East views Russia. We’ll discuss Russia’s growing role in the region and the future of Russia’s presence in the Middle East.

In this episode, we’ll revisit some of the conversations we had in past episodes. With their help, we’ll tie together some of the ideas we’ve heard about over the course of the series.

We will draw a lot from Russia’s experiences in Syria, and we’ll cover more of Russia’s strategy, U.S.-Russian relations in the region, and the future of Russia’s role in the Middle East.

I’m your host, Jon Alterman, senior vice president, Zbigniew Brezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. This is the Russia in the Middle East podcast miniseries.

In our last episode, we talked with Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. To Russia watchers, what Hall described at the top of this episode seemed familiar.

Elizabeth Tsurkov: The second Chechnya war was characterized by extremely heavy bombings, indiscriminate airstrikes, and shelling on populated areas that led to massive destruction. Grozny was described as the most destroyed city on earth or something of this kind after the Russians were done with it.

Jon Alterman: In Chechnya, Russia learned that overwhelming violence works. And it applied those lessons to its Syria campaign.


Elizabeth Tsurkov: The Russian approach is you use indiscriminate power. You break the spirit of those opposing you. And then those who understand that they are on the losing side, then they flip to your side and you can then use them to pursue your own military strategy.

Jon Alterman: The current leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is an example of this. Kadyrov is a former rebel who is now a Russian client. Moscow has sought to cultivate similar clients in Syria.

Elizabeth Tsurkov: And we see this clearly repeating itself in Syria today, where Russia established the fifth course of the Syrian army. And this course is largely made up of former rebels who have switch sides, we could say when they understood that they are facing defeat, particularly in southern Syria in 2018, as the regime in Russia advanced on the area. Russia wants this force to serve as an example of what can be done with former rebels who can now serve the interests of the Syrian regime and Russia. These forces have been engaged in fighting on all fronts and particularly utilized quite heavily in the fight against ISIS in the Homs Desert.

Jon Alterman: Russia has now been in Syria for five years. As the regime’s victory became more assured, Moscow has started to define what a victory in Syria would look like.

Elizabeth Tsurkov: I think the Russian vision of victory for Syria is something quite similar to the model that they created in Chechnya. The thing is that Chechnya is a tiny piece of land and the destruction levels in Chechnya do not come even close to what has happened in Syria over the past nine years of civil war. Russia cannot finance the reconstruction of Syria as it did in Chechnya and in Chechnya, too, the focus was largely on Grozny. There are multiple Groznys all across Syria right now that need reconstruction financing.


Jon Alterman: Russia’s hope has been that other countries will step up and finance reconstruction in Syria.

Elizabeth Tsurkov: And the hope was that countries who do have such sources of financing, both Gulf countries, European countries, the U.S. possibly—would then realizing that Assad won—would seek to normalize relations with the regime, particularly due to their desire to see refugees return to Syria.

Russia went around the European capitals offering them a scheme, under which European countries would finance the reconstruction of Syria and in exchange, Syria would take back the refugees. There are now about one million Syrian refugees living in Europe.


Jon Alterman: But it is a well-established principal in international law that refugee return must be voluntary. For many refugees, returning to the rubble of an Assad-led Syria remains unthinkable.

Elizabeth Tsurkov: This prospect of “you give us money and we'll take your refugees,” just did not work in any of the European capitals. And now with the passage of the Caesar Act in the U.S. Congress, an act that explicitly places sanctions on actors involved in the reconstruction sector in Syria, the prospect that any major country will become involved in reconstruction and business activities and in foreign direct investment in Syria is quite dim.

Jon Alterman: In previous episodes, we’ve seen Russia’s appetite for low-cost opportunities to advance its interests. We’ve also seen that it doesn’t have the financing power of countries like the United States or China. So it is even able to finance reconstruction in Syria?

Elizabeth Tsurkov: What we're seeing is that the construction projects that are happening in the country are very, very limited and are largely financed by Syrians themselves, all of them with close ties to the regime and those construction projects are often based on expropriating land from the original inhabitants of the area, building luxury apartments for the tiny sliver of the Syrian elite.

