Russia’s Middle East Invasion

From the March 2017 Trumpet Print Edition

Russian President Vladimir Putin lamented the Soviet Union’s collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” It is now clear that the loss he feels is not confined to former Soviet satellite states. It extends to Moscow’s former client states far and wide—even as far afield as the Middle East.

When the Syrian Arab Spring began in March 2011, Russia (and China) opposed every major world power by vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have condemned the Bashar Assad regime. Britain’s UN ambassador condemned the act as putting “national interests ahead of the lives of millions of Syrians.” Since then, nearly half a million people have been killed in that country.

In 2013, Assad crossed a “red line” drawn by United States President Barack Obama when he used chemical weapons multiple times. Russia seized the opportunity and brokered a deal that would remove Assad’s chemical weapons. From that point forward, Russia became the most influential player in Syria and the greater Middle East.

In September 2014, a U.S.-led coalition began bombarding Islamist rebels from Syrian airspace. One year later, Russia joined the Syrian battlefield with its own air strikes—its first military conflict since the Cold War outside former Soviet Union borders.

Russia established an airbase near the Syrian port city of Latakia and a naval facility in Tartus. Its target list included Islamist rebels and “moderate” rebel groups, groups the U.S.-led coalition was supporting.

Putin’s Russia has repeatedly violated an air-safety agreement with the U.S. in Syria, and the threat of a war with Russia has intimidated Washington from imposing a no-fly zone in Syria.

Russia formed a joint alliance with Syria, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah and established an information exchange center in Baghdad. Russia’s relationship with Iran—Assad’s strongest ally—grew so close that in August 2016, Russia launched air strikes from an Iranian airbase, the first time a major world power had done so since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Russia has also strengthened its relations with Turkey. The two countries have conducted joint air strikes against the Islamic State in northern Syria.

As for the negotiations for a political settlement in Syria, Russia has aggressively taken the lead. In December 2016, Russia and Turkey brokered a ceasefire deal for Aleppo and for the parts of Syria not controlled by Islamic extremists. Russia also led Syrian peace talks, which began in Kazakhstan on January 23.

Libya, which borders the western edge of the Middle East, is another former Soviet client state in which Russia has increasingly intervened. When the Libyan Arab Spring and a nato-led military intervention toppled Muammar Qadhafi in 2011, the nation descended into chaos. President Obama later described his intervention in Libya without a plan for the aftermath as his “worst mistake.” The nation now has essentially three separate governments.

Russia has provided direct support to none of these governments, but it has allied with Cmdr. Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army. Haftar’s military organization has been the most successful group in combating terrorists in Libya, but it opposes the only Libyan government recognized and supported by the UN and West.

Twice in 2016, Haftar visited Russia to request support for his military ventures. On January 11, Russia airlifted Haftar from his headquarters in Tobruk to its Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. The warship had anchored in the Mediterranean near Tobruk as it was sailing from Syria to Russia. While on board, Haftar conducted a video conference with Russia’s defense minister. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the two “discussed pressing issues in the fight against international terrorist groups in the Middle East.”

Beyond Libya, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, Russia in recent years has also increased its cooperation with or involvement in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan as part of its remarkable Mideast offensive.