Jon Alterman: But that type of reconstruction isn’t enough to rebuild the country, says Tsurkov. Eugene Rumer, the former National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia, and now a senior fellow and the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program, agrees.

Eugene Rumer: As I see it, they don't see themselves as having the vast resources that are needed for the reconstruction of Syria’s devastated economy.

Jon Alterman: Rumer says Russia’s best-case scenario would be for someone else to pay for reconstruction, while Russian companies would undertake the actual work.

Eugene Rumer: Russia would thus emerge as an even bigger power broker in both Syrian politics and more broadly in the Middle East, having accomplished something that no one else could have accomplished. I don't see them looking to get out of that situation. They would like to see the military conflict come to an end and bring all parties to it through some kind of a mutual understanding, but that doesn't mean that they want to just leave Syria to its own devices. This whole thing has been the springboard for them to create a permanent Russian presence in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean.

Jon Alterman: But there are other lessons learned too, says Rumer.

Eugene Rumer: I think there's been some lesson learning from the interaction with the Syrian government, with Bashar al-Assad. We see in Russian conversations about the situation there a certain degree of frustration with Assad and perhaps from a realization that just backing Assad unconditionally is not a solution to the problem the country is facing. Now, how far this is going to go and how much they're prepared to win on Assad is still very much an open question and I don't believe that they're prepared to learn the radical lessons from that.

Jon Alterman: Phil Gordon was assistant secretary of state for Europe in the Obama administration, and then served as President Obama’s White House coordinator for the Middle East. He is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says that Russia’s interactions with the Assad regime come with lessons for the United States and other Western states as well.

Phil Gordon: I think many of us thought that Russia's backing for the Assad regime and its cooperation with Iran in Syria, but sometimes more broadly, and on some of the issues regarding the nuclear deal, would cost them relations with the Arab Gulf states. But we see that in the Middle East, everybody is, almost by necessity, pragmatic. And whereas we might have expected the Gulf States—the largely Sunni Gulf States—to oppose and punish Russia for its relationship with Iran, they were pragmatic too. They basically took the view that if Russia is going to be a player, we need good relations with Russia as well.


Jon Alterman: Carnegie’s Eugene Rumer reminds us that a lower level of U.S. commitment to the region also influences how regional states view Russia.

Eugene Rumer: With the United States looking to reduce its commitments in the Middle East, with Turkey for quite some time now aspiring to a greater role of Middle Eastern affairs, and Russia, this is becoming a table that is geographically much more Middle Eastern—or involving countries that have greater immediate stakes in the Middle East—but I see that as a situation in which Russia has a bigger voice than it previously had.

Jon Alterman: What would a more expansive Russian role in the region look like? I asked CFR’s Phil Gordon what the Middle East would look like if Russia could dictate the terms.

Phil Gordon: I think a Russian steady state is stable countries, even if run by dictators and autocrats. And then the second element is a Middle East that's not under American hegemony, and that has been their interest too. They will work across sectarian lines or with former adversaries to pursue that goal.

Jon Alterman: As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, Russia maintains close ties with a number of countries that are hostile toward each other, including Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Arab states.

Phil Gordon: They've largely, in the past, been pro-Palestinian, but they have reached out to Israel and have a close relationship with Israel if they think they can have influence there. They've pulled off this tremendous trick of backing all of the Gulf States' adversaries, or even enemies, while improving their relations with the Gulf States as well. It shows you this is not primarily an ideological thing, it's pure pragmatism.

Jon Alterman: Russia is also looking to minimize the potential for economic instability and refugee flows, says Gordon.

Phil Gordon: I think a steady state from the Russian point of view would be one in which the threat of instability is minimized. They hated the Arab Spring in part because it just fermented the potential for economic instability, and refugee flows, and extremism in particular, because it exacerbated sectarian tensions and religious tensions, and that runs the risk ... Russians have a domestic problem with extremism as well. So they hate that sort of instability.

Jon Alterman: Gordon adds that Russia has no qualms about the form that steady state takes.

Phil Gordon: And if that means dictatorships, that's fine with them. United States has always tried at least to encourage democratic reform and support human rights and leaned on allies—even when it was supporting autocratic allies—it was trying to push them in that direction. The Russians make no pretense that that is their interest, if it's all dictatorships, as long as they're keeping people down and not letting extremism rise. And that's obviously what they've been doing in Syria, backing Assad.

Jon Alterman: Gordon feels that the United States always seemed to underestimate Russian seriousness about imposing its own sense of order on Syria.

Phil Gordon: I spent a lot of time with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, accompanying both Hillary Clinton in the first term and Secretary Kerry in the second. The Russians would tell both of them, "We don't care about Assad. We're not his lawyer, we're indifferent to his fate.” But then they would add—and we would want that to mean that they might go along with us in easing Assad out, or of getting rid of him—but when they would finish the sentence, they would always say, "But it's not up to us to get rid of him. And by the way, if you do, you're going to get chaos on your hands like Afghanistan or Somalia. And we don't want that on our border, these crazy Jihadis. You don't have a better plan than that. And again, we are not going to allow regime change. Which part of that did you not understand?"

Jon Alterman: But what does that viewpoint mean for future U.S.-Russian relations in the region?

Phil Gordon: We can't be naive about Russian interests and Russian cooperation. That doesn't mean we have to let the Russians have their way, but it does mean that we have to decide what is important enough to us to fight about and to invest resources in. And even in the contest over Syria, if you will, if countering Russia had been our just overwhelming priority, we could have done that, at the risk of military conflict and at the cost of deploying significant military forces and potentially leaving there for quite a long time, we could have done that. But I think most Americans would agree that probably wouldn't have been worth it.

Jon Alterman: That’s not to say that the United States and Russia can’t find any way to cooperate in the Middle East, says Gordon. But expectations should be limited.

Phil Gordon: I think the lesson is not to be naive about the prospects for cooperation with Russia because we have to be honest, they want us to fail. Not only do they have their own specific interests in influence, and economic ties, and arm sales, and a physical presence, and protecting Orthodox Christians, they have a list of their own narrow interests, but one big one is just ensuring the United States fails because they are in a global competition with us. So I think we have to recognize that. It does not mean that we cede the Middle East to Russia because we also shouldn't overstate it. We still have a lot more influence and power, and even friends in the region, than Russia does.

Jon Alterman: Might the United States hand over its prominent role in the Middle East to Russia?

Phil Gordon: We do risk losing that and there's growing impatience among the American public with our role in the Middle East, among successive administrations. So that doesn't necessarily last forever, but it does mean that we don't have to accept this notion that somehow Russia is the top dog in the Middle East. We still have interests there and we should protect and defend them.

Jon Alterman: Carnegie’s Eugene Rumer suggests that Russia will continue to see the Middle East as an area of engagement.

Eugene Rumer: We've seen Russian footprints in places including in the Middle East where we were not accustomed to see active Russian foreign policy. I don't expect them to scale back on Putin’s ambitions. The toolkit, I suppose, will change somewhat and we could actually see greater reliance on these quasi-private actors like Wagner because basically they're expendable, they can be allowed to operate with fewer constraints than the Russian military, and basically they can be self-sustaining.

Jon Alterman: Rumer explains Russia’s thinking about its future actions like this:

Eugene Rumer: If they can get a piece of the Libyan or Syrian oil pie, then of course, that's an opportunity that they should be allowed to have because also in the course of getting that, they're advancing Russian interests and Russia’s footprint geopolitically.

Jon Alterman: But those aren’t the only factors that will influence Russia’s future role in the region. Mohamed Anis Salem, the former Egyptian ambassador, rejoins us from episode five to elaborate.

Mohamed Anis Salem: I would say that geopolitics and economics will be dominant factors there. The Middle East is not going anywhere, it will always be next door to Russia. There will always be this interaction with Russia as an economic power, as a major source of energy.

Jon Alterman: Russia’s economic limitations mean that it will most likely remain a secondary power, both globally and in the Middle East. But for some states, like Egypt, that’s seen as a plus.

Mohamed Anis Salem: If you look again at the history of a country like Egypt, over the last 200 years, Egypt has tended to align itself with the second or third power, because those are the powers that are challenging the dominant order. So Egypt was aligning itself, for example, with France while the British were the dominant force in the military, it aligned itself later on with the Germans, it aligned itself at a later phase with the Soviet Union while it was a challenging force. So, I think there will be that tendency to search for coordination with the Russians.

Jon Alterman: But like Rumer, Salem underscores the importance of the United States in defining Russia’s role in the Middle East.

Mohamed Anis Salem: If the U.S. continues with the pivot to Asia and the downsizing from the Middle East, then there will be more room open to Russia. Russia cannot fulfill the next phase of Arab development, where we're talking about advanced technology, we're talking about advanced organization, we're talking of the role of multinationals. Russia will not be able to fulfill these kinds of demands, but it can fulfill some areas if it has an interest.

Jon Alterman: Like Salem said, Russia doesn’t have the ability to fulfill all of those demands economically. But there are some it still can:

Mohamed Anis Salem: For example, of expanding its role in Africa, it can use some of the free zones in Egypt. It will be interested in the projects that meet big populations, the Arab world is going to be 650 million people by 2050, that's a big market, and there are a lot of elements that will remain. The Russian weather will not go anywhere, so they will still have to search for places for tourists.

And so, there will be a basis for relations, but I wouldn't see a huge realignment. I wouldn't see either a solid alliance that has an impact on global balances. And at the same time, I would not see a major setback in relations. I would see a slow progression based on pragmatic mutual interests.

Jon Alterman: Russia’s economic strength will limit its ability to compete in the Middle East. And a global move away from hydrocarbons will weaken Middle Eastern economies and the Russian economy alike. Still, some countries, such as Egypt, will seek Russian ties to supplement their U.S. relationship, to develop leverage over the United States, or undermine U.S. hegemony.

But Russia’s limitations mean that the United States still has a greater ability to shape the region and act as the principal superpower. And yet, the United States seems determined to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. That creates opportunities for Russia to fill in where the United States has withdrawn. Sometimes, that has benefited Russia. Moscow has been able to sell arms across the region and work with actors sanctioned by the United States.

But it also means that after five years in Syria, Russia still hasn’t figured out its end game. Reconstruction remains a question mark. How much Russia won in its Syria intervention, if it won at all, remains unclear.

But significantly for Russia, they can make the argument that they squared off against the United States and they didn’t lose. They were trying to prevent regime change, and the United States was trying to hasten it. Russia made a very limited investment at a crucial time, and Assad remains in power. Equally importantly, the U.S. experience in Syria has helped sour Americans on a sustained engagement in the Middle East. Russia is also bound to run into its own complications in the Middle East.

My colleague Natasha Hall, whom you heard from at the beginning of this episode, said after 2015, Arabs she met began asking her if she was Russian. She isn’t, but she is half-Jordanian.

Natasha Hall: My mother named me Natasha from the character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. My mother is Jordanian, and for her generation, Russia had a very different reputation. It was anti-monarchical, and it was anti-imperialistic. The Russians weren’t the Middle East’s past colonial masters, and they weren’t the Americans, who were a heavy-handed superpower, in bed with dictators and the Israelis. This was appealing to a lot of people.

Jon Alterman: Russia is less appealing now. It is actively involved in a number of regional conflicts, and it is supporting the strong over the weak. Russian forces target civilians, and Russia allies itself with unapologetic authoritarians. And yet, Russia has found ways to make itself indispensable. It is remorseless in its assessments of its interests and the tools it has to advance them. Russia is always on the lookout for opportunities, and it is not distracted by high-minded principles.

Russia is sending a message that it is in the Middle East to stay, and the United States needs to take notice.

I hope this miniseries has given you a better idea of the contexts, interests, and tools of all the players. I’m your host, Jon Alterman, and this has been the Russia in the Middle East podcast miniseries.

Please tune back in for our regular series of Babel: Translating the Middle East, where I interview preeminent experts from around the world on drivers of change in the region. We will start season three in a few weeks. Until then, please feel free to re-listen to already released episodes or send us your feedback. You can reach us at or on Twitter at @CSISMidEast.

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